Warning: spoilers, some talk of rape.
This week, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, I bought Saga: Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, for three reasons: one, I was on holiday, and no holiday is counted as such until I’ve gone bookbuying; two, as part of the Great Literary Circle of Life wherein I invariably spend all the money I earn through writing stories on acquiring stories; and three, because I remembered seeing the covering image online a while back, and it’s damned arresting. Seriously: look at this beautiful artwork!
Horns! Wings! Guns! Swords! An awesome-looking WOC exuding badassery as she openly breastfeeds her baby! There are zero things about this image that don’t make me want to read onwards. So when I say I didn’t know anything about the plot at the outset, that’s really only half-true: having seen the cover, I could identify various likely themes, but without knowing how they all fit together.
Haphazardly, is the answer. There’s a lot to like in Saga, but it’s also loaded down with a seriously unnecessary amount of problematic language – and yet, the artwork! The premise! The promise of the premise, when Vaughan isn’t busy screwing it up! The characters, sort of, for reasons that will hopefully become clear! And so on, and so forth, to the point where I have no idea whatsoever whether I’ll ignore the second volume or leap on it with greedy fingers, should I encounter it in my travels.
Allow me to explain why:
Imagine you’re picnicking at the beach, and you’ve made yourself a sandwich. All the ingredients are things you like, you’re meticulous in your assemblage, but despite all the time and care you took, the whole thing’s riddled with sand. But does that mean your lunch is ruined? Have you actually made a bad sandwich, or was its goodness simply compromised by proximity to a pervasive, gritty substance?
In this metaphor, stories I want to like are the sandwich. The beach is our culture.
The sand is white patriarchy.
And man, does it get into everything.
Chapter 1 of Saga opens as Alana – our green-winged, blue-haired WOC protagonist – gives birth in a garage. She and her husband, Marko, are on the lam: their respective peoples are in the middle of all-out galactic war, and both are wanted as traitors. They met, we soon learn, when Alana was guarding Marko in military prison (he surrendered after his first battle, declaring himself a conscientious objector), and within the space of twelve hours found enough common ground to escape and desert, respectively, together. But all that detail is yet to come: right now, we’re watching Alana in the final stages of labour, and straight away, I have two problems with the portrayal of said event. Granted, they aren’t massive problems, but seeing as how the whole giving-birth thing is something I did myself a few months ago, the specifics are still on my mind. Thus, I have two questions: where the fuck is the placenta, and why is Alana aroused by childbirth?
I’ll freely admit that the first is a personal bugbear. I mean, hell: it’s not like I’m asking to see a closeup of the damn thing – it’s just that, once the baby arrives, Alana’s labour pretty much stops, and even though we see Marko severing the umbilical cord (with his teeth, which is played for laughs, but still, yeah, no), the perspective of the drawing implies it’s attached, first to Alana herself, and then to nothing, which kinda suggests that Vaughan just… forgot about it. But, whatever: that’s the least of my issues. Because even though it’s been reported that a small number of women achieve orgasm while giving birth (no, really), the casual insertion of the phenomenon in such a way as to sexualise a WOC while she’s in labour – and by sexualise, I mean we see Alana biting her lip and groaning with pleasure – felt really skeevy to me, especially given the fact that the writer, Vaughan, is a straight white dude.
This assessment is further complicated when, several pages later, we’re given Alana and Marko’s backstory, during the course of which one Special Agent Gale – a white guy – describes Alana as “dim, impulsive, kind of a slut”. And, OK. I get that Gale is meant to be a Bad Guy here, which naturally colours his assessment of Alana. But that doesn’t justify the random slutshaming; in fact, it sits weirdly with the larger narrative. Vaughan has written a universe where women are soldiers, bountyhunters and revolutionaries – that is, actively taking on traditionally male roles without anyone questioning it – which, at least superficially, would seem to suggest the existence of some species of gender equality. Yet the language of the other characters not only fails to back this up, but actively suggests the opposite: that familiar, real-world sexism is so widespread in the setting as to seriously undermine the concept of female warriors. In Chapter 2, for instance, another female soldier, Lance Corporal McHenry, is asked about Alana’s reading habits. Her response? “Just stupid romances, the kind housewives buy at the supermarket. Half-naked dudes on the cover, you know.”
