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

Books Features Robots

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 behind Saga 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 dudes are stricken from the gene pool and Ex Machina tackled post 9-11 confusion by creating a superhero who doubled as NYC’s mayor. Parenthood, with all of its sublime risks and rewards, became the new anchor of Vaughan’s 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 eludes 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.”


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.

III. “It was a time of war. Isn’t it always.”

Not all of Vaughan and Staples’ texts are about Seal Boys. For example:

Staples: If this orgy IS as explicit as #12 is that pushing our luck? I mean I feel like it should be for consistency

Staples: Less fluids maybe to keep it tasteful

Vaughan: I’m saving these texts for the inevitable disposition I’ll be forced to give

Staples: Hey, I don’t write this stuff!

Vaughan: Or is that deposition? I don’t know how to write

But yes, please don’t censor your inherent depravity because of Corporate America

The above IM exchange between Staples and Vaughan may only be a microcosmic window into a working process that’s developed throughout the past three years, but it also speaks volumes about the rapport the pair has fostered, and the amount of risk in wrapping a genre that tends to stick to PG-13 standards around a very, very adult story.

Both Vaughan and Staples are unequivocally committed to a narrative pocket universe that embraces the sex, violence, and casualities that an intergalactic battlefield requires. While there isn’t anything within these pages you wouldn’t find in the brothels of A Game of Thrones (another property to which the comic is often compared), it does push the boundaries of a medium associated with a kid readership, despite the fact that most comic lovers are in their thirties and forties. Vaughan wasn’t even sure that his new venture would survive past six issues.

“When Saga launched, this was before The Walking Dead had exploded. It looked like the market was drying up for original books, especially for adult-oriented original books. I’d never done something through (publisher) Image before, and Fiona’s relatively new. We have two non-white leads breastfeeding on the cover. It felt like this could go one way or the other. I thought best-case scenario, we’d settle into 20,000 copies a month. Maybe we’d find a way to just break even. This level of success… I promise I’m not being falsely humble. I could have never anticipated that a book with fucking robots would find such a lovely audience.”

The debut issue’s breast-feeding cover invited the first controversy Saga would endure in its near three-year-and-counting run, and it happened two months before the first issue even debuted. Former Heavy Metal and Star Wars artist David Dorman ignited the fuse by writing a blog entry accusing the comic of whoring for sales with some infant-on-mother dining. “It seems that in today’s desperate-for-sales comic book market, nothing is sacred,” Dorman wrote. “In the midst of world-saving adventures, today’s modern heroine breast feeds her child with zero modesty. I’m just so impressed with this I-can-have-it-all super heroine. I had to wonder, did La Leche League (or as my wife took to calling them after she delivered our son, ‘The Breast Milk Mafia’) pay big-time sponsorship money for this cover? What a wholesome, family-friendly image!” The blog blew up and Saga received its first round of organic publicity.

The criticism was a typical example of the eggshell-strewn floor the comic industry often treads, pandering to a youth audience that hasn’t existed for years. Warren Ellis, another comic writer and adult novelist who excels in subversive sci-fi, called Dorman an “idiot cheesecake painter,” writing back that Saga “will prove something of a barometer for the maturity of the current commercial comics market.” Which it has and continues to do.

Staples handled the issue with modesty and restraint, telling website ComicsAlliance, “I find it a little hard to fathom why anyone would object to a depiction of breastfeeding, even if it were on a kids’ comic, which it isn’t. I have yet to hear a line of reasoning that makes sense to me. That said, anyone who wants to be grossed out by our comic is of course free to do so. I’m just going to fixate on the part where a master painter called me a ‘gifted artist.” Dorman retracted his statement and pulled his post, saying he misunderstood an interview in which he thought Vaughan had positioned Saga as a kids comic.

But breastfeeding was just the tip of the iceberg. As shown in the previous texting sample, Saga addresses a large swath of human (and inhuman) sexuality. In the title’s fourth issue, The Will tours a prostitution planet modeled after one of Staples’ trips to Amsterdam in 2008 (“Sextillion was based on a candy-colored version of the Red Light District. I just sort of dialed it up a bit to wild, crazy wacky colors.”) This is where the first orgy occurred, a background collage of limbs, smiles, and unconventionally-proportionate genitalia. The second orgy popped up this month in issue #17 when Prince Robot IV, Landfall’s military general tasked with hunting down Alana, Marko, and Hazel, proclaims that “the opposite of war is…fucking.” He (it?) then describes how he fell into an X-rated fever dream with his platoon while laying on his deathbed.

