Chapter Three: Racism and Seeking Asylum in Saga

(Brief intro: while I’ve been posting my dissertation chapters here for a few months, this chapter is over a graphic novel and loses the most since I don’t have the rights to display the work here. I do, however, highly recommend Saga.)

While speculative fiction, as a field, is rarely discussed with seriousness in academic discourse, the graphic novel is discussed even less. The combination of the two in Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Eisner-winning work: Saga, has caused it to be unanalyzed as a work of literature. Even R.B. Gill, whose work has been vital in understanding speculative fiction otherwise, omits graphic novels; considering this exclusion is considered “somewhat [arbitrary],” this omission is open for challenge (Gill 72). Fantasy scholar Brian Attebery helps to place the origin of the term “science fiction” in the “pulp magazines of the 1920s through 1950s; we think of earlier stories by Poe, Verne, and Wells as [Science Fiction] partly because of their being republished and discussed in those magazines” (Stories About Stories 33). Following a similar timeline, Hillary Chute and Marianne Dekoven place the movement of graphic narratives from comic strips in newspapers into “comic books,” in 1929 (Chute and Dekoven 181). These comic books would become even more popular in 1938 with the invention of the superhero, launching the “Golden Era” of comics, which lasted until the 1954 “Comics Code” which sought to censor graphic narratives (Chute and Dekoven 184). While these simultaneous evolutions could be coincidence, the way in which graphic narratives have used science fiction explanations, for everything from radioactive spiders biting teenage boys, to gadgets used by millionaires, and other well-known tropes, suggests a connection of influence. This influence from science fiction mixes with fantasy in Saga, where Staples’s artwork mixes with Vaughan’s story to create a gripping space opera in which race as a factor in othering is explored as an intergalactic race war between the technological “wings” and the magical “horns” is waged. This conflict forces the interracial couple of Alana and Marko to seek asylum with their biracial daughter, Hazel.
Comics scholar Douglas Wolk describes the first problem of discussing graphic narratives in his first chapter: “comics are not a genre; they’re a medium” (11). Comics
might be defined as a hybrid word-and-image form in which two narrative tracks, one verbal and one visual, register temporality spatially. Comics move forward in time through the space of the page, through its progressive counterpoint of presence and absence: packed panels (also called frames) alternating with gutters (empty space) (Chute 452).
Within comics, the panel is considered “the most basic aspect” of the form’s grammar (Chute 454). Defining comics as a form, not a genre, allows for accurate genre classification of works like Saga. There are not inherent genre similarities between graphic narratives because they use visuals any more than there are inherent genre similarities between all books for only using words. Commonalities between works in the medium are the abilities to analyze the works based on the use of color, the style of illustration, and the direction panels are meant to be read in. All of these can vary as much as narrative style. The only generic qualities of the content within comics are the “very broad ones imposed on them by their form” (Wolk 11).
While graphic narratives have always been easily accessible to readers, they have also always been responsive to politics and culture, the term “graphic novel” would continue to evolve as a marketing term “from a vital underground publishing community that wanted works with greater impact in the medium of comics” (Chute 453). Those who wrote graphic novels from the 1950s through the 1970s sought to reflect the seismic cultural shifts happening and explore “what can be said and what can be shown” on the page (Chute 459). The illustrators also went from being considered “interchangeable, paid for hire workers valued for speedy ‘production’, not ‘artistic’, values” to artists developing highly aesthetic work (Chute and Dekoven 183-184). It is because of these contributions and experimentations that a work like Saga exists, able to interrogate the topics of war, refugee statuses, racism, science, fantasy, and what can be said and shown in graphic narratives.
Saga is the epitome of the “New Weird” space opera sub-genre, which science fiction scholar Alastair Reynolds defines as a subset of science fiction which is “essentially a form of adventure story in which space travel plays a critical element” and which juxtaposes “genre elements that might hitherto have appeared functionally incompatible” (12; 20). As with most New Weird space operas, the genre elements resemble fantasy. Considering science fiction as a genre of the speculative fiction super-genre allows for it to appear related to fantasy and acknowledges the lack of distance between the two. Particularly because space operas involve elements of space travel between planets and star systems at a fast speed, “Too much science breaks space opera, because space opera is fundamentally impossible” (Reynolds 