Bitter cold constantly plagues the Russian countryside, but one team knows how warm the hearts of its citizens: the Winter Guard. This June, the cold country's premiere super team gets their very own three-issue limited series "Darkstar and the Winter Guard" by writer David Gallaher and artist Steve Ellis.
The Winter Guard have appeared numerous times throughout Marvel Comics history, always with the same four members: the Red Guardian, Darkstar, Ursa Major and the Crimson Dynamo. Despite appearances, however, unlike most superhero teams, the Guard employs the use of rotating candidates to fill the four roles of the team should a previous member either retire or meet an untimely demise. The current incarnation of the Guard most recently appeared in the "Hulk: Winter Guard" one-shot, also by Gallaher and Ellis, establishing a new Darkstar as well as a new Crimson Dynamo. The upcoming limited series focuses on introducing this current incarnation to new readers while cementing their role as part of the Marvel Universe's superheroic world.
Gallaher spoke with CBR News about the upcoming title, sharing his thoughts on why the Winter Guard is not Russia's answer to the Avengers, what it means to be a superhero in the cold East and exactly who Darkstar and the Winter Guard are.
"People call them the Russian Avengers, but I don't think that's true - they're Russia's top line of defense," Gallaher told CBR of the super group. "They're Russia's GI Joe, essentially. Russia's got other super human teams, but these are the top guys. These are the guys that, when they show up, everything stops. It's like, 'Holy crap. It's the Winter Guard. We're in big trouble.' I think Russia wants their heroes to feel immortal. They want their heroes to feel proud and everlasting. With the Winter Guard, there is no case to set a better example by. As opposed to our heroes - like Captain America who got assassinated or the X-Men who die on a regular basis - in Russia's mind, their heroes never die."
The Russian government perpetuates this idea of immortality by constantly filling the roles of the four members whenever necessary. Once selected as a Winter Guard candidate, a person's role will be chosen from one of the quartet. As Gallaher put it, "There is no room for a fifth wheel."
"This is Russia's way of perpetuating the idea that 'Our heroes are the best. Our heroes never die. You might think they die, but no,'" added the writer. "So, if you're a member of the Winter Guard, you could retire, you could die in the line of duty, you could get fired, but the Russian government will always have someone to fill that role."
While this design certainly separates Russia's idea of heroism from the American one, Gallaher said that one model is just as valid as the other. "I always compare the Winter Guard to the Russian version of the Yankees. You always want that team and that sense of pride and someone to root for," he explained. "I think it's really important to consolidate who their heroes are. Think about how many crazy, forgotten Avengers have joined the ranks. We've got Avengers that people don't even remember. [The Winter Guard] are heroes that are always remembered. There are no two-bit players."
One of the key members in the upcoming title is the current Darkstar Reena Stanicoff, who recently took over the role, the third person to do so. According to Gallaher, she serves as the point-of-view character throughout the limited series. "She is inheriting this tremendous power - this darkforce power. Shooting darkness out of your hands? That's a pretty scary kind of thing," said the writer. "So, a lot of this is new to her and there is a certain innocence to the way that she approaches everything. Here's this young, nubile woman who is stepping into this role, but there is definitely a back story and a gravity and severity to the role she is taking on. There is a lot of maturing she has to do very quickly in this position. Also, there is a great deal of insecurity, because she wants to make sure she is doing the best job she can do and that she is honoring this legacy."
Gallaher told CBR that this drive to honor the legacy of the title is not exclusive to Reena and extends to every member of the Guard. Moreover, the writer believes it's something many readers can relate to. "Everybody wants to accomplish and achieve greater things with their life. Everybody wants those things," he said. "So, there is a certain aspiration for who she is and there is an aspiration for all these characters to one degree or another because you want to be the best hero. Who wants to be a second-rate hero? Nobody. And when you're serving your nation, you want to do the best you can do. And the Winter Guard absolutely wants to serve their country and do best for their country and do best by their people."
