Set a little over 100 years in the future, We Stand On Guard tells the story of Canadian rebels trying to defend themselves—and their country—against the threat of an aggressive, imperialistic United States invading Canada for its water. Helmed by American writer Brian K. Vaughan and Canadian artist Steve Skoce, with colors by Matt Hollingsworth and letters by Fonografiks. I’m shocked that it’s not more controversial, but is it good?
We Stand On Guard (Image Comics)
“You keep picking them!”
That’s what AIPT!’s own David Brooke said to me a few weeks ago after I half-jokingly complained about how difficult it was to recently review problematic and controversial, yet altogether compelling comics like Wonder Woman: Earth One and Airboy. I was hoping to review something simple next, one that would entertain me without making me reevaluate my principles.
But then I heard that a book in which Brian K. Vaughan brought a successful storyboard artist back into the comics world for a story about a war between the United States and Canada with “giant f-----g robots” was available to review as a trade collection, and I couldn’t resist.
I’m convinced that if the story of We Stand On Guard was told through a more mainstream medium such as film or television, it would have rivaled John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comment in terms of the outrage that would ensue. Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be quite as drastic, but it would certainly rile up the talking heads at Fox News, not to mention a significant portion of American citizenry. A story that depicts the American government as the bad guys, told from the perspective of decidedly impolite Canadians, with no American with any redeemable qualities in sight within the confines of said story? Surely that should have warranted at least one angry article by a concerned mother that was shocked to find out that (bam, pow) comics aren’t for kids anymore.
So why isn’t We Stand On Guard more controversial? Brian K Vaughan is not an obscure writer, after all, and I don’t even mean “popular for comics.” He’s one of the few comic book creators of whom non-comic-book-devotees that I have met can name, and I don’t believe that it’s just because he’s done some television work. He’s achieved fame because of comics (like Saga and Y: The Last Man), not in spite of them.
If I had to guess, WSOG isn’t controversial just because the kinds of people reading the book – at least the readers that are paying enough attention to process the fact that there are many elements of WSOG that some would consider inflammatory – are the kinds of people that are used to having crazy ideas thrown at them all the time, and, frankly, probably have political views that are not too far removed from that of the creators’.
I think it would be wrongheaded to look at We Stand On Guard as propaganda, or see it as a work that tries to tell readers exactly what to think. One of the reasons that I liked Vaughan’s own Pride of Baghdad so much is because it doesn’t provide any answers, but forces the reader to ask questions, primarily about the nature of freedom, particularly in regards to the American war with Iraq.
I went into We Stand On Guard thinking that it would be another commentary on the Iraq War, or perhaps the more nebulous War On Terror. And in a lot of ways, it is. But I quickly realized that it can also be seen as a commentary on a political situation that I have much more mixed feelings about: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now look, I really don’t want to turn this review into a full-fledged discussion about where I stand on this issue, largely because I’m not even sure of where I stand on the issue myself. I’ve been to Israel, and thought it was a beautiful country with some wonderful people (I was also much more naïve when I went there). I have friends and family members who have lived in Israel, and I also have met several Palestinians who were absolutely fine people. My feelings on the matter are… complicated. Can we just leave it at that?
Again, I think it would be a mistake to look at We Stand On Guard as a direct commentary on the conflict in Israel, I couldn’t help but see some parallels. And in that regard, WSOG is one of the first comics – heck, pieces of fiction in general – that I’ve encountered in some time that really challenged my beliefs. I don’t necessarily agree with it, I don’t necessarily disagree with it, but I appreciate the work for forcing me to think about it instead of just reconfirming my (mostly liberal) set of beliefs.
By framing the story from the perspective of the Canadians, it becomes clear that Vaughan is very deliberately trying to challenge us. Skroce doesn’t pull any punches either. Yes, the futuristic weaponry and vehicles are undeniably cool, but what is done with them is horrifying. This is war, and no matter how fictional or outlandish it may be, it’s still harrowing.
I’ve heard people complain about the sheer carnage in BKV’s stories. As someone that’s been following Saga from the beginning, I can attest that it does sometimes seem like he’s a little too ruthless in terms of killing off characters, but as with Saga, the death in WSOG is absolutely necessary to the story.
In all my talk about intention and theme, I haven’t discussed the fact that WSOG gets away with being so challenging largely based on the fact that’s it’s about as well-crafted a comic as you would expect from these creators. Vaughan does some interesting things with language (especially with a character who speaks almost entirely in French with no translation), and, as usual, he knows how to tell a tight, tense story.
But I haven’t spoken enough about Skroce, who accomplishes more than just depicting effectively grotesque violence. It’s clear that even with years away from comic books, he still knows how to draw them better than most. It’s no wonder that he’s been so successful in Hollywood, with his imagination and talent for sequential storytelling. I can’t get over just how clean everything looks while depicting such incredible detail. And where it counts, he knows how to show believable emotions during crucial moments. That’s more important than how badass the robots look.
Is It Good?
We Stand On Guard moves a little too quickly for its own good, and some readers may be a bit numb to the violence, but it’s still a fascinating, well-told, well-drawn story that many readers won’t even realize is taking so many risks.
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