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Bodies in Saga

By Daniel Pinti

Since its first appearance in 2012, writer Brian K. Vaughan’s and artist Fiona Staples’s ongoing comic book series, Saga, has garnered critical praise, numerous awards, and a large, loyal readership.1 Whether explaining or encouraging such success, Vaughan, in an oft-quoted remark, once described his acclaimed space opera as “Star Wars for perverts.”2 His throwaway joke downplays the series’ significant thematic resonances and impressive creative energy, but it also hints at something no reader can miss: Saga is full of exceedingly strange, often grotesque, occasionally mutilated, not infrequently naked, sometimes copulating, increasingly varied bodies. Their wide and growing diversity, ranging from an anthropomorphized harp seal with a walrus-like creature for a companion, to a race of robots, humanoid from the neck down, with what look to be retro television monitors for heads, is intrinsic to the comic’s appeal. But bodies in Saga are more than a means to keep the story fresh and reader’s imagination engaged. Bodies in Saga very often exceed their presumed limits as well as readerly expectations, not only for the reason already implied—that is, their sheer, expanding multiplicity—but also by the ways in which their visual representation intertwines with distinctive verbal discourses which, through the multimodality of the medium of comics, render them frequently carnivalesque and persistently dialogic.

As those terms indicate, this paper looks at bodies in Saga through a Bakhtinian lens. I begin by considering how Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas regarding the dialogic nature of discourse, grotesque realism, and the carnivalesque body may be applied to bodies in Saga generally, showing how such bodies provide a corporeal context of sorts for the series’ protagonists and, ultimately, establish its attention to the intersection of narration and embodiment, the book and the body, in the story of its central characters: Marko, Alana, and their daughter, Hazel. I subsequently turn to the metafictional dimension of this comic book’s bodies, and finally to how, quite appropriately, the series’ focus on the kinds of challenges changing bodies can present to normative and oppressive discourses itself changes. Before I continue, two disclaimers are in order. First, because Saga is an ongoing series, the readings offered here perforce must be provisional. Also, and for the same reason, I will be drawing primarily (though not exclusively) on early examples of bodies in Saga, which are those that establish the storyworld of the series and its distinctive thematics of corporeality.

Hannah Miodrag has written, “given the staggering multi-disciplinarity of comics studies, it is vital that critics are responsive to relevant scholarly contexts if they are to engage in genuinely new thinking” (6-7). The writings of the 20th-century Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) not only provide one “relevant scholarly context” for new thinking in comics studies, but also offer a critical lens and a kind of theoretical meta-discourse that sustains much of what has been most valuable and influential in comics studies—formalist or otherwise—even as it opens new avenues to understanding the multi-disciplinarity inherent in the field. While I do not claim to be the first ever to employ Bakhtinian language to analyze comics, I would suggest that a genuine dialogue between Bakhtin and comics studies has only barely begun, and that such a dialogue is very much worth fostering.3 In Charles Hatfield’s words, “The rise of comics studies represents a fortunate crisis in knowledge production, and, methodologically, we will need to be more nimble and inclusive to face that challenge” (147). Bakhtin’s ideas can facilitate such critical openness and agility, not least because they have been found to be useful in a range of disciplines in both the humanities and social sciences with which comics intersect, including art, media studies, and cognitive psychology, as well as literature. More specifically, it is in part the range of Bakhtin’s perceptual metaphors that grants his work such potential for comics studies. As Michael Gardiner points out, “Bakhtin utilizes a shifting and nuanced system of perceptual metaphors [visual, aural/oral, tactile] over a range of texts, which subverts any attempt to construct a rigid valuational hierarchy of sensory experience” (58). Indeed, one finds in Bakhtin’s oeuvre a tendency to “visualize voice,” “spatialize time,” and “temporalize space,” so that, for one Bakhtinian scholar, “the truly radical nature of his work may lie precisely in the rejection of such neat categorical binaries”—categorical binaries, I would add, that the medium of comics itself in many ways alternately challenges, undermines, explores, and exploits (Erdinast-Vulcan 81).4 Succinctly put, comics work by visualizing voices, spatializing time, and temporalizing space.

