In an entertainment ecosystem where a comic-book character’s popularity is judged largely by whether it’s made it to a movie or a TV show, the heroes and villains of Saga stand apart for the fact that you can only find them in four-color format. No adaptations are on the horizon for this megahit sci-fi/fantasy tale, however much fans (including celebrities like Tessa Thompson) may clamor for one. Instead, it just continues to be one of the most acclaimed non-superhero comic books in history and a perennial “you may not like comics, but you’ll like this” recommendation.
Volume eight hit stands a few weeks ago and the next story arc is coming up next month, so we caught up with writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples to talk about whether they’re eyeing a Saga movie, what we can expect in the next few months, and the prospect of Lin-Manuel Miranda making a Saga musical.
I don’t know how much detail you want to get into, but what can we look forward to in the next story arc?
Brian K. Vaughan: It’s about fake news and genuine terror. Tabloid reporters Upsher and Doff have been an important part of our series for a long time, but now they finally get to meet military deserters Marko and Alana, and their forbidden romance is potentially the scoop of the century. I won’t ruin exactly how that will play out, but it hopefully won’t be how you expect. We haven’t done an arc with a real “horror” vibe to it, but this story line felt like the ideal time, especially exploiting a new location where our characters are headed, inspired by some incredible reference photos Fiona sent me.
As any series approaches its 50th issue, I think it’s easy for audiences to start to take it for granted, and we’re definitely not the hot new book on shelves anymore. But with these next six issues, Fiona and I really wanted to pull out all of the stops to give everyone our very best story yet. This will be a big, shocking, permanently impactful adventure, so don’t risk waiting for the collection and possibly being spoiled! Our series returns monthly at the end of February, so we hope readers will join us for the ongoing ride.
You’re both exceedingly good at first and last pages. What’s the anatomy of crafting one? Forgive me if the answer is just, “It’s like creating any other page, you numbskull.”
BKV: Thanks for saying so! A great first page should make you want to read the rest of the issue, and a great last page should make you want to read the next issue immediately, even if you have to wait a month. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty challenging, especially when you’re doing it for the 49th time like we are with Saga. For example, ending a story with someone putting a gun to your hero’s head might seem like a good cliff-hanger, but when I worked at Lost, they called that “schmuck bait,” since only the schmucks in the audience really believe you’re going to kill off your protagonist. Strong openings and closings are usually more emotional than plot-driven.
Fiona Staples: Brian is awesome at choosing those bizarre, shocking, or funny moments that either make you need to turn the page, or leave you in horrible suspense until the next issue. When I draw splash pages like that I just try to play up the tension in the image, and often zoom in fairly close to eliminate any context for the scenario.
If you can, I’d love for each of you to identify a detail or flourish that the other put into a Saga issue that really impressed you.
BKV: Fiona does this in every panel of every page, but most recently, I love that she showed Alana with visible stretch marks on her stomach. In the script, I think I had even stupidly described Alana having a “tight flat stomach” (to show that time had passed since her miscarriage and operation), but as she always does, Fiona works hard to very thoughtfully make these far-out sci-fi characters feel grounded, relatable, and real.
FS: I like how Brian decided that the offspring of a centaur and a human would be a disgusting horse with half a man growing out of its back. A refreshing reminder that it may not make sense, but we get to make the rules. In reality, of course, the child would be a three-legged person who is horse from the knees down.
What made you decide to tackle abortion in volume eight, and what pitfalls did you want to avoid while talking about it?
BKV: Because it’s often aimed at a family audience, space opera usually deals with fairly black-and-white issues of “good and evil,” but I think the genre is an ideal place for mature readers to explore more complex, morally gray areas. And I love pitfalls; never mind diving headfirst into them!
Volume eight is, in part, a Western. What Western fiction did you turn to for narrative and visual inspiration? If you didn’t need anything for inspiration, I’d still love to know what some of your favorite Westerns are.
BKV: Yeah, I was more inspired by past events in my own life than by any movies. I love the classics like Unforgiven and High Noon, of course, but I’ll also always have a special place in my heart for The Quick and the Dead.
FS: My favorite Westerns are Tombstone, Unforgiven, and 3:10 to Yuma, but for this volume I was inspired by the surrealism and silly animals in Rango. I was also drawing it during the Calgary Stampede, so for three weeks I was immersed in Western pageantry.
In terms of both writing and art, what are the keys to creating a good animal sidekick, à la Lying Cat, Friendo, and Sweet Boy (RIP)?
BKV: As far as writing animal sidekicks, I’d say a little goes a long way.
FS: Cute — but not too cute! I think if there’s something slightly creepy or ugly about the animal, they end up being more memorable and ultimately more lovable.
How did you find out about Tessa Thompson’s Saga tweets? Have you been in communication with her at all?
BKV: A reader mentioned it to me at a Paper Girls signing, actually. I thought Tessa was fantastic in Thor, and it’s very flattering that she even knows our comic exists. But right now, Fiona and I have no plans to adapt Saga, much less to start casting it, so we haven’t been in communication with any actors.
And how about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Saga shout-out in the New York Times last year? How’d you learn about that, and did he ever get in touch?