Actually, no, Mr Vaughan: I don’t. Because even if I set aside the teeth-grindingly unnecessary sexism of this statement – not to mention the veiled implication, when the romance novel in question is later produced, that Alana’s decision to abandon her duty and run off with Marko was in some way caused by her choice of reading material – it’s also deeply, stupidly, pointlessly anachronistic. I mean, here we have a setting where robots can get pregnant (more of which later, because WHAT), mythic-looking humans in space wield magic alongside guns, and where wooden, sentient rocketships grow in forests, and you’re still talking about HOUSEWIVES BUYING PAPERBACK ROMANCE NOVELS AT THE SUPERMARKET. (Oh, yeah. It’s a paperback.) Fucking seriously?
This is arguably the most glaring example, but it’s far from being the only such on offer. Earlier, Special Agent Gale complains that “this app was trying to auto-update and now my whole thing is frozen” while playing with what looks suspiciously like an iPhone; and later on, we have Izabel, the ghost of a teenage girl – or at least, the torso of a teenage girl; her apparition ends at her visible intestines – using words like “whatevs” and “suck-ass” and telling people to “chill” in almost the same breath as she refers to an unknown woman as “some other broad”, which is such a random and jarring mishmash of slang, I cannot even. Throw in the fact that the obligatory Planet of Hookers (you knew there’d be one) is literally, actually called Sextillion, and I’m starting to think that not only doesn’t Vaughan know how to worldbuild the details, he isn’t even trying.
But back to the sexism – and also, unfortunately, to the racism. Because as much as I resent the unnecessary sexualisation of The Stalk – a female bountyhunter best described as an armless human torso atop a spider’s thorax, whose skill as a mercenary is apparently such that she doesn’t need to wear armour, clothes, or even a bra, instead content to gallivant around bare-breasted Because Free Boobies – and the fact that Prince Robot IV condescends to McHenry by telling her to “be a dear”, at least these offences are obvious as such. The racial problems, by contrast, are all the more insidious for being subtle. The first time Alana meets Izabel and her fellow ghosts, for instance, she calls them the Horrors – the threatening name by which they’re known because of their awful deeds (though apparently, it’s all just mental projections to scare people off). To which Izabel responds, “Is that seriously what you guys call indigenous peoples? That’s kind of racist, don’t you think?”
Which is clearly meant to be played for laughs – a part of her quirky dead-teen persona. Only, here’s the thing: Izabel is white. Even though she’s drawn in shades of pink and red to mark her as a ghost, we know she’s white, because one of her fellow disembodied spirits is clearly depicted as having black hair and dark skin, so that when the two of them stand side by side, it’s visually obvious that in life, Izabel was pale. So even though it’s technically true that Izabel is a native inhabitant of the planet in question, while Alana and Marko are both offworlders, what we have here is a white girl accusing a WOC of racism while comically defending her own status as an indigenous person – and whatever justification might exist for why that’s OK in the world of Saga, the audience still consists exclusively of modern-day Earthlings for whom such encounters and language are deeply, if not always obviously, political. Worse is yet to come, however: over on planet Sextillion (seriously: why does this trope keep happening?), another bounyhunter, The Will, is looking for a good time. Having first encountered some – I don’t know what to call them, as it’s not clear whether they belong to an actual species or are manufactured products of the planet in question; visually, though, they’re a pair of massive female heads on slender, fishnet-and-heel-clad legs; so let’s just call them ladies and move on – The Will finds himself bored by all the sex possibilities Sextillion has to offer, and so winds up in conversation with a pimp, whose pitch begins thusly: “No offence, but I can see what your last bitch did to you. It’s all over your face, my brother. Let me guess, was she a “strong woman”?”
To which I say: NO. A THOUSAND TIMES NO. The pimp then tells The Will that what he needs is a slave girl. Only, when they arrive at the pimp’s quarters, the girl in question? Is literally a girl. By which I mean, she is six fucking years old, and did I mention the fact that The Will is white and the slave girl is strongly implied to be Asian, not only in terms of her clothes and colouration, but because her home world – or home comet, rather – is called Phang? And then The Will tries to rescue her, but of course he can’t, but the girl doesn’t really mind, because the important thing is that he tried, and off she goes back to her owner (to whom she was sold by her uncle, of course) and SERIOUSLY? It wasn’t enough to casually mention that Marko’s people apparently keep “rape camps” without considering this information to be materially relevant to Alana’s decision to run off with him, and it wasn’t enough to have the now-dead pimp state openly that many of his whores are refugees strongly implied to be there against their will; you have to sneak some Asian child sex-slavery into a world where Asia doesn’t even exist? Capping off all this awfulness is a truly vile conversation between The Will and Mama Sun, the slave girl’s owner, who responds to the apparent contradiction of his profession and actions by asking: “So it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?”