At this point a few comments are necessary regarding how Bakhtin theorizes his overarching concept of “dialogue.” To get to dialogue, however, we must first understand what Bakhtin takes to be the fundamental object of his analysis—what he calls the “utterance,” which is in effect the performed, embodied, and therefore thoroughly social “speech act,” with “speech” here not at all limited to verbal discourse. The utterance is inherently dialogic, insofar as it is “never in itself originary . . . and always an answer to another utterance that precedes it, and is therefore always conditioned by, and in turn qualifies, the prior utterance” (Holquist 60). For Bakhtin, every literary text is a kind of utterance, and, as Michael Holquist puts it, “Words in literary texts are active elements in a dialogic exchange taking place on several different levels at the same time” (68). Consequently, a dialogic understanding of the literary text—or, in this case, the comics text—would emphasize the simultaneity of voices and discourses discernible at any given point in the work. In Bakhtin’s words, from perhaps his most widely influential essay, “Discourse in the Novel,” “The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue” (Dialogic 276). To take the matter a step further, Bakhtin certainly does not see dialogic relations as limited to language and literature. Rather, as he puts it, dialogism is “an almost universal phenomenon, permeating all human speech and all relationships and manifestations of human life, everything that has meaning and significance” (Problems 46). Therefore, following Bakhtin, we might approach any given comic—which of course “has meaning and significance”—as an intrinsically dialogic utterance, participating in multiple dialogic interactions simultaneously, at once responding to previous utterances and being shaped by them, and opening out into new, as-yet-unrealized, dialogic possibilities. Such an understanding encourages the critic to attune to various types and levels of dialogue in the comics text, such as the dialogic relationships between word and image, between and among panels on the page, among genres and styles discernible within any given panel, page, or book, and among the comics text in question and other cultural products, including other comics—not to mention the possible dialogic relationship among those various levels themselves.

For Bakhtin, dialogue is always a concrete, socially-enacted and socially-realized event, and by its nature it always opens out into further dialogues. Consequently, as Bakhtin scholar Alastair Renfrew points out, “embodiment and unfinalizability” remain two of the “key ideas” manifested variously throughout “Bakhtin’s thought as a whole,” and particularly in Bakhtin’s book on the phenomenon and force of the carnivalesque, Rabelais and His World (129). In it, Bakhtin traces carnival from what he sees as its roots in unlicensed, unofficial counter-spectacle in the medieval public square, a destabilizing challenge to finalized truth-claims made by political and religious authorities, to its migration into the realm of literature. In both venues, carnival for Bakhtin exists on the boundary between art and life, enacting a questioning, dialogizing response to official forms, values, and discourses. In literature, its primary mode is that of “grotesque realism,” an “essential principle” of which is what Bakhtin calls “degradation.” By this Bakhtin does not mean a damaging denigration or diminution, but rather a “lowering” of the ideal and ideational to the “material level,” which thereby opens possibilities for reconfiguration and renewal. Bakhtin writes: “To degrade means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth…. To degrade an object [implies]…to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. Grotesque realism knows no other level…. It is always conceiving” (Rabelais 21). In the mode of grotesque realism, the body “is not a closed, complete unit…it outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits” (Rabelais 26). In short, the “grotesque” body, in Bakhtin’s use of the term, “is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed” (Rabelais 317). Indeed, not only, as will be shown, are there “grotesque” bodies (in the Bakhtinian sense) in Saga, but the as-yet-unfinished comic book series itself might be understood as a kind of “grotesque body” in its own right.5

At this point, some early examples from the varied bodies in the Saga storyworld are in order, for purposes of context and comparison. The Stalk, for instance, is a “freelancer,” a mercenary assassin hired to kill Alana and her husband Marko, whose interspecies marriage has scandalized both sides of the warring forces aligned with their respective home worlds, and capture Hazel, their newborn daughter.6 The first, splash page image of this armless alien, naked from the waist up, suggests an uncanny, disabled, and feminized passivity, an impression quickly belied not only when she critically wounds Marko, but when she reveals her arachnoid body and the multi-faceted capacity for violence she conceals beneath her garment (Figure 1). Vaughan and Staples reveal The Stalk’s overwhelming lethality through a page turn, to maximize the visual shock of what she is capable of from the waist down. There is grotesquerie here, to be sure, but Bakhtin’s generative “lower bodily stratum” has been co-opted by the official forces seeking to eliminate the series’ star-crossing lovers, so that it becomes symbolic not of the unfinalizability of the body but of the finality of death imposed on other bodies by both The Stalk and the authorities who have engaged her services.7

Figure 1

A different way of imagining the “lower bodily stratum” is found on Staples’ splash page depiction of two hostesses greeting The Will, another freelancer, who has arrived on Sextillion, a planet that has been turned into an enormous brothel (Figure 2). Lacking both arms and torsos altogether, they are huge female faces with legs, outrageous and sterile in Fiona Staples’ satirical deconstruction of the male gaze. The lower bodily stratum, for Bakhtin the site where the boundaries of the body are blurred and where regeneration is possible, is here eliminated altogether. The belly is absent. In the conventional sense of the word, perhaps, these are “grotesques,” and perhaps their enormous mouths are somewhat reminiscent of Rabelaisian imagery. But these are effectively “closed” bodies, rigidly delimited, in many ways the antithesis of Bakhtinian “grotesque realism,” which, in Bakhtin’s words, is “always conceiving.” Given their fatuous grins and absent insides, these are figures seemingly incapable of “conceiving,” in either the intellective or physical sense of the word. They are bodies, ironically at once hyper-sexualized and desexualized, that satirize standard visual discourses of the objectified female body in comics by eliminating the typically exaggerated attributes that in the medium of comics so often signify the feminine, from underground comix to mainstream superhero narratives.

