Review: SAGA (Volume 1) by Brian K. Vaughan

I’ve been hearing tip top things about this series for literal years, and just never got round to reading it, you know how it is, so yesterday I decided it’s long overdue and picked up volume one. All I can say is, I’m simultaneously furious at my past self for not reading this sooner and overjoyed at my current self that I get to experience it for the first time now. So Saga is a comics series about a young couple from opposing sides of an ever-raging galactic war and in this first volume have just had a child. It’s about them trying to escape their past lives as soldiers while outrunning their respective governments, military leadership and freelance bounty hunters, so they can break the cycle of violence and propaganda of the forever war and raise their daughter in peace.

I’ll start by saying I haven’t got a paternal bone in my body, so convincing me to be emotionally invested in a parent-child relationship from a parent’s perspective is not an easy task, but Saga did it, and it did it from the get-go with a veneer of utter effortlessness. There’s a lot of complex ways the writing and the art worked together to hook me so quickly, but one of them was the choice to introduce us to the main characters in a very intimate setting right off the bat. So the first page opens with Alana giving birth to her baby daughter in a mechanic’s garage and her new husband Marko acting as a makeshift midwife. We get so much detail in this opening scene, from character details like Alana’s wry sense of humour and Marko’s selfless desire to do good in the world, to seamlessly-written information about the hybrid science fiction/fantasy setting, as well as establishing some truly wonderful bits of worldbuilding about the conflict and our main characters place outside of it that never feels the need to overexplain, instead just allowing things to flow naturally.

I’ve talked before about how some stories weave character and setting and worldbuilding together in a way that makes it difficult to talk about each one separately, because each one forms part of the other and they all stand on each others shoulders to make something that becomes more than the sum of its parts. This is one of those times. Stories like this are rare; Jade City and most anything by P. Djeli Clark manage it, and Saga joins that list for me. It means it’s an absolute bitch to review adequately but it also makes for a truly special reading experience. What’s nice about the story is it’s unobtrusively told via the off-page narration of Hazel, Alana and Marko’s child, who is presumably now old enough to be able to tell the story. It’s lovely because there are many points in this story where you think Hazel might not make it past a week old, given all the dangers she faces, and knowing that Alana and Marko’s fierce and persistent drive to keep her alive against all the odds must somehow work out creates an unstoppable sense of admiration for them in real time. I loved these two as main characters, they’re just two people who want to be left in peace, to love each other and raise a family, but by force of circumstance all the forces of the galaxy are arrayed against them. And at its core that’s such a wholesome concept that everyone can relate to and understand, and the sense of injustice that they can’t simply be allowed to do such a simple, human thing drives the thematic conflict of the book.

There are other, more tangible, conflicts as well though. For one, there’s the Secret Intelligence of Landfall, Alana’s home planet, home to the winged and scientifically-advanced race on one side of the war. They commission Prince Robot IV, member of the royal family and military officer of a Landfallian puppet nation of biological cyborgs, to hunt down Alana and Marko before their relationship becomes public knowledge. That, of course, would be a PR disaster. Over the many, many years of the war both sides of the conflict have come to regard the other as not entirely people, so the revelation that people from opposing sides could fall in love is deemed to be a threat to national security. And so they must be found. And stopped. Meanwhile, Marko’s people, a magical horned species from a moon called Weave, hire a group of freelance galactic bounty hunters to do the same. The one we follow closest is a human man called The Will and his feline companion Lying Cat, a giant animal companion who can tell whenever anyone isn’t telling the truth and who gave me big laughs and big Thundercats and He-Man vibes. There’s a lot of influences on display actually, from those kinds of 80s fantasy cartoons, as well as the sprawling space opera fantasy vibes of Star Wars meeting even older Romeo and Juliet story concepts. It all comes together to make something very modern and original. From Alana’s birthing jokes about being scared Marko will never find her attractive again if she defecates on him during childbirth, to The Will’s quips about contacting his union rep about unfair recruitment practices, it all has a very up-to-date and funny feel, while still addressing very serious and sometimes difficult issues, like the displacement of refugees, war slavery and sexual exploitation.

This is one of those books I feel like I could write about the specifics in great detail and at great length; there’s certainly a lot to unpack, which makes it a genuinely rewarding and enjoyable read that manages to be entertaining and funny, but also with a rare emotional depth I don’t come across very often. But when I do, I know I’ve found something special.

image credit: by Svetlana Alyuk on

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