Saga by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughn is the single best comic I have ever read. Granted, I haven’t read many, but that is because there are so few comics like Saga. If you hate comics, read this. If you love comics, read this. I envy you the joy of discovering it for the first time. Intensely.
There are hundreds of reasons to love Saga (the love story, the fantasy-meets-science-fictional universe, every single character, the book squee, the wooden rocket ship, the ghost babysitter), but today I’m going to look specifically at how Saga depicts mothers (and sometimes fathers). Just look at that fucking cover:
When I first picked up Saga, I was a nursing mother. A nursing mother spending a lot of time stuck beneath a baby and thus with a lot of time to read. This cover made me explosively, cartwheel happy. Look at that badass couple! I thought. Look at that badass mother nursing in public, on the cover of a fucking comic book. In case you’re as new to this genre as I was, you might not know that you see a lot of boob in the comic world, but only of the pin-up, look-at-that-hottie variety. Saga shows boob most frequently in conjunction with nursing, and not only is it not gross, it is incredibly sexy and badass without ever once feeling like a sexual objectification. I can’t thank Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughn enough for creating these characters and writing this story. It was something I desperately needed to see at a time when the world was telling me to stay quiet and out of sight.
If you are not a nursing mother or friends with one, you might not know that nursing in public or posting photos of yourself nursing is considered a controversial thing these days. Some people think nursing in public is gross. Some people think sexy-time cleavage photos on billboards are ok but that visible side boob while nursing publicly is not. There are people who report photos of mothers nursing to facebook as pornographic images and get accounts shut down for sharing them. A business in Germany can legally throw you out for nursing (though that rarely happens in this liberal country), and businesses in America do it all the time, though laws on the subject vary from state to state.
All of these things send a strong message to nursing women: you are not welcome in public life. Your experience is gross, unsightly, and must be kept hidden. It is just one more attempt to police and control the activities of women. To silence them. To keep them out of the public eye. At a time in your life when you need support more than ever, you are told to hide yourself, to not talk about something you spend the majority of your day doing. You are blatantly told, over and over again, that you are not welcome.
Thanks sexism! Thanks patriarchy! I don’t need another fucking reason to have my every action policed. I don’t need another excuse for you to say, no silly woman, get thee to the privacy of your kitchen, this is not a world meant for you. Because guess what?! That is a message I have been hearing all my fucking life. If I have to nurse my kid and I have to get on with life, I am going to have to nurse my kid while out getting on with life: at the grocery store, in the bus, at a concert. Or in the case of Alana in Saga, while fighting monsters and fleeing from the governments who want my family dead because I dared to have a child with a member of the “enemy” team. Here is a mother getting on with her life as a badass warrior and as a mother at the same time and in public. I can’t tell you how much I needed to see that. Buy this for every pregnant friend you ever have. They will need it.
But the stories of nursing mothers aren’t the only ones being erased. The stories of mothers with children of any age are startlingly absent from fiction. As I mentioned in my essay about being a dragon slaying mother, “As far as fiction is concerned, particularly the kind of fiction in which people are going on adventures, there are no mothers. Oh, they’re in there—on the edges—but the stories belong to their sons and daughters. Motherhood always signals an ending. The beginnings belong to the children.”
Dead mothers are used as back story constantly in fiction (Harry Potter and The Kingkiller Chronicles are two recent and obvious examples of SFF novels relying heavily on fridged moms for the character development of their sons). But mothers rarely get their own story, and the message that comes through between the lines is this: the stories of mothers are uninteresting, the action lies elsewhere, and motherhood is the end of the story. Fuck. That.
But that isn’t the message Saga is sending. Nope. Loud and clear Saga’s pages shout: Behold, the badass, sexy mother! Behold, the adventuring mother! Behold, for this is not an image you have been shown before or can expect to see soon again. Mothers are not archetypes or back stories. Mothers are the leads of their own stories. They are confused and strong and scared and opinionated and interesting and handy in a fight. Mothers can slay dragons (or bone-bug-infested skeletal monsters). Mothers can be the lead of a love story. Mothers can be the lead of an adventure story. There is nothing about motherhood that says The End.
This is a story the world needs. This is a reminder the world needs, and one that Staples and Vaughn deliver with grace and humor. The constant jokes about the oft disgusting, oft boring realities of parenting juxtaposed with exciting adventures…in space!…make us laugh while showing us that we do not have to despair at the banality of it, but can laugh and get on with it. They point out that children are not periods in the sentence of our lives, but commas, parentheses, and semi-colons. That not only is there life after children, there is life with children. In a world full of people who give up their passions when they have children—because they feel like they have to, because they feel like that is what is expected of them—this message is a beacon.
Take a look at some of my favorite parent-laugh moments:
Then there are all the parent moments that just have a nice message with a sweet-ass SFF backdrop. The way Alana isn’t the only person who takes care of the baby. The way papa carries baby Hazel in a sling, and the way he is willing to be a stay-at-home dad.
Representations of Child Birth in Saga
On the very first page of Saga we watch Alana give birth in a garage. Mainstream media, both fictional and non- tends to depict child birth as either horrendous, an illness in need of hospitalization and treatment or as a romanticized Duty of Woman, end it in death or in life. (The former occurs more often in non-fiction and the latter in fiction though, for the record.) But Saga avoids both pitfalls for a more mixed and, in my opinion, more accurate version of birth. It hurts. It is wonderful. It is the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It is the best thing that has ever happened to you. And it is a lot like pooping.
Several volumes later, we see a robot child being born, starting with a full-page close up of the baby’s television head coming out of mama’s vag. I mean, have you ever seen that in a comic before? In a science fiction story? Fucking anywhere? This is not where fiction likes to pull a close-up. This is another part of women’s experience that we don’t like to talk about, unless we’re trying to scare people (and the business of birth these days is largely a business of fear not empowerment). It is not sexy. It involves women’s genitals. Women’s genitals not being used for sex. Holy shit, can they even do that?!
Usually in fiction we see the fictional mother groaning and then spend the rest of the birth outside of the room with the servants hustling to get rags and boiling water or with a pacing father, cut to a screaming baby and, all too often, a dead mother. There are so many other birth stories fiction could be telling, and I am so happy that Saga tells a few of these without shying away from the weird and sometimes gory details.
And Don’t Forget About Grandma
I can’t end this discussion of mothers in Saga without mentioning Marko’s mother Klara, who moves in with the couple early in the story and is a loud-mouthed warrior woman with second-wave feminist leanings and strong opinions about mothers going back to work/not doing domestic chores. Case and point:
She can be a real pain in the ass, but is ultimately an endearing, complex character who brings depth to the story’s discussion of motherhood.
Find out more about Book Punks’ week-long discussion of mothers in fiction and parenting and reading right here.