We Stand on Guard by Brian K Vaughan and Steve Skroce
Brian K. Vaughan’s career fascinates me.
He was breaking into writing mainstream comics at a time when it felt like every popular writer had a defining gimmick: Garth Ennis had ultra-violence and a fascination with American masculinity; Brian Michael Bendis had Mamet-does-comics dialogue and a crime fetish; Warren Ellis had his futurist thing and a distinctive, sardonic voice; Alan Moore his formalism and magick thing; Grant Morrison his wild ideas; and so on down the line.
Vaughan never quite fit that bill. A graduate of the “Stan-hattan Project,” a class at NYU developed and overseen in part by Marvel Comics, he started out scrabbling around on the kind of piecemeal catch-work a writer gets when he's just breaking in. His work on those random superhero side titles made him seem like a generic replacement-level writer. Sure, he was able to give the characters he was writing a pleasing superficial glibness, but there was no indication that he was a superstar in the making.
He started picking up some slightly steadier work at DC Comics -- he was able to launch an ecologically-minded Swamp Thing series that seemed to make little impact, and to do some Batman work -- but with the same general results he had gotten at Marvel.
The improvement in Vaughan’s work was incremental, right up until it wasn’t. He did a couple more breezy, better-than-average long runs on at Marvel on Ultimate X-Men and Mystique, and somewhere in the middle of all that launched three monster hits, from three different publishing imprints, seemingly all at once. (It was actually three launches over a span of two years, from September 2002 to August 2004.)
First came Y: The Last Man, from the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics, a speculative fiction about Earth after a plague wipes out all the men on the planet but one. Next was Runaways, at Marvel, a look at what happens when a group of kids realize their parents are supervillains (and arguably the most enduring new characters Marvel’s comics have produced in the last 15 years). And last was Ex Machina, from DC’s Wildstorm imprint, a superhero political thriller set firmly in an alternate post-9-11 present.
Vaughan would stay on all three titles for extended runs (a combined 150+ issues ), a streak that rocketed him to inarguable superstardom, and finally established his distinctive voice and brand: on a macro level, he was great at coming up with a clever high concept and extrapolating from it; on a micro level he was incredibly adept at using the timing of the comics page, of the issue break, of the page turn, to keep reader interest engaged in those concepts.
Then, at the height of his powers, he left comics to write for Lost. It seemed like that would be it, another big-name comics talent lost to Hollywood... and then things seemed to go slightly sour. He left Lost before the final season, then resurfaced as the showrunner for the genuinely godawful TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Under The Dome.
And then he came back to comics, and immediately had another mammoth hit in Image Comics’ currently running sci-fi hit Saga. Then he had another one in the prescient, name-your-price book The Private Eye published digital-only through his Panel Syndicate house.
Which is where Vaughan’s career stands as he launches We Stand On Guard: he’s firmly established as a superstar of comics, playing with house money, able to develop whatever projects he wants. But still, even now, I don't think that if you grabbed a panel out of context, I'd necessarily be able to identify Vaughan as the writer.
(This question speaks to a certain “auteur theory of comics” -- an idea that a writer’s vision might shine through a panel, regardless of who’s illustrating it and coloring it. On the one hand, it sounds preposterous, the ultimate example of over-fetishizing the writer’s influence on comics. On the other hand… well, for Moore and Neil Gaiman and lots of the other biggest name writers in comics, it feels very true. And, for Vaughan, it feels very not-true.)
We Stand on Guard artist Steve Skroce has followed an eerily similar path. He started off as a workmanlike artist for Marvel on books like X-Man and Cable, kind of notable for the rubbery quality to his drawings but not much else. And then he provided storyboards for a little movie called The Matrix, and everything changed. He came back to comics to write and draw a minor run on Wolverine, which was stunning in its intricate, thoughtful art -- it was easy to see echoes of the Matrix's bullet time fights in those books. It's been mostly storyboarding for Skroce since, with some brief comics work alongside Matrix masterminds the Wachowskis and comics legend Geoff Darrow. That work which seemed to bring out Darrow-ish qualities in Skroce's own work, and he returns to WSOG also as a star who can choose to only work in comics when he has to.
All of which is a long way of saying, this is a really interesting choice of book for two guys who could do literally whatever they want in comics.
