By: Brian K. Vaughan (story), Fiona Staples (art)

The Story: Hazel gets an unconventional, but literally cleansing, baptism.

The Review: To the owners and operators of Comics Unlimited—much as I revere and adore your store and happy as I am to funnel my increasingly scanty funds into your business, this ridiculous business with slipping Saga in into plastic sleeves with a mature content warning sticker has got to stop.  At least, read through an issue to make sure there’s some actual explicit content in there before wrapping it up.  It’s just environmentally the smart thing to do.

This issue could easily have gone on the shelves without the extra non-biodegradable packaging without raising too many eyebrows.  Aside from the Stalk’s nips and a rather jaw-dropping panel of author Heist puking out his guts (from emotion!) onto Hazel, this is probably the least offensive issue of Saga yet, both visually and textually.  Even if you find something graphically objectionable to it, the issue more than redeems itself with moments of pure, if bruised, heart.

A lot of it, as with the best works of fiction, is in the little things: Klara’s growing rapport with the family’s ghostly nanny (“Ready your side of the ether, Izabel.  At this rate, we’ll be ghosts by dawn…”) or the faith Alana’s stepmom still has in her despite their estrangement (“Our girl may have her problems, but Alana isn’t a turncoat.  She was…she is a good person.”).

Vaughan simply knows the intrinsic value of each word, giving him the ability to convey enormous amounts of information in just a line or two.  Explaining how she and Barr met, Klara recounts, “At a youth hostel in the Craters.  He was a goofy-looking design student who told the single filthiest joke I’ve ever heard…”  In an instant, Klara conveys her spirited youth, the attracting and opposing poles of her and Barr’s relationship, a wistfulness for more innocent days, and a great capacity for love.

And that’s what you have to remember about Vaughan and Saga.  As downright filthy as both can be at times, they also use that filthiness as a kind of blind and a kind of guard.  Otherwise, it would be impossible not to see how actually heartfelt this series is, how beautifully simple and dignified its emotions can be.  Heist, speaking on the loss of his wife: “Don’t get me wrong, my son’s death just about destroyed me.  But if I’m being honest, nothing will ever hurt quite so deeply as the moment I heard the first person I ever really loved was gone.”

Quite smartly, Vaughan focuses all this amazing craft on the supporting players, to bring them up to the same level of relatability and attachment as our protagonist couple.  Klara certainly gets pretty darn close under Vaughan’s careful ministrations, but Gwen and Will are almost there, too.  They’ve always had chemistry, of the annoyed-but-respectful kind, but now there’s a real warmth between them (“Admit it, I’m a natural,” she crows as she successfully takes down a flying shark with Will’s extendable sword; “You’re a natural something, all right,” he replies dryly), and even partnership, particularly where the well-being of Sophie (formerly Slave Girl) is concerned.  They may not have reached Alana and Marko’s stage of romantic intimacy yet, but as the spirit (?) of the Stalk observes, they’re well on their way.

Vaughan may have turned Saga into a success with his writing talents alone, but it would not be the indie blockbuster it is without Staples boundless artistic vision.  Her twists on alien life-forms are often simple, but no less effective: the aforementioned flying sharks, for example, with graffiti-like spots of orange, pink, and yellow.  But it’s the naturalness and humanity of the characters’ expressions that really stand out in this emotionally driven issue: the slight uptick of Will and Gwen’s eyebrows as they banter; the utter contentment on Sophie’s face as she curls against Lying Cat’s body;* the weary grief weighing down Klara’s eyes as she and Heist talk about the pain of losing a spouse.

Conclusion: Utterly satisfying, with sequence upon sequence of deeply sincere character exchanges that makes you feel with and for them.

Grade: A

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * The most well-earned “D’aww…” moment of the year, probably, especially after Sophie recites, “I am all dirty on the inside because I did bad things with—”  and the overgrown feline responds with a lazy and dismissive, “Lying.”