BKV: Yeah, I love that column about creators and books in the Times, so I was reading it myself when I saw that epic Saga shout-out. We’ve never spoken with Mr. Miranda, but seeing Hamilton on stage was one of the greatest experiences of my artistic life, and it’s a ridiculous honor to know he reads our work. I know I said we’re not pursuing adaptations, but if Lin-Manuel ever wants to mount a Saga musical, it’s all his, wouldn’t you say, Fiona?
FS: Absolutely! I bet Fard has great pipes.
Along those lines: How often do celebrities tell you they love Saga, and have you gotten used to it?
BKV: I will never get used to the fact that strangers are reading my writing, but it’s always exhilarating, especially when someone tells us that Saga is the very first comic she/he/they ever read.
Is there any fan-casting that you’ve found particularly delightful?
BKV: I know I’m a grumpy old man, but I’m always more delighted by readers talking about the actual comics than people talking about how eager they are to have their favorite comics be “elevated” into another medium. Adaptations are great (watch Runaways, now on Hulu!), but for me, comics have always been the destination, not a stepping-stone to get somewhere else.
FS: I like that every fancast I see is different, which to me shows that these characters are distinct individuals and not perfect analogues to any existing actors. Michelle Yeoh is a popular choice for Klara though, and I’m 100 percent onboard for that.
I’ve already asked Brian this in a previous interview, but Fiona, when did people start telling you, “I’m not a comics reader, but I love Saga?”
FS: At conventions and store signings when we were just a few issues in! It’s super gratifying because we really wanted this book to be accessible to all different types of readers. I think comics fans were the first to pick it up, and they thankfully lent it out or gifted it to the non-comics readers in their lives.
I know it’s hard to pick apart the impact of one’s work, but do either of you have theories about why Saga has been so appealing for audiences who aren’t usually into comics?
BKV: I love comics, but I also think that the vast majority of them are fairly ugly and impenetrable. But Fiona’s work is gorgeous, and, more importantly, so easily accessible to anyone, even if the only comics you’ve ever read were in the funnies section of your newspaper as a kid.
FS: It definitely helps that it’s a new, original series without decades of back issues to sort through. It’s pretty simple to start with volume one and go from there. And when you’re following a comic that’s still regularly coming out, I think it feels like being part of something, like watching a story unfold in real time. So we have that going for us. That, and Brian’s cruel cliff-hanger endings.
What have you learned about your fan base from the letters pages and the reader surveys?
BKV: I’ve learned that we are extremely lucky to have an incredibly diverse, eclectic global audience comprised of very smart human beings ranging in age from 12 to 93. And they all somehow still own stamps and know how to navigate the Postal Service.
FS: It reflects what I’ve seen at real-life events like signings: our readers are all kind, intelligent, enthusiastic people. Many of them are willing to stand in line for hours for a sketch, then line up all over again to get a second one. They make me wish my sketches were better.
Brian, how long does the average letters page take you, from reading through all the emails to actually writing the responses? And how does the process make you feel?
BKV: Thank you for asking, because it takes fucking forever! It’s all my fault for making the process so complicated, but I really despise email, and I love holding readers’ physical missives in my hands. I pick up mail at the To Be Continued headquarters a few times a week, and read every single wacky letter we receive. With the help of my loyal mail-dachshund Hamburger K. Vaughan, I try to pick ten or so intriguing contenders, usually something more interesting than just boring praise for the book. We love complaints, moral quandaries, unrelated anecdotes, etc. I don’t have an assistant or interns or anything, but my wife graciously takes time away from her playwriting career to read everyone’s abysmal handwriting and transcribe the selected letters for me. I then write up my responses, and after our designer Fonografiks lays out the whole thing as a lovely document, I send off some terrible prizes to our Letter of the Month winner. It’s a labor-intensive process that we probably lose money on (especially because we could be selling those extra pages for ads), but I love finding out about our crazy talented/just crazy family of readers, so I hope we can keep this going for the duration of the series.
One thing I love about Saga is how you’re never quite sure what the parameters of the universe are. For example, I was shocked to discover that fidget spinners exist in that world. What are some hard-and-fast rules you have about the Saga cosmos? Or is everything on the table at all times?
BKV: Despite all of the graphic sex and violence, I knew that mentioning fidget spinners would be the most controversial moment of the most-recent arc of Saga. It drives some readers bonkers when elements of the real world invade what they think of as their escapist fiction, but I love it. When Star Wars first came out, it was a radical idea to have a scummy dive bar appear in a sci-fi/fantasy story, but now every sci-fi/fantasy story has one. I don’t think there should be any hard and fast rules about what can and can’t appear in our universe, but I’m a big fan of mixing incredibly imaginative elements with shockingly familiar ones.
FS: I decided not to set any parameters or do any mental world-building back in issue one, as soon as horned wizard Marko mentioned his schoolbus. This wasn’t going to be a typical fantasy story with neatly defined societies and immutable lore, and I couldn’t design it in advance because I had no idea what Brian had planned. Our scope is really broad — the Saga universe has everything that Earth does, plus more. So anything goes!