Saga, Volume One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Writing cosmic stories must be incredibly difficult.  On the one hand, it seems a nearly impossible challenge to execute a storyline that doesn’t borrow from Star Wars, Star Trek, John Carter of Mars, etcetera.  On the other hand, if an author does somehow deliver an original plot, the characters must also seem familiar yet different.  We don’t expect space characters to sound like us, to look like us, or to talk like us, yet if they stray too far into that for which we cannot connect, they lose our engagement.

Brian K. Vaughan certainly had his work cut out for him with the first volume of Saga.

The storyline is tried and true: two soldiers from opposing sides fall in love, have a baby, and must now escape the wrath of their respective armies.

As a huge Vaughan fan, I couldn’t wait to read Saga.  After hitting the jackpot and winning a free copy on GoodReads.com, I devoured the book the day it arrived.

My feelings about this first volume are mixed.

As with Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, Vaughan has given us some charismatic, interesting characters.  Marko, Alana, baby Hazel, as well as various bounty hunters, ghosts, and television-headed royals, create a cast for whom I want to know more.  There is plenty of conflict, both external and internal, and the interpersonal relationships are rife with both passion and hatred.

But here’s where Vaughan loses me a little: this is a story that, for the most part, is full of very human characters that happen to be … well … not human.  They love to use the “f” word, they take God’s name in vain a lot, and they apparently rode school buses.  Now, if this were on Earth, I wouldn’t be as distracted by it, but why in the world do “aliens” know the “f” word?  How are they familiar enough with “God” to take His name in vain?  And school buses?  Really?

And though I’m far from a prude, there’s a lot of nudity and sex in this thing.  Vaughan has always pushed the boundaries within this medium, and, for the most part, I’ve always found him to put the story first and remain tasteful.  In this case, though, I get the feeling some of it is just for shock value.  There were times when I wasn’t quite sure how the overall story was being served by some of the things on the page.  I

So that’s what bothered me a bit about Saga.

However, make no mistake, it’s a fast, entertaining read, and the characters are extremely layered and charismatic.  Vaughan has several plots going, and I don’t doubt for a minute that Saga will soon be epic in nature.  Furthermore, Fiona Staples is extremely talented and her artwork is both beautiful and horrific.  Her particular style suits this story well.  Her humanoids are organic and plausible while her monsters maintain an air of biological credibility.  And, if you’re familiar with my reviews, you know a good colorist always gets my praise, and Staples is yet another example of an artist that deserves our commendations.  Her colors are muted, but they are still so pleasing to the eye, and when she does give us some bright colors, watch out!  She doesn’t miss the opportunity to make those vibrant colors count.

All in all, Brian K. Vaughan seems to be an author who works best when his fantasy is rooted on Earth within the here and now, but I cannot fault the man for trying something new and putting himself out there.  Any artist who leaves his comfort zone will always have my respect.

Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll stick with Saga.  For one, the sex and nudity were so graphic I wasn’t comfortable having it sit out on my nightstand with my little ones running around.  Secondly, the very trendy human dialogue just proved too distracting.  But, I admittedly want to know what becomes of Marko, Alana, and Hazel, so maybe I will stay onboard after all.

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Ex Machina: Term Limits by Brian K. Vaughan – A Book Review

Few conclusions have been as utterly satisfying as Ex Machina: Term Limits.

Ex Machina has always been one of those titles that demanded both patience and commitment.  With its myriad flashbacks, labyrinth plotlines, and complicated subject matter, it often required several readings.  I assure you, in this tenth and final volume, your dedication is rewarded in full.  Vaughan not only answers the series’ major mysteries, but he also grants a sense of finality to virtually every major character in this title.

I came down hard on Vaughan for his final installment to Y: The Last Man.  I felt it was too pedestrian and insignificant.  Not so with Ex Machina.  Vaughan managed to shock me over and over again in Term Limits.  As a reader, I couldn’t have asked for more.  Though I couldn’t believe he dared to do what he did in this volume, I absolutely appreciated his willingness to let the characters organically go where they must, even if that destination was not pleasant.  His boldness is both refreshing and admirable.

Vaughan also shows great maturity as a storyteller.  Yes, on the surface, we get our answers to many lingering plot points.  We even get several jolts that put us on the edge of our seat.  However, there is also a deeper message in Term Limits.  I believe Vaughan made not only several political comments in this work, but also drove home a hard fact about human nature.  The depth of this particular volume delighted me.

As a long time fan of Ex Machina, I can seriously say that I could not have imagined a more satisfying conclusion to Mitchell Hundred’s odyssey.  Vaughan thanked his audience by delivering a tightly-woven finale that, like the entire series, proved intelligent, meaningful, well-crafted, and insightful.

Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores by Brian K. Vaughan – A Graphic Novel Review

This final installment to the Y: The Last Man series left me both unsatisfied and disappointed.

Y: The Last Man started out as a fantastic series.  It was a high concept with excellent characterization and an epic, fascinating plot.

But, as the series wore on, it lost steam.  I assumed this was the lull before the storm; that Vaughan slowed things down a bit so he could hit us hard for the ultimate chapter.

He didn’t.

Whys and Wherefores should have been monumental.  Instead, it felt to this fan as though Vaughan simply went through the motions of getting all the plots tidied up and packed away.  When Beth and Yorick reunited, a moment for which we’d literally waited years, it lacked any real emotional intensity.  Agent 355’s final fate cheated both the character and her characterization.  Alter’s motivation turned out to be a cliché.  The only truly authentic scene involved Yorick and Ampersand, his pet monkey, both of whom are male.

Which leads me to an important distinction.  Y: The Last Man, while initially very good, also originally focused mostly upon Yorick.  As Vaughan spread out his cast of characters, most of whom are obviously women, the title lost some of its magic.  I applaud Vaughan for undertaking such a mammoth challenge: any man attempting to write an entire series about how women would remake the earth without men is either supremely confident or a little crazy.  But sadly, as the series wore on, his women felt less and less genuine and more like a male’s excuse for including lesbianism and girl-on-girl violence.  In other words, they seemed to become objectified, which is the antithesis of how the series started.  For the record, I would be supremely interested to hear a woman’s take on this series.

All in all, Y: The Last Man ended with a whimper.  Its characters were swindled out of what should have been a majestic goodbye, and its readers were left without much to celebrate or commiserate.  It simply read like an ending rather than a finale.

Ex Machina: Ex Cathedra (Volume 7) – A Graphic Novel Review

Ever since getting on board with Ex Machina after its first volume, I literally cannot wait for each new volume to be released.  That’s why, after months of looking forward to Ex Cathedra, I couldn’t help but initially feel a little disappointment.  However, after a second reading, my opinion changed drastically.  More on that in a moment.

Like I said, because I count down the days until certain books come out, I tend to pick them up as soon as possible and tear right through them.  I did that with Ex Cathedra, neglecting to let it sit on my tongue and savor it.  I forgot what originally drew me to Ex Machina was the fact that it was really unlike anything else, and so when I first read Ex Cathedra and didn’t get it, I thought, “What is this?  I waited for this?”  It seemed directionless, pointless, and haphazard to me.

But then I decided I read it too fast, and (as much to get my money’s worth as anything), I determined I should give it another go.

On the second read, I picked up on a lot of parallels that I missed the first time around.  In Ex Cathedra, Mayor Hundred (a former super hero who stopped the destruction of one of the Twin Towers) is invited to the Vatican to visit the Pope before his death.  When Hundred arrives, a Father reveals he arranged for Hundred’s visit to investigate the origins of Hundred’s abilities, even claiming the mayor may be the antichrist.  However, the Pope still wants an audience with Hundred, which prompts a Russian conspirator to use Hundred as an assassin by tapping into Hundred’s machine-friendly mind.  I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s say that Hundred has some incredible revelations as he tries to resist killing the Pope. 

Brian K. Vaughan offers a very brief story (four issues) full of nuance and punch-if read carefully.  As usual, Vaughan interrupts the present-day unveiling of the tale with flashbacks to Hundred’s The Great Machine days (his super hero identity).  In this volume, those flashbacks each deal with a different perspective on religion, which amplifies the main story, the one unfolding in Hundred’s here-and-now.  This author technique is effective because it continues to give us insight into Mayor Hundred’s character, his days as a super hero, and his various reactions to different situations involving religions.  This, of course, helps us understand his motives and reactions when meeting the Pope.

Artist Tony Harris continues to rock on Ex Machina.  His figures, clothing, architecture, and layouts are charismatic without being distracting.  His art works to supplement and progress the story, which is the idea in such a visual medium.  Harris, in my opinion, is one of the best in the business and deserves more recognition.

Finally, Vaughan takes the time to help us get to know Commissioner Angotti a little better by giving us some background on her all-the-while moving she and Hundred’s professional relationship forward and in a new, less combative direction.  While this stand-alone issue has some very serious themes, there’s also quite a bit of comic book in-jokes, especially involving another famous hero and Commissioner team. 

In Ex Cathedra, I was initially guilty of forgetting what draws me to Ex Machina on a regular basis.  I forgot I love this title because it’s like nothing else, and once I slowed down and gave it the time it deserved, I really saw it for the gem it is.

