Alana, Apartheid, apathy, body humor, Born a Crime, Breast Feeding, Breasts, Brian K. Vaughn, Comics, Fiona Staples, Ghus, graphic novel, Hazel, Humor, interracial relationships, Landfall, Let women breast feed in public damn it!, Literature, Love, Love Story, Marko, Marko and Alana, Othering, Parents, People like to fuck, Petrichor, Politics, race, Race relations, racism, Rape, Saga, science fiction, Sex Criminals, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The Stalk, The Will, Trevor Noah, War, Wreath
The only other woman I had ever seen breastfeeding was my mother. I remember stumbling in on her feeding my little sister a month or two after she was born and then promptly shutting the door and going back to the living room to watch Swat Cats. This time it wasn’t my mother needlessly hiding herself away in her bedroom (though she might have just needed to be somewhere quiet and my near-constant Swat Cats marathon probably wasn’t what she needed) but was in fact a member of the graphic novel book club I’m a part of. The woman was unforgettable with her purple hair and Nightmare on Elm Street t-shirt, but what struck me was, while I was delivering my usual lecture, this time on the graphic novel Saga, she actually lifted up her baby, opened her shirt, and held her child up to her breast. I had never seen anyone breast-feed in public before, and seeing it sitting right next to me, I wasn’t entirely sure why anyone would ever have a problem with- it. The kid was hungry and it wasn’t affecting me personally, so I carried on explaining why I thought Saga, which was also decorated with a breast-feeding mother, just wasn’t an interesting book.
My attitudes towards breast-feeding in public remain the same, let mothers feed their children damn it, but I’ve softened towards Saga.
There was a woman who used to work at the library who I considered a close friend, and that’s why it hit me pretty hard when she announced that she was leaving the library for one in Dallas. I understood that her reasons were a combination of desire for better pay as well as to be closer to her boyfriend, but I have trouble finding people who seem to like me so I was pretty bummed. The only real sort of solace I had in the whole thing was that, because she was leaving, that meant that I would be the only person in the library who really knew the graphic novel section, and so, once my supervisors approved, I became the one responsible for shelving the graphic novels. This task is one that, to say I’ve warmed up to it is putting it mildly, I fucking love it. Pushing my green cart to the second floor I take a good 15 minutes a day just to rearrange the shelves, prop up new books for patrons passing through the area, arranging the tipped over or worn books up to their proper place, and while I am shelving I almost always find a fantastic book I want to read. One of them was Saga and, while I admit a moment ago I didn’t find the book terribly wonderful the first time I read it, looking at Marko and Alana on the cover there was the same impulse there always is, a little kid who read Calvin & Hobbes over and over and over again saying, “Check it out, you got a library card!”
I grabbed the first two volumes on my way back down to help a woman send a fax.
There’s too much of Saga to try and tackle all of it in just one essay, and I’m not even looking at just the first volume. While I’m writing this I’m currently on Volume six, and I’m positive by the time I finish this essay I’ll probably be at the last volume, (it’s up to eight right now) and become one of the I’m sure millions currently devouring this book every time it hits the shelves. I’ve also finished all of Sex Criminals so if I start appearing peaked it’s because I’ll be sucking comic-book writer’s dicks for new issues. My other real challenge is the fact that Saga is beloved, or, put it another way, Saga is the comic book that people who hate comics read. Being friends with the owner of Ground Zero Comics (though I suppose I’m being charitable he may not consider me a friend at all and now I look foolish) he’s often talking about his patrons who come in trying to their wives, girlfriends, etc. into comics, and while the first option is almost always Sandman Vol 2 The Doll’s House, Saga is the series he almost always cites as the second option.
It’s not hard to see why, given the fact that the series is written as one long emotional melodrama, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. Rather than superhero comics which are often defined by physical gods fighting the forces of evil in tight outfits and experiencing their own sort of melodramas (nobody ever really dies and there’s always a brother who’s supposed to be dead but who turns out to actually be alive or a clone or some shit), Saga is drama about family centered in race, specifically race mixing. Alana and Marko are people from different cultures, different races which are war with one another. Marko is from Wreath, the only moon of the planet Landfall the homeward of Alana. Marko’s people practice magic, whereas Alana’s people tend to gravitate more towards science and technology. Because war, meaning total destruction of each other’s planets, could potentially destabilize the orbits of their worlds the cultures have moved their war to other planets thus involving a wide variety of peoples in this conflict and creating universal destabilization. Marko becomes a prisoner of Landfall’s coalition where he meets and falls in love with Alana. And because people in love have a tendency to fuck, Alana becomes pregnant which is where the series actually begins.
