Like Star Wars, But With Better Parents
Two lovers from different warring worlds meet, fall in love, and have a baby. That’s where Saga started in 2012, but not where it stands now. Brian K. Vaughan’s critically beloved series with artist Fiona Staples does nothing but expand. Its like Star Wars, but somehow both bigger and more intimate. It’s part space opera with royal robots and part meditation on what it means to love and be loved. The fact that it works on both levels is Vaughan’s second greatest achievement.
His greatest is that he’s raised two children and been so inspired by that process that he’s allowed it to inform and transform his professional life. His main characters, horned Marko and his winged wife Alana, travel in a spaceship that looks like a tree with their daughter Hazel. And his readers engage with family issues. There are shootouts and mysteries and alien worlds, but fundamentally the 40 issues of the comic are about bonds and the way they are tested by time and fate. Also laser guns. The comics keep fans coming back because the relationships are not structural, but organic. The characters feel human even though they’re not.
“It’s been really fun to see people who’ve never read comics outside of the comic section of their Sunday paper get immediately sucked into this world,” Vaughan says. “I got the final line of the final page in my mind, but we’re not even halfway there yet.”
Fatherly spoke to the writer, who was previously best known for a story about the last man on Earth, about how raising kids changed his writing, why there’s so much sex work, and how his marriage provided a sort of physics for an entire universe.
At its core, Saga is about family. Did your own personal experience inspire you to write about marriage and fatherhood?
100 percent. I now have two kids. I first starting thinking about this while waiting for our first kid. And I always used writing as an outlet to talk about my fears, concerns, and passions. I really wanted to talk about creating new life. And I found talking to my friends who are strangers to the fatherhood experience—I would watch them start yawning or looking at their watch–difficult. If you’re outside of that world you don’t really give a shit. When you’re living in it, it’s really exciting. So I wanted to find a way to make people who don’t have kids or who never intend to have kids feel what it’s like to be a parent.
That’s where Saga was born.
Comic books are often superhero stories. Did you purposely try to avoid that trope in order to focus on issues around intimacy?
I love superheroes. I don’t have anything against them. I’ve written plenty of them in my life. For me, comic books are a medium, like film, or television; they can do anything. Superheroes are just one of the many genres you can tackle. I did this book called Ex Machina and that was about politics and the search for heroes—whether they were real or not—and that felt like a great way to talk about that. But for Saga, I really wanted to talk about the epic scope of what it means to be a family, where you come from, where you’re headed. I felt like it needed something bigger than the superhero genre. Sort of the fantasy, sci-fi world, like Star Wars, felt like the compelling way to talk about this.
Why do you think Saga has resonated with so many comic readers?
That is 100 percent, Fiona Staples. She’s the artist on the book and the co-creator. When I came up with this, I had some of the strangest, weirdest ideas that I couldn’t really do anywhere else. But Fiona takes those and translates them. The quality and the beauty of her work—the acting I guess you can call it—of her characters is so relatable and real. Fiona is not a parent, but this is a book about collaboration and how hard it is to bring something new into the universe whether it’s a kid, a song, or an idea. I was just trying to do something very specific. Somehow, she makes it totally universal.
Outside of the awesome space stuff, Marko and Alana deal with some very real issues. They both had substance abuse issues and themes of infidelity were explored. Why incorporate real-life married problems?
We have all of the trappings of science fiction, fantasy, space opera stuff—you know, we have rocket ships and ray guns–and I love that stuff, but I didn’t just want to do a story that was about itself. Like, here’s a bunch of characters who have to get magic crystals or go to this enchanted tower. That doesn’t have much resonance in my life. I wanted to talk about the actual challenges a married couple faces. This is a way for me to have my cake and eat it too: to talk about as much real, grounded things, but hopefully in a more fantastical, exciting way.
There are also sex scenes between Marko and Alana, which are almost always hilarious.
Yeah, I like writing about sex and talking about sex. It seems like, for a North American audience, we’re very comfortable with violence. We love it in our fiction. We love graphic violence and shocking, unexpected violence, and realistic violence. But sex we tend to shy away from. In movies, characters will tend to smooch and the camera fades out and that always feels cowardly to me. Why not explore this important part of life? Most stories start at the formation of a heterosexual couple or at the end where the man and woman end up together. But we wanted to start there. I wanted to take a hard, fun, but complicated look at that.
Marko is a rare type of character in comics: He’s a great dad. Who was the inspiration behind him?
My wife. It’s not a totally apt description, but I would say Alana tends to have a lot of my faults and Marko has a lot of my wife’s strengths. I thought it would be interesting to gender flip the two. I think my wife is a much better person than Marko, but yeah, I see a lot of her in him. I steal from real life.
Have you always modeled your lead characters after yourself?
I think every character that a writer writes represents some of themselves. There’s a bounty hunter in Saga, The Will. He embodies a lot of my fears and misgivings about the world. I see a little bit of myself in Hazel. I think there are pieces of me in each of those characters and certainly pieces of my loved ones. It’s not like their fights are born out of our fights. Everything is just inspired by, ‘What if we had to save two worlds together?’ I think my wife would handle it better than me.
How has fatherhood changed your writing routine?
I said earlier how I steal from my wife but it’s larceny on how much I steal from my children.
For every new story arc, Fiona and I will come up with a storyline. And instead of trying to think of what new army will they have to defeat, it’s just—well here’s their first babysitter that they’ve had to have. What an incredible story: bringing this stranger into their lives. That is an incredible adventure and that lead to a storyline about how Hazel and her grandmother were on a prison planet.
But also, every once in a while, my son will draw an incredible monster and he’ll say, ‘Do you want it for one of your books?’ I’ll say, ‘YES!’ And I’ll give it to Fiona.