The Saga Begins
THE DEFENDANT: Saga, Vol. 1, Brian K. Vaughan, artwork by Fiona Staples, Image Comics
THE VERDICT: This comic stirred up some controversy when illustrator Dave Dorman took the blogosphere and Twitter to share his outrage at Saga‘s cover, which features an interspecies humanoid couple, one of which is breastfeeding their baby. This strong reaction got Saga tangled up in the greater melee of controversy surrounding breastfeeding and caught artist Fiona Staples completely off guard. A friend of mine thought he had heard of some comic book stores not carrying the title due to the controversial cover, but I have not been able to verify this.
THE CHARGES: Despite just about everything in the comic book itself being far easier fodder for the banned book fire, the outcry is only about the cover image. Dorman has equivocated about whether or not he was offended by the breastfeeding itself or by breastfeeding being used to promote what he seems to think is a children’s title. However, he has backtracked and stated he will clarify his previous remarks. In addition, the blog post seems to no longer be up.
THE REVIEW: Saga was forced into my hands by my boyfriend who thought I would love it. The boy knows me, it seems. Vaughan set out to write a sci-fi family saga in the vein of Star Wars. So far he’s off to a promising and intriguing start. The story follows two deserters, Alana and Marko, from opposite sides of an interplanetary blood feud trying to keep each other and their baby safe as they flee bounty hunters and the political ramifications of their union. The comic is narrated by their baby, presumably from some later time, lending it an oddly whimsical and sentimental quality despite its violent content. As does its beautiful art. Staples does an excellent job with faces, especially noses.
This comic is not for those with delicate sensibilities, whatever Dorman might think. The first issue begins with Alana giving birth and this scene, like the first five minutes of a Baz Luhrmann film, lets you know exactly what to expect and you’ll either love or hate it. I found this refreshing for two reasons. First off, this is a sweet scene but it isn’t all clean and sanitized and romanticized the way pregnancy and birth are in most media. The baby is even less than perfectly immaculate. The scene feels more authentic and is the beginning of the action, rather than the final act that ties up all the loose ends before they all live happily ever after. Vaughan very much intended this, rejecting the common trope that birth is the end of all the drama. (Fore more on this, see the above link).
Many a review on Goodreads has decried this beginning, bemoaning that this is a love story where we don’t get to see the characters meet, fall in love, get married, or run off together, instead starting at what these readers see (likely due to the aforementioned trope) as the end of the love story. I think these reviews miss the point of this comic entirely. This is not a romance novel about two star-crossed lovers. There is enough of that saturating the fantasy and sci-fi shelves. Saga is instead exactly what it says it is: a family saga. The story seems far more centered on the politics surrounding war, intermarriage, and hybrid identity, which, at least in my opinion, is far more interesting. The characterization is less focused on how in love Alana and Marko are (although they clearly care about each other and Marko’s face during the birth scene is nothing short of haplessly adorable) than on their challenges transitioning from military to civilian life, an especially hard task for the somewhat bloodthirsty Alana. There is also some interesting albeit brief commentary in their attempts to put prejudices, propaganda, and political affiliations/cultural differences behind them. There is a bit of relationship drama when Alana finds out Marko was previously engaged but, rather than being a love triangle to create drama, this is so far just another bump in the road for two new parents under a lot of stress who are trying to make their relationship work. More realism! I love it.
Which brings me to my next point: dialogue. This comic avoids many of the star-crossed lover clichés by having its characters speak plainly and without flowery language or concern for decorum. At times, this is a strength, at others an annoyance. Does every character need to sound like a surly, world-weary cynic? It’s not that I mind curse words or bluntness, however both are more powerful in moderation even if most of the characters are in the military. It begins to make the characters all sound the same. Characters having the same or similar voices is an amateur mistake and it distracts from the otherwise rich and engrossing narrative. It seems this comic often gets too caught up in that old nineties problem of trying too hard to be gritty and envelope-pushing to the point that it gets in the way of the realistic story they are trying to tell in the first place.
