Warning: This issue will break your heart.
Saga # 53
Writer: Brian K Vaughan
Artists: Fiona Staples
Cover Artists: Fiona Staples
What You Need to Know:
All the dominoes set up in the last issue, bounty-hunters, media machinations, well-dressed women bearing many arms, come crashing down in this issue. Nobody escapes unscathed.
What You’ll Find Out:
The issue opens with a one-page spread of bat-winged Agent Gale, a representative of the Landfall government, frustratedly fiddling with his phone in a parking garage. The spread is arranged to reflect an illustration of Lucifer, right after his fall from heaven, which Gustav Doré made to decorate a Victorian edition of Blake’s Paradise Lost, and this composition sets an ominous tone for the exchange which is to follow.
Page two reveals the editor of the paper that Prince Robot and Co. are planning on selling their story too. Agent Gale approaches the man and introduces himself. The editor tells him that he is planning on running the story and that if the Landfall government tries to interfere, he’ll, ‘sue their whole planet.’
Agent Gale responds by showing him a video of the photographer and journalist who are following the story involved in a loving sexual act. Same-sex relationships are a crime on the Media Planet, and Agent Gale threatens to release the footage to the public and sink their paper, but the editor sticks to his guns, holding his course until Agent Gale informs him that not only has the soldier who provided Prince Robot with his information publicly recanted, he’s ‘hung himself’ in disgrace.
The editor knows that this is a murder and cover-up designed to protect the government of Landfall and prolong the war, but there isn’t anything that he can do about it, so he accepts the mobile phone Gale offers him and agrees to kill the story. Satisfied, Agent Gale walks out of the garage, bat-wings spread wide above his head, into the rainy night.
The next page opens up on another part of the Media Planet. Ghüs, armed with a blaster, a determined expression, and wearing an adorable Hawaiian shirt, is stalking through the undergrowth, searching for Squire.
There’s a close-up of his face, frozen in sudden dismay, and the next page reveals what it was that shocked him so: he’s found the body of the photographer, Doff, lying face-up in a puddle of stagnant green water. There are small, dinosaur-like creatures feeding on the ragged lips of the wound which has replaced his heart.
Ghüs says, ‘Aw, hell.’ and clubs the scavengers away with the butt of his rifle.
Petrichor hears Ghüs crying out and she comes running towards him through the marsh. When she sees the body, she asks, ‘You…you don’t think it was the boy, do you?’ Ghüs reassures her that Squire isn’t capable of hurting anyone, and (realizing that they’re not alone any longer) she fires off her flare to warn the others about what it is they’ve found.
The next page opens with a shot of the flare, exploding like fireworks above the roof of the tree-ship. Hazel is sitting on the stairs, looking at her feet and repeating a spell. Upsher, the journalist (and soon-to-be bereaved lover of Doff) comes running up and tells Hazel that they need to wait for more information before they leave the ship.
An offscreen voice tells him that’s a good idea, and the next page shows us that the interjection was provided by the well-dressed woman bearing all those lovely guns. She’s holding one of those against Squire’s head. Lanthe asks, ‘Mind if we join you?’
Upsher, perhaps unsurprisingly, asks who she is and what she wants. Lanthe replies that she’ll fill him in once they’re off-planet. The figurative camera pulls in close so that the final shot is composed of Lathe’s naked, terrified face as she says, ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a monster out there.’
And now, for the heartbreak. Here’s your warning. If you want to sleep tonight, turn back now.
No? We’re doing this?
The next page opens with The Will. His expandable spear is still lodged in Prince Robot’s blue-bleeding arm. He asks the monarch, ‘And what makes you think I need help collecting a bounty?’
Keeping his screen (which, remember, reveals his thoughts) intentionally snowy, Prince Robot informs The Will that he knows everything about Marko and Alana and can, therefore, help him take them out.
The Will orders Prince Robot to show him, and the prince (either accidentally or as a form of time-saving distraction) shows him a scene from his own childhood: his mother, abusing him for accidentally leaving a toy on the floor. The Queen (her face-screen small, reflecting her lack of vision) breaks the toy by striking it against her son’s body, saying that there is no word for killing a prince because nobody ‘gives a toss’ about them.
The Will says, ‘This sad-sack shit supposed to make me feel sorry for you? Forget that you murdered the love of my life?’
Prince Robot insists that he doesn’t know how ‘that drivel’ popped into his head. He says, ‘Give me one last chance and I’ll show you exactly how to capture Hazel and —’ but he’s interrupted by Marko (armed with his shield) who says, ‘Sorry. What did you say?’
Marko looks shockingly calm.
The next page presents us with a close-up of Squire’s face-screen. It’s depicting a drawing of a knight riding, sword upraised, on a stallion. Squire says, ‘Save me!’
He asks Hazel to use her acid spell, but Upsher holds her back, saying that she’ll kill Squire if she tries it.