The first page is memorable for a variety of reasons:
Allright, in all fairness, there’s really just one reason why this page is so striking: too many people forget that when babies are born they aren’t born with any original bacteria in their intestines to help with digestion. Because of this humans evolved so that it was common for a pregnant woman to void her bowels during labor so that the bacteria in her feces would introduce bacteria into the baby’s body. Now breast-milk is also a common way for mothers to transfer this bacteria, thus offering me another opportunity to remind my reader that breast-feeding is more important than your discomfort, but it should be noted that pregnant women also tend to poop because, well, shit’s happening.
But that first line, carefully outlining Alana’s reddened face is an important one because Brian K. Vaughn frames the narrative of Saga as first person narration in the veing of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Saga is the story of a woman named Hazel who is the product of an interracial union narrating her life story to her audience. She introduces herself, not as a person, not as an individual ego, but more of an idea.
This is how an idea becomes real. But ideas are fragile things. Most don’t live long outside at the ether from which they were pulled, kicking and screaming. That’s why people create with someone else. Two people can sometimes improve the odds of an ideas survival…but there are no guarantees. Anyway, this is the day I was born. (1-4).
Vaughn’s writing style is something I’ve had plenty of opportunities to explore and study and that’s largely because of my friend TJ. As I’ve noted in several of my previous essays, he’s the founder of the local Graphic Novel Book Club that meets bi-weekly at Ground Zero Comics, and because of this prestige position he gets to decide which books are read in the group. We’ve read quite a number of books over the years ranging from Understanding Comics to Transmetropolitian to Sandman to Fun Home, but many members have observed that, in the last year alone, we’ve read close to six or seven of the man’s books and this has lead some to label us the “Brian K. Vaughn appreciation society.” There is some disagreement upon this suggestion largely because we’ve also read plenty of Jeff Lemire. The coming war between the Vaughnites and Lemirians is coming and I’m not sure how many lives will ultimately be lost.
But this is just a way of saying that reading Saga is much like reading many of the other Vaughn books and the man has a real tendency to build up his spaces. Saga is not just an intimate love story between Alana and Marko, it’s an opportunity to observe countless species and peoples, all of whom are impacted by the war between the two races. The reader is sometimes bombarded by this enormous amount of oddity, and while the first time I was overwhelmed by this treatment, as time in the story progressed I became more and more used to the oddity of the humanity. And this I believe is its own sort of method.
Race is very much biological, your DNA will always determine your physical characteristics as well as plenty of facets of personality, but race is also rooted in cultural and individual psychology. Observing someone’s physical characteristics and observing difference is not racism, it’s only when one allows those observation of differences to form bias that the corrosive quality of racism manifests.
A racist is ultimately formed by a subculture that educates them that differences in physical characteristics such as skin color, or more abstract qualities such as language or nationality, are an indication of lesser worth. What’s incredible then about the graphic novel Saga is that, much like the Star Wars and Star Trek films before it, the reader is constantly exposed to individuals of different races and species intermingling without too much concern that such interactions are taking place. The reader is able to see the physical differences, and encouraged to just accept these characters as people. Whether it’s the Prince Robot IV and his television head, the floating ghost specter with half a body named Isabel, the half spider half human freelancer known simply as “The Stalk,” or my favorite character Petrichor a MTF transgender woman from Wreath. Saga encourages the reader to see that race is biological, but that racism is ultimately just the social construct because regardless of physiology, anatomy, or whether you’re a pothead actress made out of moss, people are people, and their qualities are what ultimately define them.
That would have been my end to Saga were it not for the fact that recently I’ve begun a new routine. With the rightful fall of Charlie Rose, my morning breakfast routine has been shaken up dramatically because I used to watch interviews and eat. I’ve now taken to watching Seth Meyers, The Daily Show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and of course The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. This later one provides me with some news of the day and some means of maintaining my sanity as I watch the current administration do its…let’s say thing. I like Colbert, he makes me laugh, and he gives me something to think about when I’m shoveling my eggs, donuts, and tea down my throat as I get ready for work. Most recently however he interviewed Trevor Noah, complimenting him about his time on the Daily Show, revealing to the world that Noah had a brief appearance in the film Black Panther, and then asking him about the issue of race. It was during this last conversation that Noah reminded me about his eloquence, but then also about the larger narrative of racism in South Africa.
And during this interview Noah pointed out that, ultimately, his existence voided the larger racist narrative. If one race in power argues that race-mixing cannot produce offspring it voids and ultimately destroys the racist narrative to begin with. This shouldn’t have been such a powerful observation, but hearing him express it as such made me pause and really dwell on that statement. It also made me go back to his biography and look through a few of the passages.
Noah’s memoir Born a Crime doesn’t just mirror Saga, it could almost be its own spin-off. Noah imbues his life story with plenty of wit and humor, but constantly throughout the book he is able to demonstrate a real intelligence about the farce that was the governmental race policy of his home nation.
