I won’t even hold you up with a stuffy preamble. I need you to look me dead in my eyes when I say this: Saga is the most important comic—hey, right here, right in my pupils—Saga is the most important comic you should be reading right now.
There’s a line in The Last Samurai where Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, says, “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.” Well, I could spend the rest of these newsletters talking about Saga, and there would not be a wasted newsletter.
Understanding why Saga is important doesn’t actually have much to do with its plot. I won’t even be talking about that here, as I wouldn’t want to spoil it, and I encourage you to read it with as blank a slate as possible. Instead, Saga is important for what it means to comics, the entertainment landscape, and connecting with the culture around you. I think I can explain it in four parts, working backwards: Entertainment has inherent cultural value; pop culture is our dominant form of entertainment; nerd culture has become the most influential force in pop culture; and Saga is the most important comic right now.
(A brief spoiler-free note on Saga: It’s rated R, for sure. It has graphic language, sex, drug use, and violence, so if that offends your sensibilities, heads up. But at its core, Saga is a space opera about parenting and family that will warm your heart, then rip it open, and then put it back together again. The story is told through the lens of a little girl named Hazel as she watches the evolution of her parents’ relationship. As a kid of divorced parents and now an adult who has to navigate complicated relationships myself sometimes, I find that Saga speaks to both my inner child and me as a grown-up, and it’ll do the same for you, too.)
There’s a lot of cool research about how we use stories to understand ourselves and the world around us, but what it boils down to is straightforward: The human brain understands best when it’s given information in story form, and shared stories are important. If you’ve ever felt lost in a group conversation that alluded to Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Game of Thrones, you’ve felt firsthand the importance of a shared story vocabulary. Most of that shared story vocabulary comes through pop culture, not because they’re the “best” stories, but because pop culture is accessible. (Which arguably might make those stories the best by some standards, but that’s a conversation for another time.) Whether we like it or not, there’s value in reading, watching, or playing something simply because everyone else is reading, watching, or playing it. And as it turns out, much of what we’re reading, watching, and playing these days is for nerds. At least, it used to be.
Nerd culture has become pop culture itself, so much that the definition of nerd is functionally different from what it used to be. As Omar Holmon explains in the recent book Black Nerd Problems: Essays, a nerd isn’t “an unstylish or socially awkward person” anymore. It’s not Revenge of the Nerds and Steve Urkel. A nerd is anyone who cares about something enough to debate, ship, write fanfic, and overall evangelize that thing to you, and the dictionary just hasn’t caught up yet. (It’s more complicated than that, but it’s a good reason you should also read Black Nerd Problems: Essays.) Simply put, if we want to understand what everyone else is talking about—that is, if we want to participate in the shared story vocabulary of the culture around us—it helps to understand what the nerds are sharing.
And the nerds share a lot of comics. Many readers already understand the importance of comics, and the number of those readers continues to expand: Comic sales in North America have grown year over year in nine of the past 10 years for reasons obvious to anyone who doesn’t live under a rock. But while Marvel and DC are leading the economic charge, indie comics are claiming more hearts and dollars, too. And that brings us to Saga.
Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, was meant to be something of a “pure” comic: Vaughan’s hope was that it would be virtually unadaptable to other mediums. It wouldn’t become a movie or be bought by Netflix. It could belong solely to comics in a way that’s now pretty rare—countless beloved and critically acclaimed stories have been adapted to find broader audiences and taller dollars. And ever since it began in 2012, Saga has been both beloved and critically acclaimed. It continued that way, racking up awards, until Vaughan and Staples put it on hiatus halfway through the series, in 2018—the comics equivalent of Michael Jordan retiring in 1993. But they recently announced that Saga will come back in January.
Saga is simply the most culturally relevant indie comic right now. In 2021, Saga is to comics what Megan Thee Stallion is to rap, what Squid Game is to streaming, what Giannis Antetokounmpo is to basketball. You owe it to yourself to share that story with the rest of us. Or just do it for me, that person who’ll be asking you, “Did you read the latest Saga?” when we meet.
It’s been three years since Saga #54 gave us that long kiss, walked into the sunset, and left us waiting for its return, so suffice it to say that we should all be in one of two groups: either reading Saga for the first time with the goal of catching up by January 2022, when it comes back from hiatus, or rereading Saga to remember what was forgotten in anticipation of its return.
Can Saga meet its expectations in January? Will it suffer the same cultural fate as the latter half of Game of Thrones? It’ll probably land somewhere in between, and admittedly, believing in it this much is dangerous, like putting yourself out on a limb in a relationship in which you can get hurt. To believe in it this much makes it almost destined to fail, but to believe in something this much—and to want to share it—is what makes being a nerd fun.
So go ahead. Put yourself out on the limb with the rest of us. You won’t be alone, I promise. At minimum, we’ll have another epic story to share together. And that’s the whole point.
We’ll undoubtedly talk about Saga again. (Hell, I might keep a countdown at the bottom of each newsletter until January. Say I won’t.) For now, though: Thank you to the thousands of people who subscribe to this newsletter. I’m loving your emails, specifically the one from someone named Paul, who sent me a message that should be written in Thanos font: “I am 49 years old and this is the first newsletter I have subscribed to but your initial offering hooked me. If this goes well, I will consider other newsletters from The Atlantic. The fate of both you and your colleagues is now in your hands.” I won’t let you down, Paul.
And for everyone who’s read this far, heads up that I’ll give away a free book every week, based on the newsletter topic. This time it’s Black Nerd Problems: Essays. If you’re interested, just send me a short email saying whether you think you could survive Squid Game, and I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun. And if you’re reading Humans Being for the first time: Welcome. You’d be a fool not to subscribe.