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August 28, 2018 at 02:53 PM EDT

All good things must come to an end, they say…but every so often, good things need a bit of a break, too. Ever since it first began in 2012, the science-fiction comic Saga by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples has astounded readers with its story of star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana trying to raise their baby daughter Hazel in the midst of a seemingly endless war between their two species. Vaughan and Staples have now produced 54 issues of Saga (collected into eight paperback volumes, with a ninth coming in September, or two omnibus editions) and won multiple Eisner Awards for their creative storytelling, but now they think it’s time for a hiatus — especially considering the game-changing, heartbreaking events of issue #54.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for issues #53 and #54 of Saga. Read at your own risk!

Throughout the series, Vaughan and Staples have loved to pull the rug out from under their characters at the worst possible moments. And so, just as the main characters had all reunited on the planet Quietus, disaster struck. The Will, the bounty hunter who was tasked with hunting down Marko and Alana way back in the series’ first issue, was brought to Quietus by his sadistic torturer Ianthe. Things only got worse after The Will escaped from Ianthe’s control. He killed Prince Robot IV in revenge for the robot murdering his lover The Stalk way back in an early issue. This enraged Marko, who let his well-honed pacifism slide in favor of murderous bloodlust. Marko tackled The Will, and the two combatants ended up battling on a spaceship as it rocketed away from Quietus’ orbit. Marko overpowered The Will and came close to killing him…only to relinquish the chance at a finishing move in favor of looking out the window at the planet where his family still survived. It was a deadly mistake, one that allowed The Will to sneak up behind Marko and deliver a fatal blow to one of Saga‘s most important characters. As Marko lay bleeding to death, readers were treated to the very same narration by Hazel that ended issue #1: “Thanks to my parents, at least I get to grow old. Not everybody does.”

EW caught up with Vaughan and Staples to discuss the staggering events and the need for a temporary break from the series.

Image Comics

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Saga has always thrived on cliffhangers like this, but now it feels like you’ve outdone yourselves with this one. What are you hoping people to feel after reading issue #54? Why does it feel right to take a hiatus now?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: I’m still processing how I feel about it myself. I think it’s part of the reason that we felt we’re gonna need to give everyone some time to digest this. But it’s a little easier for Fiona and me, in that we always knew from the beginning this is Hazel’s story that we’re setting out to tell. It’s difficult when Hazel’s just an infant, because she’s a character with no agency and basically just a lump getting carried around, so it’s very much Marko’s and Alana’s story at the beginning. But we knew this point would come, where there would be an uncomfortable transition to really make it clear that this is Hazel’s story and her parents are a part of the story. But like for all of us, sadly, they’re not a permanent part of that story.

FIONA STAPLES: Saga‘s plot building to this climax happens to coincide with my own feelings of mild burnout. It took seven years to get the story to this point, and being under intense deadline pressure nearly the whole time was starting to wear me out. I also experienced a lot of loss and change in my life this year, and Saga‘s increasingly heavy themes began to hit close to home! It felt necessary to take a step back and let the book and ourselves breathe for a bit.

Courtesy Image Comics

Did you guys have any tearful conversations about these deaths?
VAUGHAN: My wife and I went to Canada for Fiona’s wedding. The day after we went out for breakfast, and we were just talking about this most recent arc. After each story line we discuss, what did you like, what did you not like, what environments do you wanna draw, what themes do you want to explore? But Fiona doesn’t like exact spoilers. Fiona likes to read the script and have an emotional experience and then channel that into drawing. So I just had to be like, ‘Things that we maybe hinted at are going to be happening, is there anything that’s off-limits or that you would never not want to do?’ But Fiona’s the best, she’s very trusting. She was like, ‘I know it’s gonna be painful and I hate you for it already, but let’s do what the story is telling us what to do and be truthful to that.’ So, no tears. Fiona’s a consummate professional who kills people with grace and elegance.

Fiona, How did you react to reading the script where Marko dies?
STAPLES: I get weepy whenever one of our beloved characters is written out. Hazel’s narration in the final scene, echoed from our very first issue, is what really got me. At the same time, I was kind of relieved because I had convinced myself that Alana and Marko would BOTH die.

Courtesy Image Comics

Marko’s death sequence is essentially wordless, and the burden is really on Fiona there to tell this important story moment. How did you guys approach that? I was really blown away by the result.
VAUGHAN: I was too. It’s a great relief to know that something really important is going to happen, and I need to get out of Fiona’s way and let her do what she’s always done, which is tell the story visually and emotionally.

