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A panel from Saga, Image Comics.

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Saga #50: How an improbable comic has shaped the industry

An R-rated space opera longer than most superhero standbys

Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

Reaching fifty issues is an impressive milestone for any comic. It’s much more impressive for titles that don’t have a famous character or inter-connected universe to draw in readers. And it’s especially rare to do with a single consistent creative team across the years.

It’s a feat that artist Fiona Staples and writer Brian K Vaughan achieve this week, with the release of Saga #50.

When the first issue of Saga hit shelves in March of 2012, Vaughan tells us, he had no expectations of reaching a #50. “I reached out [to Fiona] to see if she wanted to tackle a few issues of a weird book that would probably be cancelled in its first few months,” he says.

It’s not hard to see why he might have thought this. Set in a fantastical world of “laser-tortoises and mantis preschool teachers”, as Staples sums it up, the first issue opened with an extended depiction of childbirth. Like its lead character – we’ll get to her later – the book was born of two very different backgrounds: brash inventive science-fiction, and grounded slice-of-life drama. It could have been a difficult sell.

But as it turned out, Vaughan needn’t have worried. Saga was a smash hit almost immediately. Issue #1 went through five printings, selling over 70,000 copies in total. Partly that was down to excitement about Vaughan’s comics comeback. After making his name in the mid-00s with the likes of Y: The Last Man, and Marvel’s Runaways, Vaughan pursued a career in TV, working on Lost and Under the Dome.

Saga was his big return to comics, which lent the project an extra buzz — but its appeal has stretched far beyond these long-time fans.

From Saga #1, Image Comics (2012). Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

A World at War

Like Star Wars before it, Saga is set in a universe at war, meshing science-fiction with fantasy. Each of those genre lineages is represented by one of the warring factions in the setting’s central conflict: the winged space marines of Landfall against the horned mages of Wreath.

“When I was bored in class as a kid, I liked to daydream about an epic war between a planet and a moon,” Vaughn says, “populated by generic fantasy soldiers who were cobbled together from aspects of my Catholic upbringing and Saturday morning cartoons.”

Decades later these elements were brought together to create something entirely new. Unlike Star Wars, there’s no clearly-defined good or bad side here — and Saga isn’t a story about fighting battles. Instead, Vaughan and Staples are telling a self-aware tale of Romeo and Juliet-style romance between a man and woman from opposite sides of the war — literal star-crossed lovers — and the birth of their first child.

From Saga #1, Image Comics (2012).
“You said when we started this — no politics, no history, and no more barbaric religious nonsense!”
Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

“When I became a father, I realized I could tell a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-style story that used my childish war as a backdrop, but focused on a very adult relationship in the foreground,” says Vaughan.

“I wanted to explore the concept of creation in a way that hopefully wouldn’t be excruciatingly boring to non-parents. I knew it would be a story about a family but that it definitely wouldn’t be ‘family friendly,’ so I needed to find an artistic partner with a boundless imagination who was willing and able to draw absolutely anything.”

Enter Fiona Staples. An artist who had worked on various smaller projects up to that point, she was initially unsure when Vaughan approached her. “I balked a bit at the idea of taking on an ongoing monthly comic,” she says. “It was a big, open-ended commitment and it wouldn’t leave me any time for the various other projects I had brewing.” But by saying yes, Staples completed Saga’s magic formula.

All in the family

From Saga, Image Comics. Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

Staples, whose previous work had been confined to more earthly settings, took Saga’s weird world – one where wide-eyed meerkat people coexist with giant testicle monsters – and grounded it in the familiar.

“[I] just try to treat them like they all exist naturally alongside each other,” Staples says of the book’s fantastical elements. “I incorporate real-world fashion or design or landscapes that I think are interesting.”

Together, Staples and Vaughan bring that same realism to the characters. Romantic leads Marko and Alana have one of the most believable relationships I’ve encountered in any kind of fiction. This isn’t just the story of Marko and Alana, however, and since the very beginning, Saga has featured a broad cast of characters.

