I like to try and keep my hand in various literary crafts, sure fiction writing is my main one but I like to keep my editing skills and my academic mind sharp. So when the opportunity to write a review for a brand new academic journal called Fantastika arose, I couldn’t turn it down. “Write whatever you want” they said “and we’ll publish it.”
Credit to them they did. I didn’t set out to write anything bad, but I did want to see if they had the chops to let me discuss some of the things I wanted to. The journal was published last month, but I thought I’d put it here also to remind me in the future. So without further ado, I present to you “Gender Equality and self-felatio: The weird and wonderful world of Saga”.
Image comics, although leagues behind The Big Two comic publishing houses, remains one of the most exciting and diverse platforms for the medium of comics to date. One such title that stands out is Saga written by Brian K Vaughan with Fiona Staples handling the art. Although on the surface one might consider it to be a space opera in the vein of “Star Wars” with its cast of colourful characters and settings interwoven with a family narrative, its representation of gender, subject matter and darker themes put it into a wholly different category.
In comics, gender representation is a real problem. With a considerably larger percentage of readers being male, most female characters are oversexualised and under-developed, their sole purpose to either please the male reader with her aesthetics or move along the plot for the more important male characters.
Vaughan had already dealt with gender representation in what is arguably his most popular series Y: The Last Man where a single male human must navigate a world populated entirely by women.
Vaughan readdresses this balance in Saga by creating two extremely well-rounded protagonists who exist on equal footing in the parents Alana and Marko. The mother is as tough and dependable as her male counterpart and the father is as flawed and emotional as his female counterpart. Despite the fantastical nature of the universe Saga is set in, some of the problems they face are very real: drug addiction, adultery, and domestic violence all flit in and out of the narrative that is their marriage fuelled by their love for each other and their daughter.
Although gender representation is always present, it does not form part of the actual story. Instead, race is at the forefront of the conflict that drives the plot. Both parents are from different worlds, two worlds that happen to be engaged in a cosmos wide war. Therefore the product of their union, their daughter Hazel, is considered an abomination to both sides. Hazel has acquired horns from her father’s species, and wings from her mother’s. To us, she is a celebration of diversity and social progress. Though everyone else may see her as a symbol, their interpretation of that symbol is very different. Each empire’s desire to eliminate Hazel shows that despite their differences, both sides of the endless war share one thing in common, a xenophobic ideology. Their common hatred of the opposing side reveals they are more alike than different.
Ever since Alan Moore unleashed Watchmen (1987)on the world and helped birth the Dark Age of comic books, there has been a sort of oneupsmanship in comics as writers push the boundaries of what the medium is capable of. While in one sense this has helped bring awareness to the masses that comics have an audience beyond children as many assume, there are times when the gratuitous nature oversteps the mark where certain scenes and dialogue is merely present for the shock factor.
Saga is no stranger to this. For example, in one scene where a fight breaks out between a main character and three henchman like characters, one of the henchmen grabs the female character and yells “cunting cunt!”
The use of extreme profanity is of course present in the world we live in and of course Vaughan is showcasing this by including such profanity in the scene, however, this phrase could easily be replaced and still have the desired effect.
And sometimes Vaughan can stretch out these bizarre scenes like when the characters have to collect some “Dragon Semen” for an antidote. Personally it feels as if he is deliberately trying to set up scenes of a profane nature to deliberately make the reader uncomfortable. So how do they get this final ingredient? It so happens that they witness the male dragon performing self-felatio and they simply wait until it climaxes to collect the sperm.
These scenes are few and far between and some of them do contribute to the plot. In an early issue an assassin visits a planet that acts as one giant pleasure house where every fantasy and fetish can be found. During his perusal (giving Vaughan a large platform to showcase an array of far-fetched debauchery) he comes across a girl no older than a toddler. Despite the implicit references made to sex with a minor, the assassin rescues the girl and she becomes a part of the narrative down the line. Meaning that the scene played an important part in revealing the nature of the assassin and expanded our view of the universe in which the story is set. I have no problem with that. But when one is greeted with a two page spread of a giant lizard mouthing its own genitalia, you have to question whether it was necessary to the plot or is he simply trying to push the boundaries of the medium or just trying to up the shock factor for the sake of it.
But this is merely a fly on the windshield of a car. The most important thing to discuss about Saga is Vaughan’s approach to gender, as mentioned earlier, both parents are well rounded characters with strengths and flaws. Both have shades of gender stereotypes in them; Alana’s views early on in the comic are based off of “chick-lit” novels many of her peers consider to be trash, whereas Marko suffers a series of moral and personal failures due to his own imperfect nature.
The team behind the scenes is no less impressive than the antics on page. Fiona Staples has established herself as one of the leading artists in the field with her striking visuals and bravery on the art. Not only can she express the subtleties of expression needed to convey nearly every emotion on the human spectrum (and with Vaughan writing, you can guarantee you will get them) as well as the scenes of debauchery which many would shy away from.
Vaughan excels is creating well rounded and flawed characters untethered by gender stereotypes which allows them to grow and be in flux. Sometimes we love them, sometimes we hate them, and that’s what makes them real. It is a refreshing change from the infallible male protagonist and damsel in distress that has come to make Space Opera’s so stale.
In fact right from the very first page Vaughan destroys any preconception we might have of our female protagonist…
We see her giving birth, sweat drenched and grimacing she asks “Am I shitting? It feels like I‘m shitting!” The combination of opening on her less than flattering position coupled with her use of scatological profanity sets her up as a real person and not a stereotype to fit around the male character. Alana is a woman and her concern is one that many women face during childbirth, it is not unnatural, nor should we be disgusted by it. Something beautiful comes out of this act, and that is how you should view Saga; as a series of beautiful and moving moments with the odd reference to shitting in it.
As her husband says on the very next page to give us our first insight into their marriage and to begin our journey through the wonderful world of Saga, “you have never been as beautiful as you are right now.”
To conclude, Saga is a comic that is continuously making strides against the two powerhouse publishers who seem to have control over the way women are perceived in comics, the way stories are told and the way they can be told. And I hope they can continue to do so for a good while yet.