In “Saga” #12, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples shine the spotlight on Prince Robot IV. The story opens with a four-page flashback, including the now infamous “postage-stamp”-sized “gay sex scenes” that have had such an impact on this week’s news cycle.
I first read “Saga” #12 before I heard about the controversy. At the time, I thought the images in question were an attention-grabbing opener, in Vaughn and Staples’ usual splashy but effective approach, and I didn’t think a lot more about it. “Saga” hasn’t exactly shied away from explicit but beautifully-drawn sex scenes, and both of the preceding issues opened with sexual or sexually-tinged first pages.
In the aftermath of the hubbub, it’s tempting to assign too much meaning to those two little images. The shock value is foremost, but it’s also some clever stage-managing by Vaughan in presenting this piece of Prince Robot IV’s sexuality in this particular way, on his head/on a screen in the middle of a war zone. Except for old link between sex and death, it’s jarring to see Prince Robot IV’s mind broadcasting porn as his bright blue blood splashes out onto his snow-white uniform. His desire is graphically displayed and yet contained and closeted in his TV-head, inviting the reader to judge and maybe even to laugh, not at the sex itself, but at the character, and to wonder about what kind of soul is in there.
In the action immediately afterwards, Prince Robot IV then displays what seems to be genuine concern for his cuddly medic, yelling “Get your bloody mask on!” and then, a steadying “It’s all right.” The fact that Prince Robot IV remembers this event even now is a subtle and tantalizing bit of characterization by Vaughn.
Vaughn writes “Saga” from the first-person point-of-view of Hazel, but from page to page, his plot follows other main characters, at times trailing The Will, and then stopping by to check in on Alana and Marko. As such, most of the story feels like it’s told with a third-person-limited point of view, until Hazel pops in with an all-knowing handwritten voiceover from an unknown point in the distant future.
Thus, the landscape, both literal and emotional, of particular issues of “Saga” is shaped by which players Vaughn and Staples deploy from their ensemble cast. So far, obvious heroes like Alana and Marko or almost-as-obvious heroes like The Will have gotten the most panel time and character development. Vaughn has emphasized their humanity and likability against the humorless bigotry and war-mongering of The Robot Kingdom and the larger political and societal pressures of Landfall and Wreath.
All of “Saga” #12 follows Prince Robot IV around, and as a result, the story feels enigmatic, cold and a little more shallow and abstract, because that’s how Robot IV intentionally comes off. Though it’s an enjoyable read, written and drawn with Vaughn and Staples’ usual level of craft, “Saga” #12 feels slight and decompressed after the flashback is over. Prince Robot IV takes a call, follows up on his own line of investigation and then interrogates his quarry (without ever calling it that), before the framing device of Hazel’s first-person narration drops in at the end to move the spotlight away. The interrogation scene is strangely unsatisfying in its circularity. The action downshifts from pursuit into a battle more philosophical than physical, with an accompanying fizzling of narrative tension.
Matching the tone and Prince Robot IV’s character, Staples’ color palette for “Saga” is colder and paler. Her artwork continues to be both beautiful and skillful. Details like the shape of a room or the cheery facial expressions of furry mammalian-human hybrids provide some of the warmth and emotional resonance that is lacking in much of the action.
Overall, “Saga” #12 isn’t a misstep as part of the huge story that Vaughn and Staples are telling. The events here are a beginning to understanding the enemy, if Prince Robot IV can be called one. However, as a chapter on its own, it lacks some traction because of the nature of the character it follows and in its unhurried pacing.