STAPLES: It’s just someone who is finally more or less at peace with who he is, and with most of the choices he’s made. It’s a quiet and lonely scene, since Marko’s last violent rage has carried him far away from his family. I wanted to emphasize the suddenness and apparent randomness of The Will’s attack, and tried to draw it in a pretty matter-of-fact way to give it a sense of finality.

Image Comics
Image Comics

Was Marko’s death foreshadowed at all by his father’s death earlier in the series? He compares himself to his father a lot.
VAUGHAN: Since that issue came out, it’s been fun — well, fun is the wrong word — to see people starting to read the book over from the beginning. I think the fact that the narration that ends #54 is the same narration that ends the very first issue shows that this is something we’ve been planning since the very beginning. There have been issues where people have said ‘Hey, nothing happened that issue! What was that about?’ It’s always a setup for something we intend to pay off down the line. I hope it will be a bittersweet experience to read the story from the beginning and see the seeds we planted early on.

I must admit, I ended up feeling internally guilty because when Ghüs and Squire were on their hunt in issue #48, I was like, ‘Oh no, no matter what, please don’t let anything happen to Ghüs!’ And now it’s like, ‘Well I didn’t mean this!’
VAUGHAN: It’s been interesting because I remember when the first issue came out, some people were like, ‘It’s weird that baby Hazel is narrating from the future because we have a sense that things are going to turn out okay for her, so there are no stakes.’ From the very beginning I was just like, ‘Oh, we will see about that.’

It’s been really fun — again, fun being the wrong word…fascinating, maybe — to see a character like Prince Robot IV, someone that readers really despised at the beginning and have been all over the map with him throughout the series. They hate him, they love him, they mourn him. The Will has been something similar. For the last half-year as he’s been tortured by this despicable character, and people have been praying for him to break out of bondage. Like, ‘Let’s see The Will get back to being The Will again and killing people.’ And now it’s like you said: ‘No, we didn’t mean like that!’ It’s been very interesting to work on a comic where you try to have every character be fully rounded, neither a hero nor a villain but just a human being trying to get through their day.

Marko isn’t the only character we’ve said goodbye to in these last few issues. Fiona, who will you most miss drawing?
STAPLES: I’ve always loved drawing the robots because it’s such a fun challenge to give faceless people personality and emotion. Prince Robot IV wasn’t the only android in our story, but I’ll certainly miss him a lot.

Your guys’ depiction of war in Saga almost resembles something like The Iliad, where no one really knows why they’re fighting in the first place and it just becomes a cycle of self-perpetuating violence. Prince Robot went on this whole redemption journey, but even so his murder of The Stalk way back in issue #5 still came back to bite him in the end. 
VAUGHAN: That’s been my thought since the very beginning. As I’ve started to have children of my own, I realized Star Wars would be a huge part of their upbringing, as it was for me. Star Wars is obviously a classic and an important piece of art, but it has little to do with actual war. It’s interesting that for a lot of kids it’s your first exposure to war, like, ‘Oh the bad guys wear this costume, the good guys wear this costume, and you can end it through bravery and getting this MacGuffin.’ It has very little to do with the reality of war. To try and do a fantasy sci-fi story, but to try and do it with the complexity and moral grays of actual conflict has been an education for me. I think a lot about violence, and how much I absolutely love violence in fiction, where it’s beautiful and funny and cathartic. But violence in reality is universally stupid and immoral and ugly, so how do you wed those two concepts together? That has a lot to do with this conclusion we were trying to explore.

Why does it feel right to go on hiatus now?
VAUGHAN: I think comic books are one of the only forms of media where there’s a sense that it’s never-ending and constant. Spider-Man writers come and go, but Spider-Man is still going to be there every single month. That’s not true of movies, where there’s years between your favorite movie and its sequels. Television has summer breaks, and even longer breaks if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, same for novels…everything else involves a degree of, ‘Okay, this team worked really hard to push out a lot of product, now they need time to regroup.’ It’s just not gonna last, this corporate mandate to keep this machine running. I realized from the beginning that I didn’t want a fill-in artist. Fiona is an equal collaborator in this. So from the very beginning we had to figure out, how are we going to do this? So every six issues we took a little break in-between. That really seemed to work and readers supported it, like, ‘We would rather have a little less of you every year, in exchange for these consistent voices together.’ Fiona has drawn and colored all 54 issues, so we just knew there was gonna be a point where we’d need to regroup and take a breath. It’s something we’ve been talking about for even longer than the deaths in these issues, but we knew once we got specifically to this point there would be a chance for both of us to pause and spend time with our actual families before returning to our fictional ones.

Image Comics
Image Comics
Image Comics
Image Comics

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