When death comes calling for a character will he drink the hemlock and die as himself, or will he betray his sacred vow and live?
Writer: Brian K Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Cover Artist: Fiona Staples
Colorist: Fiona Staples
What You Need to Know:
Lanthe is dead, and her threat has been eliminated, but The Will has murdered Prince Robot. He and Marko are facing off. Only one of them will make it out alive. Read on to find out who.
What You’ll Find Out:
This issue opens with a reaction shot of Marko. His head and chest (in red armor), in closeup, against a background of mottled blue. The azure sky matches the robot-blood which stipples his chin. The image resembles nothing so much as a Byzantine icon. His expression is horrified and we see why on the next page.
The Will has just decapitated Prince Robot. He stands still, retracting his electric Lance, as the body falls to the floor of the cliff. Marko is unarmed, holding his shield at his side. The Will raises the haft of his lance, ready to pull the trigger and bury the blade in Marko’s chest, but when he tries to fire it, there’s nothing but a hollow klick.
After the misfire, the Lance explodes and mangles The Will’s gauntleted hand.
Marko (his motions backed by Hazel’s explanation for the fact that her father doesn’t believe in corporal punishment for children) charges The Will. The air around him is charged and red when he makes his leap.
Marko tackles The Will and they both hurtle over the edge of the cliff, landing in Lanthe‘s spaceship. They crash through the wall into the mid-sixties-style living room.
The Will is unconscious when he lands, but he wakes when Marko begins choking him. The Will can see, over Marko’s shoulder, that the wall of the spaceship is repairing itself, but he’s starting to die already. His brain cells are flickering, sending up images that are half vision, half memory.
The Will sees his father, choking him, telling him not to be such a ‘crybaby’ while his sister begs him to stop.
He sees The Stalk, his long-dead lover, telling him to ‘relax and enjoy it’ because it will make his climax better. His sister, now looking much as she did when she died, tells him that she will see him soon.
The Will sees the child he saved and the lover who nearly redeemed him. They tell him that he might as well let go because he’ll never see them again, but Lying cat claws their image to tatters, breaking the illusion (as she always does) and recalling him to life.
The Will reaches out and uses his good hand to flip the controls which send the spaceship out into orbit again.
The lurch of the ship sends Marko flying and The Will kicks him as hard as he can when he lands, to keep him down.
Marko’s eyes fill with lightning.
He whispers, ‘Fulmo.’ in The Blue language.
Lighting leaps at the craft and broken the family on the beach sees it. Dragging herself off of the sand, Alana cradles her broken wing and whispers her husband’s name.
The spaceship breaks free of the sheltering clouds, stabilizing as it leaves the atmosphere behind. Marko and The Will rise to face each other. The Will has a tongue of fire burning on his mask and he draws it up revealing his scarred scalp and naked, startlingly bland face.
Marko says, ‘Stand down…or I’ll hit you again.’
The Will knows how magic works. It is his business to know. He knows that Marko must be weak after casting that first spell and so The Will punches him. But Marko isn’t as broken as he looks. He still holds blue fire at his fingertips. He grabs The Will’s broken gauntlet and melts it (and the hand beneath it) into a twisted point before headbutting The Will and knocking his opponent to the hardwood floor.
Marko stoops, collecting his shield. He holds it so that the rim forms a variety of blade. The shadow of the shield bisects The Will’s face at the jaw.
Instead of striking (the quality of mercy is not strained) Marko lowers his shield and looks out of the window.
He can see a whole world.
Looking at it, floating there, delicate and glowing green, his face softens.
It isn’t the beauty which undoes him.
The next page is a full spread.
The Will is standing behind Marko. His expression is businesslike. The Will has a romantic streak, but he is ultimately a creature of pragmatism.
His ruined hand has become an excellent knife.
He has impaled Marko through the heart.
The Will withdraws his hand and Marko collapses to his knees before falling onto his back.
Marko’s face fills with wonder.
He hears Hazel’s voice, calling his name.
They are together, on a beach. Marko is reading a novel. Hazel is building a sandcastle. She is very close to the tide.
She tells him that she loves him, and she asks him if her birth was really the best day of his life.
He assures her that it was and she comes over to sit beside him on the sand.
She tells him that she isn’t going to have children. She knows it like a fact, and she asks him if that’s ok.
One of her feathers floats loose and flies into the air. Marko catches it and studies it as he answers.
He tells her that it’s ok, that he doesn’t care what she does, ‘as long as you’re kind to everyone you meet.’ She asks, ‘That’s it?’ and he replies, ‘That is the hardest part of being alive.’
And it is. Choosing kindness has cost, is costing Marko very much.
Relieved, Hazel rises (in memory or dream) and runs to the castle, with Marko, to try to save the little play paradise she’s built from the encroaching waves.
It is noble, at times, to attempt the impossible.
As the camera draws away from them, Hazel’s adult voice interjects again, saying, ‘Thanks to my parents, at least I get to grow old.’
