We Stand On Guard #1

We Stand On Guard #1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by Steve Skroce
Colored by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Fonografiks
Image Comics

I feel like Canada must view the United States as an obnoxious sibling. Big and brash and loud. But at least we haven't invaded them recently. That all changes in We Stand On Guard, the terrific new series from Brian K. Vaughan and artist Steve Skroce, with colors from Matt Hollingsworth and lettering by Fonografiks.  We Stand On Guard tells the story of a ragtag Canadian militia defending Canada from hostile American invaders in the early 22nd century.  This first issue is dramatic, intense, and sets up a whole new world in a highly accessible way.

It's the year 2112, giving a great allusion to the War of 1812 from 300 years earlier, and conflicts rage around the world.  The story opens as we see a family watching the news.  The White House is attacked by unknown terrorists, and the family speculates about who will be blamed for this attack and against whom the United States will retaliate. It's not long before we see that the United States responds by blaming Canada*. Skroce and Hollingsworth show the attack on Ottawa in a jaw-dropping double page spread. Creating a gut and heart-wrenching sequence, we see the fate of the parents and learn that the children, Tommy and Amber, will only have each other. The story moves ahead a dozen years as we meet Amber alone in the Canadian Northwest. She's attacked by an American combat mech (known as a "Dog of War"), but is rescued by a ragtag group of Canadian militia that call themselves the Two-Four. They're skeptical of her and her presence in the wilderness, but it's not long before they engage another, much larger American combat mech known as a Guerilla. The Two-four shows their skill, takes some losses and Amber proves her mettle.

This is a highly satisfying first issue.  Really, it's great, engaging, accessible entertainment. It starts with a bang and keeps going. That's a testament to a creative team firing on all cylinders. Vaughan (Runaways, Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Saga, The Private Eye) knows as well as anyone how to tell an engaging story that pulls you in from the very first page. Vaughan takes a very ground-up approach to world building, as opposed to someone like Jonathan Hickman who's more interested in giving the reader the 10,000 foot view. In stories like Y: The Last Man and Saga, we learn about complex, fully realized worlds by watching how these epic worlds impact ordinary people that are swept up in events beyond their understanding and who are just trying to survive. They're huge stories, but they're told at a very human scale with relatable (if not always likable) lead characters.

Based on the first issue of We Stand On Guard, it feels like Vaughan is taking very much the same approach to storytelling as in his past works. We know almost nothing about Amber and her brother Tommy, except that they watched their parents die when they were children, and they've only had each other all these years. But it's a testament to the entire creative team that through her actions, we see both Amber's strength and her vulnerability through the course of the first issue. Similarly with the Two-Four, they're not soldiers, they're just regular people who've come together from disparate circumstances to fight against their invaders from the south. We're given enough of their personalities to get a general sense of who they are, and I expect that each of them have interesting stories that have brought them to this point.

Vaughan has had the good fortune and good judgment to work with excellent, memorable artistic collaborators over the years (Tony Harris, Pia Guerra, Fiona Staples), and that continues with Skroce and Hollingsworth. I wasn't familiar with Skroce's work but I was highly impressed with this issue.  This is highly skilled, detailed, thoughtful sequential art and design. In a very different sort of comic, Skroce's style made me think of some sort of combination of Simon Gane (They're Not Like Us) and Nate Bellegarde (Nowhere Men)**. What both those artists do skillfully, and what Skroce's does terrifically here is to convey complex emotional truths in the eyes of the characters in the story. It's a hard thing to do and Skroce's does it beautifully. From inquisitiveness and hostility to resignation, The eyes on Skroce's characters sell their emotions beautifully. One very specific example that's a real highlight for me - as we see Tommy (who is older) and Amber over the bodies of their dying parents, Tommy is full of anguish and emotion, but Amber's eyes are cold, somewhat emotionless. Is she in shock? She's only 5 so she may also not entirely comprehend what's going on, but it feels like something in her has been shut off. The story immediately jumps to her twelve years later, and her eyes show the same cold, hard quality in an adult form. It's skillful work.

Skroce does terrifically detailed work trough out the issue. Much of the sequence where we first meet the adult Amber is wordless as she makes her way through the woods, and the subsequent battles are wordless as well. The storytelling here is clear and flows from panel to panel. Skroce is also a storyboard artist, which is not surprising when you see the work here. The battle sequences show the combat from a number of different viewpoints but they all make sense, and the characters and events depicted have a sense of flow and heft to them. In particular, the giant Guerilla Mech really feels like it has depth and substance to it (a problem that many movies that overuse CGI have not yet overcome).

I can't say enough good things about the work that Hollingsworth does in this story. His work here reminds me a little of the coloring in They're Not Like Us in that it has a slightly faded, weathered quality. It's not gimmicky at all, but what it does is ground the story. While this takes place a century in the future, it feels both real and timeless. This faded, slightly granular coloring works very well with the scenes in the woods as it conjures up images of old World War II stories about scrappy groups of soldiers fighting against a superior force. The coloring also really contributes to the sense of heft and gravity felt when looking at American combat mechs and other futuristic parts of the story. In particularly, that two page spread showing the destruction of 22nd century Ottowa. The city buildings are a lovely combination of old and new shown in old brick and gleaming spires, and to see the city engulfed in the flames of bombs falling is almost overwhelming. Hollingsworth's colors really drive that feeling home.  Fonografiks also contributes some really strong lettering throughout the story. When the mech talks, the lettering is appropriately futuristic and mechanical, and the sound effects that accompany a spinning drill and an explosion (shown above) really complete the art and feel like part of the art, without being at all distracting. It feels like a lot of care went into this comic.

If you're looking for a highly entertaining, fun comic where you get to root for future-Canada (or against future-America), you can't do much better than We Stand On Guard.

* Yes, I couldn't say that without thinking of this.

** Both of whom have worked with Image publisher Eric Stephenson, another excellent judge of artistic talent.