Review – Saga series

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Overview

Synopsis Marko and Alana are deserters from two sides of a galaxy-wide war. When they fall in love and get married, their child could mean peace for the universe. Or be the end of them all.

Author Brian K. Vaughan

Artist Fiona Staples
Publisher Image Comics
Genre Fantasy

Length 9 volumes, average of 170 pages

Release Date 2012-2018

Saga is a best-selling, award-winning comic series about the horrors of war and the enduring love of family. Its storyline borrows from classics like Romeo and Juliet and contemporary epics like Star Wars. A beautiful story about the meaning of family, the series nonetheless shies away from the typical child-friendly versions of such themes. In fact, Saga is so controversial, certain issues were once banned from the Apple store, and it was on the American Library Association’s “Top Ten Most Challenged Books List” for 2014. What is so special about this comic series? Is it worth the praise, controversy, or both?

Content Guide

The following content guide goes into details that are not suitable for younger readers. Proceed at your own risk.

Violence: Saga is a series about two worlds immersed in an endless war. Violence is pervasive, gruesome, and merciless. Heads explode, limbs are ripped from torsos, and innocents are tortured. No one is safe, including characters you may grow to love. In fact, the gore never targets a specific group. Children, citizens, soldiers, inhabitants of neighboring planets, royalty, passersby. All can be, and often are, mutilated and murdered in horrific ways. If you can imagine a bloody death, it probably happens somewhere in these pages.

Do not mess with a pregnant mama.

Scary Images: Because Saga takes place in space and on different worlds, there are countless aliens and monsters who vary in the terrifying category. One recurring character has a spider’s bottom half with multiple arms instead of legs. Another secondary character is the top half of a dead teenage girl with intestines hanging out of her torso. Other monsters include cyclops, trolls, dragons, and more.

Language/Crude Humor: Language is strong and constant, including every curse word this writer knows: a**, b****, b******, h***, g*******, d***, s***, f***, f******, m*****f******, p***y, p**s, and c***. In addition to these, the author uses a fictional language with untranslated slang and swearing (readers can tell the idea behind the words through context and facial expressions). Characters give others the middle finger. Racial slurs also abound. Many of these are fictional terms that deal with fictional races; although, some are real terms aimed at certain characters, like “homo,” “half-breed,” and “tranny.”

Drug/Alcohol References: One of the story arcs deals with the main character, Alana, becoming dependent on drugs. All her co-workers are junkies, and her best friend is their supplier. Alana’s husband is adamantly against the drugs, especially around their daughter, but he eventually succumbs and tries it himself. One character’s death is described, “She died as she lived. High As F***.”

Sexual Content: Like language, sexual content in this book is graphic and constant. One of the characters believes the opposite of war is sex, and this idea seems to be that of Saga’s authors, as well. Every volume contains at least one sex scene or some kind of visual sexual reference, which are difficult to skim because they all contain necessary exposition for the plot. Descriptions that follow will not be suitable for young readers. Intercourse is shown from multiple angles and leaves nothing to the imagination. These scenes are between married couples (both heterosexual and homosexual), unmarried couples, and prostitutes. They include various types of sexual acts, depending on the character and the situation. A homosexual couple has anal and oral sex, but a lonely husband masturbates alone. The main characters discuss sex often and are shown in the act more than once. One story arc involves rescuing a child prostitute from an intergalactic brothel. Said brothel is a recurring setting in the story, and the backgrounds always involve sexual acts: pole dancing, traditional intercourse, orgies, oral sex…the list goes on. While in this brothel, one character engages in oral sex with multiple prostitutes at once. The character’s head is a television screen and occasionally shows explicit images, regardless of what is occurring around him. One of the main ingredients for a healing potion is dragon semen, and the characters find this dragon giving himself oral sex. The party member to retrieve this semen is a young girl, who winds up covered in the liquid. Sex is discussed often, whether referring to the rape of the opposing war party or questioning one’s partner about fetishes. During the act, slang for orgasm is mentioned, and the characters’ dialogue involves explicit phrases, like “Stick it in me” or “Suck my clit.”

