Coming to (Literary) Terms: Saga

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

The term of the day is Saga!

A saga is a far spanning tale that covers at least two generations of a family. While historically, it featured heroes and royalty, the term has been distilled into stories that focus on the growth of a family over time, versus just a stricter focus on characters at a particular point in their life.

Sagas tend to be difficult for the standard medium of graphic novels. Most novels in saga form are very dense with information and focus on the larger progression of a family over time. While you may have stories that feature younger and older generations together in graphic novels, the current structures typically don’t allow for saga, as characters tend to be frozen in time, once reaching adulthood. Additionally, most comics focus on individuals or teams, and the source of the drama stems from the conflict/resolution relationship. However, there is one great example of this technique in play, and well, it’s got saga written all over it…

Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staple’s Saga is best described by the nature of it’s title. In other words, when you read Saga, it’s exactly what you get. The way the book handles the structure is through various time skips that accelerate the narrative. While this may be difficult for typical comic readers, it is something that becomes easy to acclimate to in terms of expectations. This allows for the advancement of the story’s themes in proportion to the scale of the story; it not only focuses on the changing nature of the narrator’s family, but it must capture an entire galaxy at war. It also shows a great relationship with the maturation of characters, and an expanding sense of this mysterious universe. Because of the large scope, there are also other periphery characters that experience growth which allows for a great sense of depth in the story. The images above are a good way to think of the evolving nature of Saga, as the narrator is first seen as an infant, into a toddler, and most recently into a child over the course of roughly 3 years of publication.

On the manga side of things, Toriyama’s Dragon Ball also featured various time skips to progress forward the story line, and actually had the intention of turning his series into a saga, transitioning the story’s focus from the protagonist, Goku, to his son, Gohan. The series takes a break between Goku’s death and a period of peace in the world, and as it resumes, Gohan, as a teenager, is supposed to continue as the stories protagonist. Toriyama had a change of heart and decided to continue Goku’s story, which accounts for the brief shift in focus and tone. However, that change of mind leaves the manga with elements of a saga, but does not make it a saga.

From time to time, there is a sense of generational stories when heroes pass down their namesake to their proteges. The nature of a saga is the focus on development over time, so sidekicks tend to have more opportunity for growth. Dick Grayson is a great example of a character that has been allowed to mature and age, with a sense of heritage and growth, having permanently moved from Robin to Nightwing, and occasionally becoming Batman. It is the closest thing we get in relation to the canon of the mythology, as Bruce Wayne fluctuates between 30 to 45 years old, there can only be so much written about the nature of lineage.

I’d love to hear of other great examples, or your thoughts on the nature of generational stories. Thanks for taking the time.


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