I promise you, this will not be another how-I-got-into-comics essay. Well, I sort of promise.

Saga wasn’t the comic that got me into comics. It wasn’t my first real exposure to the form. Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes take that honor. It wasn’t the first comic book I read. The 1990s X-Men reboot fills that nostalgia category. Reading Saga wasn’t even the first time I appreciated the medium on an artistic or intellectual level. I had read Watchmen in college, of course (before the movie, but not much), and understood how comics built its own sense of literary history. I read Promethea, and was stunned by the richness and symbolic potential of the comics page.

(Can you tell that I, like so many others, was drawn to the form by a curmudgeonly English magician?)

But Saga was the first time that what I was reading reached out and touched my life, instead of being just a destination for my escapism. In short, reading Saga was the first time that I felt my love of comics.

I didn’t realize that I had a reciprocal relationship with Saga for quite some time. My initial reading of the first few issues were subject to my training in medieval literature: because I caught a whiff, I voraciously hunted for structural symmetry, icons, and allegorical relationships. I read Marko and Alana as the two poles of a binary held in singular harmony. I read Hazel as a chosen child, the bridger of worlds and the bringer of peace, the child born of conflict destined to resolve it. I found in Saga the enduring tropes of medieval romance interwoven with the contemporary canon of space opera. I love these kinds of stories because they align the grandiose with the humble, finding inside the individual the ethos of an entire community. Oh man, they were elegant, my first readings of Saga. Crystalline. And totally wrong.

Ok, not wrong. In some ways I stand by those readings – they find in Saga an example of comics craft at its best. But they cultivated a critical relationship to the book. The relationship of a scholar to his subject. And what I’ve come to understand is that Saga, despite being populated by aliens of wonderfully diverse shape and size, is a passionately human book. It’s a book of flesh and blood and joy and pain. Here’s the story of how I came to this realization.

There I was in the spring and summer of 2012, waiting patiently to pick up each new issue. The pattern: rush to the store, buy Saga, wait patiently until I had time quiet to read it (usually bedtime), read it, pass it to my partner so that she could read it too. You see, in this little vignette is the germ of the real effect Saga has had in my life. But, dear reader, have patience.

As she read I’d contemplate my perfect little symmetries, codifying the iconic profiles I had developed for each character. She would finish the issue, and we would chat about it and then drift to sleep. We would revisit the issue in the following days, and then as a few weeks went by we would express our mutual impatience for the next issue.

And so I’m coming around now to the point you probably saw coming sentences ago: just as we were mutually deepening our love for comics in Saga, so were we deepening our love for each other. It’s cheesy, I know, but I read myself into Marko and her into Alana. Sure, we didn’t face intergalactic bounty hunters on the regular, but our relationship had encountered its fair share of hardships, external and internal, and seeing Marko and Alana’s commitment reminded me of the passion we shared. I hung onto the tropes of determination overcoming obstacles, of love speaking truth to power – all of the markings of literary romance. And for that first year, my system of icons and allegories worked.

And then my partner was pregnant. And things got real. Fast.

Pregnancy is a funny thing for the non-gestational parent. It’s abstract. I couldn’t feel the fetus, or the daily changes in her body. She could explain things to me, and I did my best to understand, to empathize, and to help, but it’s not the same. The pregnancy, for me, was all about making her comfortable, happy, and well-fed. It was our son’s birth, holding my partner’s leg as she pushed, seeing his weird coned head emerge – that was the moment. That was when I felt the surge of fatherhood.

What I didn’t realize was that Saga had been helping me prepare for that moment for over two years. The anxiety, the uncertainty, the pressure of expectation and the weight of the future – these elements of its narrative I had yet to appreciate. My own confusions had been distracting me from the essential lesson Saga was trying to teach me:

Stories are messy. Like bodies, they have many working parts, they produce waste, and they make life happen. Saga begins its story at a moment of life’s extreme intensity and vulnerability – birth. And in true comic book fashion, it vulgarizes the moment: “am I shitting?” Comics reflect back to us our most intimate personal moments, our messiest moments, our darkest, without pretense or pretension.

And just like that my crystalline readings shattered, like so many pink Martian sand castles.

But what rose from the rubble was warm-blooded, loving, human. When I returned to those first pages of Saga, I saw what I had missed. Hazel wasn’t an allegory. Marko and Alana weren’t icons. They were vulnerable, intimate people just trying their hardest to love and care under tough circumstances.

This is what I have come to understand about comics: they teach us how to be humans even when they narrate the lives of aliens in far-flung galaxies. This might not be an elegant revelation, or even a smart one. But it is a real one.

Thanks for sticking with me. Like I said, stories are messy, and mine is no exception. Now head over to your LCS and pick up some Saga.

3 thoughts on “A Human Saga

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