It may be fair to say that death has long become shorthand for drama within serialized fiction. Beyond sitcoms, “reality TV” or most procedure based works, it has become fairly predictable for cast members to bite the big one for the sake of narrative consequence for many of the biggest comic books and TV shows lately, either every episode or every conclusion of a particular arc. And “Saga”, Image Comics’ top selling series by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples is often no exception. Due to it being a creator owned series where almost any dynamic can change on a whim, it has become an expectation for even this critically acclaimed masterwork to dust off the grim reaper once it comes time to end a particular story line and take a break for the trade collection. Unlike most series (especially of the spandex sort within the “big two”), Saga more or less gets away with this due to an ever expanding cast as well as the sheer quality of its scripting and artwork. Yet even great works can become routine if seeped in too many of their own tropes, and among the many things which makes this issue shine is a sense of breaking out of such predictability. Issue thirty-six is the finale to an arc in which nobody dies, and it may be grander for it.
Chapter thirty-five saw several of the various plots which had been cycling through the series begin to intertwine. Yet as this issue proceeds, it essentially boils down to two different forces dealing with the loss of family members in different ways. Alana and Marko, the interplanetary couple whose child Hazel literally represents the merging of two warring worlds, have reunited with Sir Robot IV (formerly their pursuer Prince Robot IV) to liberate their daughter from a housing facility (or prison) for displaced civilians of war. Their plans come at a time where a scheme to free Hazel from the facility has already been hatched from within by her teacher (the mantis like Noreen), her grandmother Klara, and the dual gendered Petrichor. Elsewhere, overweight mercenary “the Will” has tripped out on a drug which allows him to literally interact with the ghosts (or hallucinations) of dead loved ones as he goes about a plot to avenge them by murdering everyone they care about. To this end he’s kidnapped journalists Upsher and Doff and tracked down where Robot IV was living to avenge his lover, “the Stalk”. Instead he’s found Robot’s son Squire and his tiny defender, the seal-like Ghus. From these points, the issue then proceeds to subvert virtually everything that readers may have been expecting.
Paced as a potential “near miss” situation, Marko manages to successfully reunite with Hazel, which marks a well earned (and tender) full pace splash. Yet their escape from the facility doesn’t come without complications, as Petrichor becomes part of their cabal (essentially replacing Klara, who elects to remain behind to unify more of the inmates) and offers more revelations about this ad hoc family. Alana is pregnant again, but who is the father (as she and Marko had an extended “break”) and who will Hazel’s sibling turn out to be? In addition, even their flight from the facility comes with little bloodshed, defying most expectations. There is more violence as the Will and Ghus have a brief conflict, but ultimately it’s the “ghost” of his sister Sophie (a fellow mercenary who went by “the Brand”) who sacrificed herself for his sake. Considering that Will has been “speaking” with the deceased Stalk not long after her murder, by this point it should become clear how long he’s been taking the drug “Heroine” and how much worse it has gotten. What began with a line here and there has now become a full blown imaginary accomplice. The arrival of Sophie naturally provides quite an emotional climax as she sacrificed herself as part of his associates’ scheme (Marko’s ex Gwendolyn and a liberated child slave he named after his sister) to save the Will (or “Billy”) from mortal injury. Through his haze, at least for a moment, Will realizes that no amount of bloodshed will fill his loss, and he’d best reunite with those who care about him instead. To a degree this mirrors the descent into drugs and/or distraction that both Alana and especially Marko (an ex soldier who is also prone to fits of rage) overcame in the previous arc.
As with every issue, the art is a masterpiece of Fiona Staples’ talent. Every character displays a galaxy’s worth of creative talent and her mastery of facial expressions, flowing action, and staging every scene she’s given appears almost effortless. In terms of the script, Brian K Vaughan delivers a finale in which most of the characters ultimately get what they want, or at least something they didn’t expect but should leave them greater than the sum of their parts. Yet this “mercy” of the grim reaper’s ax hardly deprives readers of dramatic complications – in fact they are drastically expanded. The addition of a sibling to “the family” will only increase both the creativity and drama, especially with Petrichor stirring the pot as an adopted aunt (and uncle) of Hazel. And there is no telling what “the Will” is going to do now, nor or the fate of his associates (who have been off panel for quite some time).
If death becomes too routine in serialized fiction, it loses its impact as well as becomes an easy tool for a writer to rely on too often. It can be the narrative version of a hammer, seeing everything as nails. Although this will be the last issue of Saga until August, it is an issue which will invite no end of wonder and speculation about further adventures in spite of the fact that none of its cast were culled this time. It stands as a triumph that while stories where there is never any death of major characters or progression of arcs in the Silver Age were static, so too are sagas where the bodies pile up so often, calendars could be set to them. In addition to the usual accolades for another wonderful installment of an already legendary comic book series, Vaughan and Staples deserve kudos for proving once again that a seasn finale without a funeral can still be glorious.
Below is an honorable mention from another “third party” publisher, Dynamite Entertainment. It is quite good, and the polar opposite of “Saga #36”, but not quite up to par with the above.
James Bond #6: “Vargr” comes to an action packed and brutal finale courtesy of Warren Ellis, Jason Masters, and colorist Guy Majors. In the previous issue, Bond figured out that the titular “Vargr” was an abandoned military freighter in Norway where the arc’s cybernetic villain, Slaven Kurjack, manufactures his lethal biological weapon (which has plagued the streets of London as a controlled substance which kills its users). Ellis and Masters have always devoted ample page time of their time together on this franchise showcasing the brutal elegance of agent 007 in action, and this finale is no exception. Armed with a modified rifle, time bombs, and a pistol, Bond proceeds to breach the ship’s security and methodically slaughter his way towards destroying both Vargr and Kurjack once and for all. Although full of charm and wit, and an almost uncanny ability to use his surroundings to his advantage, Ellis and Masters never shy away from the often brutal nature of the man with a license to kill. Once upon a time, characters as varied as Frank Castle to Golgo 13 all were inspired by James Bond, and an issue such as this may remind readers as to why. Bond hardly emerges unscratched, but as always, he completes his mission with almost mechanical execution. One could say that this arc is simple in comparison to Bond’s cinematic adventures, but it perfectly captures a typical mission of the world’s greatest member of British intelligence. Thankfully, Dynanite Entertainment seems pleased with this series’ performance, as both Ellis and Masters will return – as will James Bond – for a seventh issue and a new arc called “Eidolon”. That arc will feature the return of “SPECTRE”, the evil organization who are often Bond’s arch enemies. Initially planned to coincide with Bond’s latest film, this series become an unexpected action thriller. Comic books seem to be an ideal medium for 007, and with most of his adventures on panel being film adaptations, this has easily become James Bond’s best comic run ever. Fans of the super spy should catch up on the inevitable trade collection and parachute in as soon as possible!