Saga creators preview their long-awaited return
Marko and Alana, star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of a galactic war, begin the first issue of Saga by giving birth to their daughter Hazel, and have spent every issue since then trying their best to nurture and protect her against an unforgiving universe. Saga has won 12 Eisner Awards (the most prestigious honors in the comics industry) and cracked multiple bestseller lists. It was also EW's favorite comic of the decade.
But then, Vaughan and Staples took a break.
Saga #54 was published in July 2018, and featured the violent deaths of more than one beloved character. Afterwards, in an exclusive interview with EW, Vaughan and Staples explained why they were going on hiatus. "Saga's plot building to this climax happens to coincide with my own feelings of mild burnout," Staples told EW at the time. "It felt necessary to take a step back and let the book and ourselves breathe for a bit."
That was more than three years ago, and a lot has happened since then. But next month, Saga is finally coming back with issue #55. In advance of this long-awaited return, EW caught up with Vaughan and Staples to discuss their feelings about making more Saga, the ins and outs of character design, the cost of violence, and what it means for an idea to survive. This is their first interview since announcing the end of their hiatus.
As you might expect, the creators were reluctant to reveal many plot details, so as a result this interview is pretty spoiler-free. But please proceed with caution if you aren't fully caught up on the previous 54 issues.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When exactly did the hiatus end for you guys? When did you start coming back to talking, writing, and drawing Saga?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: I think some people have noticed that Fiona's cover for issue #55 has a little "20" down on the bottom, as in 2020. I think that was probably pre-pandemic. We had definitely started up the machinery again, but then the pandemic was like, let's slow down this machinery for a little bit. We didn't take much time away from, at least, thinking about Saga until the time we really started working again.
Okay that's something I had been wondering, if the timing of the pandemic ended up prolonging the hiatus maybe a little longer than it would have been otherwise.
VAUGHAN: For sure. We didn't know what was going on with Image Comics or what was going on with comic book stores. What was distribution going to look like? Then we just also had the standard complications of trying to have your own family and be a creator at the same time. It definitely slowed it down. We were eager to get back, but it was nice that we never gave Image a specific "here's the day we're coming back." I think we both just wanted to wait until it felt right and we were re-energized and ready to do it.
FIONA STAPLES: We started coming back quite a while ago, well over a year ago. I'm not sure how soon Brian had the script for #55 finished, but I personally started going back to work very, very slowly. Just like an hour or two a day was all that I could get away for. I'm still not really back to full-time work. I'm still sort of part-time. My workday looks a lot different than it used to. I think we were just being really cautious, trying to bank a few issues before we announced the release date and take our time with it and think about what shape the last half of the series is going to be.
So how did it feel coming back? Fiona, how did it feel when you started drawing Saga characters again? Brian, you said you were thinking about Saga even during the hiatus, but what was it like to kind of actually sit down and begin working on the script for issue #55?
VAUGHAN: I have to imagine it was wildly different for both of us. For me, it's such a great relief. Saga is how I process whatever I'm going through in my life, it's such a joy. Fiona has the backbreaking labor of having to make this nonsense a reality. So I felt relief and joy. I imagine Fiona felt more terror than I did.
STAPLES: [Laughs] I felt a little bit rusty for sure. It took a while to get back into the swing of things and remember, um, how to draw. But after that I did start feeling more like myself again. I felt like I had my life back again.
VAUGHAN: Comparing the first page of Saga, which is one of my favorite pages of anything, to the first page that we're coming back with, you can just see how much Fiona has grown as an artist and how I've just completely stagnated. I'm the same, but Fiona feels like a wholly new human being coming out of this.
STAPLES: It's been a very long time since our first issue, which we started working on in 2011. It's been a whole decade of Saga!
This page you guys have shown us obviously calls back to that very first page of Saga, from "this is how an idea becomes real" to "this is how an idea survives." Has that had you thinking back to the beginning in a new way?
STAPLES: Yeah, it's hard not to sort of reflect on the whole journey and compare then and now in terms of the characters and the story and where they're at, and also where we're at in our own lives. Brian, I think when we first started this series, you just had your first child?
VAUGHAN: Yeah, by the time I finished that first script. Fiona was contentedly child-free at the time.
Saga is a book about many things, but, but one of the main things it's about is his family and the relationships between kids and their parents. Fiona, how has becoming a parent kind of affected your relationship to the Saga characters and material? Brian, how is it fueled by your personal experience?
STAPLES: When I look back at the earlier issues, I definitely relate to Alana and Marko's struggles. I think one of the wonderful things about the book is that you definitely don't need to be a parent to empathize with them or to go along on the journey with them. Our readers are so diverse: We have kids, people with and without families of their own, people of all ages. I guess it made me relate to them slightly differently, but I've also had such a long relationship with these characters that's firmly established already. I feel like I know them, and that hasn't changed. My approach to the work has changed a little bit, because I just don't have as many hours a day to do pages. I'm trying to be a little bit more efficient. I'm trying to be a little bit more decisive with the art and not second guess myself so much.
