I didn’t grow up reading comic books. I can’t say why. They weren’t verboten in our house and their residence in the same ghetto as science fiction and fantasy, but for some reason I never really dove in. Maybe it was because I perceived comics as being about super heroes and they never interested me much. It wasn’t until I got to college and my roommate corrupted me with some Batman did I get a chance to read them.
Even then, I didn’t really get into comics or graphic novels (I prefer waiting for a bunch of issues to get collected – makes for a more satisfying reading experience) until I got exposed to a pair of the traditional gateway drugs for the genre – in other words, stuff so good that even people who don’t read comics read them. One was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a deconstruction of the entire superhero genre; the other, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which follows the exploits of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and his extended family.
While both of those are great ways for readers not familiar with comics to dip their toes into the graphic waters, they’re both “classics” by this point, held in such reverence that people might risk approaching them like you would Homer or Hemingway – things you should read because they’re important and exemplars of the form, but maybe not just for the enjoyment of it.
Thus, allow me to suggest another gateway, one that’s fresh, ongoing, and just released its 50th issue – Saga.
Created by Bryan K. Vaughn (words) and Fiona Staples (images), it’s a sprawling science fantasy saga with a heavy helping of just plain weirdness. Vaughn and Staples take full advantage of their chosen format to give the story a scope and a visual sense that would be impossible to pull off in another format. In the same way that 2001 epitomizes what a motion picture can be (an completely immersive audio-visual experience), Saga is the apex of what comics can be.
As amazing as Staples’s art is, Saga wouldn’t be worth reading without a compelling story and characters we care about. The basic setup is simple – a world, Landfall, has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for years. In the middle of the war, Alana (from Landfall) and Marko (from Wreath) fall in love and produce a kid, Hazel (who is the narrator), who really shouldn’t have been able to happen. They try and survive in a world where damned near everyone wants to hunt them down, from soldiers to bounty hunters with sentient lie-detecting cats.
Along the way, as they blast from world to world in a spaceship that is also a tree (did I mention this is science Fantasy? Definitely a capital “F”), collecting other outcasts to form a very bizarre, very fractured, but very sweet extended family (as this article points out, Saga is almost impossibly diverse in its characters). Vaughn has said that’s what Saga is really about:
I now have two kids. I first starting thinking about this while waiting for our first kid. And I always used writing as an outlet to talk about my fears, concerns, and passions. I really wanted to talk about creating new life. And I found talking to my friends who are strangers to the fatherhood experience—I would watch them start yawning or looking at their watch–difficult. If you’re outside of that world you don’t really give a shit. When you’re living in it, it’s really exciting. So I wanted to find a way to make people who don’t have kids or who never intend to have kids feel what it’s like to be a parent.
That’s where Saga was born.
Not having kids I can’t say whether having them makes Saga more meaningful, but it does emphasize the foundation of the story. All the amazing art and “holy shit” concepts don’t add up to much if the characters aren’t ones we care about in the first place. That’s true of good fiction in general, but particularly good speculative fiction. At bottom, it’s a story about love, fear, and survival. The tree ships and arachnid bounty hunters are just gravy.
What I’m trying say is that Saga isn’t something I recommend to comic newbies because it’s a classic (although it’s on its way to becoming that) or because it’s something, to channel one of my high school English teachers, “that well read people know.” It’s because it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop. I mean, really, what else do you need?