Saga, by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples
I keep wanting to like Saga, but I just don’t. Why? Well, in spite of some great weird characters, the execution of this book annoys the piss out of me. I don’t like the plot mechanics much, but the most annoying thing on the surface, I think, is the language. Though Saga is the story of two warring space empires, a far-flung fantasy future complete with magic and lasers, everyone speaks in the idiom of present-day America. Or, to be more precise, in the idiom of present-day educated middle-class America. Or, to be specific, in the idiom of present-day educated middle-class Americans who are trying to be clever all the damn time.
It’s the sort of thing that Pixar and its imitators have been doing for going on 20 years. And it works for them because they’re doing light comedy for children. But Vaughn’s trying to apply that approach to a story for adults that’s often not comedic at all, and it doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying that I want the book to use the high language of traditional fantasy and space opera. You can have more relaxed dialogue in this sort of thing. But you also have to strike a balance. If the language sounds too on-the-nose modern, it destroys the verisimilitude of the setting. Though I can’t believe I’m citing Star Wars in a discussion of good dialogue, I do think Lucas hit the proper tone with that film. The language is relaxed enough to sound familiar without being so familiar that it’s like a bunch of contemporary movie characters were transported to a galaxy far, far away. Saga does have that feel, and it takes me out of the story.
But I mentioned plot mechanics earlier, and that’s also a problem for me. Not the specific details of the story itself; the series’ “lovers from warring factions” set-up is classic, and I really do love the extreme weirdness of the thing. No, what I’m talking about here is more the nuts and bolts of plot movement, the specific way scenes play out. It’s difficult to explain, especially since I don’t have the comics at hand to pick out examples. But there’s something of a “Screenwriting 101” feel to the book, making even the more outre and unexpected moments seem like something I’ve seen before.
Fiona Staples’ staging of things is also partially to blame for this, I think. She draws well, and can design the shit out of some aliens…
…but she’s not always the most dynamic or innovative storyteller in the world. She’s not bad, but her layout and camera placement are just sort of… what you’d expect. She seldom surprises and never really sings. But Vaughn’s scripts might actually need someone whose storytelling goes beyond the everyday, and she doesn’t often deliver that.
Whatever the root cause of it is, I’m bored by things that I shouldn’t be bored by, and that bugs me. Which is, I guess, what I’m saying about Saga overall: it’s too safe in its execution, and that bothers me. It’s an un-Hollywood sort of story being told in a very Hollywood sort of way. It doesn’t demand my attention, and so doesn’t belong among my best of the year.
So let’s see… What else? What else? I’m sure there are other glaring omissions. I can’t remember if Chris Ware or Dan Clowes put books out this year, but I’ve discussed before how I admire their talent but don’t enjoy their work. And I do have a sudden sinking feeling that I forgot about a new Optic Nerve comic from Adrian Tomine that I did enjoy. But if it slipped my mind that easily, maybe that’s okay. So to close things out, I’m going to talk about a book that very nearly made the list, but got bumped at the last minute…
Afterlife With Archie, by Roberto Aguirre Sacasa and Francesco Franavilla
The real appeal here is in the premise: the zombie apocalypse comes to Riverdale. Now, as I said at the outset, I’m not a big zombie fan. Neither am I a big Archie fan. But the juxtaposition of the two is an inherently funny idea, and the comic itself is bloodily charming. It’s written in the style of a nighttime teen drama, and is a reminder of why the Archie characters have such enduring appeal: they’re high school archetypes with equally archetypcal relationships. Add in the zombies, and you’ve got a small-town horror show with a cast of characters you already know and care about. Kind of genius, really.
Of course, even that sure-fire of an idea wouldn’t work if the execution was poor. But Aguirre Sacasa’s scripts offer up a slightly more mature take on the Archie gang that still feels true to their established personalities. And the art. Well. Francesco Francavilla is maybe the most popular of a growing group of comics artists who are bringing classic cartooning chops back into mainstream funnybooks. Francavilla’s both fast and good (a rare combination of talents), and landing him for this project is probably the best move Archie Comics has made with it. He’s what got me to pick it up, anyway, and I haven’t been disappointed.
He’s not a Frank Quitely, whose every panel is a dynamic work of art unto itself. But he is a guy who delivers nothing less than rock-solid work, punctuated by more dynamic moments that sell the book as a whole, and maybe have more immediate impact because they come less frequently. In the long run, the Quitely approach is richer, and rewards re-reading on books that will stand up to multiple readings. But for throw-away pop comics like this one? Francavilla is ideal.
Why didn’t Afterlife With Archie make the list, then? Ultimately, because it is throw-away pop comics. I like it just fine, but I’ll never re-read it, and will probably switch to digital on it pretty soon just to keep the things from cluttering up my house. But also? Well… I only wanted one Honorable Mention. It was between this book and Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic’s Thor, and I had an axe to grind with that book on the subject of creative vision vs corporate marketing. So Archie got the bump. But I’ve talked about it now anyway, so I suppose it’s all good.
And that, finally, wraps up our look at the best funnybooks of 2013. I have no idea what I’ll be writing about next week, but I’m sure it’ll be… something. Or maybe just a couple of pretty pictures. Whatever happens, I hope to see you then.