Another month, another stand out issue for the creator owned Image Comics series which has taken the comic book universe by storm. What is there to say which hasn’t already been said? Anyone who isn’t reading it should be, and Image Comics has made it easier to catch up than many “big two” publishers with reasonably priced paperback and hardcover collections released at scheduled intervals. And most who are reading it adore it, from professional critics to fans on the street. In just two years, it’s become the second best selling comic Image Comics has, and it took a shorter period of time to maintain consistent monthly sales north of 56,000 copies an issue faster than “The Walking Dead” did – without the assistance of a cable TV show. As always, it is another twenty-two pages of continued excellence brought to readers by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples; both of whom are at the top of their craft.
In theory it could be said that this issue sees less action with the series’ starring characters than the last, but such a statement would be arguable at best. The terrific thing about this series is that it isn’t called “The Adventures of Alana and/or Marko”, and instead juggles an ever widening cast of characters with the sort of consistent grace and skill that would make most writers’ heads spin. This issue focuses on characters who have been mostly missing since the end of the previous arc earlier in the year. The Brand, who is the mercenary sister of the comatose Will (or “the Will”), has been spending time chasing down leads to find out who nearly killed her brother, and why. This leads her (and her large attack dog Sweet Boy) to planet Quietus, where Alana, Marko, and their persecuted family union fled. Her trail crosses paths with Marko’s jilted fiance Gwendolyn and her adopted “sidekick” Sophie, who both bare the responsibility for the Will’s fate but are trying to find a cure. Meanwhile, “the Will” seems to continue having endless dreams of his seemingly deceased lover “the Stalk” (who has been dead for some time, but whose ghost seemed to haunt him even before he was incapacitated), and the final page teases quite an interesting alliance between two other longtime characters.
Every issue seems to have jaw dropping art and no end of quotable lines and imaginative ideas, and this issue is no exception. The idea of there being an entire planet dedicated to protecting corporate patents is brilliant, and Brian K. Vaughan plays with current Internet memes by having the trolls that Gwendolyn fights speak (and act) much like “trolls” online do. This issue also sees the return of the well liked Lying Cat as well as introduces new characters, such as the adorable space seal Ghus. Although this may be the issue which fleshes out “the Brand” in detail since her introduction, it also updates readers as to what Gwen, Sophie, and the Will have been up to. No characters are thrown away in “Saga”, and all of them have a role to play as the saga unfolds. The fact that this series is destined to be a finite one, much as all of the other series that Brian K. Vaughan has created (such as “Y: the Last Man” and “Ex Machina”) only adds more weight and purpose to these stories.
In fact, the only demerit this issue has is that it will be the last of the year. In order to allow Fiona Staples to continue on with solo art without any late issues or fill in’s, the series always takes a short break after every nine to ten issues. This not only allows Staples some lead-in time, but it gives Image Comics a chance to sell the latest trade collection of the previous arc to get everyone caught up. Like most creators, “trade waiters” are seen as a boon and are encouraged to catch up to the monthly issues as quickly as possible. Not only do these breaks work for a practical and economic sense for “Saga”, but as much as fans hate the wait, it is this semi-annual break which allows the series to maintain it’s vigor. A great reason for why so many long running franchises fail to capture this sort of magic is because they are stretched thin with no end of titles and spin off titles and are kept perpetually in print with no rest for decades, if not generations. James Bond takes a break every few years in film, yet Batman and Spider-Man seem to always be everywhere. Much like the gap between seasons of hit TV shows, the months long break between issues of “Saga” only add fuel to its’ fire, as its’ steady sales can attest. Funny how a series avoids “diminishing returns” when it takes the time to cultivate its’ audience with timely trades, quality issues and an expectation of excellence, right?
2014 has been a great year for “Saga”, much as 2012 and 2013 were. There seems to be no doubt that things will only get better – for readers, if not the characters – for “Saga” in 2015.
Below is an honorable mention. It’s the only comic this week which was worth reviewing and buying, even if not as good as the above comic, according to this columnist.
Archer & Armstrong #25: The cover promises an “anniversary hullabaloo”, which is perhaps a joyful way of saying it may be the last regular issue of this series. A parallel is drawn to the previous run by Valiant Entertainment for this franchise in the 90’s, which also ran for twenty-five issues; even if in reality between two “zero” issues and a brief crossover story with “Bloodshot and the Hard C.O.R.P.S.” likely ups the tallies to nearly thirty issues of their story. The reason as to why may be hard to peg down. It could be that the series’ lead writer Fred Van Lente is moving into other projects – such as one of several spin offs coming next year, “Ivar, Timewalker”. It could also be due to low sales, as the previous issue failed to sell within the top 300 last month (which means it sold fewer than 6,306 copies). In addition, Valiant Entertainment has sought to limit the amount of titles they publish to some degree, so ending this series may free up “space” for new series they wish to produce. In reality, there is no shame in ending a story while it is still fresh and in fact the perpetual, never ending glut of material about most “big two” franchises may be doing more harm than good. Regardless as to the reason, this issue ends things for the series with a bang with 38 pages of material offered by creators past and present.
Fred Van Lente teams up with the run’s first artist, Clayton Henry (and regular colorist, David Baron), for the issue’s main story, “Back to the Beginning”. In it they tie up the series’ only major loose end – Archer’s birth parents – as well as establish a new status quo for both the titular stars and what is left of “the Sect” which they have spent twenty five issues both shattered and then attempting to lead. It’s always fantastic seeing Henry back on art for this series, and it’s a simple story which sets up a “never the end” sort of finale. The rest of the issue’s offerings are either done in one tales or set-ups to subsequent series. John Layman and Ramon Villalobos bring us “Immortal Combat”, which offers a short but hilarious story about the rise of another immortal warrior who has a grudge against Armstrong, only the big lug’s spent so much of his life intoxicated that Armstrong can’t even remember him. Next is a sneak peak at a spin off for the business tycoon villains, “the One Percent”, in “The New Breed” by Ray Fawkes and Andy Kuhn. Subsequent pages also include Armstrong traveling back in time to give himself a beer, as well as pin up pages and other assorted strips.
It has been a great run for this series, overall. Fred Van Lente manages to rekindle the narrative magic he’d honed on “Incredible Hercules” and created a fun comedy adventure series with two memorable lead characters as well as an entire universe made up of hilarious social and historical satire. Among all of the effective comedy, the series still managed to be about two guys who become best friends despite the unlikeliest of circumstances and upbringings. It has been a worthy addition to the amazing career that Fred Van Lente has had in comics, and one hopes the springboard into better projects to come.