In “alternate reality” science fiction, one of the few tropes more engaging than alt-history – which shows us how things might have been changed if a historical lynch-pin event had a different outcome than that which we already know – is perhaps best described as alt-future: showing how our society would handle something that could conceivably happen based on our current world, even if the likelihood of that happening is extremely slim. That’s the premise we are given in We Stand on Guard, a planned 5-issue mini-series. The United States and Canada share the longest international land border in the world… what if our two countries went to war against each other?
The series is the brain child of writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Steve Skroce. Fans of the genre will likely recognize both names – Vaughn for his excellent work on Y: The Last Man and Saga (in addition to also doing story work for cult TV series like Lost, among others), and Skroce less for his work on Cable and X-Man but more for being the chosen artistic wunderkind of film-making duo The Wachowskis, storyboarding their tales of The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. Since it’s a series with a pre-planned end, there’s only a finite amount of pages for these gents to work with; fortunately, they don’t waste any time jumping full-throttle into the story.
Issue #1 is a large-sized 40 pages, and opens in the not-too-distant future of 2112. The White House has just been bombed by unknown assailants – at least, they are pointedly avoided being specifically mentioned in the issue. The US, however, may know something that the reader doesn’t, because they immediately drop bombs on Ottawa and, one would assume, other areas in Canada. It looks to be all-out war, and when we quickly get flashed ahead 12 years to 2124 (where the bulk of the first two issues take place), we can infer pretty quickly that the Canucks aren’t faring so well.
Issue #2 smoothly continues the story, with much of the storyline being shown on the page via the passive narration of Amber, a child who we see survive the initial bombings and working with Canadian resistance groups in the “present day.” The group she syncs up with, dubbed The Two-Four, certainly seem to have their hands full: the US combats the vast amount of space they have to patrol in the Canadian territories by having animal-shaped robot sentinels do the dirty work for them. From an initial encounter with a wolf-sized sentry to The Two-Four’s dust-up with an AT-AT-sized behemoth, it’s clear that this war, like most, takes casualties on both sides and has no clear-cut winner yet.
America and Canada at war with each other… and Giant Animal Robots? A premise as equally absurd as it is fascinating.
The pages of these issues are also abound with intriguing social commentary, but Vaughan takes great care to not bash readers over the head with it. If you’re like me, you’ll find multiple points in each issue where you’ll swing between who’s “right” and “wrong,” finding it difficult to truly sympathize or rage against either side conclusively. I think that’s what makes the story so gripping; Vaughan, as he’s done so eloquently in his part series, does an excellent job of guiding you through the world he’s creating without holding your hand and plainly laying it all out for you. What We Stand on Guard lacks so far in character development (I can honestly say that I don’t know much about any of the characters besides the typical “war is Hell” type stereotyped roles they play), it makes up in the fantastic environment that you’ll eagerly want to know more and more about.
Skroce’s artwork is excellent as well. It’s soft in places and rough and bumpy in others, but with a key juxtaposition: he flips the script from the norm and makes his visual presentation of the characters the gritty feel, and the environments and vehicles are shown smooth and sleek. This could be another subtle commentary – that war makes people hard but the planet cares not for the struggles of man…or something semi-eloquent like that – or it could just simply be Skroce’s preferred style of choice. Either way, the first two books are amazing-looking pieces of art, and they each feature bonus sketch books at the end of the tale for you to delve into the world even further.
We Stand on Guard is, in no uncertain terms, a series that you should be reading. It’s a fresh take on the alt-history/alt-future design, and it takes a premise that sounds absurd and infuses it with enough realism to make you take a long second thought about just how outlandish the scenario might be.
Plus, did I mention the giant animal-shaped robots?