Shelf life: Saga #55 is a gloriously familiar fever dream

A person is holding an iPad towards the camera displayed with the cover of the graphic novel series Saga.
“Saga”‘s celebrity fans include Alan Moore and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Gabriela Camacho • The Student Life)

This article contains mild spoilers for Saga #1-#55

In an attempt to describe Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ “Saga” to my editors in a single sentence during our pitch meeting, I rattled off, “Romeo and Juliet, with-sex-and-drugs-and-aliens.” This isn’t far from the truth.

The sprawling comic epic — which returned from a nearly four-year hiatus with its 55th issue on Jan. 26 — begins with the story of Alana and Marko, star-crossed lovers from the eternally warring planets of Landfall and Wreath. Against all odds, they fall in love and give birth to Hazel, the series’ narrator.

The result is a fevered rollercoaster of a cross between a romance and a coming-of-age tale.
“Saga documents Hazel’s upbringing as her family travels across the stars, encountering allies and enemies: the prince of the Robot Kingdom, spaceships that grow on trees, self-pleasuring dragons, a three foot tall battle ax-wielding seal-man named Ghüs, phantom babysitters and a cat who always, always knows when you’re lying.

The story is gory and graphic and bizarre, laced with famously idiosyncratic humor: in Saga #48, published in 2017, the words “do you even know what a fidget spinner is?” appear for no discernable reason other than the (then-timely) bit.

However, “Saga” is more than the sci-fi soap opera it appears to be. There’s a reason it has built up a massive and loyal fanbase (including Alan Moore of Watchmen fame and Lin-Manuel Miranda) and won no fewer than 12 Eisner awards. There’s a reason I closed Saga #54 sobbing and scoured the internet for information each year of its prolonged hiatus. 

Vaughan has a track record of using surreal lenses to tell remarkably relatable stories. His past work includes Barrier, a story of language difference and xenophobia told through the lens of an alien abduction, Runaways, a Marvel superhero arc about growing up and away from one’s family and Paper Girls, a beautiful meditation on friendship, girlhood and time-travel. “Saga is no exception. 

It’s ironic that a story so explicit can be referred to as a “family” tale, but that’s exactly what “Saga” is: a story of family, lost and found, adopted and biological. In a universe populated by aliens, the characters feel deeply human. They fight and fail to forgive each other, they cope with death and heartbreak; there’s a poignant family reunion in Saga #36 and a gorgeously written and heartfelt father-daughter conversation about kindness (and procreation) towards the end of #54. And though it may seem unlikely, the action-adventure comic book form conveys this humanity in a uniquely compelling way. 

Through incremental, monthly publication, Vaughan and Staples let the story grow alongside its readers (the first issue came out in 2012; in 2022, Hazel is newly 10 years old) and tackle topical themes (an issue with fake-news undertones published during the Trump presidency comes to mind). 

It’s difficult to think of another medium that allows its story to evolve and react in the way “Saga” does, especially once you factor in Staples’ crucial, incomparable talent as an artist. In the midst of the characteristic chaos — the blood, the glitter, one horrifyingly vengeful star-nosed mole — Staples has the ability to crystallize moments words could never convey. The warmth of curling up next to a cat. Secondhand parental joy. The stomach-jarring silent heartbeat just before a character begins to cry. 

It’s the juxtaposition of familiar and fever dream that makes these moments so much more powerful. In these panels, the comic’s indomitable humanity is formed. 

With Saga #55, Vaughan and Staples prove that despite a brutal hiatus, the spirit of “Saga” is alive and well. There’s sex, violence and a pink koala-man built like a pro wrestler, but a highlight of the issue is a sentimental moment midway through, where Hazel dances to a stolen tape recording while background text contemplates growing up. Captivating and familiar, the scene is Saga’s distilled essence: coyly eliciting nostalgia in the midst of the bizarre. Just as coyly, however, the passage is abruptly cut off; the page is turned to reveal a punchline (“The song, of course, is Assassins of Sadness by Fartbox”), and the story continues. 

This is what “Sagadoes: It refuses to be boxed in. It plays with expectations and compromises nothing; Vaughan has referred to it as “unadaptable”. And Saga #55 is the story at its most essential. It’s graphic and gorgeous. It toes the line between heartfelt and irreverent. It ends leaving the reader wanting more.

Saga might start out as a love story, but it ends as a love letter to its medium. In its essential humanity, its refusal to choose between action-heavy sci-fi tale and sappy family drama, it embodies graphic storytelling to its full potential. Now, this ode to print comics is slowly drawing to a close (Vaughan has revealed there will be 108 issues; #54 and #55 mark the halfway point). It’s the perfect time to hop on the roller coaster and stay along for the ride.

Kate Jones PO ’24 is from Seattle, Washington. If you need to find her, she’ll probably be on the second floor of Honnold-Mudd, staring awestruck at the graphic novel collection.

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