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Saga: Sex, Robots & Rockets—The Birth of a Sci-Fi Epic

January 3, 2014  |  10:29am
Saga: Sex, Robots & Rockets—The Birth of a Sci-Fi Epic

I. “This is how an idea becomes real.”

Brian K. Vaughan may not have a uterus, but he knows a surprising amount about giving birth, both biologically and creatively. Take the first image of the superstar comic scribe’s game changer sci-fi odyssey, Saga. A full-page spread frames a young woman’s face flushed red and wet. Her clenched underbite strains her face forward like a trash compactor gripping a tablecloth. Strands of green hair saturated with sweat arch over her cheeks. Her name is Alana and she’s giving birth to her first child, Hazel, a hybrid baby with featherless, embryonic wings (from her mother) and protruding nub horns (from her father). Hazel is the first of her species, a crossbreed between two warring sects of racist aliens devoted to each other’s decimation. She also narrates every issue of Saga from an undisclosed point in the future in disarming, hand-written scribbles.

As interpreted by Canadian digital artist and series illustrator Fiona Staples, Alana is the raging embodiment of life-igniting, fire-breathing womanhood. As written by Vaughan, who also served as a producer on Lost and is the current showrunner of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, she’s also crudely hilarious. “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!” she asks the father, Marko, as he prepares to deliver Hazel before tearing off her umbilical cord with his teeth.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about that first page,” Vaughan says over the phone from his LA residence. “You get one page. It’s a bit of a carnie act to pull you in, but you also want to make a statement. There’s that line in Hazel’s narration: this is how an idea becomes real. And that is how ideas are born. Sometimes you do not know if you are taking a shit, or if you are bringing a beautiful, 8-pound baby into the world, because they feel very similar. Having made both things and then been in the delivery room with my wife, I think that was really the moment when Saga really began to come together.”

Birth from chaos is the foundation that Saga stands on, constructing an ornate cosmic playground brimming with hyper-creative critters and political claustrophobia. The narrative revolves around a galaxy-wide conflict between two cultures and the two star-crossed lovers caught between. Even the art design from Fonografiks (Steven Finch) embraces the theme of sci-fi progress, casting all chapter titles in a Futura typeface.

Landfall, Alana’s home planet, boasts svelte, winged angels who coast to their high-rise apartments before engaging in bureaucratic rhetoric. The Landfall Coalition represents every gorgeous, sneering first-world empire devoted to dominating that which isn’t it. Also: royal android generals with tube TV heads that subconsciously broadcast homoerotic fantasies (more on that later).

Marko hails from Wreath, a massive Landfall satellite in the throes of solidifying its independence from its neighboring planet. Derisively called “Moonies” by the Landfallians, the Wreathers channel ancient magic by summoning fatal lightning strikes and projectile slashes, all through magic spells that vaguely resemble contemporary Italian or Latin. These people, equally at peace with nature and beige tunics, are the horned pagan devils to their techy elitist counterparts. They’re savage and primal through the same ghettoized lens that wiped out the Native Americans, Pygmies, and Aboriginal Australians.

If the above description sounds vaguely like a Judeo-Christian space opera, that’s exactly how it began. “I think this universe of Saga has been in my head since I was a little kid. They call it paracosm: you have weirdo kids who build super elaborate imaginary worlds. I had this idea that was basically crude angels and demons: there are minions with wings, there are minions with horns, and they fight in space. But this was an imaginary world I’d keep building upon that I would escape to when I was bored in math class. I really never thought I’d find a comic story there.”

The full vision behindSaga only blossomed after Vaughan became a father in 2010. Inspired by the awe and fear of bringing a new person into an uncertain future, his hyperbolic space rendition of Paradise Lost became a method to explore a daunting, personal issue. This wasn’t the first time Vaughan used his work as a sounding board for such provocative strata: Y: The Last Man dissected gender through a post-apocalyptic reality where man is stricken from the gene pool and Ex Machina tackled post 9-11 by creating the a superhero who doubled as NYC’s mayor. Parenthood, with all of its sublime risks and rewards, became the new anchor of his latest story.