23). While fantasy elements can cause die-hard fans of “hard-science fiction” to lament space operas as part of the genre for the leaps and bounds performed to make the narratives function outside of verifiable science, the best of these works are “typically concerned with examining human nature scientifically by conducting thought experiments in imaginary worlds” and not concerned strictly with the exact function of existing technology (Robson 26). The similarities between science fiction and fantasy are even noted by Brian Attebery, who notes in Strategies of Fantasy how they “run in parallel for much of their development,” and even having such authors crossing over as Ursula K. Le Guin and H.G. Wells (105). While Saga makes use of a hybrid form, including a magical rocket tree, it has an emphasis on outer space and science fiction vernacular. Like many science fiction texts, the “‘science’ part of the term often seems inappropriate, since neither the methods nor the accumulated knowledge of scientists is accurately portrayed” but the setting in space allows the “scientific terminology” to be dominant (Strategies of Fantasy 107).
According to R.B. Gill, the explorations of different planets in Saga’s war-torn universe allows for the reader to explore “one’s mode of engagement with the ordinary world or one’s replacement of it” (79). This exploration is particularly important as almost all characters within the graphic novel are aliens. In terms of migration in the real world, alien refers “to a person who is a member of some other society, a non-citizen, someone who is a stranger or outsider” (Bartram et al. 11). In science fiction, this definition is taken one step further to mean a being which is not human (Robson 26). This allows an investigation of an “other” in a more radical way than in either of the other works considered in this dissertation and can be examined as commentary on race in reality. For this chapter, race is defined as “an identification based on presumed shared characteristics, such as common ancestry, physical resemblance, language, religion, nationality, territory or historical experience” (Bartram et al. 61). As Robson sets out, the aliens in Saga are “Interesting Others,” those who are “not us, but they really serve to highlight what we choose and reject when it comes to deciding who we are, individually and as a species” (Robson 30). Though they come from invented planets and cultures, the characters have humanoid features, feelings, and motivations. This allows the reader to examine the characters as “other” and yet identify with them. This otherness is investigated through a “contact zone,” like other speculative fiction works, and yet the primary contact zone in Saga takes place within an interracial family relationship, not focusing on the war between the two alien races (Stories About Stories 193). This war causes the characters Alana and Marko to be at odds with both of their home planets, to have no situated home, and therefore need to flee as asylum seekers. While refugees are defined as “migrants who have left their countries and request international protection on account of persecution, war or other factors that put their lives or security at risk” asylum seekers are “by definition not (yet) recognized as refugees” by a government and, therefore, have no protections (Bartram et al. 106; 107). Marko and Alana are forced into their space opera adventure because they are considered deviants for falling in love across racial lines.
Representation of asylum seekers is increasingly important as “[n]umbers of refugees on a global scale have indeed increased greatly” (Bartram et al. 107). What is most important about alien asylum seekers is the idea of representation. Alana and Marko are depicted as racially diverse. This causes them to be accessible heroes for non-white readers since “Representatives who look like us provide us with role models. For those who have been marginalized, having representatives who look like them can compensate for previous (and continuing) injustices.” It is also important because the representation of Hazel’s family as diverse and empathetic can “bring perspectives to the table of those who are often overlooked” (Emery and Evans 162).
Currently, the US “simultaneously recognizes the rights of refugees but criminalizes the search for asylum,” which ethics professor Elvira Pulitano sees as problematized by questions of race and belonging (173). According to literary scholar Ramón Saldívar, “[I]n the twenty-first century, the relationship between race and social justice, race and identity, and indeed, race and history requires [speculative fiction] writers to invent a new ‘imaginary’ for thinking about the nature of a just society and the role of race in its construction” (574). If a new imaginary for thinking about real societal structures in terms of race and, additionally, migration is needed, then Saga is a work making an attempt by bringing this consciousness into the public sphere through its popularity and the accessibility of comics. By making Hazel’s family an interracial couple with a baby forced to become asylum seekers in an intergalactic race war, Vaughan and Staples challenge the imagined culture of a universe built on racial enmity.