Nudity: Usually, nudity would be listed under sexual content, but because of the prolific appearance of both, they are separated for clarity. Every character shown nude is anatomically correct. Descriptions that follow may not be suitable for young eyes.  Women have breasts with prominent nipples, men have testicles and a penis, and one transgender character has all of the above. The spider woman mentioned in a previous section is topless in every volume. At one point, characters are attacked by a nude troll, and his testicles and penis are almost dragging the ground. The angle of the panel draws readers’ eyes to the area between his legs before they are able to see anything else. Orgasming penises occasionally flash on the television screen head, and he is seen cradling his own on numerous occasions. A small child is seen nude from the waist up, but it is not sexualized. One scene shows a transgender character taking a shower, prompting a discussion about gender and transphobia. The cover of the first volume showcases a mother breastfeeding her daughter, and the first deluxe edition features a close-up of the nude breast with the child attached.

Other Negative Content: Two planets decide to minimize their own casualties by moving their war to other planets and conscripting the inhabitants into the service. Hatred and bigotry is a major theme throughout the story. While the main characters fight to combat these ideas, nearly every other character subscribes to some kind of prejudice, whether racism, homophobia, or transphobia. A character visits a brothel because his sex life at home is unsatisfactory and later masturbates while thinking of another married woman. Two characters, married to other people, nearly kiss after becoming close.

Spiritual Content: A religious family of war refugees stays with the main characters for one arc. The grandmother regales everyone with a story of the time their god saved the planet from destruction and calls Alana a heretic for her doubt. This family refuses to evacuate when their planet is in danger, certain their god will rescue them again. Their deaths are implied, but readers only see the tragic death of one of the children.

You will be missed, Kurti. Even though I only knew you for one volume.

Positive Content: Marko and Alana fight to end the endless war between their people. They and their friends work to keep Hazel, a daughter born of both worlds, safe and to prove love is possible. Marko does not give in to romance with another woman and returns to his wife. Despite incredible odds and mistakes on both their parts, they remain devoted to each other, their daughter, and their cause. Their favorite author tries to subtly spread the message of peace through his books, and Marko’s mother begins a peaceful revolution in an unexpected place.

Review

Saga is referenced in many must-read lists for comic lovers. Its plot, while not original, manages to have enough twists and turns for devoted readers to enjoy. The story follows Marko, Alana, and Hazel as they struggle to survive impossible circumstances. Alana’s planet and Marko’s moon are caught in an endless war, but the two deserters fall in love and have Hazel. Because most of the universe is involved in the conflict, multiple worlds send assassins after the family. Some of these people continue as enemies and others end up allies, but all of them have their own agenda. Readers watch characters float in and out of the main family’s lives while watching Hazel grow from a newborn into a small child.

Family

Baby Hazel likes “skish” hugs.

One of the reasons Saga was challenged in 2014 was for being “anti-family.” Ironically, this is one of the most family-centric graphic novels this writer has ever seen. Marko and Alana are realistic parents. When Alana’s work pulls her away from the family, Marko takes care of Hazel without complaint. He calls out his wife for being high around their daughter and controls himself before he can enter an affair with another woman. Alana wants to support her husband’s pacifism and is strong enough to protect them herself, if need be.

Marko’s parents make an appearance in one story arc. After the initial shock of seeing their son with an enemy, both grandparents warm up to Hazel and her mother. The grandmother is a main character for a while before leaving to start her own revolution. In fact, this whole series revolves around the notion of family, specifically that raising a child takes a village.

While the main characters (Marko, Alana, and Hazel) are constant throughout the series, others are always joining or leaving their party. One favorite is the ghost babysitter, Izabel. A teenage casualty of war, Izabel binds her soul to Hazel in order to escape her planet and see the universe. In return, she watches the little one so Alana and Marko can work, scavenge for food, and have alone time. Besides Izabel, other rotating characters include a disgraced robot prince, a family of furry creatures, a seal in overalls, and a cyclops author.

Shock Value

Unfortunately, there is a reason so many characters rotate through the family. In nearly every volume of Saga, at least one person dies. War is tragic and gruesome, but real life has both good and bad. Every time things seem to be going right for our protagonists, an unforeseen and horrible event occurs. When an antagonist starts to sympathize with the heroes, they die. When a secondary character is just minding their own business, they die. When a new villain appears, they live long enough to kill someone before they die themselves.

Some of these sad occurrences progress naturally from the story arc or as personal consequences for bad choices. However, towards the end, more people are slaughtered by random, unnecessary means. One character is killed by an enemy readers have never seen. This death is that enemy’s introduction, only for them to be slaughtered a few pages later. For a major character to be killed by unknown enemy in such an anti-climatic way is just frustrating.

Readers want to be able to connect with characters, but that is difficult if they know all of them are going to be slaughtered before the cover closes. This also makes development difficult. Some characters are shot off the page before readers have time to learn any more than their name. Others stay static for volumes, yet at the first sign of change, they are killed. Not everyone needs a sacrificial, noble death, but wading through nine volumes of senseless slaughter is disheartening.