There are also some logistical issues. Putting aside any problems with humanoids with one non-human feature (Star Trek did it. Star Wars did it. Far be it from me to pin it on Saga.), Alana has gossamer wings. How she gets through the numerous firefights in the first six issues, let alone her military career, without shredding them is beyond me. She also recovers quite quickly from that whole giving birth with no medical attention thing. Then there’s the robots. I don’t even know what’s going on there. However, the story is solid enough that I will check my science hat at the door and go with it. At least for now.
All in all, Saga is a quick, entertaining, and thought-provoking read. I am invested in the world and the characters, particularly Marko, The Will, and the ghost babysitter. I look forward to the next installment and may have to read Y: The Last Man now.
THE DEFENSE: How is this cover offensive? This is the least amount of boob I’ve seen on a comic book cover in some time. It’s also the most plausible when it comes to anatomy and basic physics. Good god, the men in Elfquest have bigger boobs than this! In fact, despite being called a slut left and right, Alana is one of the most conservatively dressed and least exploitative ladies in comics. Nightwing is far more sexualized, but I guess his bat-package makes for more child-friendly covers than a working mammary gland. Yes, Alana is a sexual being, but there is more to her than either sex or motherhood. There is nudity, sex, and sexualized imagery everywhere in most comics, even comics intended for younger readers. A woman breastfeeding doesn’t even get on the radar and is as natural as the birth scene on the first couple pages. If reproductive processes freak Dorman out, that should have been a giveaway.
Anyone who thinks that breastfeeding is pornographic or will corrupt children’s virgin eyes has some serious issues to work out. Besides, the offending boob is covered up by the hybrid species baby more than most female comic characters are by their own clothing. Nothing wrong with busty ladies who aren’t afraid to own it, just pointing out that the breast in question is less prominent or revealing than those not serving a function or, at least, a function other than anatomically distressing fantasy fodder (Seriously, artists, do you not understand how rib cages work? Also, t-shirts stretch over your cleavage, they don’t get sucked into it by some mysterious sternum vacuum.).
Breastfeeding is somewhat of a controversial topic in our society, with one camp saying it is natural and necessary and others demanding women cover up or excuse themselves and feed their child elsewhere. The issues around breastfeeding in real life seem to be centered around two arguments:
1) Breastfeeding is sexualized and will expose innocent eyes to sexual content.
See above argument.
2) Breastfeeding is unhygienic and a public safety issue.
I will leave it to someone else to debate the legitimacy of this claim, but either way this is a picture of breastfeeding. It can’t hurt anyone or contaminate anything with its scary boob juice. If you want to assert that this argument is still valid by arguing about imitatable behaviour in comics, this is not the thing to be worrying about. There are so many bigger fish to fry.
Much of Dorman’s outrage over the cover seems to be that it is using breastfeeding as promotional material for an otherwise kid-friendly comic, thus pushing sexualized imagery on children. He seems genuinely miffed that portraying a boob in action renders this comic inappropriate for his seven-year-old son, who he wanted to buy it for. Holy massive parenting fail, Batman. This comic is distinctly for mature readers. It has death, violence, entrail-trailing mine-victim ghosts, space brothels, all manner of sexual acts, robots with human bodies and TV heads going at it, child prostitution, bounty hunters who can make heads explode like water balloons, and profanity. This comic was never intended for a seven-year-old, regardless of the cover. Personally, I think the offending image perfectly illustrates the struggles of caring for a newborn while running for your life.
This lazy parenting irks me. It’s like the parents who took their kids to Pan’s Labyrinth because it was about a little girl and fairies and then were outraged at the violent content. It was rated R; what did they expect? Even after Maus; Persepolis; South Park; Adult Swim; and decades of increasingly mature themes in comic books, graphic novels, and animation, people still seem to have this notion in their heads that something being animated or illustrated means it’s for kids. When comics started they were for children, but they have distinctly grown up and most court an older audience than they did in the 40s. Similarly, many animated programs or feature films are not exactly Disney. Parents may have to do some research before snagging a comic, manga, video game, or movie for their kids rather than blaming artists, writers, or production companies for their own poor judgement. Hey, nobody said parenting was easy, just look at Marko and Alana.