Figure 2

This exaggerated emphasis on the lower bodily stratum includes the introduction of Izabel, although the differences between her depiction and the previous examples could not be more extreme. Izabel is an indigenous person from a planet known as Cleave, one of the many sites of the interplanetary conflict that had its origins in the war between Alana and Marko’s respective races. It is the planet where their daughter, Hazel, happens to have been born, and the planet where Izabel died. Izabel is a fascinatingly liminal figure, a kind of ghost, but more precisely, a disembodied teenager whose body is always and insistently at issue, ironically, by virtue of her very incorporeality (Figure 3). She can appear and disappear at will, as well as change her form to appear to be other species or characters: in this respect, she is well able to exemplify the Bakhtinian grotesque body, the “body in the act of becoming.” Moreover, Izabel’s lower body, not unlike Izabel herself, is absent and present simultaneously. Lacking not only legs but some internal (including reproductive) organs, intestines constantly visible because of her mutilation at the time of her death, hers is the (graphically) open-ended, seemingly unfinalized body of Bakhtin’s grotesque realism. She and others like her—the so-called “Horrors”—now effectively haunt Cleave as the innocent casualties of the war that came to their planet: the “horrors of war,” as it were, who now exist only to be feared or fled from, but not faced. Izabel chooses, however, to exchange past for future, and leave her home. Effectively embracing the prospect of renewal even after her death, she becomes Hazel’s babysitter and accompanies Marko and Alana on their flight through the galaxy, proving herself fiercely loyal to them and protective of Hazel. Her actions become a subtly dialogized commentary on the multiple meanings of her planet’s name, “Cleave,” which of course can mean either to split something apart or to adhere closely to something else. Split in half, and splitting from her planet, Izabel cleaves to Hazel and her family.

Figure 3

Having encountered these bodies, among many others, in the first several issues of Saga, one might return to its opening pages better prepared to see how thematically integral and ultimately carnivalizing those first pages are to the narrative they inaugurate. The series begins with a splash page profile of Alana’s intense, perspiring face. Alana asks, “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting.” Words in a distinct, hand-printed style seemingly float above her head: “This is how an idea becomes real.”8 That voice, the reader shortly discovers, is Hazel’s, and they initiate a commentary on her parents’ story and hers, from some indeterminate future vantage point, that runs throughout the series, beginning at this, the moment of her birth. Here it is a voice that succinctly articulates the carnivalizing impulse—the transformation of the rarefied and abstract to the earthy and material, in this case through birth, with all that physically entails. When the reader turns the page, it becomes clear that Alana is in labor, and only then does the reader get a first glimpse of her husband Marko, in a comically intimate position in the moment, his head under Alana’s dress as he awaits Hazel’s birth (Figure 4). Although obviously not engaged in sexual intercourse, their two bodies are effectively depicted as if joined as one. Alana’s remarks to Marko on her own body and bodily functions continues: “Seriously, you’ll never have sex with me again if I defecate all over you. Unless you’re secretly into that. Please don’t be into that.” Once the newborn emerges, Marko presents her to Alana, with the reader sharing Alana’s point of view, in another splash page that foregrounds the blood and fluids of the birth along with Hazel’s continuing physical connection to Alana via the umbilical cord (Figure 5). That umbilical cord is soon severed by Marko with his teeth—although he has a sword that could do the job—almost as if he is eating it, and a brief, ensuing argument about christening ends with Alana coyly asking Marko, “Are we really having a fight now? Because that’s how we ended up making this one.” Coitus, birth, eating, defecation, blood, tears—all are invoked and/or depicted unabashedly, jumbled together in the celebratory mode of grotesque realism, a mode insisting on and delighting in the “lower bodily stratum” in all its power and variability, and in the permeability and changeability of the body, what Bakhtin calls its “unfinalizability.”

