Given the current popularity of big budget Marvel and DC films, more and more people are starting to read comics, but it can get frustrating wading through decades of continuity, retcons, deaths and revivals, crossovers, and event titles. In my experience, the best way to combat Big Two fatigue is to check out some third-party (not Marvel or DC) series.
A great place to start with third-party comics is an Image series called Saga. Even if you’ve never picked up a comic before in your life, Saga is a great place to begin the journey into graphic storytelling. It’s very reader-friendly, with enough experimentation in presentation that it feels fresh, but not enough to make it inaccessible.
The series just won 3 Eisner Awards (sort of like the Oscars of comics) for best new series, best ongoing series, and best writer. Now is a great time to start, since issues 1-12 can be picked up in two trade paperbacks (called Vol 1 and Vol 2), and issue 13 only dropped last week. If you just want to test the series out, the first (double-length) issue is currently available for free on Comixology! If you don’t have an account, it’s easy to set up and it’s free.
This is a story about star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of a space war; Alana’s home-world, Landfall, long ago went to war with Wreath, where her husband Marko was born. Marko was a footsoldier in Wreath’s army until he surrendered as a “conscientious objector.” He was imprisoned until he met guard Alana and they ran away together and secretly eloped. Wreath and Landfall have each got hits out on the lovers’ heads, hoping to slaughter them before news of their marriage – and lovechild – can spread. The story is narrated by their daughter, Hazel, in scrawling hand-drawn font that often gives the illusion of a children’s book, although this is anything but. If “space opera” isn’t enough to entice you, we’ve got robot royalty, various space hitmen, cats who can talk (sort of), imaginative aliens, ghosts, magic, and a wide diversity of characters.
While assigning specific ethnicity to characters who have no relation to Earth is a bit silly, both Alana and Marko are people of colour – which is refreshing after all of the broody white men populating comics by the Big Two. Although if broody white dudes are your jam, you’ve got one here in morally ambiguous hitman The Will. He’s a professional killer, but his sidekick is a talking cat, so how bad can he be?
Prince Robot IV (allied to Landfall) is tasked by his father to track down and eliminate the couple. He has just returned from two years of brutal duty, and would rather stay with his wife and start a family of his own. Like most of the antagonists in this story, he is almost as sympathetic as our heroes.
As the series progresses, the cast grows; Alana and Marko pick up a ghostly babysitter called Izabel as well as Marko’s parents; we meet the Will’s fellow freelancer, a spider-monster called The Stalk; on behalf of Wreath high command, a woman called Gwendolyn tracks down The Will; and a number of other memorable characters show up who will go on to play varying roles in this sprawling narrative.
Fiona Staples’ art is worth the price of admission alone, which is why I’ve included so many images. Her character designs make even background characters memorable. She does the pencils, inking, and colouring all herself, and digitally rendered backgrounds make her work distinctive. Her anatomy is believable, her figures expressive, and her colour palette vibrant. She’s got an incredible imagination, and while artists are often treated as though they simply commit to paper the ideas of the writer, this is clearly as much Staples’ world as much as it is Vaughan’s.
For his part, Brian K. Vaughan has been a name in comics for years; with titles like Runaways, Y: The Last Man, and Ex Machina under his belt – not to mention TV’s Lost and Under the Dome – you know he puts out quality work. This series is no exception; he has crafted a galaxy that’s unlike any we’ve seen before, with an ever-increasing cast of characters who are all sympathetic and nuanced. I find myself at a constant loss of who I should be rooting for. His dialogue ranges seamlessly from funny and heartbreaking, and is always naturalistic. Although this comic isn’t for the squeamish; all of the characters have filthy mouths (which is unsurprising, as most of them are soldiers or bounty hunters), and it never shies away from graphic violence or nudity (for all genders and species).
Like television, this is serial storytelling, so it’s addicting, and the only downside is waiting a month between issues, or even longer when the series goes on hiatus every six or so issues – with only two creators, hiatuses are necessary, but they feel interminable. Basically this is one of the most engrossing stories I’ve ever encountered in any medium, with wonderful characters, real stakes, and a fully realized world. Even if you’ve never picked up a comic before, this is a great place to start, and I can’t recommend it enough. This is storytelling at its best; it’s well-crafted, unique, and shows that a story doesn’t have to revolve around straight white dudes to be interesting to a variety of people.
Also it takes place in space.