First World Problems:

Imperialism and Noncombatant Casualty in Saga Volume One

Comics are analogues of reality, and paint in fantasy tales more compelling than the real world conflicts they are based on. Saga overwhelms the reader with a terrible level of detail, capturing conflicts ranging from sectarian struggles in global skirmishes to sex trafficking and prostitution slavery. Saga Volume One is the collection of the first six issues from Image’s best-selling catalog. The comic began its print in March of 2012, issue #1 being reprinted five times and selling out its earlier prints before issue #3 was even available. Wining praise from a variety of mainstream publications like MTV and Publishers Weekly, it’s a profitable start for an indie title.

At first look, the immediate impression of Saga is a “Romeo and Juliet” scenario, with veiled hints that the story of the star-crossed lovers will end in tragedy. Yet at the same time there is still hope, which the child between the two protagonists, Alana and Marko, often represents throughout the story’s primary arc. There are parallels in the initial birthing scene to the birth of Jesus, the couple underprivileged and only able to afford lodging at an auto mechanic’s shop. This use of imagery is interesting given that Jesus’ populist appeal to the masses in his later ministries would mark the beginning of an invisible rebellion of an invisible kingdom, embodied in ethics that favored the weak over the strong and the poor over the rich. Like Jesus, the child is foreshadowed as the catalyst of some future event, hinted at by the narrator Hazel, the child herself. The event will be cataclysmic, perhaps regime changing, as the two major combatants, the moonside Wreath and the planetside citizens of Landfall, have their own plans for the child. However, given that Jesus’s claims led to a unification of Jew and Gentile populations anticipating the coming hope of Israel, perhaps this child’s significance is wedding the two dissimilar peoples together into one kingdom of peace. That is mere speculation, but given the similarities to both Shakespeare’s popular tragedy and the New Testament narrative, one can predict where the story will likely go.

One of the most compelling aspects of the Saga universe is its implementation of hybridization. Though the story is pinned as a Science Fiction tale, the elements of Fantasy interspersed throughout the first volume suggest that Brian Vaughan’s universe is meant to underscore the petty nature of the conflict instigated by the child’s birth, being merely a hybridization between the two conflicting parties. Though the initial spark of the conflict has yet to be revealed, much of the universe parallels the ongoing conflict in the Middle East among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim parties. This compounds the significance of the Jesus themes, especially considering that each of the religious parties all recognize and revere Jesus in some capacity or another. However, this commentary risks cliché, as the tenuous relationships between the religious parties has been overemphasized by the media historically. Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan talks about the anomalous cosmopolitan relationships shared by the indigenous peoples of the Levant mountain region, and underscores how unlikely a conflict in the Middle East was to begin with, especially in the social climate of his youth:

The Levantine Cities were mercantile in nature; people dealt with one another according to a clear protocol, preserving a peace conducive to commerce, and they socialized quite a bit across            communities. This millennium of peace was interrupted only by small occasional friction within Moslem and Christian communities, rarely between Christians and Moslems. While the cities were mercantile and mostly Hellenistic, the mountains had been settled by all manner of religious minorities who claimed to have fled both the Byzantine and Moslem orthodoxies [...] It was taken for granted that people learned to be tolerant there…

Taleb goes on to say that the conflict was hardly religiously motivated, though superficially, religious orthodoxy was leveraged nominally by the beligerents. Rather, Taleb positions that in the two millenniums of peace his native people of Amioun in Lebanon were largely indifferent to their neighbors, mutually sharing in the wealth generated by their maritime economy. Taleb later qualifies that the true nature of the conflict was far more than just simple squabbling between Christians and Moslems in the nascent Mediterranean country, but of a grander conflict between Western and Eastern philosophy and civilization. Vaughan’s implementation of Saga’s two primary belligerents—the cold, rationalist imperial Coalition of Landfall and the mystics of the moon, Wreath—highlights a conflict between two philosophies, one Western, one Eastern, and championing Science and Magic respectively as the contesting ideologies.

Beginning with Landfall, the planet’s ruling class humorously contributes to the story’s dry wit and sardonic commentary on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, revealing them to be bipedal robots with fleshly bodies and stylized CRT monitors for heads. They can defecate and, oddly, copulate, but brilliantly satirize First World superpowers distanced from conflict and the horrors of colonialism. Slowly over the course of the narrative, Robot Prince IV is played off as a British royal. The British, more than any other nation, shared the largest empire in world history. As the adage goes, Britain was “the Empire on which the sun never sets.” Remarkably, the saying is older than the Roman Empire, dating to Herodotus’ Histories, allegedly spoken by Xerxes I as the invading armies of Persia entered Greece. It would then be later applied to the Spanish empire, 300 years before the British would ascend the throne as Earth’s dominant power. Nevertheless, Landfall’s grasp is far more than any sun, but that of the whole galaxy. Like the conflict in the Middle East, the Wreath and Coalition of Landfall cultivate conflicts in distant locales using proxy forces, entangling indigenous populations and executing untold violence and destruction across the contested lands. Ironically, Agent Gale of Secret Intelligence ignorantly glazes over why the Coalition forces have invaded Cleave, presenting a nebulous response to Wreath’s alleged attempts to occupy the planet. Robot Prince IV exclaims in response that he was never aware that troops were still being stationed on that planet.

