On the surface, We Stand On Guard has a lot going for it: a Brian K. Vaughan creation, an intriguingly original hook, giant robots and a grim sci-fi future Canada. But as I was reading, I kept looking for some depth, something special Vaughan was trying to say, something about the characters to latch onto. After finishing the volume, I’m not too certain there is much past the robots.
We Stand On Guard TPB (Image Comics)
When the book picks up, things are already pretty grim, with Canada almost completely under America’s heel and being drained of natural resources. Our entry point to the world is Amber, a fierce and combative young woman whose family fell victim to the invasion. She is saved by a small group of Canadian rebels, quickly joining their ranks to try and score a big victory against their technically superior enemy.
There are a few other details and flashbacks, including a sadistic woman leading the American faction trying to wipe out the rebels, but generally, I’d say the story is kind of thin. The rebels have a kind of Dirty Dozen vibe, where each member has their own little niche. You learn a little bit about each of the group: one is gay, one is a descendant of Syrian refugees, etc., but none of the supporting cast is much more than their role on the team. The book’s flashbacks attempt to flesh out Amber’s backstory, but it just doesn’t seem like there is much there. Most of them feature her and her older brother on the run from American soldiers, highlighting her growing hatred of the Americans along the way. I think we’re just kind of asked to accept the rebel’s motivations at face value: their homeland was invaded, so they are fighting back. Not unreasonable, but it makes it hard to grow attached to any of the characters, making sacrifices less impactful. Also, one of the characters almost completely speaks in French, which I don’t know, so he was basically personality-less. I don’t think that worked too well.
With such a specific and original high-concept story, I figured Vaughan would have some really interesting things to say about Canadian/US relations. There has to be a reason he set the story in Canada, right? Unfortunately, I’m not sure what he was trying to say. Maybe he was trying to say America takes Canada for granted? Or maybe he was trying to parallel real-world invasions that seem far away, like in the Middle East, in an attempt to humanize a conflict and show the side of the victims? Maybe he was trying to show what could happen to America if it didn’t learn from some of Canada’s foreign relations and climate policy? Other than “Americans take advantage of Canada’s natural resources,” I didn’t get much sense of a clear premise, let alone a more nuanced one. Ultimately, whatever the story’s message is gets lost amongst the action.
Steve Skroce’s art is a bit of a mixed bag. Most of his posing seems pretty stiff, and thicker line work doesn’t help. He does some interesting work with the tech in the book, the robot designs are cool and seem plausible, but he does seem to have some trouble capturing the scale of everything. It is really only in the handful of spreads that you really get a sense of how big all these robots and stuff really are. Those panels are the best part of Skroce’s work on the book. For the most part Skroce’s facial work is fine, but every so often some of the characters look a bit off, like they had a stroke, or are maniac or something. It wasn’t severe, but just enough to take me out of the story for a moment.
Brian K. Vaughan is normally one of the best writers in the biz, and I generally like everything he’s done, so perhaps that’s why I’m holding him to such a high standard. But when it comes to We Stand On Guard, I don’t think he serviced the concept, or characters, as well as he could have. In the end, I’m underwhelmed by a book that doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to say.