By Chris Hayden
In his new series We Stand on Guard, writer Brian K. Vaughan, famous for his masterpiece Saga, continues to do what he does best: Construct memorable worlds and interesting characters in record time, sucking readers into some of the most original and thought provoking stories available at your local comic book store.
In the first four issues of the series, Vaughan and artist Steve Skroce create a bleak image of the future. After a drone attack strikes the White House in the year 2112, the United States retaliates by staging an invasion and occupation of Canada. During the initial bombardment, Amber, then a small child, witnesses the death of her father. Jumping forward to 2124, the story is told through the eyes of the now grown Amber, centering on the efforts of the "Two-Four", a motley crew of Canadian resistance fighters who are opposing the American occupation of their homeland. It's a fun premise that lends itself to both action and interesting character relationships while also being a more traditional comic book good vs. evil story, although sometimes it seems as though things may not be quite so black and white in this series.
Much like Saga, the story of We Stand on Guard is unraveled slowly, with large chunks of the universe yet to be explored. As the arc progresses, we are introduced to heroes and villains alike. Allegiances aside, there is yet to be a genuinely uninteresting character in the series, as all of them have their own quirks and personalities that make them unique as individuals, rather than the standard caricatures you often find in these freedom fighter type stories. There's no bumbling officer who thinks they should be in charge, no fearless leader with all the answers, and no cowardly soldier who is eventually redeemed. Vaughan isn't simply checking boxes with characters traits, but rather crafting a genuinely diverse cast of characters who all feel like they could exist in the real world. While they don't all dominate the story, with characters like the stoic Amber and the gruff and cool Dunn becoming the most memorable and prominent, they're all interesting in their own way and we're never bored learning more about them in each issue.
As important as the characters are, it's the story that will keep you coming back for more. We follow as a near hopelessly outmanned and outgunned resistance attempts to fight off their technologically superior American oppressors by making the best of what they have. Throughout the arc, hints have been made that there is a dark secret behind the true origins of the American invasion, and Amber's motivations for joining the resistance have yet to be fully examined. While both of these elements of mystery have been somewhat developed, Vaughan has done so in bite sized chunks, giving readers a compelling reason to pick up the next issue each month.
The series strikes a balance between silence and action (and a little humor), taking on a Game of Thrones quality with how the issues unfold. They spend the majority of the time exploring characters and building relationships while also delving into their respective pasts and slowly establishing the history of the war. These moments, ranging from hopeful to poignant, are punctuated by moments of shocking violence that send a clear message as soon as the very first issue: no characters in this story are safe. It's a revelation that leads to some enjoyably tense moments throughout these first few issues, as the characters jump from one harrowing situation to the next in a war that takes a visible toll on our heroes.
At its core, We Stand on Guard is nothing new in terms of premise, but it is what it does with this premise that makes it stand head and shoulders above the majority of series running today. While it certainly adds original elements to the standard freedom fighter formula, such as making the United States (ever the victim) the apparent villains of the story, it is the characters that elevate it from a Red Dawn knock-off to something in a league of its own. When a writer can have a reader seeing virtues in their villains and squirming at the actions of their heroes, you know you're reading something special. It's a series that isn't afraid to portray war for the complicated thing that it is, and unflinchingly display the grey shades of morality. The well balanced mix between effective character development and thrilling action is something that's sadly not as common as it could be in comics today, so it's always a treat when it's handled as well as it is in We Stand on Guard.