Excessive Sexuality

If the violence is excessive, the sex is over the top. The other reason Saga was challenged was for its nudity and explicit sexual content. Challengers claimed the book was not age-appropriate; interesting, considering this is definitely a series for adults. The whole concept is a visual representation of the adage “make love, not war.” For every head blown off in combat, there is a couple making love. The idea is understandable, unique, maybe even admirable; but the execution comes off as extreme.

Alana and Marko, the Romeo and Juliet of the series, consummate their marriage multiple times. Another married couple struggles with their physical relationship and possible infertility. These instances add to the overall narrative and help forward the theme. As a more conservative Christian, I would rather not see all those times occurring on the page, but I can respect the authors’ idea. They include various types of loving couples from biracial to homosexual to pansexual, making sure every group feels included. From there, though, it seems to go a little overboard.

One of the main settings is a brothel. Multiple characters, even married ones, visit this place and receive services. No ethics about this brothel are mentioned or questioned, except when it comes to child prostitution. Even the antagonists draw the line at children, though no one batted an eye at the other prostitutes being prisoners of war or abused by the customers. As a general rule, no one talks about the limits of sexual expression or even questions if there should be limits, except in the case of a little girl.

Other inclusions of sexual expression or nudity feel forced and disconnected from the story. These instances have been mentioned in the content guide above, so I will only briefly reference them here. The naked troll was only in a couple pages and had no overall bearing on the narrative. A healing potion usually does not include dragon liquids (see guide for details), especially not when collected by a minor. Again, this dragon was only seen for that one moment, and his only time in the panel was engaged in sexual activity.

A main character, Prince Robot IV, has a television screen for a head. Throughout the series, his head malfunctions and shows erotica. These images vary from body parts to the actual act. Readers can assume it has something to do with his personal needs, but the malfunctions are never fully explained. This screen head is a unique idea for character development, giving hints to the inner workings of his mind. Memories and dreams sometimes appear, but more often than not, it is the inexplicable explicit pictures.

Conclusion

Usually, I try to write everything in the third person in my reviews. However, this series is a little different. Saga is unlike anything I have ever read, and it left me feeling conflicted with every page I finished. The series is incomplete, and there is no knowing when or if Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples will ever start it up again. If they finish it, I feel compelled to read the ending, but I would rather leave the whole thing alone.

At Geeks Under Grace, we present content to readers so you can make the decision whether or not to try something for yourself. That decision is yours alone. This year, we are even doing a special article for Banned Books Week to celebrate your right to make that decision. As Christians, our consciences are an important (if not the most important) factor in reading that book or playing that game. From the first page of Saga, I was intrigued and curious, but also slightly alarmed. They started with nudity and language on the first page, and it only grew from there.

This space epic is one of the best stories of family I have ever seen in any kind of media. It is beautifully drawn and well-written, for the most part. I fell in love with the characters and got angry when they died. Some of the relationships make me smile, and the jokes made me laugh.

I love their relatable chemistry.

Through the whole thing, though, I found myself questioning if it was worth it. Philippians 4:8 says:

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

With all my frustration about character deaths, was that short-lived attachment really worth it? Beyond all the blood, guts, and sex, was the family’s story really that interesting? Could I have gotten those morals from another source with less objectionable content?

That is something you have to decide for yourself, my dear geeks. For me, I enjoyed reading Saga in small doses, coupled with a happy cartoon to get my mind out of the warzone. Would I read it again? No, and I would only recommend it to the strongest in faith and stomach.

Saga alternates between being an emotional ride and an uncomfortable reunion. Readers have to be willing to push through large amounts of gore, sex, and profanity to enjoy the story. Otherwise, this is a wonderful family saga which might have been better if it focused less on sex and death and more on character development.

Positives

+ Realistic family structure
+ Some loveable characters

Negatives

- Most loveable characters die
- Character development sometimes cut short
- Lots of unnecessary sexual content
- Intense gore at every turn

The Bottom Line

Readers of Saga must be willing to push through large amounts of gore, sex, and profanity to enjoy this family's unique story.

 

Writing 6.0

Editing 7.0

Art 5.5

6

Courtney Dowling

Courtney has loved reading since she was a child. Kid's books, YA, memoirs, comics, graphic novels, manga, anything. She also loves bingeing anime, keeping up with her favorite shows (including Star Trek), and playing video games. She has a dog named Kora, but she prefers The Last Airbender.

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