One of my absolute favorite war comics – actually, one of my absolute favorite comics, full stop – is about a group of lions that escaped from a zoo. Pride of Baghdad, written by Brian K. Vaughan, is a genius account of a real life events that went down during America’s 2003 invasion and bombing of Iraq. This usual choice of focus, along with BKV’s always razor sharp wit, offered a uniquely removed perspective of the atrocities that humans do to each other, as well as the other often forgotten inhabitants of the world, during war.
Off the monstrous, almost unprecedented success and acclaim of Saga, his collaboration with Fiona Stables, BKV returned to the war genre this summer with We Stand On Guard. On Canada Day no less, Image Comics released this new miniseries, which focuses on a fictional war between the United States and Canada, where the US –striking back in response to the destruction of the White House – initiates a devastating attack on its northern neighbor. The story is classic BKV, taking a staggeringly high concept and populating it with relatable, human characters that allow him to have unabashedly comic booky fun while making unique statements about the big stuff, ranging from the losses we suffer in war to the parts of our lives we sacrifice to become parents.
That focus on character is paramount in elevating this comic beyond its What If… concept. The opening of this totally Abrams Star Treks us, introducing us to a genuinely likable family before… well, blowing it all to pieces. The focus through the rest of the comic stays on Amber, the inquisitive daughter in the opening scene who has been raised to be a survivor. Her brother, who also survived the missile strike that rocked Canada at the opening of the comic, has recently gone missing… so she’s on her own. That changes when a group of Canadians called the Two-Four, the “baddest freedom fighters in the Great White North,” crosses her path. They’re not sure if she’s on their side or a spy, and it takes a battle with gigantic, American robots for her to prove her loyalty.
Steve Skroce, the Matrix storyboard artist, joins BKV to bring this war to life, and his distinctive, intricate artwork makes every page turn a visual punch to the chest. The most fascinating aspect of the whole book is that, though it’s set a hundred years in the future and technology has advanced to the point of warbots the size of skyscrapers, the sci-fi aspects of the book are immensely grounded by Skroce’s realistic landscapes and characters that look more like someone you’d see on the street than in the pages of a comic book. The art is complimented by Matt Hollingsworth, who is also killing it as a colorist on books like Wytches and Hawkeye. Hollingsworth’s colors here are textured, cool – and startlingly different from his work on Wytches. That he can create such completely different aesthetics, essentially building the worlds of these titles every bit as much as the artist, puts him in a level of his own. Saga’s Fonografiks provides, as always, sleek and smooth lettering. This team is making the ugliest subject of all into a beautiful piece of art, which is a hell to pull off.
There’s no shortage of media about war, but We Stand On Guard stands far apart from the rest… and not just because of its wild concept. It’s a quality, compelling comic that intrigued me, surprised me, hurt me, and then wowed me.
Basically, it’s Brian K. Vaughan doing the Brian K. Vaughan thing. Which means you’ll want to be along for this ride, wherever it may go.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Family Pets, Robyn Hood, Charmed: Season Ten) and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). Though he lives in the United States, he loves all things Canadian. I mean, how can one country have poutine, Drake, Jeff Lemire, Tegan AND Sara. It’s almost not fair. #TeamCanada.