And I just. I do not even know where to BEGIN with this bullshit. Because, look: even though this comment is clearly flagged as reprehensible in the narrative thanks to The Will’s response - “If I gotta explain the difference, you’re too far gone to follow” – this still sits way too close to the endlessly-perpetuated argument that there’s no moral difference between rape and murder, so therefore sexualising and brutalising women in video games and other cultural output is OK, for me to be in any way, shape or form comfortable with its being there unanalysed, and doubly especially when the person saying it not only goes on to explain how the slave girl – whose name we never find out – is really better off under her care, because of how she gets food and shelter and income, but walks away with the child still in her custody.
And then we’re back to the sexism again: Alana calling The Stalk a cunt, The Stalk calling Alana a bitch; The Will’s muttered complaint about “women” when he first arrives at Sextillion, followed by the leggy ladyfaces offering him “livestock to copulate with”; Alana arguing with Izabel about how best to care for her baby, which exchange involves Izabel calling her “hormonal” and criticizing her breastfeeding technique and Alana mocking Izabel for “missing her vagina”; Marko comparing Alana to his former fiancée, Gwendolyn, by saying the latter had “boyish hips” that weren’t “womanly” like Alana’s; every bite of the sandwich filled with grit. And then there’s the issue of the robots, who are inexplicably human – even, apparently, at a biological level – except for having TV screens for heads, and who therefore seem the perfect personification of the problems with Vaughan’s script. The first time we see Prince Robot IV and his Princess, they’re having sex; later, we see the Prince on the toilet, and are told that the Princess is pregnant. How and why is never explained – like the anachronisms mentioned earlier, the worldbuilding detail just isn’t there – but when the pregnancy is announced, the Princess tellingly says that she and the Prince will be happy with anything – “even a girl”. And honestly? For all that Vaughan’s apparent plan with the robots is a sort of visual irony derived from the idea of a race of machines with all the biological and ceremonial trappings of humanity, right down to male primogeniture and a hereditary monarchy, the idea of a robot society with entrenched sexism is just… I mean, do I even need to explain this? THEY’RE ROBOTS. Even with the addition of biological components, like fertility and the need to shit, we’re talking about metal creatures who, at a base level, all possess the same physical and mental capabilities – so even if future volumes include a social explanation for robot gender bias (such as, for instance, the sexism of their original creators, or a cultural adherence to specific and highly stereotyped gender identities as compensation for being otherwise compositionally identical), the decision to include sexism within a culture where its presence makes no logical sense is still an incredibly worrying one.
But perhaps the most annoying thing of all his how unnecessary all these problems are. The vast majority are the result of throwaway lines of dialogue, and the rest – the slave girl, the sexualisation of The Stalk – could be very easily fixed at no cost to the main plot. This is what I mean when I say that white partirachy gets everywhere: for all that I don’t doubt that Vaughan’s intentions were good – the narrative might not question this stuff, but that doesn’t mean it portrays it in a positive light – the fact remains that none of it needed to be there at all, and especially not when you consider that otherwise, he’s created a world where men and women fight side by side. And as much as I’d have loved a deeper political dimension on the pro-equality side (because I pretty much always do), it didn’t need to be there, either, in order to make things work: Vaughan simply had keep real-world sexism and racism from influencing his portrayals of the characters, or else introduce a convincing reason for those issues to be there that wasn’t at odds with the rest of the story. Had he done so, then I’d be well on the way to rating Saga as one of my favourite series ever, even with the random anachronisms. Because for all these problems, Saga Volume 1 has a lot to offer: the artwork is gorgeous, the emotional component is generally compelling, there’s a real sense of scope and grandeur and original SFFnal adventure, and enough interesting elements have been put in play that I really do want to see what happens next. But if the problematic aspects aren’t resolved or addressed, then the series will only make me angrier the longer it goes on, and I’ll end up feeling cheated and exhausted – and very much in the mood for a different sort of sandwich altogether.