Figure 4
Figure 5

Marko’s horns and Alana’s wings notwithstanding, their bodies are among the more “conventional” in Saga, yet ironically, they are often spoken of as the most disturbing within the book’s storyworld, partly because they are a couple, but more importantly, their union has produced Hazel. As Clare Hanson writes, “The maternal body is a troubling, disruptive body” (87). Alana’s is quintessentially so. To quote Hanson again, the maternal body’s “borders are indeterminate,” and the other body that continually testifies to those indeterminate borders, and that threatens to disrupt and undermine the ability of the warring powers to establish and enforce whatever boundaries or borders they might wish to draw, is Hazel’s. Hazel, as her own words indicate on the series’ first page, is the metaphorical “idea” that becomes “real,” which is to say, material, and she does so by means of, and quite literally through, the indeterminate borders of the carnivalesque body, incarnating a form of indeterminacy herself. Not coincidentally, when the new parents briefly and lovingly discuss their newborn’s body, they unwittingly hint at how Hazel’s very physicality destabilizes the ideological lines that would define her existence as unimaginable and threatening: “She’s gonna have your horns.” “And your wings.” “But what about those eyes…? They’re not the same green as mine. Not quite your shade of brown either. They kinda change depending how you [look at them].”9 There is a protean dimension to perceptions of Hazel that subverts authoritative closure. Consequently, the idea she embodies, that she makes “real,” is anathema to the dominant powers, because Hazel’s embodiment contradicts the hegemonic “Narrative” (with a capital “N”) that would define her as either an impossibility or an abomination. Her body abolishes the boundary between the people of Landfall, Alana’s race, and the people of Wreath, Marko’s race—a boundary without which a never-ending, galactic-wide proxy war cannot be maintained, justified, and profited from.

This repressive “Narrative” is occasionally referenced but never fully revealed in Saga, but its nature and function are clear enough. It is the monologic, authoritarian discourse of Wreath that seeks to dictate and define all other discourses and stories as either versions of, or oppositions to, itself. We first encounter the Narrative in the words of a Wreath official named Vez, who in the first issue describes Marko as having chosen “to renounce his oath and betray The Narrative by…fraternizing with an enemy combatant.” Another character, Gwendolyn, also from Wreath (and Marko’s ex-fiancee), references it in the ninth issue, when talking about how “Marko’s actions have sullied The Narrative and disgraced the memories of every soldier who has ever given their life for our moon.” The Narrative, at base, partakes of what Bakhtin would define as the “epic” discourse of Wreath, a discourse of “absolute conclusiveness and closedness,” which can be either accepted, repeated, or betrayed, but nothing else (Dialogic 16). Similarly, if, for the people of Wreath, Marko has betrayed “The Narrative,” for the people of Landfall, Alana has committed an act of miscegenation that is all but bestial, with someone repeatedly referred to as a “filthy moony.” For instance, when a character by the name of Prince Robot IV first hears of Hazel’s birth from a Landfallian secret agent, he replies, “I didn’t even know your people could mate with their kind, much less reproduce.” Consequently, the seemingly endless array of often monstrous bodies, not to say actions, that fill Saga notwithstanding, it is the child Hazel who is perhaps most consistently talked about as repulsive by those endorsing the dominant ideology. That agent just mentioned describes Hazel as a “failed abortion.” The Stalk refers to Hazel as Alana’s “gross kid.” Prince Robot’s wife calls her a “horrid mistake.”

There is, however, another narrative—lower-case “n”—that functions within Saga not as monologic epic but as a carnivalizing impetus leading to the disruption of such authoritarian discourses. It is embodied, so to speak, in a book by another one of the comic’s characters, D. Oswald Heist, the cycloptic author of a romance novel titled, A Night Time Smoke. The reader comes to learn that this novel had been read by Alana, who read it to Marko while they were soldiers in their respective militaries, he a POW and she his guard. Brief passages from this fictional work of fiction are occasionally reproduced in the comic, but virtually all one can say of its plot is that it is an interspecies love story with a pacifistic theme—which alone is enough, of course, to make its metafictional aspects clear. Indeed, the book serves as a catalyst for Marko and Alana’s marriage and Hazel’s birth. Inspired (not to say aroused) by their shared reading, these readers of Heist bring their version of his book to life. It is not irrelevant that at one point Heist characterizes a writer’s reader as “the final collaborator.” Marko and Alana, readerly “collaborators,” create their version of Heist’s story in their world, and in doing so, “collaborate” (as it were) to conceive, bear, and raise Hazel, an “idea” that becomes “real” as a maligned, “hybrid” figure herself—indeed, maligned because of her hybridity. The parallel to the frequently, and in the case of Saga, certainly collaborative creation of the oft-maligned medium of comics quickly becomes obvious.

