Saga, by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples, is something new: a space opera about nonviolence.
Saga starts with a galaxy at war. Sister planets, one with sufficiently advanced technology and the other with sufficiently advanced magic, snap at one another’s throats in proxy battles across a vast and varied cosmos. Two young soldiers from the opposed armies fall in love and desert, carrying their newborn child away from the fighting.
The war, of course, follows them.
On first glance, it’s easy to mistake the story for a clever and fast-paced mashup of common tales. We’ve seen the galactic space opera. We’ve seen conflicts between science and magic. We’ve seen countless reconfigurations of Romeo and Juliet. We’ve seen bringing-up-baby stories. And if that’s all Saga were, it would still stand out for the quality of its art, writing, pacing, and humor.
But… Well. Genre writers have a dirty secret, which is far less secret than it is dirty.
Violence is fun.
Not actual real-life violence, I mean, most of us aren’t so mental as to think that. But, you know, if the story’s slowing down, why not pep it up with a solid fistfight? Or perhaps a dragon emerges from the cave. Or a flight of TIE fighters swings by on patrol! Raymond Chandler had the right idea. Don’t know what to do? Bring in a guy with a gun.
By itself there’s nothing wrong with using violence in this way. The action’s fun to write, and if you have characters who are good at violence, fight scenes are a great way to show them off. But it’s an easy slip from using violence to solve the writer’s problem — I want something jarring and fast-paced to happen here — to using violence as a solution to the character’s problems. Obi-Wan cuts off that guy’s* arm in the cantina and it’s awesome, and there are no consequences. Heck, the first Star Wars movie ends with an awe-inspiring and climactic act of violence. In self-defense, but still, how many people do you think Luke kills on that first Death Star?**
As a result of this slippage, stories emerge in which the solution to violence is more violence, committed in the name of peace—which works. Violence incurs no consequences for the victorious party. We don’t see (at least in Star Wars itself) the million war orphans with a vendetta against Skywalker for killing their fathers and mothers on the Death Star. We don’t see the Imperial anti-rebel propaganda campaign that results from the destruction of the greatest space station ever built.
I’m using Star Wars examples because they’re big and obvious and everyone knows them. I love Star Wars, and my point here isn’t that Star Wars is at fault for the story it tells. The problem is, the other story — the story where the edda continues, where Grand Moff Tarkin’s son grows up seeking wergild or vengeance for his father’s death — that one isn’t told.
CREDIT: Image Comics
And that’s the story Saga presents. Saga contains a ton of badass characters, running around the galaxy accomplishing their goals by a variety of means, including super-impressive violence, all drawn beautifully by Staples, whose art evokes the visceral excitement of conflict without flinching from its pain and pointlessness. Often, the violence in Saga is insanely cathartic for the reader, too. (When the Will, a freelancer mercenary, makes a particular kill in issue #4, I think I actually dropped the comic, stood up, and cheered.) But each time, bar none, violence is used as a solution, it creates new problems, many of which outweigh the problems the initial violence was meant to solve.
CREDIT: Image Comics
The best part is, this approach is excellent for storytelling. Every bit of violence creates a new problem. Sometimes these new problems are as direct and simple waking up a Cthonic horror due to a weapon’s misfire. Sometimes they’re so indirect it’s easy to mistake the web of consequences for coincidence — a pile of bodies left behind leads to a secondary (innocent) character being shot by trigger-happy law enforcement, which drags a new antagonist into the evolving web, and endangers the life of a fourth character, and on and on. Meanwhile, the few true untrammeled successes in the book emerge from win-win, nonviolent bargains, and from raw emotional vulnerability and honesty.
So, we have characters striving for peace in a galaxy riven by war — but the peace they want can’t come through superior firepower. With that avenue of simple violence blocked, Saga and its characters are forced to look for better solutions.
And I have no idea whether they’ll succeed.
Let me put that another way. In Saga, Vaughn and Staples have created a vivid, powerful, and ultimately pacifist work. And by so doing, they have written a classical space opera that surprises at every turn.
Which is something new and beautiful all on its own.
*Yes, I know his name is Ponda Baba. It’s not pertinent to this discussion.
**At least 1.16 million humans staffed the first Death Star, according to HowStuffWorks. I can’t find an official source for this stat though. I can find sources substantiating the Death Star 2’s crew compliment of ~2 milion and change; since the Death Star 2 is roughly 200 times the size of DS1 (diameter of 900km vs. diameter of 160km), if crew compliment scales linearly with volume, we’re probably looking at closer to 10,000 people on the DS1, which seems small considering that an Imperial-class ISD hosts 37,000. Either way, that’s a lot of dead folks.