Happy 10th Birthday to Saga! Yes, that's right, on the day of posting this it has been exactly 10 years since Saga #1. What an incredible ride it would become. A ride I am so glad to be a part of, having finally read the first half of the series almost half a year ago, and now getting to experience reading the currently ongoing second half month to month.
In this post I'm going to concentrate on the first half though, and finally talk about my thoughts on it. Honestly, never has a series so seemingly effortlessly lived up to the astronomical expectations I had for it going into it. I say seemingly because it's clear the amount of passion and effort and love that has gone into this book. I mean, when you start reading what many consider the best or one of the best comics of all time, you don't go into it lightly. Normally I would worry that's all set up for disappointment, but somehow Saga manages to capture you like no other series, living up to those incredible expectations and a whole lot more.
I first read the compendium in August/September, so I've been thinking about this review for months. I wanted something to read on holiday, and just felt it was the right time for me to finally check it out. For all that time since I had considered doing a breakdown volume by volume, but as much as I loved the idea of that, in practice it just felt like too much. I wanted to try and figure out something I could write which would have a bit more focus to it.
So, I had a simpler idea. What does make the series so special? There are several things about the series that I can pinpoint and say, that's part of why this is so good. With the series finally back, I thought there was no better time to dive into why I love this series so much, and why I think it's so beloved. There won't be any spoilers here, so you don't have to worry about that if you haven't read the series yet.
The first thing I want to talk about is Hazel's narration, how she tells the story, and how Fonografiks beautifully incorporates the lettering into the artwork and just how it works into the composition of the pages in general.
Most comic books nowadays have caption boxes for narration, and while a lot of the time it works for its purpose in getting the character's monologue across, sometimes depending on how it's done or how many there are it can start to come off as tacky or crowded. Especially in a medium where often people don't want to be reading large blocks of text. Series like Department of Truth aside, but the way that's executed and how well it's done is a topic for another time.
Here it has an enchanting feel to it. I love how it's actually written on the pages and loose in the panels themselves as it were. The minimalism of the font, it's almost like handwriting, which just makes it feel that much more personal and intimate that Hazel's older self is really telling this story to us. I think there's something special about that in general. The narration throughout the series isn't just Marko or Alana giving us extra information about where they are or what they're doing, the way most series use exposition with their main characters.
In that sense I love how everything is filtered through Hazel's memories of all these events. Even though it's narrated by her older self, there's still a sense of childlike wonder in what she describes to us. The fondness of reminiscing, thinking about how it affected you as a person and made you into who you are today, for better or for worse. And it's not just those descriptions, either. Sometimes she adds in short anecdotes, foreshadowing, or just generally giving more context to events. That personal flair really makes the narration feel special as you're reading it.
Anyway, that's enough about the narration. The other thing that I absolutely love about this series is just how expansive the world is. From the very first pages of the first issue I just felt so immersed in it. Everything feels so real and lived in, whether that's the planet Alana comes from, Landfall, it's moon, Wreath, or any of the other places our characters encounter out in the universe. If you don't already know, the premise is that those two places are at war, and have been for a long time. But the destruction of either of them would throw the other out of orbit, so they "out-source" their fighting to other places, meaning it's just spread throughout the universe.
Due to that, by the time the story starts, Landfall and Wreath are practically an eye at the centre of the galactic storm that is their war spread throughout the galaxy. Saga is a fantasy comic on the surface, but throughout the series there's some fascinating and very grounded exploration of that idea. I would need to go through the series again to talk properly about this, and even then I wouldn't consider myself qualified enough to talk about it, but the ideas of the realities and impacts of war is something very interesting that is brought up often by Vaughan. Not to mention the themes of identity, race, discrimination, all examined through characters' interactions and reactions with Hazel and her nature, being born of parents both from Landfall and Wreath.
The incredible array of characters introduced is a massive part of what makes the series and world feel so expansive, and the design work by Staples can not be understated. Every design is so unique, iconic, and just generally instantly recognisable. New characters that get introduced are more or less immediately compelling, and I found myself continually fascinated at seeing how they would be involved with our main characters. That said, the balancing of all of them is just perfect. At no point does the series feel cluttered, and it feels like every single one has a meaningful presence in the story. This goes into the pacing of the series, but it was great to see storylines with characters briefly introduced, teased and then effectively paid off later.
That was definitely the benefit of being able to have it all in one volume in compendium format. Seeing a character or plot line re-appear, and then flicking back however many issues needed to refresh my memory on where it got setup. There's a careful balance these days between a comic reading well as a single issue, whilst also acting as another part of a larger story, and I think the series does both perfectly. No issue feels unnecessary or like "filler", every single one has a purpose in the overall story whilst still providing an entertaining read on it's own. The series has an epic, sprawling feel, that somehow simultaneously feels so intimate and personal.
One of my favourite comic podcasts (The Comics Collective, give them a listen if you haven't already) had a great point about this which I thought captured it nicely. I'm paraphrasing as I can't remember it exactly, but along the lines of how the beauty and "action" of Saga is in the quiet moments. There is, of course, a fair share of action, but that's not often the focus. Even when there is action, the focus is on the characters involved, the dynamics and relationships that led to that action, and the impact and fallout of that. Again the Comics Collective had a brilliant talk about the various characters arcs, the use of action and how that relates to what I said about war in the series, where they go into it in much more depth than I have here.
All of that talk about the themes, characters and world itself without even explicitly mentioning how impressive Staples' artwork is. It's just so perfect for the series. Similar to what I've mentioned before here, it has a perfect balance of feeling rooted in the fantasy nature of the world, whilst also feeling so grounded and real. It's so smooth and refined to the point where there's an almost soothing nature to it. It's bright, vibrant, just generally all round so gorgeous. It's so synonymous with the series that it's hard to imagine the book without it. Whether that's the dynamic more action focused scenes, or quieter more personal and emotional scenes, like previously talked about, it's all just so beautifully illustrated. Reading it in compendium format you can even see the artwork just getting better and better and better, from the first issue to the latest one.
There's a final point about the storytelling in the series I want to make, and that's the use of time. After the return of the series after each hiatus, the same amount of time that passed in the real world passed in the story. So, there was over a few years between #54 and #55, and when we see the characters again in that issue it has also been a few years for them. That something I didn't pick up on reading the series in a short space of time in the compendium, but it just really adds to making everything feel that much more real. It feels like there are actually stakes, where, say, characters might actually have spend a significant amount of time apart, or they can grow and change and be affected by their experiences, in a way where it feels like they've truly lived as real people.
I think that leads into the main strength of the series, which is not an original point but nicely sums up everything I've talked about it here. Saga may be a book rooted in fantasy elements, but it has some of the most grounded, human, and emotional storytelling you'll find in all of comics. I said this at the beginning and I'll say it again. It would have been a challenge for any book to at least match the astronomical expectations placed on it by all the hype over the last ten years, but to not only match those expectations but completely surpass them? Incredible. Truly one of the best books, honestly ever. Absolutely deserves all the hype and praise that gets thrown towards it.
Why is Saga so special? All of those things I've mentioned and more. The compelling characters, the rich and expansive world, the brilliant and engaging storyline, the gorgeous art, the fascinating narration and perfect lettering. It's something you really should try out if you haven't already. You won't regret it.
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