At least as interesting as the story told in A Night Time Smoke, though, is how the book itself is repeatedly and prominently displayed in panels and covers of the comic. The materiality of the book, its physical body, matters in Saga, and it is repeatedly held up before the reader’s gaze as if to demand the reader pay attention to that very materiality, as in this panel from the third issue (Figure 6). Rather differently, we see the character of Prince Robot IV, who, like the freelancers, is also trying to assassinate the couple, reading the book, looking for clues to where they might have fled (Figure 7). From a carnivalesque perspective, it is interesting that reading A Night Time Smoke, while associated with sex and procreation in the case of Alana and Marko, in figure 7 is visually associated with defecation—something which Prince Robot IV must do, of course, but which his aristocratic and authoritarian status precludes those in his class from publicly acknowledging. Presumably, his attitude toward the novel is similar to the one expressed by Marko’s warrior-mother, Klara, as we see in this panel from Issue 13, where, once again, the book is in the reader’s face (Figure 8).10

Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8

Images of the book with Alana, and of Alana reading A Night Time Smoke are, as one might expect, quite different. They include this cover of Issue 8, and her reaction to finishing the book from the same issue (Figures 9 and 10). For Alana, the encounter with the prose novel is both engrossing and deeply moving. In this sf comic, which represents various advanced technologies and a range of media for transmitting messages and narratives, it is striking how large a role this cheap paperback plays in transforming lives and driving the plot.11 Moreover, we see Saga persistently drawing attention to “bookish” corporeality by not only putting this relationship-inspiring and insistently material book in view of the reader, but also playfully incorporating parallels between the book and the comic book—the physical text the reader holds in view, which tells its own transgressive story, and which thereby evokes its own carnivalizing effect. For example, on the cover for Issue 15 we find Marko and Alana positioned as mirror images of the cover figures of Heist’s novel (Figure 11). And there are still other, subtler meta-fictional moments, as when Prince Robot IV quotes from the end of Chapter 12 of the novel at the end of Saga’s twelfth issue (or “chapter,” as each issue is insistently and significantly labeled), or when Marko asks Alana if she remembers Chapter 15 of A Night Time Smoke in “Chapter” (that is, Issue) 15 of the comic. Such metafictional “slippage” of narrative and nomenclature suggests a permeable, dialogized boundary between the “idea” (fictional novel, the fictional characters reading it) and the “real” (comic book, reader) that effectively brings the reader into the project of the carnivalesque, playfully inviting new versions of the “collaborative” readerly activities of Marko and Alana.12

Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11

Given this emphasis on the power of the novel—and, more specifically, of the physical encounter between material book and embodied persons—it is not surprising that once they escape the planet Cleave, Marko and Alana decide to make their first destination the planet Quietus, home of none other than D. Oswald Heist. Alana hopes to meet him in person and introduce Hazel to him. But as desirable as that meeting may be for her, and as important and poignant as it turns out to be in the story—in addition to his and Klara’s surprising mutual attraction, Heist will help the family escape the pursuit of Prince Robot IV—it is Alana’s encounter with his book that has already proven truly transformative. As Alastair Renfrew writes, in Bakhtin’s view, “Carnival existed not as a form of agency, but as a reminder that agency was possible” (135). The possibility, and even actuality, of agency on the part of Marko and Alana, the possibility that their bodies, and Hazel’s, could be something other than merely interpellated by the master narrative and military forces dominating their universe, is something they discover first through the embodied book. And as this two-panel sequence suggests, which are part of the narrative of Prince Robot IV’s pursuit of the “offenders,” even the Prince understands the threat individual agency poses to monologic discourses and authoritative forces through the carnivalesque body (Figures 12 and 13). Here, despite the Prince insultingly rendering Hazel as “it,” and Marko as an impressive but depersonalized “force of nature,” especially when the body of the book becomes visible, it’s the mother—and, by implication, the always disruptive, dangerous maternal body—who is to be feared by those who would attempt to enforce a monologic world.

Figure 12
Figure 13

If, as quoted above, Bakhtin understands the “grotesque” body as a “body in the act of becoming,” “never finished, never completed,” and Saga does indeed invest a great deal of significance in the grotesque body, then it is only appropriate that the series’ interest in the variability of the grotesque itself varies. This is particularly so if the narrative is to be true to functioning as a kind of dialogic critique of monologic discourses, rather than merely producing a new version of the same. Consequently, as Hazel grows into early childhood, the emphasis on the maternal body changes significantly, and the carnivalesque body finds new forms of expression. To get a sense of how these changes takes shape—of how the series’ central “idea” becomes “real” in new ways—and by way of (however artificially) concluding this reading of an ongoing narrative, I want now to move ahead in the series to look closely at a couple of later issues that exhibit these new developments.