Comics scholar Christina Meyer suggests that “The cover page is the best place to begin because it represents the reader’s first encounter with the comic and is thus the place where generic promptings start to operate” (279). Examining the front cover of Saga, the reader sees a blue sky dotted by white dots representative of stars, four large spherical shapes, and the title of the book. The title’s font gives no clue about the genre, but the two smaller spheres, whose positioning makes them “background” to the others, are planets. These, with the stars, suggest that this is a graphic narrative about space. Instead of causing the cover to mimic outer space’s uniform black, a bleak color, the cover is a hopeful, bright blue. All this is background to the larger spheres: a child’s head breastfeeding. The science fiction aspects of Saga are already subverted by the family aspects from the front cover: the novel does not focus on space-faring or intergalactic war, but a family. The baby, named Hazel, is the focus of the cover with her humanoid face staring out at the reader with her slightly pointed ears and tiny horns peeking out from her hair. The fact that the act of breastfeeding takes such a prominent position also previews the fact that the graphic novel is not shy about the controversial elements within, pushing the boundaries of what can be seen in comics.
That the story focuses on relationships more than the science fiction elements is reinforced by the first images of the graphic novel. While long shots are used to establish setting and mood in film and comics, the first image the author and illustrator want the reader to see is a close up to emphasize the character emotion of Alana as the reader finds her in the act of childbirth. The next frame is a long shot to show that the childbirth is not happening in a hospital, but not with enough detail to reveal exactly where they are; it is only through dialogue that they are revealed to be inside a spaceship mechanic’s garage.

It isn’t until page 21 that the planet Cleave is revealed in space, along with the principle planets of the civil war, Landfall and Wreath, as an unseen, older Hazel narrates the history of the conflict between the two races in brief, setting the graphic novel to a space opera universe. In a method common in the science fiction sub-genre, each planet features different aesthetics in architecture, flora, and use of color. The planet Quietus, which dominates the latter half of the story as “the first place my [Hazel’s] family ever laid down roots,” uses mostly the Landfallian pallet of white, silver, and grey tones, indicating a possible connection, proven correct later, though it is noticeably barren in comparison to other Landfallian allied planets, likely the reason it was selected as a home away from civilization by the author Oswald Heist (Vaughan 327). Heist’s lighthouse home in the middle of a field of bones acts as a reinforcement of what the characters consider the author, who secretly peddles his subversive beliefs in romance novels. To Marko and Alana, Heist is a beacon of hope in a war which only brings death. The journey to Heist mirrors the journey to the wizard of Oz, an analogy reinforced by his name; Oswald Heist is believed to be a wise man who holds all the answers for what they should do next. Unlike the classic tale, Heist’s faults do not remain hidden for long as he greets the family in his underwear, slippers, and robe; holding a bottle of liquor and a gun (Vaughan and Staples 332). Any illusions of characters as strictly good or bad or wise are undercut in Saga; Heist’s fallibility is shortly reinforced: (he vomits on baby Hazel).

When looking at the setting in Saga, a reader must also examine the orientation in which the depicted surroundings are viewed: the narrator. Narrator Hazel is considered a “narratorial representation,” a narrator who is a character within the narrative and distinct from the author, Vaughan (Thon 70). Narrator Hazel’s representation is “extradiegetic” as she is currently experiencing a future the reader cannot determine as she tells the story in past tense (Thon 76). Narrator Hazel is old enough to tell her story, framing Saga, but it is unknown if her statement that “I get to grow old,” is Hazel as a geriatric or an adult who has managed to survive longer than most in an ongoing war zone (Vaughan 47). It is also unknown how subjective this narration is or how accurate it is as memory; she is not present at many of the events depicted and, being an infant, it is unlikely that Hazel remembers the events of Saga’s first book. It is clear Narrator Hazel controls what is seen by the reader, and in what order, when she says, “I should rewind for a second,” and flashes back to her father as a child (Vaughan 171). Including unwanted elements, such as her “ritual immersion,” makes it more likely that Hazel is attempting to create an accurate account of events. Hazel’s story, regardless of subjectivity, reveals a narrative in which constructions of innate racial hatred is challenged through familial love.
The cultural world view in Saga is built around the idea that the other side is a racial enemy; because they have wings or horns, they cannot be good, they must be evil, and they must be eliminated. Through the construction of the alien in Saga, races can be depicted as biologically geared toward irreconcilable differences. However, unlike the other works in this dissertation, the ethos to battle evil can be “outsourced” to the rest of the universe as a compromise to protect their home planets (Vaughan 23). While other planets are destroyed by war, the people of Wreath and Landfall enjoy an idyllic life at home, seen particularly in Alana’s stepmother’s suburban lifestyle.

