Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Sagas and Epics

I really love Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples; issue thirteen came out today after a small hiatus. 126 day hiatus, but who's counting? Anyway, back in April - when JHU Comic Books was still Jim Hanley's Universe - I wrote a fan letter to Saga, my first letter to a comics letter page (snail mail, no less). To my utter geeky glee, that letter saw publication in today's new #13, which you can see it to the right, and everything I say there still stands.

Clearly I'm in love with Saga, and there is more than enough of a critical and popular consensus that shows that lots of folks are just as enamored with it as I am. And today's new issue illustrates all the reasons why this comic has been such a critical and commercial success (outside of the only reason that really matters: being a damned good comic).

First and foremost are the creators and the quality of their collaboration. Vaughan's story would be meaningless without Staples' flawless execution. She captures everything Vaughan asks for - character work and completely remarkable setting - with a unique and wonderful style. But while the creators got me in the door, what keeps me coming back are the characters. Every single character in the comic is complex, entertaining and relatable, and like all the best stories the characters drive the plot rather than simply fall victim to it. The pacing of the plot is intricate and clearly playing a very, very long game while making each chapter a riveting stand alone tale often featuring breathless cliffhangers. But as much as anything, Saga's greatest strength is its attitude.

I'm talking about the attitude of the characters and the attitude of the setting. Despite being aliens far, far away, the characters talk and act like people talk and act now. Despite the mixture of space opera and high fantasy, so many elements of the plot can best be described as reflective of 2013 rather than whatever world Vaughan and Staples has built. The trap with science fiction and fantasy is to spend too much time and energy on world-building something radically other. Which isn't to say, with its mix of magic and space-alien sci-fi, that there aren't radically wonderful and unique elements that follow their own internally consistent logic in Saga. Vaughan and Staples just don't get bogged down in unnecessary details, choosing the understandable and accessible wherever possible. There's the red-tape infused veterans hospital at the beginning of the issue (replete with shopping-cart pushing whino) and the presence of shady tabloid reporters and The Will's frustrations with trying to get his ship fixed (after being put on hold he's told he's out of the coverage zone), just to name a few things. There's also magic and bone bugs and hallucinations of lost loves and mourning and hilarious first impressions.

Saga uses its unique setting and extraordinary characters to explore fundamental questions about family and love while telling an absolutely riveting, richly layered, often funny, always true to character, and completely unpredictable story. There are a lot of good comics, but nothing that creates and fills the niches that Saga does, let along with its continued level of success. I'd like to think that - as someone who sells comics for a living and writes about them as a passion - I can approach it objectively, that if there was a bad issue that I could say so. There just hasn't been a bad issue yet, and it somehow manages to get better.
Saga, Infinity, Thor
Over in the Marvel Universe, one epic saga came to a close, and another got started. (It's unfair to compare these to Saga, and I'm not. Apples and durians and cashews; just some convenient thematic grouping on a light Wednesday.) In the premier of Jonathan Hickman's event thing, Infinity, we get a metric ton of superhero comic bookery that sets up the big ole conflict that will soon engulf the Marvel Universe. Featuring rather obtuse plotting from Hickman beautifully illustrated by Jimmy Cheung, by the end of the issue the conflict comes into sharp focus making the pretty but initially uncompelling proceedings worth it. Hickman's been rolling towards this for a while and in Hickman I trust. And if 55 story pages for five bucks wasn't enough of an enticement in today's overpriced market, then at the very least pick it up for Hickman's impeccable design work throughout the issue. It's easy to forget that Jonathan Hickman is one of the best illustrators in comics because he doesn't draw that much; but what is easy to see in everything he touches is that he is, without exception, the best designer working in comics, and in a visual storytelling medium, design matters as much as writing and art and lettering.

Thor #11 saw the conclusion of Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's massive opening storyline. And make no mistake, this is a decisive full-stop conclusion, one featuring astonishing imagery at the end of a fantastic and exciting story. It's always remarkable to see Aaron stretching so many diverse creative muscles in his career, and Ribic pulls off some really breathtaking stuff here. If you've been reading the story up to now then you are already getting this issue, but if you have been on the fence, then go out of your way to get the graphic novel when it is collected. For the Thunder God, this whole storyline ranks with the best of Straczynski/Coipel/Djurdjevic and Simonson runs, and as a concise complete work is second only to Oeming and Di Vito's often overlooked Thor: Disassembled.

A bunch of other good books came out  today, too. East of West 5 from Hickman & Dragotta was astonishing, with downright arresting imagery. Wolverine and the X-Men 34 from Aaron and Bradshaw continues to be really fun, lushly illustrated and fabulously entertaining. And Fantagraphics continued their gorgeous line of EC reprint hardcovers with new Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig collections.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

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