Chapter 31 opens the sixth story arc in the series in ways that resonate with the series’ beginning in Chapter 1—by making bodies, and a decidedly carnivalesque body, the reader’s focus. The first page is divided into four equal-sized panels, each of which depicts a different young child with horns holding up and explaining her or his drawing. The children are presenting their drawings to their teacher and fellow students in a classroom that the reader will soon find out is in a detention center for “enemy non-combatants.” The first is of the child’s younger brother lying dead near a bombed house. The second is of a severed arm surrounded by blood, which, the young artist clarifies, is her “old arm,” now replaced by a prosthetic one. The third is a child’s drawing of a female figure in colorful clothes, the child’s missing, and much missed, mother. The fourth is the now four-year-old Hazel’s drawing of a flatulent creature she calls “Tooty Stinkfoot,” whom she describes as “a giant foot man who has very bad gas” (Figure 14). Hazel’s picture and her description of it provoke immediate and uproarious laughter from her young classmates. On this page, four separate drawings are sequenced and combined with words, a de facto and metaleptic comic strip within the ongoing comic book, punchline and all. As a series of pictures focused on bodies that simultaneously acknowledges the body’s potential for both tragic vulnerability and bizarre, even revivifying humor, the first pages of the chapter effectively function as a microcosmic recap of the carnivalesque dimension of Saga. Moreover, it is important to note that this story arc begins with a significant leap forward in narrative time. Our last view of Hazel in the story was of her as a much younger child, and the unexpected appearance of an older Hazel in a classroom setting amounts to a kind of rebirth for the character, recalling her birth that was the beginning of this comic. As with Hazel’s actual birth in Chapter 1, in this chapter Hazel’s body is soon very much “at issue.”

Figure 14

A flashback sequence then depicts how, as a toddler, Hazel, with her grandmother Klara and another character named Lexis, ended up at this detention center, and how, with help from an unexpectedly reappearing Izabel, they contrive to keep Hazel’s wings a secret from the other detainees as well as the authorities. Hazel’s “hybridity,” so to speak, is threatening to the established order, and consequently it must be concealed. Such concealment, however, takes place almost entirely in the narrative past. Before the chapter’s end, as we return to the narrative present, Hazel has shown her wings to her kindly schoolteacher, Noreen, who is so shocked she faints, leading to the final page depicting Hazel looking at her teacher, sprawled unconscious on the floor with blood seeping from her head, and quietly exclaiming, “Oh, fart.”13 The final page, in other words, recalls and reimagines the four-panels of the first page of the issue, combining a wounded body and a reference to flatulence, but with the addition of the full truth of Hazel’s own physicality, her own inherently carnivalesque body.

These opening and closing scenes of Chapter 31 serve to frame one of the most pivotal encounters Hazel has in her young life, when she meets another detainee, the transgender woman from Wreath, Petrichor. The reader first meets Petrichor through Hazel’s eyes, when Hazel unwittingly wanders into a shower room and sees Petrichor, completely nude, with her penis and breasts visible. We quickly learn of Petrichor’s ostracization from even her own people. She has been “kicked out of [the] army,” and she says the other people in the detention center see her as “some freak of [a] man.” The splash page “reveal” of Petrichor’s body anticipates that of Hazel’s later in the issue, underscoring how they share the status of those whose bodies combine features that are not “supposed” to go together, that do not conform to conventional definitions of what a body can or should be. Whereas before, however, it is (to quote Clare Hanson again) primarily (although not exclusively) the maternal body in Saga that is “transgressive” and “disruptive,” a body of “indeterminate borders,” such qualities are now definitively extended beyond the maternal, to the child’s body and the trans woman’s body, both of which are, albeit in very different ways, Bakhtinian “grotesque” bodies insofar as both are very much “bodies in the act of becoming.”

This parallel between Hazel and Petrichor is highlighted when the narrative returns to the moment of Noreen’s fainting at the beginning of Chapter 34, with Pertrichor making her own shocking discovery of Noreen and Hazel, the former on the floor, the latter with wings on full display, in a scene that recalls Hazel’s first encounter with Petrichor in its surprise discovery of unexpected physical characteristics. Hazel’s narrative voice-over appears on the first page of the chapter, as Petrichor is walking toward the classroom and about to find Hazel and her teacher: “We’re all aliens to someone. Even among our own people, most of us still feel like complete foreigners from time to time. Usually associated with invasions, abductions, and other hostile acts, the term ‘alien’ gets a bad rap. But over the years, the word has come to mean something very different to me…future friend material.” There is perhaps an implied play on the words “alien” and “ally” here, as Hazel will quickly discover that not only Noreen but also Petrichor will become allies and, in the case of Petrichor, a companion, as the teacher and Hazel’s new friend help Hazel to eventually escape the detention center. But whatever the sophistication of Hazel’s later, “older” voice, with its ability to employ sarcasm and other figures of speech as it offers dialogizing commentary on the events of the story, the child Hazel can create carnivalizing effects of her own, as she does with her rendering of Tooty Stinkfoot. When Noreen, who has regained consciousness, wonderingly asks Hazel, “How the hell did you come to be?” Hazel responds with a breathless, comically endearing run-on sentence, her eyes cast to the side as if remembering something she has rehearsed in her own mind and which she herself is still trying to comprehend: “Well my mommy is from this planet and my daddy is from the moon and he loved her so much that he put his penis inside her and then I got in my mom’s tummy which made her happy except now she can’t go in bounce houses because they make her go pee a little bit.” Hazel’s explanation of how she “came to be,” however, is not finished. As the reader soon discovers, Hazel knows her birth is directly linked to a book.

