Sunday, 24 August 2014

Saga volume 3 review

It’s pretty clear that Saga is a unique comic in the current publishing landscape of the medium. It feels fresh and unique and the creators are having a noticeably good time working on this book. The third volume presents a lot of the same of what we’ve seen so far. If you liked the first two volumes, you’ll certainly like this one. Likewise if you didn’t like it, you won’t enjoy the latest volume. Eighteen issues in, I think it’s pretty clear that the series has found its long term identity. By that I mean that it’s found its footing, both narratively and visually.

Fiona Staples art continues to impress. She appears to work exclusively with computer software and it shows the most in her backgrounds. Some of them are picturesque and do a great job establishing the various settings and locations in which the action takes place. Some of her other backgrounds present a different style. Things are blurry, muddy, and undefined. It distracts from the action and the characters stand off and stick out, as if they do not belong. For the most part, her backgrounds have improved in these issues. I don’t know what her approach to drawing an issue is but I can’t shake the feeling that she works on the backgrounds and characters separately. The art style being used is just too different and it surely requires her to be in a different frame of mind. All that said, she gets it right more often than not. When the backgrounds and characters work well together it’s superb. When it comes to her characters, she has a way of making them look real. Her work on body language is impressive and her facial expressions do the job, even on non-traditional (read: alien) faces. Horns, single-eyed or with multiple eyes, the facial expression get the message across. I also think Staples is very good at making fashionable and memorable clothing designs. It helps to ground the series by giving the reader something real to focus on amidst all the various other space opera visuals.

If you look at the writing, Brian K. Vaughan’s plotting, his dialogue and the comic’s themes also retain the same overall feeling and style of the previous volumes. In this case, more of the same is good because there hasn’t been any loss of quality since the first issue, much the opposite, the series has gotten a bit better. I didn’t feel it as strongly in any of Vaughan’s previous comics, but the dialogue in Saga sometimes panders to the reader. While it’s not surprising, since he had discussed his identity as a father and its influences on this particular comic, he also uses Saga to comment on the current opinions of non-traditional families or to provide parenting tips and tricks. It works more often than not, but every once in a while it pulls me out of the story a little. Likewise, the narrations from Hazel were more metatextual this time around. She provides the reader with information regarding certain aspects of writing. Unfortunately, off the top of my head, I can only think of an example from the second volume in which Vaughan and Staples, through Hazel, tell the story of the main characters’ “meet-cute”.

One example of muddy backgrounds to be found in volume 3. To give credit where it's due
Staples backgrounds were better than in the previous volumes.

In most of his previous comics, Vaughan would use a lot of pop culture references in his dialogue. Since Saga doesn’t take place in our universe (well, at least not our galaxy), references to the nature of something real in our universe such as “meet-cute” just doesn’t fit. It makes the characters too self-aware. I can’t quite figure out what it is about their dialogue but something about it feels off. It doesn’t stop it from being entertaining as characters regularly say things that I enjoy.

When it comes to plot, Vaughan focuses a lot on providing readers with an interesting cliffhanger at the end of each issue. It’s another staple from his writing bag of tricks. You can also expect a more meaningful or more shocking cliffhanger at the end of each six-issue arc. This volume is no different and it shows the reader that the story has jumped ahead in time. It’s exciting and it makes me anxious for the release of the next volume. I really like the cliffhangers but sometimes the structure of a particular issue reads as though it’s geared entirely towards producing that final page. You would think that three volumes into the series Vaughan wouldn’t need to put as much effort into baiting the reader to come back for more and that he could trust his story to do that job for him. At the very least, Vaughan’s focus on providing end-of-issue shockers helps to move the story along at a brisk pace which keeps things exciting for the reader.
As for the themes, they’re old as hell. Saga is about love, war and family. Despite being well-trodden themes, Vaughan makes good use of them here, particularly family. He’s updated it for modern audiences it and family means more than just blood, it’s also about choices, dependability and trust. Family is also a group in which love and war can, and do, take place. It’s like the universe but in smaller doses, many individual elements all coming together and forming a whole. I don’t have a whole lot to say on this subject but, like most of the items I brought up in this review: it’s more of the same. That’s a good thing though as it’s familiar yet different and that’s contributing to the comic’s success.

An example of one of the better backgrounds. The city skyline is better suited to Staples's
 digital art. It doesn't work as well for more organic or natural backgrounds as above.

Three volumes in and the creators have clearly established their tone, style and direction for the comic. The same goes for you and any other readers. If you’ve enjoyed the comic so far you’re likely along for the whole trip. Readers who didn’t like it or who were still sitting on the fence have likely taken their leave. I know that I’m here for the long haul and I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy Saga as Vaughan and Staples are at the top of their game. My only concern is whether or not the creators can maintain this high level of craftsmanship to the story’s conclusion. It’s a small concern though since Vaughan and Staples make a good team.

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