The final page is Marko. He’s lying on the floor with his heart torn out.
His face is still, and calm as a saints.
Hazel’s voice continues, ‘Not Everyone does.
What Just Happened:
Despite the genre trappings of the story, the magic-users, spaceships, the aliens (both adorable and terrifying), Saga has a heart that is based in brutal realism. This is the great strength of the story. Every character breathes essential realism because beneath the fur, the feathers, every character has, well, character — desires and motivations beyond and above those which are necessitated by plot, and which reveal themselves through the actions that those characters take. You could strip these characters of their settings, stick Prince Robot in a British officers uniform, dress Marko in Iranian kit and Alana in American fatigues, lop off their wings, their horns, replace screens with flesh, and the emotional reality of the story would remain intact.
There’s magic in the world that Staples and Vaughan are weaving together, but it’s not the surface shimmer that entrances. It’s the fact that every action that the characters take, either individually or as a group, have very real consequences. There is no cheating. Knives leave scars. Relationships warp and change over time. Death is permanent. Death matters because there is no coming back from it.
Marko made the choice which led to his death in the very first issue when he vowed to never take another life. The decision to refrain from killing in a world that requires it has been a Chekhov’s gun in this plot. Over course of the series, we’ve seen Marko struggle with the consequences of his decision. We’ve seen him want to commit violence. We’ve seen him almost take lives. He has always refrained.
We know that it’s a struggle for him, despite his innate kindness, because at bottom he is a soldier who is struggling with PTSD and other characters have sensed the tension which ran, taut as a garroting wire, beneath his skin. Choosing kindness has always been the most difficult thing for him to do, and he has always done it.
And now it’s gotten him killed.
The Will was a professional bounty hunter. This form of brutality, executed (for the most part) against people who the law has marked as ‘deserving’ of it, is what he was professionally trained to do. The Will lost himself, for a while, in a sea of sorrow that he hadn’t the intellectual or spiritual resources to process. The time he’s spent as Lanthe’s slave, humiliating and terrible as it was, has returned him to himself. He’s still, ultimately, a simple man whose dubious moral code is absolutely free from any complexity, but he knows who he is again. He knows what he is, and what he’s capable of.
He is a killer.
There was only one way that this situation, executed by these two characters, could play out.
The question that I think Vaughan would have us ask is this: was Marko right to choose mercy? Was he right to choose the harder way and drop his shield when he knew that this man was capable of killing him and destroying his family?
I think that, ultimately, Marko’s predicament represented something of a Socratic choice.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, here’s a summary: the philosopher Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth of his city, through his teaching, and sentenced to death by poison. He was presented with the option of living if he agreed to publicly recant, to deny his philosophy and promise to leave and never return. Some of Socrates’ students pressured him to do accept this option, saying that it was better to remain alive at any cost than to die to no purpose. Socrates refused, because if he did so, not only would he be living a lie, he’d be living as an inferior version of himself, and the most important part of him (the identity that his teaching conveyed — as well a whatever power and longevity his philosophy had) would die right there in that jail cell, even if his body lived on. So he chose to drink the poison hemlock and die as himself rather than live as a lesser ghost of the man who he was.
If Marko had bashed The Will’s skull in with his shield, the man he had worked so hard to become, the man of peace, the writer, the father, would have bled out on the floor right beside his enemy.
We remember the nobility of Socrates because of his choice. Marko’s family will remember him, too.
Marko made his choice to die in the first issue. And now he’s finally done it.
And that’s a sign of excellent writing.
As most of you know, Saga will be on hiatus for the next year. We will have to wait until then to see how the other characters will react to this death. We will have to see if The Will is content to claim the bounty on Marko, or if he will return to stalk the rest of the fugitives. The stone has struck the water and we must wait to read the ripples.
Until then, we can admire the story that we have, so far. We can appreciate the art while the blood cools in its spill.
There has always been a beautiful, occasionally terrible, lucidity to Staples art. The work is detailed and uncluttered, occasionally surreal. There are none of her usual visual tangents in this issue. There are a few distracting details. The focus is drawn tight, close to the characters so that we can inhabit their skin. We see faces, looking at us. Most of the panels focus on the expressions worn by Marko and The Will, and this lends this issue a brand of focused intensity borrowed from a nightmare.
The flashbacks and hallucinations, when they happen, are directed at us from eye-level. The women that The Will has loved make eye contact and address is through him. Every shot is framed from the perspective of eye level. We’re not looking down on the characters from a safe distance. We have no power over them. We’re not looking up at them. They’re not directing the action. They’re presented as being here, with us, right now.
The effect of this is cumulative, subtle, and absolutely devastating. It reminds the reader that, ultimately, the causes of these effects have been written already, they are irrevocably set.
We’ll have to wait a year to understand the results.
Final Thought: This is issue contains what is probably the most well-considered philosophical statement delivered by a comic this year.
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