It is at this moment we see for the first time the carnivalizing Hazel holding Heist’s carnivalizing novel. As Hazel explains to Noreen, by way of apologizing for unintentionally having caused Noreen to faint, Hazel has brought her teacher “a present.” “It’s my parents’ favorite,” she states, holding up A Night Time Smoke, cover forward, in a panel that recalls any number of other similar ones in which the book is prominently displayed to the reader, and which now also recalls her holding up her drawing of Tooty Stinkfoot previously, at the beginning of Chapter 31. “The man who wrote it is pretty much how my mom and dad decided to make me. Do you think he’s the best writer ever, too?” Significantly, Noreen, while appreciating the gift, cautions Hazel, “Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books.” From a Bakhtinian perspective, the implications here are profound. On the one hand, Hazel, even if it is beyond her full comprehension, articulates a link between the materiality of the book, the interactions between the book and her parents, and her own physical existence. Not only do books have their own “bodies,” but more bodies, other bodies, however indirectly, can come from books. But use of the plural is all-important, and something Noreen does not want Hazel to overlook. In a rhetorical move that dialogizes Heist’s dialogizing novel, undercutting the monologic authority Hazel and perhaps her parents unwittingly seek to invest it with, Noreen teaches Hazel something about what Bakhtin would call the “unfinalizability” of the word—without, of course, using Bakhtin’s word—the impossibility of it being contained. And, as Hazel’s later voice comments, “Of the many things my first teacher taught me, that’s the one that stuck.”

That lesson does not, of course, erase the carnivalizing and dialogizing force of Heist’s novel itself, or of Hazel’s relationship with it, as a later page in the same issue shows. The scene soon shifts to Lexis and Klara reading A Night Time Smoke aloud to a diverse group of detainees. In the first panel, Hazel’s voiceover says, “I mean, I know diversity is an overused word these days, but without it, what would we be?” The rhetorical question gets an actual answer in the same panel, as Lexis reads from the book the words, “‘Little more than a bunch of inbred fucking morons,’ Eames responded to his new love.” Obviously, Lexis is not dramatically replying to the disembodied question. Rather, there is a dialogic relationship created in which several voices—Hazel’s, Lexis’, Heist’s, and the character of Eames in Heist’s book—exist and interact simultaneously in the same panel. This complex dialogism only expands when, in the next panel, Klara adds yet another voice by translating Heist’s/Lexis’ words into her native language, whereupon the audience for the reading, seated around the two readers like readers in a classroom burst into laughter, reminiscent of the children viewing one another’s pictures in the arc’s opening scene. Dialogized language and carnivalesque laughter are once again the focus, and, importantly, part of a (potentially) community-creating event. As Hazel comments to Petrichor when the latter walks in, Lexis and Klara are reading a “story for everybody.” Older and wiser than Hazel, Petrichor recognizes the danger that the carnivalesque risks. As it did with Alana and Marko, albeit obviously in a different way, dialogic discourse and carnivalesque bodies unify, challenging, redefining, even erasing traditionally-conceived and sometimes brutally-policed boundaries. As Petrichor articulates her fear, “I think her [Lexis] and Klara be trying to friend up us and all the no-horns in here, but when guards figure what they are doing…very bad.” Once again, the reading of the novel creates the possibility of giving birth, so to speak, to yet another body that “should not” exist—a diverse, heteroglot, yet unified community of persons.

Because Saga is a so thoroughgoingly dialogizing and carnivalesque comic, however, such fears, no matter how well-founded within the narrative, are not the last word. The unfinalizability of the grotesque body cannot be fully contained or denied; its inherent creativity cannot be stopped. Just two issues later, at the end of Chapter 36, we see depicted Alana and Marko discovering, very much to their surprise and thanks to Petrichor’s insight, that Alana is once again pregnant (Figure 15).14 While the scene between Petrichor and the couple plays out, Hazel’s voice over says, “Dying is one of the few experiences we’ll eventually all enjoy firsthand, and like most shit that’s commonplace, it’s boring to dwell on. My fellow inmates/classmates (and really, what’s the difference) showed me it was more interesting to concentrate on the living. Because death is fucking predictable…but life has science experiments and free time and surprise naps and who knows what comes next?” It is as thoroughly Baktinian a sentiment as one might find. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body is never finished, never completed, always conceiving. It is the body of potential, of looking forward, of life. The body of “who knows what comes next?”

Figure 15


[1] To cite just the most recent examples, in 2017 Saga was awarded an Eisner for Best Continuing Series, while Vaughan won the same award for Best Writer, and Staples for Best Cover Artist and Best Penciller/Inker.

[2] The Hollywood Reporter, March 14, 2012 http://www.holl…on-lindelof-300188.