“I wanted to talk about the experience of becoming a father, but I also know it’s extraordinarily boring to hear parents talk about their kids. So I thought, ‘Oh, I can use this universe that I already have that’ll hopefully be a more interesting place. And maybe instead of following the Luke Skywalker of the story, this is more Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I’m just picking two unimportant side players in this big, epic war, and just telling this really personal, intimate, human story in a crazy sci-fi fantasy setting.”

For Vaughan, Hazel became the final solution to these floating concepts: a literal and metaphysical outlet of thrilling sci-fi trans-species awesomeness and neurotic, literary ambition. As the genetic amalgamation of warring social templates, the infant represents the new and unnamed: a biting symbol of peace and reconciliation between two irreconcilable ideologies. An innovation representing peace as a resting point. Just as Clear Channel banned John Lennon’s “Imagine” from its radio station empire following 9-11, both the Landfall and Wreath armies pursue Hazel and their former military parents, now criminal deserters.

From another perspective, Saga, the comic, also stands as an unlikely mutation in the pop-culture landscape. What makes it stunningly unique can’t be found in its plot, but rather its approach: its modus operandi. For example, Vaughan and Staples open their series with a universal truth acknowledged few places: women defecate during labor. That choice alone is singularly spectacular, bold, and should not be ignored. Think of the last time any entertainment outlet allowed its characters to be so human, or shout taunts like “suck my hemorrhoids” to the bad guys nine pages later.

Like Hazel, Saga is a paradox of extremes: the most vivid, otherworldly genre fiction planted on a sacred foundation of sheer realness. Every character revels in this dichotomy of the surreal and the endearingly domestic. The Will, a kickass bounty hunter with a truth-detector Sphynx Cat, storms a sex tourism planet with a fireproof cape and pistol that shoots a retractable lance. Most of the time, though, he fantasizes about a former lover and resists the pull of normalcy and fathering a refugee child prostitute. Ghoulish Izabel may float on a severed torso festooned with dangling intestines, but she mostly hovers over Hazel as her improvised babysitter, searching for a sense of purpose and identity that alludes most tweens, dead or living. Despite skirting the most imaginative, hypnagogic scenarios, Saga can rival nonfiction with its relentlessly candid characterization. In that, the idea of this comic not only became real, but also feels as real as exemplary fiction can ever strive to be.

Staples takes a similar approach visually, melding the authentic with the fantastic by using real-world inspirations like Marc Jacob’s 2007 fashion line and Pinterest boards to instill a raw groundwork inside a world where tree-house rockets and flaming gorilla ghosts coexist. “I love how real Brian’s dialogue is, and the way he writes the characters definitely informs the way I dress them,” she says. “It would be super weird having a space marine in armor that looks like a skeleton thinking about the school bus that he rode as a kid or the TV shows that he watches. The characters need to look relatable, and they need to look normal so that the stuff coming out of their mouths makes sense.”

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II. “That’s why people create with someone else.”

“I want to do a book called Saga. And someone named Fiona Staples is gonna draw it. It’s gonna be really dirty. And weird. And I think it might get cancelled in six issues. And I want the first issue to be double-sized, but still cost as much as a double issue, which is suicide.”

This was the Saga pitch Vaughan delivered to Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson and Chief Operating Officer Robert Kirkman in early 2012. Stephenson said “OK.” Kirkman, predominantly known as the creator and writer of The Walking Dead, said a lot more. “A lot of that sounds dumb to me. But let me be honest: You can do whatever the fuck you want. At Image, you can do what you want. You can make a mistake. You can charge $.99 for a book or $30 for a book. You can do it in black-and-white or have an 11-page fold out. Just do what you want. Do whatever you’ve always wanted to do. See if it works or not.”

It did work. Gloriously. But Vaughan’s path to Saga curved through decades of writing, experimentation, and introspection to arrive at the sci-fi haven he currently occupies with Staples.

Vaughan started his creator-owned career with Y: The Last Man in 2002 before creating some Latchkey misfit superheroes called the Runaways at his Marvel home, continuing to craft a succession of engrossing, award-winning legends from scratch across multiple publishers. Pride of Bagdad, a beautiful tearjerker about escaped zoo lions, and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer arc also saw publication. Ex Machina, which ended in 2010 after 54 issues, took post-9-11 politics and framed them through the constructs of heroism and villainy, a huge theme that plays a fundamental role in Saga.