The Prince first projected these images (literally – the character has a massive tube TV for a head) in issue #12, his screen flashing a tiny blip of homoerotic oral sex before seguing to a multiple-partner climax. Initially, a host of news outlets stormed the web claiming that Apple refused to release the issue on any iOS Apps. “Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps,” Vaughan wrote on Staples’ blog (aside from a Website for his completely-digital comic, The Private Eye, Vaughan avoids social media accounts and communiqués). “This is a drag, especially because our book has featured what I would consider much more graphic imagery in the past, but there you go. Fiona and I could always edit the images in question, but everything we put into the book is there to advance our story, not (just) to shock or titillate, so we’re not changing shit.”

And they didn’t. The problem turned out to be a miscommunication between digital comic distributor ComiXology and Apple; the former platform interpreted Apple’s policies to ban the risqué visuals from its services. Ultimately, Apple didn’t care and ComiXology apologized, releasing the issue within days. (In Comixology’s defense, Apple initially refused to carry a comic version of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 2010 because it featured male nudity). Saga’s following issue, #13, debuted that August after a three-month hiatus that typically follows every six-issue arc, and is the most successful issue of the series to date, shipping 55,372 copies according to distributor Diamond, and ranking as the 22nd most successful comic of that month.

Any battles linked to Saga these days tend to occur within its pages. “I don’t pay too much attention to any controversies. I think some readers (particularly my fellow Americans) have a bottomless appetite for graphic violence in their genre fiction, but a real aversion to graphic sexuality,” Vaughan says. “But thankfully, most discerning adults can tolerate just about anything, as long as it’s done well.”

Staples views Saga as a concurrent movement with the serial storytelling happening in TV. “I think there’s an audience for mature-rated genre storytelling right now, an audience that’s been primed by HBO and stuff like that. Graphic nudity and sex are becoming more mainstream, and maybe our book contributes in a small way to that.”


IV. “I started out as an idea, but I ended up something more.”

Saga won three awards, or 9% of all awards total, at this year’s Eisner Ceremony at Comic-Con: San Diego, a de facto recognition of the comic industry’s most entertaining and well-made fare. Vaughan won “Best Writer” while the series won “Best Continuing Series” and “Best New Series.” Vaughan also won previous Eisner Awards for Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man and his run in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight. The first trade paperback of Saga also picked up a Hugo Award—given by the World Science Fiction Society—for Best Graphic Story.

When asked why he thinks Saga has become such a resonant, beloved staple of storytelling, Vaughan does not hesitate at all in his one-word answer: “Fiona.”

“I’ll say this again with no false humility. I know I’m a pretty good writer. It is a fun story. But it is that artwork… when you see those covers—there can be 300 covers lined up—you know it’s Fiona from 100 yards. If you look at any issue of Saga, Alana has 4,000 facial expressions. And you can tell whatever she’s saying, her face matches what is coming out of her mouth. It’s such a small thing. But it’s not. It’s the secret of whether your comic is immersive, and you can lose yourself in it. Just clear, beautiful storytelling. It’s so rare.”

When pressed further, Vaughan admits to a new quality that helps push Saga past the tired templates, antique legacies, and route custom of writing. He admits what helps him to create something new and inspired, much like the crossbred baby of his runaway hit book.

“If I had to force myself to not be humble, it’s also that I have reached a point in my career where I feel very comfortable in my own voice. I feel like Saga is the closest I’ve come to feeling confident. I know exactly what I’m trying to say here and I don’t really care if no one else likes it or not. And that’s a hard place to get to in your career. I just have something to say, and I just want to work with great artists and then put it out.”

Whatever the case, both Vaughan and Staples have proved beyond a doubt that they weren’t taking a shit when they created one of the most introspective, emotional, and creative science-fiction creations of the past decade.

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