He writes in one chapter:
In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix—and in a lot of cases want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race mixing becomes a crime worse than treason. (21).
Looking then at Saga this is most certainly the case because Vaughn and Fiona Staples, the illustrator who deserves an entire essay to herself, show the family as constantly on the run from the two central organizations of their homewards who see their union as not just a threat to the larger war effort, but to the very war itself. The war between Wreath and Landfall is a racial war, it’s a war founded on the idea that the two races not only should not intermingle and interbreed, but that they cannot. Alana and Marko, and by extension Hazel is a rejection of that system. Its proof that the war is, ultimately, bullshit.
Noah’s biography goes on to note the length to which apartheid was ridiculous and cruel:
Laws were passed prohibiting sex between Europeans and natives, laws that were later amended to prohibit sex between whites and all nonwhites.
The government went to insane lengths to try and enforce these laws. The penalty for breaking them was five years in prison. There were whole police squads whose only job was to go around peeking through windows—clearly an assignment for only the finest law enforcement officers. And if an interracial couple got caught, God help them. The police would kick down the door, drag the people out, beat them, and arrest them. At least that’s what they did to the black person. With the white person it was more like, “Look I’ll just say you were drunk, but don’t do it again, eh? Cheers.” That’s how it was with a white man a black woman. If a black man was caught having sex with a white woman, he’d be lucky if he wasn’t charged with rape.” (22).
There’s a brief moment in Saga when Prince Robot IV is being briefed by a Landfall intelligence officer about the couple and the subject of Alana’s consent is mentioned. Alana’s pregnancy is observed and Robot IV says rather plainly,
“Love child? Surely he forced himself on her.” (24)
And this is, ultimately, everything. The narrative of the war and the races has become so ingrained in the zeitgeist, so embedded into the universal culture of Saga that two people of Landfall and Wreath falling in love and conceiving a child is not only inconceivable, it’s repulsive. There’s also the fact that throughout the text Marko’s people speak a language that often appears to be some sort of slavic tongue mixed in with Spanish which makes the theme of racism all the more potent.
Hazel as a character is an idea and a material reality for her very existence is a crime. Saga as a work of art then is not something that is just relevant it’s historical pertinent. Often the charge against graphic novels is that they are too fantastic, too hyperbolic, or else that they are too much like a melodrama or a soap opera. My argument against this charge is that while Saga is all of these things, it still manages to consistently say something about humanity which that we are more than the petty and paltry divisions which are used to allow suffering.
Rape camps, racism, sexual slavery, transphobia, and murder for hire are all concepts which are explored in the Saga Series, and while many would prefer that it didn’t exist, all of these concepts are realities that are still plaguing society. Saga doesn’t just create a new world, fill it with quirky languages and science fiction creatures for the sake of delving into high fantasy; the book is an effort to touch and explore that which is most human. Love is ultimately a biological imperative based in chemistry to get us to reproduce, but looking past this and seeing how we allow it to create meaning in our lives the story of Hazel is a story which, as Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime demonstrates, is an ongoing narrative.
People like to fuck, and people like to fall in love. Regardless of a person’s sex, gender identity, race, or nationality everyone has the capacity to love another human being. And this idea is powerful because love allows more than just two people to come together and find one another. People comes with families, friends, associations, organizations, creeds, and personal ideologies all of which expose each person of the relationship to new ideas and people which expand their world.
Talking about Saga, and watching that woman breastfeed beside me, was a chance to observe other people, to explore a new way of thinking, and listen to other people’s opinions about what the book meant to them. In a period and time when it feels more and more like human beings are looking for excuses and reasons to “other” each other (pardon that pathetic string of words) it speaks to the power of a book to ask its reader if those differences are really so profound that we can’t find some excuse to recognize another person’s humanity, and maybe see them as somebody we’d like to know, or fuck, or even love.
All quotes cited from Saga Volume 1 were taken from the paperback Image copy edition. All quotes cited from Born a Crime were cited from the first edition hardback Spiegel & Grau copy.
I really wanted to cite Trevor Noah directly in this essay but it just didn’t work out that way. So instead here’s the original interview from The Late Show. Please enjoy, and please remember to take the time to appreciate that they got Trevor Noah to be an A.I. hologram in the movie Black Panther.
I didn’t get a chance to do it here, and maybe hopefully at some point I’ll have time to write a long treatise, but having now read the entrety of the Saga series run published thus far, my absolute favorite character, after Ghus, is Petrichor. I don’t know whether or not it’s because she’s beautiful or else because she’s hysterical, but I adore her more than anything in the world, and I admit with no shame whatsoever that I have the individual issue with her on the cover in my bookshelf.
Patrichor is BAE.