From one perspective, We Stand on Guard is a book of dramatic Ideas that warrants their talents. The basic concept is simple, familiar from movies of all levels as well as, depressingly, real life: the U.S. is hit by a terrorist attack and retaliates against the suspected attacker. But the Vaughan twist here, the high concept that he extrapolates from, is that the U.S. identifies Canada as the attacker. Played for laughs, this is John Candy’s movie Canadian Bacon or South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.
But V&S don't play it for laughs. Instead, what they're doing is taking America's ongoing post-9/11 struggle for vengeance or whatever and -- brilliantly -- removing the xenophobia. Removing the differences in religion and skin tone and culture that have made it really easy for a lot of Americans to other the people we're fighting.
The book follows Amber, a Canadian a 17 year old Canadian woman orphaned by the U.S. retaliation. Each issue so far takes place across two separate timeframes; first, a flashback to Amber’s younger days (beginning with the terrorist attack on the U.S.) and then the “present day” story of Amber joining a team of Canadian resistance fighters.
As a character, Amber is kept deliberately ambiguous; there’s an ongoing question of if she could actually be a mole or a spy. But as an archetype, she’s a very deliberate illustration of the themes Vaughan and Skroce are playing with. In appearance and name, she’s as North American as it gets; making their war-orphan hero a red-haired, fair-skinned woman is a very conscious decision by the creative team as they address issues that fiction much more traditionally ascribes to exotic, swarthy, desert-born people from far away.
So far, these themes are present, but not shoved in your face. It's not subtle, exactly -- it’s very clearly there if you’re looking for it -- but thus far Vaughan and Skroce underplay those elements. It adds depth to the story, and makes it feel more like something worthy of these people’s time..
From another perspective, though, these two titans of comics have banded together to write a really lunatic G.I. Joe story about a paramilitary organization made up of scrappy rebels with disparate talents and one-note personalities fighting against giant robots and an evil, technologically advanced army.
They do a great job from that perspective, as well. Skroce’s skills are kinetic action scenes and giant robots (it’s clear that he was involved in the creation of The Matrix’s battlesuits), so he’s firmly in his element. Vaughan excels at banter and twisty plots, so this action movie approach works for him as well. There’s anything inherently wrong with reading this as a slightly off-kilter version of Red Dawn.
But it does further confound my understanding of Vaughan’s career -- and, by extension, his entire approach to comics.
Part of me wants to cast him as comics' Steven Spielberg -- pure populism so clean and well-executed that it intrinsically elevates itself based on ineffable "quality" alone -- but that’s not quite right. He's got a little of George Lucas in there as well (an "indie" creator who -- given the opportunity to do whatever he wanted -- did Star Wars and American Graffiti), but there’s a lot of baggage that goes with that analogy.
Anyway, movies aren’t serials (no matter how devoutly George Lucas wishes it were otherwise), and the serial element is crucial to appreciating Vaughan’s work. As I mentioned above, he’s a king of the cliffhanger and the page-turn, which is one reason it’s worth calling attention to this work pre-collection: reading Vaughan’s writing as the books are released issue-by-issue is a drastically different experience than reading it in collection -- neither better nor worse, necessarily, just thrilling in different places and different ways.
Thinking about that element of Vaughan brings to mind the other great serial entertainment these days: television. And that association makes Vaughan’s career make a lot more sense.
Reductively describing him as I’ve done here, he becomes a master of rising tension, crafting works with a distinct look-and-feel that elevate mainstream pop narratives to something more auteurist and assured, leaning heavily on rising tension, sharp cliffhangers, and morally-gray characters. He’s someone who started out doing workmanlike work on larger mainstream properties and parlayed that into a career as a commercial success and a critical darling. He is, in short, Vince Gilligan, who rose from writer on The X-Files to celebrated creator of Breaking Bad, and that’s not a bad spot to be in.
With three issues under its belt, We Stand On Guard stands on a precipice. If the story goes wrong, it’s a stew of clever ideas and snappy banter, work done by two talented creators punching down. Even If it all goes well, it’s still not likely to be a classic -- to continue the metaphor, it’s closer to being Vaughan’s Better Call Saul than another Breaking Bad. But it’ll still be better than a big chunk of what you might see on the stands, the same way Better Call Saul is better executed than the average network drama. Even if his career is a bit difficult to pin down, even Vaughan’s lesser work tends to be very much worth exploring.
We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce