Masters of the Universe

4 minute read
Douglas Wolk

At comic-con, the Gigantic festival that takes over San Diego in mid-July, the aisles overflow with new comic books. There are updates of decades-old franchises, barely disguised pitches for movies and cash-ins written by rock stars. The breakout hit of the moment, though–the series people talk about the way they talked about The Walking Dead a few years ago–is none of those. Saga, the creation of writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples, is a cartwheeling sci-fi epic about a couple of new parents running for their lives in the middle of an interplanetary war. It’s mischievous, vulgar and gorgeously inventive, the universe-building sweep of Star Wars movies and Final Fantasy games funneled into the history of one family on the edge of the action.

Vaughan is the executive producer and showrunner of the TV series Under the Dome, based on the Stephen King novel. But he made his name writing comics–notably Y: The Last Man, his well-loved 2002-to-08 collaboration with artist Pia Guerra. A few years ago, Vaughan e-mailed Staples, a young Canadian cartoonist, to ask if she’d like to develop a new series with him. (He knew her work, but they’d never met.) The two of them share the rights to Saga; neither can imagine working on it without the other.

The rudiments of Saga had been in Vaughan’s head since he was a kid–“a fictional universe that I created when I was bored in math class,” he says. “I just kept building it.” But the protagonists of the story didn’t come to him until his first child was born. “I wanted to write about parenthood,” Vaughan says, “but I wanted to Trojan-horse it inside some sort of interesting genre story, to explore the overlap between artistic creation and the creation of a child.”

Saga’s narrator, Hazel, is the daughter of winged Alana and horned Marko, soldiers from two warring worlds who’ve inconveniently fallen in love. The recurring characters also include a ghostly au pair, an alien civil servant who’s a dead ringer for Coffy-era Pam Grier, sex-obsessed robots with televisions for heads and the unforgettable Lying Cat, a surly beast that growls “Lying” whenever someone prevaricates in its presence.

Staples designed the entire cast and devised the look of the series: pen-and-ink-style line renderings for the characters and luminous, painterly settings inspired by video games and Japanese animation. She also came up with the organic forms of most of Saga’s technology. “Drawing mechanical stuff is what takes me the longest to do, and I don’t really enjoy it that much,” Staples notes. “I told Brian that, and I don’t know if he planned it all along, but one of our main settings is a wooden rocket ship.”

Saga debuted in March 2012 as a monthly comic book. After a relatively slow start–unsurprising for a comic that’s not connected to an existing franchise–it caught on. The first Saga collection has sold 120,000 copies so far, and the second went straight to the top of the New York Times’ graphic books best-seller list. “We have a lot of first-time comics readers,” Staples reports. “That’s really gratifying to me.”

So are we looking at the next Walking Dead? Not yet, Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson says: “People have told us they’re interested in developing Saga for movies or TV, but Brian and Fiona have both said they’re not interested in doing that right now.” In fact, Vaughan argues, the point of Saga as he conceived it was “to do absolutely everything I couldn’t do in a movie or a TV show. I’m really happy with it just being a comic.”

Vaughan hints that the sequence that starts in August will have “a big tonal shift–it’s part of the appeal of this book that Fiona and I can reinvent it every few issues.” But they’ve got no plans to hurry Hazel’s story. “The first issue came out right as my daughter was born,” Vaughan says, “and I’d like to watch the character grow up with her. I’d like to write it forever.”

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