“That’s one of the first things that we learn,” Vaughan explains. “No quote-unquote villain thinks of him or herself as a villain. This comic book, Ex Machina, was all about my frustrations of how I don’t think there are heroes, either. I think there are only men and women who do heroic things, but there’s no such thing as a hero. That’s a comic-book construct. And there’s probably the same for villains. There are people who do villainous things. That mustache-twirling villain is a fabrication.”

Stepping away from the mythic archetypes of good vs. evil, these stories struck a note with comic devotees, stratified across a diverse cross-section of readers young and old, male and female. Vaughan’s ensembles also notoriously feature more estrogen than testosterone in setups that are historically male-centric: the Runaways team only boasts two guys (initially) while Y: The Last Man’s dude-stricken dystopia pits two dudes (one of whom is a Capuchin monkey) against approximately 3.5 million members of the fairer sex. While imprints like Vertigo had paved the way for a broader, smarter approach past steroidal strongmen punching each other ad nauseum, Vaughan became a new beacon of social diversity and smart stories.

All the while, Vaughan pressed on with his “Star Wars for perverts” concept, looking for a new artist to usher his cosmic parenting tale into reality. At that point in her career, Staples had yet to illustrate an ongoing comic series, doing covers and miniseries for companies DC, Wildstorm, and Dark Horse. She had learned how to develop her skills in England under the tutelage of macabre veteran Frazer Irving, and her horror-themed contributions to the Trick ‘r Treat movie-based comic had already given her a substantial foothold within the industry.

Steve Niles, a friend of Vaughan’s who worked with Staples on Mystery Society for IDW, recommended the up-and-coming artist and Vaughan wrote an email immediately.

“I wrote her an email, and she didn’t write me back because she thought my email might be fake. We finally connected and spoke on the phone briefly and I just asked her general questions. What do you like to draw? What do you hate to draw? What’s your favorite movie? She mentioned how she loved Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is one of my favorite movies. We just seemed to be on the same wavelength. I said I’m really sorry, this is a book about a family, but it might get super dirty, and I feel wildly uncomfortable asking artists to draw dirty stuff. She said, nope, I’m up for doing a book for grown ups.”

Staples wasn’t immediately comfortable with the proposition in front of her. “It took me a little bit just to get my head around what he was trying to do. It’s a project with a lot of scope and big ideas. And in the beginning he sent me the Saga mini-Bible, with descriptions of the main characters and a couple of the locations we’d be visiting. After I read the first script, I got what we were really going for.”

Eventually, the pair honed their process down to an efficient exchange of scripts and texts. Once laboriously detailed, Vaughan trusts Staples to interpret and flourish his beats with her signature playfulness. “My scripts are almost always 22 pages,” Vaughan says. “But the amount of detail in the panel descriptions has decreased significantly, now that I’ve realized the book is at its best when I just give Fiona as much room as possible to be Fiona.”

Aside from suggesting that Marko’s father, Barr, work as a tailor to get Alana and Marko out of some “nasty” clothes that hadn’t been washed for seven issues, Staples also snuck in a character who suspiciously resembles Richard Scarry’s Mr. Fixit to help repair The Will’s downed ship. The artist’s most popular creation thus far has been Ghus, a bipedal seal toddler in OshKosh B’gosh yellow overalls who walks a pet Walrus on a leash. And they are awesome.

“I’m pretty proud of those two because they were my additions. A while ago, my boyfriend just texted me some pictures of cute baby seals for me to enjoy, and I just thought, what would seals look like if they had legs? So I just sketched them between issues; I just did some drawings of seals and walruses with legs in little outfits. And I sent them to Brian and said, ‘can we have a seal with legs in Saga? And he said, ‘yes, I have the perfect spot for them in issue #12.’ I don’t know what they would’ve been otherwise, but now we have the Seal Boy.”

Read about the Saga cover that had people up in arms and Vaughan’s secret to Saga’s success on Page 2.

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