Ex Machina, Vol. 6: Power Down – A Graphic Novel Review

Ex Machina is one of those titles that should never work in the comic book medium. Former and short-lived superhero abandons his super-persona to become mayor of New York. And that happens before the start of the series. Let’s be honest, if anyone but writer Vaughan and Harris were involved, this series simply wouldn’t have worked.

Ex Machina: Power Down is a return to greatness for the creative duo. The storyline deals with Mayor Hundred struggling against a city-wide power outage just as a mysterious visitor takes his mother hostage in order to deliver Hundred an important message. That message has fascinated me and worked expertly as a bit of foreshadowing. In addition, as always, we are given flashbacks to Hundred’s involvement with 9/11 as well as some back-story during his training days.

The Ex Machina series started with a bang, utterly captivating me with every panel. However, the last storyline in particular focused a little too much on Hundred’s mayoral duties and not quite enough on the more fantastic elements of the series. Power Down is back to what makes Ex Machina work best–an equal blend of the realistic world of politics and the surreal world of super heroics.

Furthermore, let’s not forget about the art! Harris’ artwork is extraordinary and this series simply wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is without him. He gets better with every issue he draws, and he was excellent to begin with! Moreover, Mettler, the often-ignored colorist, is truly responsible for giving this book in particular much of its flavor. The colors demand your attention in such an unassuming yet powerful manner; it’s astounding.

Finally, Power Down also offers a “special features” section in the back of the book with some background information given by both Vaughan and Harris. Very fun stuff if you’re into the production aspect of the book.

Ex Machina is a must-read series for all lovers of literature.

Y: The Last Man: Motherland – A Graphic Novel Review

In case you’re not familiar with Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, the premise is that a catastrophic plague has wiped every man on the planet but one, Yorick Brown. For an inexplicable reason, Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, were spared. Now Yorick desperately wants to traverse a planet in chaos as women work to establish order once more so that he can reunite with his girlfriend. He travels with Agent 355, who has been charged with protecting Yorick, and the scientist Allison Mann, who tirelessly works to determine what made Yorick and Ampersand different from anything else with the Y chromosome.

Motherland is the ninth volume in this graphic novel series. When Y first started, it was unlike anything else I’d ever read in comic books. Action-packed with a real sense of plot and purpose, Vaughan broke barriers with every installment. However, on this volume, I feel things are starting to drag out a bit. Still an enjoyable read, but it’s definitely treading water compared to earlier volumes.

But, be that as it may, I have every faith in the world that Vaughan will regain steam as he comes to the conclusion of this series. It was understood from the get go that this was a finite title, and I really think it will be a joy to read from start to finish once it’s concluded.

For those of you unfamiliar with Brian K. Vaughan, he is a master storyteller in the world of comic books, but he’s also the guy they brought in to get the television show LOST back on track when it waned a bit last season. Did you notice a discernable improvement in LOST towards the end of last season? You can thank BKV for that.

Please realize that Y is not your mainstream comic book such as Superman or Batman. It is a comic book, yes, but it is more like the HBO of the comic book world. There is adult language at times and adult themes. However, if you’ve ever been interested in seeing sequential art at its best, give Y a try.

Ex Machina: Fact vs. Fiction – A Graphic Novel Review

Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris continue to impress with the third trade paperback of the Ex Machina series. In this installment, a new hero emerges in New York City calling itself the Automaton. This being claims to have been made by Mayor Hundred when he called himself The Great Machine. However, there is more at work here than there seems.

The second half of the volume deals with Mayor Mitchell Hundred heading west to visit his mother as she finds herself in a spot of trouble. This storyline is a bit more enjoyable for me as it gives us some insight into Mitchell’s upbringing and his relationship with his mother.

While I greatly enjoyed Fact vs. Fiction, the stories did not compare to the first two volumes of this series. However, as I found those collections stellar in execution, perhaps that is only to be expected.

I will say this, while Vaughan’s stories are just a bit under whelming compared to his usual outstanding work, the artwork of Tony Harris more than makes up for it. Harris is a master of his medium, and while he certainly knows how to draw superheroes, it is his attention to detail in clothing and facial expression on normal, everyday people that amazes me. You must remember, Ex Machina is more political drama than superhero adventure, and so therefore the artist must be especially talented to keep readers coming back for more. Harris fits the bill and then some.

So, while I don’t think Fact vs. Fiction was as good as The First Hundred Days or Tag, I certainly think it is still better than much of what’s on the market. I cannot recommend Vaughan and Harris’ Ex Machina highly enough.

By the way, is it me, or does Mitchell’s friend Ray look suspiciously like one mild mannered news reporter?