Lanthe says that her boss will make her an ambassador for bringing in Hazel and when Upsher asks her who she is, she answers that she’s not stupid enough to give her identity to a journalist and finishes by saying, ‘Now open up that ship or I end you like I did your boy toy.’
Before Upsher can react to that, the group is interrupted by Alana who comes flying in on her delicate beetle-wings. Lanthe greets her by saying, ‘Howdy! Draw!’ and going for her gun.
As Lanthe fires, Squire grabs her arm, disrupting her aim and steering the bullet through Alana’s wing instead of her torso.
The wing is obliterated, and Alana plummets to the sandy beach, landing hard and lying utterly still.
Lanthe slaps Squire away from her and bends over Alana’s body, taking aim. Before she can fire, she’s interrupted by Upsher who says, ‘Hey!’ and fires his flare into her face.
The force of the explosion tears away Lanthe’s cheek, revealing red gristle and teeth, and Upsher leaps across her body, knocking her onto her back in the sand. As they struggle, Squire calls out, ‘Careful! She’s still got a –’ but he’s interrupted by the sound of an explosion.
There’s a panel of silence. Both characters are totally still until Lanthe says ‘Wow.’ Upsher drags himself off of her. He is unbloodied. Her garments are soaked. She says, ‘That really, really hurts.’
Upsher tells the children, ‘Don’t be scared. Just check on Alana’
The children do as he asks who Upsher stands above the body of his enemy. Lanthe begs him to ‘finish what he started’ and kill her, but he won’t. He just stands there, above her, watching her bleed.
Back on the cliffside, The Will tells Marko to ‘Wait your turn.’ Marko tells him that he knows that he’s a more valuable hostage than Prince Robot, and he offers to turn himself in, without any strings, if The Will would just let his friend go.
Prince Robot says, ‘What are you doing, you fucking simpleton? Didn’t you hear? I was in the process of selling out your entire family!’ Marko grins and replies, ‘Yeah, but I never believe anything you say.’
Then he tells The Will that the rest of the refugees, including Squire, have already left the planet.
Marko offers, once again, to turn himself in, in exchange for Prince Robot’s freedom.
Prince Robot’s screen depicts a red poppy, losing a petal to the wind.
The Will says, ‘Pass.’
The final page is a spread, brutal in its simplicity: it is The Will tearing Prince Robot’s head from his body. The bodies are outlined against a clear, blue sky.
What Just Happened:
After reading this issue, I felt like I’d been struck across the skull — repeatedly and with great force. There’s no pain, yet, just shocked numbness. I know the pain is coming. I’m bracing for it. But for now, all I can do is focus on the tangible things: the images and the words.
I’ve already highlighted Staples’ use of classical illustration to generate a sense of ominous dread in a scene which could otherwise read as mere plot-heavy exposition. I can expand on that by pointing out that the final page appears to be echoing a painting by Caravaggio.
By basing the composition of the panels on pieces of classical art, Staples is creating scenes which will have deep resonance with her audience — even if that audience is not consciously aware of what those resonances are. Everyone has seen that illustration of Lucifer by Doré at one point or another. Everyone has some inkling of the story it’s connected to, even if only tangentially. We see those bat-wings and know that someone’s Paradise is about to be lost. These references are jarring and effective.
But this only the beginning of Staples’ range as an artist.
So much of the art of composing a comic comes down to pace and timing. Some of that is determined by the script, but the success or failure of a piece depends on the execution of the art. Fiona Staples is a master of this.
Look at this page.
There’s a two-beat pause during which it is unclear which character has taken the bullet. Look at the facial expressions of the characters. The seeming simplicity of the scene allows for a surprising breadth of emotional response.
As for the writing, I am torn. On the one hand, the dialogue and script for this issue were delivered with Vaughan’s usual standard of highly literary virtuosity. There’s a level of verisimilitude to these characters, despite the alien forms they wear and the unlikely settings they inhabit, that is absolutely unlike anything else being produced in contemporary comics, but this is undermined by a serious social problem.
Out of three main protagonist relationships in this series, two were centered around LGBTQIA couples. It was refreshing to see queer couples portrayed with as much depth and nuance as their straight counterparts. We had a loving, beautifully functional Gay partnership in which both men were as dedicated to finding and publishing the truth as they were to each other. We had a relationship between a man and a transwoman in which two extraordinarily damaged people were struggling towards healing and wholeness in a realistic way. Both of those relationships have been destroyed. Only the heteronormative (if bi-racial) couple remains intact. While this doesn’t detract from the quality of the writing, it does seem out of place for a world which has been built specifically in order to prove that people can transcend stereotypes. I would not have expected either Vaughan or Staples to bow so fully to the Kill-The-Gays trope. The deaths in this issue were meaningful. The writing was beautiful, and the art was inspired. But there is a disease hidden in the flesh of the writing. I don’t know if the series will ever totally recover from it.
Final Thought: This issue is wrenching and beautiful: the writing is heartbreaking, but undermined by one terrible flaw.
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