VAUGHAN: This industry, comic books, is such a treadmill that you're almost never allowed to get off of. If you've got a monthly book it's due, it's due, it's due. When my kids were born, that was really the first opportunity that I'd had to get off the treadmill and just sort of stop for awhile. That's partly what Saga was born out of. It was just such a creatively fruitful time for me and I realized it's more important for the work to be good and for me to be proud of it, then to just get out as much of it as possible. So I'm grateful that Image is such a good, generous partner to us. They're like, "your families are what fuels Saga, so they come first. Find a way to give us as much Saga as you can but also be there for your family."
As Fiona says, I started writing when I became a parent, but I also knew everyone finds other people's tales of parenthood extremely boring. So it was like, I want this to appeal more to people who are creators, who try to create anything: Whether that's nonfiction, or music, or a family. I wanted a story about how hard it is to create new things in a world that doesn't always appreciate new things. Right now, our lives have changed and the book has changed, but that's still very much what Saga remains about.
Brian, you've mentioned that issue #54 was the halfway point of Saga, and that you have 108 total issues planned. How much of a long-term plan is set in stone? How much do you let Fiona in on?
VAUGHAN: I would tell Fiona everything, but she doesn't want spoilers! She wants to read the script and then channel her surprise, horror or disappointments into the page. But usually, in between each arc, we discuss, "what did you like about that arc? What did you not like?" And every once in a while, Fiona will do something like draw Ghüs, a little seal guy, and she'll be like, "I just drew this person. Can he be in the book?" And I realized immediately, "can he be in the book? No, the book is basically about this guy moving forward."
Similarly, I've got a really good road map for the second half. I know what the last panel of the last page is going to be. But I want to give us the freedom to deviate from that roadmap when Fiona has brilliant ideas or says, "hey I think it would be great to take a side trip" or "man I'd really love to draw a Western right now." So there's a firm detailed roadmap, but also the freedom to take those side trips whenever they pop up.
I don't expect you guys to tease too many details or spoilers or anything, but I do have the question written down: "Is Ghüs okay?" I love knowing that origin story for him, and I hope we can see him in the near future, because I would love to know what he's up to.
VAUGHAN: Fiona, you're his creator, his god. Will we get to see more of that guy ever?
STAPLES: I hope so! I hope we'll see him.
VAUGHAN: That good boy is out there somewhere, even if he doesn't show up in the first issue back. I know readers would boycott otherwise.
My girlfriend actually has the plushy of Ghüs and he's just such a perfect plushy. I think I told you this, Brian, in our last interview that going into those final issues, it was a real monkey's paw situation where I was just saying to myself, "don't let anything bad happen to Ghüs. Just let Ghüs be okay!" And, um, he was! It ended up being other people that got in trouble…
STAPLES: What have you done? That was a very irresponsible wish.
That's how I felt!
VAUGHAN: I think some people have noted that… without spoiling what happens for people who haven't read the whole journey yet, some terrible things happened in issue #54. And though Ghüs is not responsible for them, you can trace back some of what happened to Ghüs earlier on. Any character who commits any sort of act of violence in Saga, it feels like there's always going to be a cost to that — no matter how much we love them and how adorable they are. So will Ghüs pay for his sins someday? I guess we'll see.
That's one of the things I love most about those final issues. The Will's lover The Stalk was killed all the way back in issue #5. It took almost 50 issues for the consequences of that murder to come back around, but they very much did. It's like what you were just saying about violence reverberating: The characters who get hurt in these ways, that pain doesn't go away and they might still feel vengeful about it years down the line.
VAUGHAN: I'm torn between being a radical pacifist in the real world and also recognizing that violence is awesome in fiction. So I try and do a story where I can have my cake and eat it too. We're telling an extremely violent story with real stakes. Violence isn't just an easy out, it will always have complications.
When it comes to planning things that have a longer payoff, I've noticed that during the hiatus certain comic websites have done full Saga rereads, going back to the beginning and reading things in light of what happens in #54. I also know people who have been reading Saga for the first time since the hiatus began. What kind of expectations or mindset do you hope readers bring to issue #55?
STAPLES: I think every view issue of Saga that you open, regardless of how long it's been, is going to be kind of a surprise, and probably a mixed bag of feelings. So I hope readers approach with an open mind. I don't know what people are expecting from the story. It's been such a long time both in the real world and in the fictional universe. If they're hoping for some sort of resolution with a certain death, that might be a long time coming because it's something the characters are still working through themselves. That's not something that has a neat and tidy resolution. If they're looking forward to meeting some new characters, definitely we have that. If they just want to see some familiar faces again, you'll see who Hazel has grown and what others are up to. That's something that I personally really enjoyed seeing.
VAUGHAN: We were very deliberate in saying, this is chapter 55. We didn't want it to be one of those "here's a brand new number one issue." That's not really whatever what Saga is about. It's one big epic tale and so we wanted to encourage people to go back and read it again, but we also know there'll be plenty of people who won't, since it's been three years. And so what if this is really, you're just coming into a story? I think like our first issue, we throw you headfirst into this story. But now, it's Hazel's story. She's the one who has agency and we're following it more from her perspective. So it will hopefully feel familiar in all the right ways and new and scary in some hopefully exciting ways. But yeah, we have no idea what people will make of it, so it will be very interesting to see.
