War isn’t something we like to talk about. Sure, the news and politicians have numerous opinions about war, veterans, and conflict to offer anyone who can stand to listen. However, among the general discourse of our society, war is a subject that many people choose to ignore. Why? It’s possible that, as civilians, we don’t truly know what is happening or why we are fighting.
I have no authority to talk about war. For twenty years, I have lived as a civilian in a relatively safe area. I have never directly faced war as either a soldier or a civilian in a war-torn country. Nearly all accounts of war on the news float past my ears. It’s not just because of my suspicions in accuracy since the moment I learned the definition of the word “propaganda.” It is because I fear I have no idea what the hell is going on.
To me, war often seems like a topic that is untouchable due to its distance from day-to-day life. However, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ SAGA provides a more personal look at war. SAGA revolves around Alana and Marko, two soldiers from opposing sides of a conflict. The star-crossed pair fall in love and build a family together. At the same time, a variety of people who would rather their family didn’t exist are hunting them. SAGA is one of the most popular independent comics today for a number of good reasons. The series has brilliant artwork, incredible diversity, comprehensive world-building, and complex narratives revolving around issues such as interracial families, sexuality, racism, and, of course, war.
Veterans as Humans
Often in the media, both fictional and non-fictional, soldiers are depicted as hard and invulnerable. They resemble machines rather than humans. Yet SAGA moves away from that trope. Despite the alternative universe they inhabit, Alana and Marko mirror any healthy human couple in our world. The two initially bond over geeky interests, such as their favorite book, A Nighttime Smoke by D. Oswald Heist. They later share the joys and pains of raising their beautiful daughter, Hazel.
In SAGA #2, the veterans/new parents demonstrate a bonding moment. Exhausted, Alana jokes, “My drill instructor used to say that Wreath soldiers would go a month without sleep.” Marko flippantly counters, saying, “Yes, ours said the same thing about your lot…” Alana and Marko’s casual, teasing talk about the unrealistic and false expectations their respective armies tried to spread about the other is reminiscent of wartime propaganda. During WWII, the Americans had strong Anti-Japanese sentiments and propaganda. The Japanese were represented as ruthless killing machines of immortal proportions. Propaganda is often used to dehumanize a certain “brand” of people, whether it be the people of Japan, Wreath, or Landfall. In spite of all that, Alana and Marko choose to move past those stereotypes and establish a bond based on similar interests and moralities.
Both characters display their own strengths, vulnerabilities, and backstories, with little details that help to flesh out their personalities. Despite their previously violent occupations, Alana and Marko are both incredibly lovable characters. They are fiercely protective of each other and their family while demonstrating a deep sense of love and humor. These backstories give the characters dimension and humanizes them. It reminds readers that soldiers and veterans are still people, not machines.
PTSD and Veteran’s Trauma
Unfortunately, despite physically running away from the battlefield, both Alana and Marko cannot escape the psychological repercussions of warfare. In Volume 4 of SAGA, the relationship between Marko and Alana becomes strained as they struggle to raise Hazel. They have to do this while covertly avoiding the authorities and dealing with financial problems. Both secretly begin seeking escapes from their daily struggles. Alana turns to a drug called Fadeaway (an appropriate name). Meanwhile, Marko starts an emotional affair with another woman. He starts a relationship that lacks the hard complexity of his own life.
Symptoms such as the kind Alana and Marko display, substance abuse and strained personal relationships, are both common indications of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In SAGA #23, Alana confesses one reason she takes the drug is to escape her nightmares which force her to relive her traumatic memories as a soldier. Often, individuals who are exposed to armed conflict are more likely to develop PTSD. Returning soldiers also display high risks for self-harm and suicide. Whether in our world or theirs, no soldier escapes war without some scarring, whether physical or psychological.
SAGA’s Not Black or White
The creators use multiple shades of gray to further elaborate on the complex nature of war. While Alana and Marko are two of the most sympathetic characters, it would be an injustice to ignore the full reality of their experiences. Both characters had enlisted at a very young age into their respective armies. Alana enlists as a way to escape her turbulent home life; Marko joins as a source of nationalistic pride. However, their age and inexperience are not excuses for what they have done. Both characters experience first-hand combat. They also acknowledge that they had both committed actions that hurt innocent civilians. Yet an admirable trait about these characters is that neither tries to justify their actions under the disclaimer of “it was just orders.” Both are acutely aware of their actions and claim responsibility for them.
Another character in SAGA, The Will, demonstrates another shade of gray in war. As a freelance bounty hunter/mercenary, The Will makes his living hunting down war criminals and killing them for monetary profit. However, The Will also shows a softer side. After discovering a little girl, a war refugee trapped as an underage prostitute, The Will immediately kills her pimp. The Will then takes her under his wing and gives her the name “Sophie,” restoring some of the humanity she had lost to the war and her pimp. It is hard to say The Will is a bad person, seeing as he saved a little girl from sex slavery. However, killing the pimp would portray him as a villainous character. This gray area forces the reader to reflect on their own morals and standards during times of war.
Within fiction, it’s easy to imagine a war where the definition of who’s “good” or “evil” is clearly defined. Villains like the Joker or superheroes like Wonder Woman show us which characters are “good” and which are “bad.” This demonstrates the type of characters we are supposed to root for and the kinds of characters who we should fear. However, war in real life is more complicated. Propaganda and distorted facts complicate what’s real and what’s not when it comes to war. Oftentimes, the material that has helped me process some of the issues on this subject have been comics.
Manga like FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST by Hiromu Arawaka have helped me see war in an entirely new way. The world of FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST candidly and eloquently discuss topics such as disability, racial discrimination, and genocide. In Volume 15, Arawaka said: “In researching this volume, I interviewed veterans who had been at the front during World War II. I read countless books, examined film footage, and listened to many detailed and intense stories firsthand, but the one comment that affected me the most came from a former soldier who lowered his gaze to the tabletop and said, ‘I never watch war movies.’”
Autobiographical comics, like PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi and MAUS by Art Spiegelman, introduce a more personal lens of war. Satrapi tells her story, a woman recounting her early life in Iran during and after the Iranian Revolution. Spiegelman depicts himself recording his parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors and his personal intergenerational trauma. These depictions are important in humanizing the soldiers who have to return home. They give readers perspective on what these soldiers have faced.
Veterans are People
Comics provide a graphic perspective that makes the narrative of war more visual and poignant. Like real life, the war within SAGA often escapes precise definitions of “good” or “evil.” This blurred line is emphasized with characters such as The Will. This makes the comic that much more emotionally evocative. SAGA does its best to depict both creative storytelling and war narratives without glorifying war itself. It does this by showing war through the perspective of characters like Alana and Marko. These characters humanize veterans to readers, making war feel much more personal. These figures represent veterans who manage to retain their humanity even through chaos.