By Zack Quaintance — One of my favorite things in monthly comics is when a long-running series has become so comfortable with its characters and plot, that it can start to center entire chapters around theme, rather than knocking things out it has to do to hit big dramatic flourishes. Phew. Anyway, Kurt Busiek is a master of this, but Brian K. Vaughan has some pretty strong chops as well.
We’ve seen it here and there throughout Saga so far, but perhaps no clearer than in #42. The theme here is justification for war and violence, and it shows up in all our familiar characters as well as some one-offs that we’ve never seen before and don’t see after. It makes it all the more powerful when the justifications scattered throughout suddenly fall away, leaving us nothing but a black page of lonely devastation.
Great stuff. Let’s look at the sections.
Here it is, the official preview text for Saga #42, which was first released back on January 25, 2017. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember this cover or what happens in this comic at all. There was, however, a lot going on that month nationally, remember? But enough about that. Let’s look at the preview text...
END OF STORY ARC "THE WAR FOR PHANG," The Epic Conclusion!
Hell is war, as Hazel and her family learn the hardest way.
I mean, this preview text could really be the slogan for the entire series. Why? It’s basically Saga’s central conceit. What’s more interesting than the preview text (as always) is, of course, the individual elements. Let’s check them out!
The Cover: This is not my favorite Saga cover. It looks like a screensaver from the ‘90s or something. It’s a big comic with a battle raging on and around it, but I think you really have to meet the image halfway to get that. It does, however, layer in some nice variety to overall collection of covers, so it has functionality in that way.
The First Page: This is a good Saga first page. It has the little jolt of shock the series has so comfortably started to deliver at this point (Sophie nonchalantly believing that upon death both her and Gwendolyn will be going right to hell) along with a mundane juxtaposition (Sophie doing Gwendolyn’s hair as she sits on the couch with Lying Cat nearby watching 24-hour news on TV). It’s great stuff. By the way, most of it takes place off-panel but Sophie’s character development has been very nice and continues to be impressive.
The Summary: This issue opens with Sophie and Gwendolyn having a discussion, in which Sophie is feeling guilty and asserting that she and Gwendolyn are damned. Gwendolyn pushes back, not ceding the point that being complacent in the deaths of people living miserable lives qualifies their actions as damning. Gwendolyn’s rationale is underscored by a wartime us vs. them justification. Always the good soldier.
We segue to the family. Robot IV is tied to a chair with The March’s whip as Phang speeds toward oblivion. Marko almost snaps and cuts off his head before Petrichor interrupts to announce that she’s found fuel. They can’t flea the timesuck yet, though, because they’re waiting for Alana and Hazel to return with the rodent people they’ve offered a ride. The rodent people then break the news that they want to stay on Phang. They say they have faith they will be spared by the creator. The goodbye Hazel never got to say to her little friend Kurti is a heartbreaker.
The Will is having a fantasy about The Stalk, in which they are making love as she encourages him to kill Marko and Alana to win back Lying Cat, Gwendolyn, and Sophie. The Will is ambushed by a vile character we will learn more about later, who first kills The Will’s dead sister’s dog, Sweet Boy. “Hi there, we don’t know each other but you murdered someone I love…” the assailant says, which sounds familiar. The assailant shoots The Will in the side and notes “this is gonna be kind of a process.”
The next scene is a couple of rando scientists from the Robot Kingdom. They note Phang will be safe as they are blasted by The Wings, who are supposed to be on their side. The family barely blasts off in time, doing so in a jerky way that throws Alana against a wall, leaving her fine but unable to feel the baby in her belly kicking. The issue ends with a heartbreaking moment in which Kurti (Hazel’s little friend) yells that he believes in god as a natural cosmic disaster swallows him up.
The Subtext: This is an issue about justifications. There are just shades of gray everywhere in this comic, from the narration noting that even bad guys are mostly just muddling through their lives to Hazel drawing Marko a thank you card for killing bad guys. It’s all questioning whether there’s ever justification to kill. There’s also some subtext here in the rodents, who live a miserable life by any metric, having faith that a creator will spare them. It ties back to justification, I’d say. This theme of justification comes back again when The Will is ambushed by someone who has his same justification for violence...that he has murdered a loved one of theirs. Later, The Wing soldiers that perpetrate the aforementioned treachery justify it by saying they are doing so for their fallen comrades. Everyone, it appears, is very much the hero of their own story here.
The Art: The four-panel grid of Marko listening to Alana’s stomach after she falls and not hearing anything (below) is one of the most heartbreaking pages in this entire series, which is really saying something. Check it out.
The Foreshadowing: It’s all pretty indirect and maybe a bit strained, but I think the justification of violence topic is a bell we’ll continue to ring in this series over and over.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Publisher: Image Comics
How did we justify starting this semi-solipsistic re-read? Ash.
Check out previous installments of the Saga Re-Read.
Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.