[3] For a different exploration of Bakhtin and comics, employing Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope, see Packard.

[4] Seminal works on the hybridity of the comics form, and the implications of sequentiality, include Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, and Thierry Groensteen, The System of Comics and Comics and Narrative. Miodrag also explores the subject of sequentiality in comics in light of Groensteen’s work, as well as that of Neil Cohn (e.g., his The Visual Language of Comics). As she summarizes the matter, both Cohn’s and Groensteen’s theories “hinge on a back-and-forth reading of panels, supplementing and to an extent offering a corrective to the idea of temporal mapping, with panels equaling moments,” put forth by Scott McCloud in his seminal work, Understanding Comics (140-41). In various ways all of these critics seek to acknowledge and explicate the hybridity of modes of signification in comics, while guarding against fusion, and to respect both sequential and networked panel relationships as intrinsic to the comics form. I would suggest Bakhtin’s ideas on dialogue and dialogic discourse help achieve both goals, even as they offer a way of productively re-conceptualizing both hybridity and arthrology.

[5] Similarly, in his book about Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series, Scott Bukatman suggests that it is “possible to understand the monster as both Hellboy himself and the Hellboy comic book series in which he appears,” in part because, metaphorically, “comics are little monsters” (19).

[6] References will be to individual chapters of Saga as found in the trade paperback editions of the comic, which do not have page numbers.

[7] Not coincidentally, The Stalk is formerly lover of The Will, another assassin.

[8] The handwriting representing Hazel’s later (adult?) voice is Staples’ own. Thomas Bredehoft’s remarks are relevant here: “[T]he genre of comics takes its very form as a critique of typographical print reproduction, both insisting upon a two-dimensional presentation and generally eschewing typography and insisting upon the visibility of the author’s or artist’s handiwork” (128-29).

[9] Hence the child’s name, “Hazel.”

[10] Klara’s attitude to Heist and his novels changes as the story goes on. Indeed, as discussed below, she participates in sharing the book with others herself, for her own carnivalizing purposes.

[11] Cf. Bukatman with regard to Mignola’s Hellboy comics: “The bookishness that I’m ascribing to Mignola’s thematic and aesthetic concerns are not his obsession alone—any number of contemporaneous comics creators have been meditating upon books and narratives….These are works obsessed with texts—making them, collecting them, consuming them, being consumed by them” (13).

[12] Bukatman’s comments are once again relevant: “The activation of the text by a reader who ‘animates’ the world suggested on the page is a process central to comics, which also depend on an interplay of words and images and also require the reader to animate the space of the page, restoring or producing movement—the movement of the narrative, the movement (action) within the narrative, and the reader’s movement through the narrative” (126). For a brief exposition of a different metaleptic example from Saga, see Kukkonen.

[13] As Hazel will later explain, “This nice lady, um, fainted when she saw my…my body.”

[14] As of this writing, the most recent issues of Saga have continued the storyline related to Alana’s pregnancy. The fetus, a male, eventually dies in her womb, although it would seem he acquires some sort of life of his own, as yet unexplained. The full implications of these events for reading the series, and how they might extend/complement/complicate my argument, lie beyond the scope of this essay. As stated above, there is a necessary provisionality to the analysis.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by Michael Holquist, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Michael Holquist, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, U of Texas P, 1981.

—–. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson, U of Minnesota P, 1984.

—–. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky, Indiana UP, 1984.

Bredehoft, Thomas A. The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus. Oxford UP, 2014.

Bukatman, Scott. Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. U of California P, 2016.

Cohn, Neil. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. Between Philosophy and Literature: Bakhtin and the Question of the Subject. Stanford UP, 2013.

Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. U of Mississippi, 2009.

Hanson, Clare.  “The Maternal Body.”  The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature, edited by David Hillman and Ulrika Maude, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 87-100.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. U of Mississippi P, 2005.

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. 1st ed. Routledge, 1990.

Kukkonen, Karin. “Adventures in Duck-Rabbitry: Multistable Elements in Graphic Narrative.” Narrative, vol. 25, no. 3, October 2017, pp. 342-58.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.

Miodrag, Hannah. Comics as Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form. U of Mississippi P, 2015.

Packard, Stephan. “Closing the Open Signification: Forms of Transmedial Storyworlds and Chronotopoi in Comics.” Storyworlds, vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, pp. 55-74.

Precup, Mihaela, and Drago? Manea. “Bad Girls in Outer Space: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga and the Graphic Representation of Subversive Femininity.” Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, edited by Chappell Julie and Mallory Young, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 253-82.

Renfrew, Alastair. Mikhail Bakhtin. Routledge, 2015.

Vaughan, Brian K., and Fiona Staples. Saga. Volumes I-VII. Image Comics, 2012-2017.

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