In an attempt to give face to those embroiled in conflict, Vaughan’s creation of “The Horrors” evokes pathos in the name of all noncombatant casualties. In Saga, The Horrors are the souls of the dead, wandering the planets as spirit protectors from foreign invaders. Each of them are children, eviscerated or riddled with bullet wounds, each hinting at how they died. When the spirit of a disemboweled teenage girl offers her help in exchange for bonding her soul with the body of Alana and Marko’s daughter Hazel, Alana says, “Forget it, I’m not about to share my newborn with some anonymous spook from…” The Spirit replies, “I’m not anonymous. My name is Izabel.” Izabel’s presence then becomes the focus of issue #3, as a symbolic figure representing the casualties of war, namely those that are glazed over as statistics. Though she admits that she was was partially involved with the conflict because her parents were resistance fighters against coalition occupation on Cleave (Alana replies, “Back up, your family were terrorists?”) Izabel still met her end in the throes of conflict, by stepping on a landmine. She could not identify what side it came from. To Alana, Izabel’s parents were terrorists, and to Izabel, the Coalition were Invaders. This illustrates the dualism of war and the justified exchanges of fire from each side of the conflict. It also introduces more irony on the part of Izabel’s parents, who despite fighting back to “protect” their world, only ensured the destruction of their oldest daughter. Marko, a pacifist, reacts to war differently, swearing that violence, no matter how justified, will only beget more violence in reprisals. Croatian Protestant philosopher Miroslav Volf, now a professor at Yale Divinity School, felt connected to the Bosnian War, witnessing the sectarian conflict break out over Sarajevo. He is a pacifist only because he believes in a final judgment where all accounts will be settled judiciously and justice will be served. He also, by implication believes that all acts of war and aggression are vain counterfeit expressions of justice, hopelessly mired in personal will. This is all too apparent when Marko, in a fit of rage, breaks his oath of peace to take vengeance on the Coalition soldiers that injure Alana in a firefight. While she emerges only lightly scathed, Marko must be stunned with her sidearm before he emerges from bloodlust.

In the supporting narrative of The Will, a freelancing bounty hunter sent to kill Marko and Alana, but retrieve Hazel, Saga touches one more sensitive vein in the matter of imperial conflict: sex trafficking. Apathetic to pursue his targets, seeing that an old lover has already beaten him to his prize, The Will stops to burn away the credit of the Wreath on whores at the pleasure outpost Sextillion. It is revealed through conversation with a pimp that Sextillion’s primary supply of sex workers draw from the profits of the Wreath-Coalition conflict, scouring planets post-invasion to find prospective women to draw all those who come to Sextillion. The pimp brags that the sex workers are “all hand picked from camps across the galaxy.” What he means is refugee camps, where battered, war-torn women are extracted to sell themselves for money. Historically where imperialism is thriving, the sex trade is soon to follow. Shortly after the Korean war, local regions outside of American military bases saw a boom in prostitution camp towns. Allegedly both Korean and American officials condoned and sometimes encouraged the behavior. In Japan, courtesan cultures emerged, expressed through Ukiyo-e art and Geisha culture as early as the 16th century in pleasure quarters in what is now modern day Kyoto. On Sextillion, after hearing this, The Will is introduced to a child who says, “I’m six, and I’ll do anything you want.” Later on in the issue, the girl comments that she was sold into sex slavery by her uncle to pay off a prison fine incurred by her brother due to false imprisonment by the Wreath on her homeworld, Phang, a comet. The name Phang conjures images of the burgeoning sex trafficking market in Indonesia, and especially Thailand. At a recent conference I attended, local missionaries told stories of the sex trade: walking down the streets of Bangkok locals would run up to them with menus detailing the age and sexual acts available for “affordable” prices. Sadly the little girl’s introduction to the sex trade is a very common one. The same missionaries during a slide show showed a picture of a 8 year old girl that was sold into the sex trade at age 4 because her mother needed money to buy heroine. It is slightly vindicating when The Will kills the pimp in outrage, but it is only a small victory, short lived, when he finds out he can’t take the little girl away because of a poison fail-safe built into her physiology.

Saga’s sprawling universe is only beginning, with ten issues available to buy, the latest published this February, and more to come. So far its evocative depth and scope is breathless and burrows deep into the human conflicts that occur everyday that many first world citizens are unable to comprehend due to their distance from the conflicts in question. What it excels in is its ability to draw discussion and debate, presenting topics that are argued from both sides. Even the side plot featuring The Will obtains justification for the girl’s work on Sextillion, flimsy as it is. Nevertheless, with a diverse, tangible universe, Saga is open ended. It also, unlike some comics, engages the reader’s perceptions of primary characters by leveraging supporting characters. Some of the conversations prompted by Izabel are not only thought provoking, but equally tragic. Saga is fresh and easy to absorb, yet dense in concept and detail. More is yet to come, and the comic book community eagerly awaits what is to follow.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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