Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples return with a new issue of "Saga" after scattering Hazel's family even further apart during the bleakness of the last arc. The most exciting part of this jump is that our narrator Hazel, who has been a prop in the story up to this point, develops agency over her own actions, and Vaughan drops us in on what she has been up to since getting away from the Last Revolution. It's a fresh look at the exhausted, war-torn galaxy as we follow her development in the Coalition detainee center. After a quick bout of violence in the beginning of the story, there is very little on-panel action, but that doesn't stop Vaughan from kicking up the stakes of the book with the simple act of gift giving. Leave it to this writer to take something as simple as this and not only ratchet up the drama, but also show how good deeds rarely go rewarded in this world. As always, the gorgeous minimalism of Staples' visuals help lift the script by taking pressure off the narrative, delivering emotion and character development in equal measure.
Vaughan's dark sense of humor is all over this issue, deployed in smaller moments and filtered through Hazel's point of view. Her innocence and basic desires reflect the dark surroundings as she curiously traverses the camp, from class to extracurriculars. After the dark, depressing turns in the previous arc, this chapter actually benefits from the extended break, using it as a palette cleanser that allows the writer a chance to move the tone back towards the middle. There's a very funny sequence in the middle of the book that is such an encapsulation of these creators' work, as Hazel runs past "Auntie" Lexis, who clearly received a beatdown from fellow inmates. It's a silent moment as we enter the action, where everyone pretends nothing is happening. To Hazel, this face-value acceptance of the situation ends with a thumbs-up and a smile, and her naivete and happiness in getting help from Lexis is both hilarious and tragic. With the narrator taking a bigger role in the action, the focus of the series seems to shift away from Marko and Alana, who don't make an appearance in these pages. Credit again goes to the writer, who let us live with those characters for years as they started to be pulled down by the galaxy around them and before turning away to offer hope to not just that galaxy but the story itself.
Though there's little in the way of big action -- save for one splash page, which reminds readers of the fierce loyalty of the family at the heart of this tale -- Staples still finds the perfect moments to accentuate and draw in the reader. In addition to the transgender moment, which is reflective of struggles in our world, the conclusion to the tale finds Hazel making the biggest move of the series to date. Staples' rendition of Hazel's emotional reaction to getting the book from her teacher is equal parts sweet and sad and delivers more complications to the story.
This issue is a great jumping-on point for readers, as it displays Vaughan and Staples' mastery of both the macro and micro scope of this book. Delivering one of the best presents a comic reader could receive a whole month early, "Saga" #31 continues to deliver a deftly balanced story that has yet to dip below the standards of even "pretty good" -- and it shows no signs of doing so any time soon.