Major Issues: Saga #20 and Binge Watching vs. Actually Doing Something

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly released comic book each week. Updated Fridays.

Gardner Mounce

Saga #20
Written by Brian K Vaughan

Art by Fiona Staples
Published by Image Comics
Release: 6/25/2014

Saga is not a comic for the faint of heart. It’s irreverent, crude, and pairs attraction with repulsion like a sociopathic sommelier. For example, this very NSFW picture of a naked woman with a spider vagina. Awesome! Saga is a mixed bag. It sometimes hits with you an ethical quandary, and sometimes hits you with arachnid genitals. Just like in life.

If you know nothing about the comic, it’s the story of Alana and Marko, citizens of the planet Landfall and its moon Wreath, respectively. Landfall and Wreath are at war, but since the destruction of one would mess up the other’s orbit, the war has been outsourced. It’s Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet with a whole lot of Vonnegutian humor.

Of the many things Issue 20 deals with (drugs, dance lessons, …) it spends some of its time with Alana at her job at the Circuit (a television station, of sorts). She gets into a conversation with a coworker about what capital-g Good, if any, they’re doing as actors of the Circuit. The coworker says none; they’re drug-dealers, and the Circuit is the opiate for the masses. Alana counters by saying that as a kid she watched a Circuit show that irrevocably changed her views on poverty. But, her coworker counters, “What did you do? Join a nonprofit organization? Volunteer at a soup kitchen? Or did you lock yourself in a tiny room, shut the blinds and mainline every transmission like a junkie?”

This is a great question for our binge-watching culture, and the type of thing Saga is wont to ask. I’ll state it in another way: Is a story considered a failure if the audience doesn’t internalize the unique perspective and act on it?

It reminds me of a similar question brought up in Fahrenheit 451. In that book, the scholar-in-secret, Faber, argues that there are three things a healthy culture requires to avoid ossification: art with texture, leisure time to reflect upon that art, and the ability to act on the lessons learned from it. In our culture, I think that we do plenty of the first two, but do we allow ourselves to act on the implications of the art we engage with?

Allow me to completely derail this Saga train and talk a little about Orange is the New Black (no spoilers) because it’s a good example. Can we watch OitNB and shirk the onus to reform the prison system? Well, people do. But is this right? Are we avoiding the third step of Faber’s advice in Fahrenheit 451 and putting our society at risk of ossification? The best answer I can give is that social reform is a (possible) positive byproduct of good story, but not story’s objective.

The first thing stories do, as David Mamet says, is to order the universe into a comprehensible form. A story is working if your first inclination once an episode ends is to watch another one. That means you’re invested in its characters, in its world. It is ordering the universe into an exciting and comprehensible form and giving you some new perspective or understanding of it. And so a writer’s objective shouldn’t be “Well, I’m going to teach them all something,” but “I’m going to drop them into the world of story and show them (in an interesting way) a little of what it’s like to be these particular human beings.” If a story’s success was based on its ability to teach something, then we could reduce stories to preaching and pamphleteering. Our stories would all come to resemble The Pilgrim’s Progress. And, of course, stories are so much more than this. Great stores are like a black box we get dropped into. Once we get to the other side, we should be changed in some way. Maybe we don’t have a new answer, but we have a new perspective. In the case of OitNB, we see that the prison system is a dehumanizing system. It is not something the writers force on us like a sermon, but a condition of the characters’ lives. It is a necessary and unavoidable element of telling the story honestly.

But once we have that new perspective, is it wrong to not act on it? Are we watchers of OitNB immoral for locking ourselves in a dark room and binge-watching instead of working for prison reform?

Maybe you know more about the problem than I do, and maybe it’s not as bad as it seems, but based on what I know, I feel like I should do something. Am I going to go start a nonprofit? Rally in the streets? Honestly, no. But I will vote differently, and I will speak up in conversation. After all, maybe that’s the best way to effect social change–through stories, not through argumentative means, by showing how human lives are affected by the dehumanizing systems we have created, and creating empathy for them.

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Should you get it?

(Saga, not Orange is the New Black)

Yes. Though Saga has its weaknesses (almost all of the characters’ voices sound the same) it’s one of my favorite ongoing series. It’s smart, consistently hilarious, filled with bizarre environs and ridiculous characters, and very punk rock. It also raises great questions (see above article). You can get the trade paperback of the first six issues on Amazon or at your local comic book shop for $9.99.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

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