Review: Family Rules In Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Space Epic ‘Saga’

I am decidedly not a comic book person — so the fact that I managed to read all 54 issues of “Saga” in just four days should be recommendation enough. The series has often been lauded by critics as the comic for non-comic fans because — despite the immense scale of this intergalactic war epic, its dark political undertones and graphic depictions of sex and violence — “Saga” is ultimately a story about family.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples released the first issue of the series in 2012, and with a provocative cover featuring two characters of color — one of them a breastfeeding woman — they were sure “Saga” would be canceled within the year. But six years later, it is exactly its provocative nature that has made it one of the comics industry’s most enduring surprises.

It begins with a pair of literal star-crossed lovers: Alana, a winged soldier from the planet Landfall, falls for her prisoner Marko, a horned warrior from her planet’s moon Wreath. Their people have been locked in combat for decades, and in a universe ruled by cruelty and bloodshed, their choice to love each other becomes an act of rebellion. The rest of the series follows the couple as they try to outrun the war and raise their daughter Hazel. The family becomes ever more intertwined in one another’s fates and of those that they encounter throughout the universe as they are separated and reunited, grow and shrink in size, and fight and reconcile.

“Saga” is as heartwarming and wise as it is thrilling, sexy and profane, a delicate balance of dark and light that makes for compelling storytelling. Marko and Alana may be the heroes of the story, but they aren’t without their flaws. Marko, disgusted by his own bloodlust, wants to turn away from violence forever but finds that he must turn to brutality to protect his family. Alana pursues a childhood dream job in order to provide for her daughter and husband, but turns to drugs when expectations fall short.

The series’ penchant for subverting tired stereotypes about race and sexual orientation further speaks to its popularity. People of color are often more visible in comics than they are in Hollywood, and “Saga” is no exception. The series has been praised for its portrayal of fully realized characters of varying race and sexual orientation. Staples, herself Chinese Canadian, has revealed that she modeled Marko after a handful of Japanese models and he is meant to be Asian, while Alana is mixed-race. The rest of the cast of characters is resplendently diverse. Whether you relate to Petrichor, the trans woman who stows away on the family’s ship, or Doff and Upsher, two gay reporters fighting for freedom of the press, “Saga” tells readers that they can connect with anyone. Anyone can be part of your family. And just like Marko and Alana’s love affair, set in a political and cultural climate that tends toward intolerance and bigotry as often as ours does, the idea that anyone can be family is a radical one.

“But ideas are fragile things,” says the opening words of “Saga.” Some people are out there fighting for an idea of family that is big enough to encompass everyone regardless of race, gender and orientation. Some people will die for that idea. I have a feeling that the creators of “Saga” would much rather that we live for it.