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

The Story: What’s worse than being a war criminal?  How about a war criminal who acts?

The Review: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both creative writing and improv comedy, it’s the magic of details.  It really doesn’t take all that much to flesh out a story; even just one salient detail or factoid can suggest a wealth of information about a character, place, or thing.  The power of human experience to flesh out a story with only a little prompting is unparalleled—which is why any story that feels lifeless or flat is truly a stain on a writer’s craftsmanship.

Conversely, a mark of excellence in a writer is the ability to leverage a single detail to his advantage, something which Vaughan does constantly.  Alana notes in passing that, “I used to check [the Open Circuit—a semi-illegal entertainment channel] out after my mom passed out.”  In that one statement, you have a big chunk of Alana’s formative years in miniature: a neglectful, substance-abusing mother who simultaneously afforded Alana the freedom to explore the seedier side of life early on, partly as a form of escape from an unhappier circumstances.  In turn, this informs us on the person Alana has become; she nurtures Hazel in a way her mother didn’t; she’s freethinking and daring because she’s been brought up that way; and she’s always ready to run from the harsh realities of life.

Vaughan does this kind of thing with almost every character at some point in every issue, which is what gives Saga its great re-readability.  Think of Heist’s “harem of divorcées,” Izabel “learn[ing] the alphabet from one of my parents’ guerilla training manuals,” Klara reading grisly stories to Marko as an infant, the Will’s emergency contact changing from his mother to his uncle to another Freelancer, Prince Robot’s dream about a family life in a cabin by the sea.  Every single one of these details says a lot about the character in question, and Vaughan just slips them in the corners of his story.

Vaughan applies this same care of detail beyond the characters as well.  As much flak as I give him sometimes shirking the development of Saga’s larger context, he has been making steady progress establishing the world—or galaxy, rather—that our characters are operating against.  I liken it to a sculptor chipping away a stone to gradually reveal the work of art underneath.  Every little bit, from the Freelancer System to the Open Circuit to the various planetary societies we’ve encountered thus far, gives us a bigger picture of Saga’s culture.

No less than hard facts, it’s the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of Saga that gives the title its weight.  Although the series’ general outlook on war has been dim to downright hostile, Klara provides a dignified, non-strident, and convincing counterpoint in this issue, challenging Heist’s staunchly pacifist views.  “You can’t see the honor, the beauty in defending your own land?”

“It’s just land.  Dirt is dirt,” he protests.

“If you think that, you’ve never toiled in the same fields as thousands of your ancestors…  And when they keep on you like hounds?  When they drive you to the very cliffs?  Where do you run to then, Oswald?”

This issue also takes a few more baby steps to advance the overarching plot.  Apparently not letting a sniper attack keep them down, Upsher and Doff confront Agent Gale directly on their latest scoop, and asks straight out, “Why are you guys so worried about people finding out some Coalition grunt might have fallen for a guy from Wreath?”  Gale’s unconvincing denials and damage-control choices don’t provide an answer, but they do indicate that something much bigger is at stake than the public discovery of a minor (in Upsher and Doff’s eyes) war scandal.

There’s not much imaginative material for Staples to work with this issue, but even without anything spectacular to draw, she still manages to impress.  With a mostly talky script, it’s the expressions that make the issue, and Staples really comes through in this department.  It’s amazing how even from a very skewed perspective, you can get a read on a character’s emotional state of mind; in a couple panels, Klara is practically turned away from you, yet you can still tell when she’s being warm and playful or utterly disgusted.

Conclusion: A relatively quiet issue that’s nonetheless an excellent sample of Vaughan and Staples’ craft as well as Saga’s quality.

Grade: A

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – I rather enjoyed Vaughan’s use of the Open Circuit to take some digs at popular entertainment.  “I’m not sure I understood the subtext,” Marko says confusedly as he takes off his Circuit helmet.

“That’s because there is none,” Alana replies.  “Most of it is just bad melodrama, but some of the storylines can be interesting, especially when the audience gets involved.”  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Circuit actors were donning superhero costumes in this scene.  We hardly need to discuss the significance of that choice of detail, right