Even with the peaceful lifestyle depicted, Wreath, the moon of Landfall, looms in the sky; it is a constant reminder of the threat of the war, even though the battlefields are now located far away.
The construction of alien races somewhat contradicts how critical race theorist Ian F. Haney López breaks down the construction of race in the real world: “First, humans rather than abstract social forces produce races. Second, as human constructs, races constitute an integral part of a whole social fabric that includes gender and class relations” (969). While race in the real world is a social construct, that alien racial differentiation in Saga is considered biological, with drastically different physical manifestations and the assumed inability to procreate between races, allows for the relations between the races to be analyzed in a way which can be fruitful to racial constructions in reality. For example, skin color is not a determining factor for defining race in Saga, but differing animal-like features. The people of Landfall have wings, the people of Wreath have horns; not only does skin tone not seem to be a factor, but there also does not appear to be a hierarchy between the kinds of wings, whether insectoid or avian, or between kinds of horns, whether single or multiple or difference of shape. Racial differences in reality are not fact as “There are no genetic characteristics possessed by all Blacks but not by non-Blacks; similarly, there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all Whites but not to non-Whites” (Haney Lopez 967). Having physical differences, considered the basis of race in the real world, not form the basis of race in Saga represents the subjectivity recognized in Haney López’s analysis of metanarratives about race. Having race in Saga based on differences of animal-like features creates the impression of insurmountable biological differences.
In addition to biological racial attributes, the alien races are differentiated by their history. Marko’s earliest memory is when he was shown, through magic, a horrific past battle on his home planet of Wreath. This battle, and others like it, are part of the racial history of those from the planet, binding them together as a people and, more importantly, pitting them against the native race of Landfall, “His parents didn’t say a word, but the point of their lesson was clear. Never forget. Never forget the countless heroes who sacrificed so much. And more importantly, never forget those evil fucks with the wings” (Vaughan and Staples 175). Golnar Nabizadeh, in studying another graphic novel of speculative fiction called Blue, describes comics as “an ideal platform to think creatively about the notions of “apprehension” and “recognition” because they rely on visual data to communicate their message” (548). If the question is “How do we visualize fear and threat?” then the answer Saga clearly depicts is that fear and threat fall along racial lines (Nabizadeh 541). Marko has been taught from a young age to recognize “the wings” as a threat; there should be no possibility for any emotions besides fear and hate between races. Each side of the intergalactic conflict believes that the races of the other side are less civilized butchers of their people. When questioned, Prince Robot IV exclaims, “You think there’s something good about what those animals did to my friends? Did to them while they slept? (Vaughan 25). Marko’s mother, Klara, calls Alana a “housefly” as a racial slur (Vaughan 427; 206). The extermination of the enemy race, and their allies, is considered the foundation of justice in the world view of Saga. Means of extreme violence are considered justified by the end of eliminating the enemy. Neither side discusses a peaceful end to the war or acknowledges their own war crimes without describing them as retaliation when characters attempt to openly confront the violence, as depicted in Alana’s first conversation with her new father-in-law, Barr.