The first issue established three narrative strands. First, our new parents, on the run. Second, Prince Robot IV, a noble personage from a species of androids with TVs for heads, sent by Landfall to eliminate them and their child. And finally, the Will, a bounty hunter given the same task by the opposite side, accompanied at all times by his “sidekick,” Lying Cat, a nearly monosyllabic talking cat who can sense lies. Saga’s story really comes into focus when all three parties end up with a child of their own to worry about. Prince Robot discovers his wife is pregnant, while The Will rescues a young girl from sexual slavery.

But as the series develops, it has become increasingly apparent that the focus isn’t really on Marko and Alana, or anyone described above. From its very first page, Saga has been narrated by their daughter, Hazel.

“This saga has always been first and foremost about Hazel, but she maybe had to take a bit of a backseat to her parents during her infancy,” says Vaughan. “That’s finally started to change, and it’s been great to see Hazel, who’s been aging at roughly the same rate as my own daughter, become a fully formed character.”

From Saga, Image Comics. Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

Hazel is also about the same age as the comic itself, and it feels like Saga has grown alongside her. The family are still being pursued, and we’ve followed those three narrative strands, but the main players and their goals have changed dramatically. Some of those founding characters have had long stretches of absence from the comic, and plenty of others have joined the cast — including a ghostly shapeshifting babysitter, a one-eyed novelist named D. Oswald Heist, and an impossibly adorable seal man named Ghüs.

“It doesn’t take a village to raise children, it takes a whole galaxy — friends, random acquaintances, complete strangers… even other children,” Hazel’s narration reads in issue #3. This has seemingly become the book’s mission statement. Saga is a story of people coming together and being pulled apart. Of enemies slowly becoming, if not friends, then at least family.

In its Image

That’s a taste of how the book itself has changed, but over the past six years, it’s also had an impact on the world outside the fiction. Saga has been consistently garlanded with awards — sweeping the board at the Eisners, the comics world’s answers to the Oscars, almost every year since it began. The series has remained popular with readers too, especially in its collected editions — three of the top 10 bestselling graphic novels in 2017, including the top two, were volumes of Saga.

And the book also helped shape its publisher, Image Comics. Founded in 1992 by six high-profile artists who jumped ship from Marvel in search of more creative freedom, Image’s early books stayed within a familiar superhero wheelhouse. By the mid-2000s, however, the publisher’s line had diversified significantly, to include books like The Walking Dead, Chew and I Kill Giants.

But it was Saga that cemented a new template for an successful Image book. Stylish, funny, sexy, progressive genre comics, perfect to push into the hands of friends who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a graphic novel.

Left to right: Covers from Image Comics’ Sex Criminals, The Wicked + The Divine, Bitch Planet and Paper Girls.
Left to right: Covers from Sex Criminals, The Wicked + The Divine, Bitch Planet and Paper Girls.
Left to right: Chip Zdarsky, Jamie McKelvie, Valentine de Landro, Cliff Chiang

In Saga’s wake, Image has published Sex Criminals (2013), a raunchy comedy that has evolved into a thoughtful meditation on how society handles sex. And The Wicked + The Divine (2014), an urban fantasy book about gods who reincarnate as popstars. Bitch Planet (2014) is a fiercely feminist take on women-in-prison exploitation movies. Vaughan’s own Paper Girls (2015), with artist Cliff Chiang, is a suburban adventure tale in a similar Spielbergian vein as Stranger Things but with some, well, considerably stranger things.

This wave of crossover hits, with appeal far beyond the usual comics reader, helped solidify Image’s place as the third biggest publisher in comics. In 2011, the year before Saga launched, Image had a 5.3% share of the comics market. Today, it consistently sits around the 10% mark. It’s not that these books wouldn’t have happened without Saga — many of the involved creators had already published comics with Image — but it helped create a platform for them.

Not that the book’s creators will take the credit for any of this, of course.

“As always, [Image] just let creators make the comics they want to make,” Vaughan says. “Obviously, these creators and their creations have become more diverse over the years, but Image is still Image.”

“Image’s publishing model hasn’t changed, but I think there’s a bigger market now for the diverse range of stories they’ve always offered up,” Staples adds. “There are currently waves of new readers who are interested in getting into comics, and if they aren’t especially into superheroes, Image publishes sci-fi, horror, romance, YA, humour... They’re set up to appeal to many different types of readers, which the industry finally has.”