What can you guys tease, even in the most general terms, about what Hazel has been going through since the last time we saw her? What kind of growing up has she done?
VAUGHAN: We're so reluctant to spoil anything, but I guess we can say that just as much time has passed for Hazel as her audience. She hasn't gone down to the day. The Saga universe hasn't had to endure a pandemic or any of the stuff that we had to do. Her family has had to deal with an extraordinary amount of grief, but it's been three years, and I think we'll see that Hazel and what remains of her family have all dealt with that grief and continue to deal with that grief in very different ways.
Hazel is already looking a little different from what we've seen of her before, and the cover of issue #55 features at least one new character. Fiona, what's the fun of redesigning old favorites versus inventing totally new characters?
STAPLES: We've seen several years pass for these characters. So with every arc, their look gets adjusted and reinvented slightly, and it's always fun to style their costumes based on their surroundings and the theme of whatever arc we're doing. Like for the volume about the abortion planet with the Western theme, I got to give everybody cowboy clothes. There are usually little changes to their appearance, as well as just very gradually aging and showing the signs of that on them: Like Alan's slightly changing facial features, her different hair, the marks and the scars that her body has been through. I find that really satisfying to track and watch it evolve. Hazel is probably growing and changing in the most obvious way. Now she's 9 years old and she has a, complex inner life of her own. She's making a lot of her own style choices, which is cool. We get to see some of Hazel's more creative fashion choices.
Designing new characters is always interesting because I don't know exactly what their place in the story is going to be, long-term. Like, are they gonna end up being friendly or completely evil? I just try to do something interesting and unique. Because we have such a huge cast of characters, I try to make each one memorable in their own way, with unique features and a unique silhouette.
I guess Hazel's fashion would have to be interesting, right? Because nobody else in the universe really looks like her. Nobody else has the horns and the wings.
VAUGHAN: She's been struggling with her identity since she was born and tends to surround herself with friends and mentors who have also, I think, been coming to terms with their own identities. So it's fun to get to see, as she grows older, that inner struggle be externalized with how she chooses to look from moment to moment. It's really fun.
This is a little more internal for Hazel, but as she gets older, is her relationship to the narration changing? Saga is narrated by her future self, and for the longest time she was kind of pre-verbal or just a toddler. It was an older Hazel speaking for a version of herself that couldn't speak. But now Hazel can talk for herself. Brian, how have you been thinking about that?
VAUGHAN: Yeah, it's so interesting. We're very coy about what point in the future this is being narrated from. She's always been older than whatever version of herself she's narrating, but yes, our narrator's also growing as the series progresses. So I think it's subtle, but hopefully you'll be able to see that the way she comments changes because now, as you point out, Hazel the character is verbal and has agency. So you don't want the narration to just be like, 'yep, I did exactly what I said there.' I think it's more of a counterpoint: Looking back at your younger self either in awe and wonder of 'wow, look what I accomplished at that age' or the terror of, 'oh my God, what a little s--t I was, how did I not almost die here?' So it's definitely, I guess, how I feel interacting with my own children every day.
One of the things we talked about last time is that the early issues of Saga almost trick the reader into seeing Marko and Alana as the protagonists, since Hazel was a newborn. Is it fair to say that now Hazel has taken more of the protagonist role for herself, and will be more of the driver of the plot and action?
STAPLES: She's obviously still a minor and isn't driving her own spaceship around the universe, but I'd say she's become more of a point-of-view character. We have more scenes that are centered on her, her goals, and her feelings about everyone around her. We'll see her interests, her hobbies. She's thinking about her future and what she wants to be, she's finding out what she loves doing. So yeah, she's definitely more of a main character in that sense. We are spending more time getting to know her.
VAUGHAN: It was very deliberate to call the book Saga and not Epic or something, because Saga always has that family component. I think you're right that Hazel is becoming the hub more, but it's still a story about a family, and her family is expanding in unpredictable ways. This is still a tale of her entire family, not just her.
How does it feel to be at the halfway point? Does it feel like the best is yet to come? How do you look to the future of Saga?
STAPLES: I'm excited to see what happens. At this point it's not just a job that I do from like 9-5. It's sort of my lifestyle. I accepted long ago that I'd be doing this for potentially decades. [Laughs] So yeah, I'm just going to settle in, see where it goes, and enjoy discovering new ways to make art.
VAUGHAN: Same. It is so exciting. It does feel a little daunting since we've promised that this is the halfway mark. And so we have to climb this mountain now. But we've already climbed the mountain once, so we know how to do it, we know the path. We just want to do it better than last time, or what's the point of it all? That's our only challenge: Trying to do it better than we did before. I feel we're off to a pretty good start with these first few issues. We hope readers agree, and mostly we're just so grateful for their patience during this time.
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