The violent acts are argued as acceptable because of previous violent acts from the other side (Vaughan and Staples 367).
Saga explicitly confronts constructions of race through the coupling of Marko and Alana. While Saga’s culture defines race along biological and historical lines which create an insurmountable enmity, the interracial couple of Alana and Marko reveal that this is a social construction as well; their love causes them to be labeled as enemies of both sides of the war. Through their relationship, the discussions of racism become discussions of Otherness, which allows for examination of self in relation to the other with the goal of seeking commonality instead of seeing enmity as racial destiny (Cohen 98). The crossing of this boundary in seeking commonality, let alone love, is considered radically dangerous in Saga and is the reason both governments send assassins to kill the couple. The biological differences are further challenged by the existence of a viable offspring in Hazel, meaning that the races are not so biologically different as to make that impossible; Hazel’s viability is evidence that the races are not predestined to eliminate the other on a biological basis.
As Alana and Marko are forced to flee, a depiction of asylum seeking families can be examined. The racism of the universe means that there is no safe haven for the family; each planet would see one or the other with apprehension. This causes distinct disruptions to their lives. As Klara says, “they are fugitives. It’s not like I can just watch after Hazel while Alana fills out applications for waitressing work. How are they supposed to pound the pavement when they can’t even be seen in public?” (Vaughan 380). Neither culture wants the couple together, though there are rampant war crimes and planets dedicated to illicit sex, the greatest crime to both sides is willingly loving a member of the opposing race. Hazel, their child, proves that a union can exist between the two races, a fact that is questioned throughout the graphic novel. Hazel’s family, depicted by the culture as dangerous deviants, similar to refugees in the real world who “are forced out in part because of their ‘voluntary’ insistence on exercising their human rights” including the right to love and the right to safety (Bartram et al. 70). While the governments attempt to keep the existence of Hazel and her family a secret, they explain Marko and Alana’s relationship as a deviant decision by amoral people. The world view of interracial love is reaffirmed by the rest of Saga’s universe, diminishing their ability to resettle as refugees since “the recognition (or denial) of refugee claims is… significantly affected by political factors in the various destination countries” (Bartram et al. 108). Considering that almost all the planets in Saga have aligned with one side or the other, every planet has an interest in denying Hazel’s family the right to exist and right to live. If planets or people do not, they are considered similarly traitorous in a universe where such a declaration would lead to annihilation. The murder of any allies of the family, like Oswald Heist, is seen as morally justified in their harboring known fugitives. The family’s existence challenges the notions about race in the created culture, leading to the ordered assassins from both sides to eliminate its members and allies; this also enables examination of metanarratives around racial differences as well as asylum seekers attempting to escape war zones.
Attebery claims that science fiction texts, like Saga, encourage “speculation about social systems and individual identities through extrapolation or analogy or a combination of the two. The discourse of science fiction may even call science itself into question, either its applications… or its claims to objective validity” (Strategies of Fantasy 107-108). The reliance on science can actually limit science fiction, making it “less and less possible to write about certain things and still call upon that [metanarrative]” (Strategies of Fantasy 108). In Saga, the largest challenges to the metanarrative of science are common to the space opera sub-genre: the existence of aliens, interstellar travel, and mating between species. As a graphic novel, Saga uses images of the war through sections focusing on the the family’s pursuers to aid in creating the scope of its dangerous universe; these images are juxtaposed with the sweet moments of an asylum seeking family. Instead of using science in the foreground or even as a vehicle which propels the story forward, the science fiction aspects are usually placed in the background so a thoroughly human story can take place. As the reader witnesses horrific acts of a war built on racism, they are encouraged to empathize with the protagonists as asylum seekers unable to escape a war zone. The very construction of race in Saga challenges the real world metanarratives as different constructions are used as definition; Saga’s world view on race is then challenged by the love of Alana and Marko overcoming racial boundaries and producing a biologically viable offspring. While there is a certain lack of closure at the end of the novel, being the first in a series, the ending asserts Saga’s core narrative: a constant search for hope; the normalcy of a place to call home where a family can love freely and live in peace. It is for this reason that last images are not of war or even of a triumphant escape from death for the family, which transpires several pages before, but of the rocket setting down roots in a new possible home and, ultimately, of Hazel taking her first steps.

Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. Stories About Stories: Fantasy & the Remaking of Myth. Oxford University Press, 2014.

– -. Strategies of Fantasy. Indiana University Press, 1992.
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