Saga is back and the newest issue falls into a familiar pattern. The series is composed with its serialized model in mind and after a few months of hiatus writer Brian K. Vaughan is sure to reintroduce the status quo. Only a few days have passed since the events of Saga #36, but #37 carefully checks in with each of the central cast (with only one or two exceptions) and updates some dangling plot threads from the previous arc.
Fiona Staples presentation makes this overlap much more bearable by providing at least one notable image for each character. Hazel is shown in a splash page that highlights how much she has grown physically and as a character with her wings outstretched. Prince Robot exhibits the most growth with the most striking sequence. It contains the sort of bold panels Saga has become infamous for, but the shock is only a veneer over fascinating insight into this evolving member of royalty. Vaughan also sets aside some time to address the family's newest member Petrichor in a frank and necessary dialogue about identity.
While the pacing and design of Saga #37 may be familiar (bordering upon formulaic), its focus is fresh. This particular arc has already received a title, a rarity for this series, "The War for Phang". The reason why is immediately clear. While previous stories focused on the movements of this series' expansive cast, in this issue they are introducing themselves to a larger, ongoing story. The comet Phang serves as the setting for this issue and provides a clear thematic direction for the story to come.
In many ways the war for Phang mirrors modern conflicts in the Middle East. It is a proxy war with the forces of both Wreath and Landfall interfering based on their own interests. Those interests are based in the natural resources (i.e. fuel) of Phang, an analog to oil. On top of all that, it is noted that the war has resulted in a refugee crisis. These comparisons are broad enough to make it clear this conflict is exploring those the United States has begun and become involved with in the past 15 years, but does not mirror any specific one. In this way Vaughan allows himself to explore thoughts on these global events without minimizing the complexity of them.
All of this history requires a great deal of exposition, but it never comes at the cost of pacing. Staples unravels the tragic tale of Phang in a montage-like sequence that draws connections to characters throughout the story of Saga thus far. Each moment is carefully selected to present the scope and scale of both the war and comet. She utilizes soft lighting and colors to present burning fields and cold nights with a strange beauty. There is a sense of violence in each of these images, but they are crafted like the most outstanding photography brought back from conflicts like Vietnam. The result is enthralling and allows readers to discover just as much about Phang in the images as the words themselves.
No matter how well composed many of Staples' images are, it is bound to be the cliffhanger that is most talked about. For the first time in the series history Staples utilizes a spread instead of a splash for the final panel of an issue. The pages themselves conjure a mood that is equally heartwarming and dread-inducing, a truly impressive combination. It is in the very size of the image and what is found in it that Staples clarifies for readers what "The War for Phang" will be about. First, it is bigger than anything Saga has tackled thus far. More importantly though, it juxtaposes family and war placing the emphasis on the former. No matter how much battles and blood may define this series, it has always been about the impact of those things on actual lives. In this final image and throughout Saga #37 that is absolutely clear as this series prepares once more to explore the concept of family and redefine its status quo.