Not every character does their best in the same way, though. The Red Guardian, leader of the Winter Guard, approaches heroism much differently than his teammates - a very different, very crazy way that makes the character Gallaher's favorite one to write. "He's kind of the worst of the USAgent and the worst of Iron Man put together," explained Gallaher. "He is assertive. He is caustic. He's abrasive. But he is one of the smartest minds that Russia has ever cultivated. He's an engineer. He builds things. He fights for science. He fights for justice. And he is a little bit insane. He'll just as likely think out a mathematical formula for punching you as he will come up with an equation to build the exact contraption needed to stop you. He's a strange mix of total unpredictable behavior."
The only member of the team to have never been replaced, Ursa Major falls on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of personality. Despite his grizzly exterior, the were-bear sometimes acts more cuddly than cruel. "Where Red Guardian is absolutely crazy and is the Murdock of the Winter Guard, if you go with my A-Team analogy, Ursa Major is the B.A. Baracus," laughed the writer. "He has two forms - he is a military officer in the Russian army, but he also transforms into this big ass bear. And just like any bear, sometimes he's a teddy bear and other times he's a great grizzly bear. That reaction, to me, is very interesting - watching this guy who is very comfortable in his skin fight with the ferocity of a wild animal one moment, but at the other moment have the time to listen to this teammate's concerns and work with his team and be compassionate. He's like Winnie the Pooh with Wolverine claws."
Galina Nemirovsky serves as the thirteenth incarnation of the Crimson Dynamo and holds the distinction of being the first female pilot of the infamous iron armor. The fourth and final member of the team, Galina acts as the voice of the reason for the group, despite being the most recent addition. "Everyone else is kind of insane," said Gallaher. "Darkstar kind of doubt her abilities. The Red Guardian punches for science. Ursa Major is like a wild, emotional animal. Then you have the Crimson Dynamo. She's like the one who says, 'This isn't a good idea.' But she's very sharp and smart and she's there when you need her and she's a badass pool player. She is sharp as a tack, and that to me is really cool. She is a really captivating character."
Of course, being the thirteenth person to hold the title certainly carries a special kind of weight - especially considering the long, complicated history of the Winter Guard's most arguably well-known character. But Gallaher reminded readers that not all pilots of the suit met with tragedy. "Of course, you've got your Anton Vanko and your Dmitri Bukharin and your Valentin Shatalov," Gallaher said. "There is a broad range, but also, if you think about it, Crimson Dynamo is one of the most enduring characters. You've definitely got that history and legacy there. Some of the pilots have been good and some of them have been bad and some of them have blown up and some of them have been retired and some of them have been replaced and some of them have been slaughtered. But one pilot, Dmitri Bukharin, is the liaison for the Winter Guard. He acts as the bridge between the Russian Executive Security Committee and the Winter Guard. He's working with these dysfunctional heroes to get the best results out of them. He's the manager. His job is to manage the crazy and utilize that toward the betterment of Russia."
However, just because only four characters comprise the Winter Guard, that doesn't mean they're the only heroes in the story. The writer hinted at a number of appearances and cameos from others in the Marvel Universe - including the Agents of Atlas and many others that hail from mother Russia herself. "A lot people don't recognize this, but Russia in the Marvel Universe has developed so many characters - characters like the Purple Man, Rhino, Kraven, the Chameleon," Gallaher said. "Russia has produced so many lasting characters."
As for the actual events of the limited series, Gallaher wanted to keep some things a secret, but he readily sold readers on what to expect. "If you like Russian superheroes, a crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy Russian minutia, this is the book for you," he teased. "This is the first time the Winter Guard has ever had their own miniseries, and this miniseries is built on the legacy of so many other appearances of these characters. A lot of what you see in this miniseries consolidates all those versions of the characters from over the course of several years - over the course of Communism and Soviet rule to today. So, the thrust of the series is to obviously establish the Winter Guard and re-establish their place in the Marvel Universe and make them feel like a cohesive part of a word that has X-Men in it and that has Avengers in it and the Fantastic Four.
"As to the terms of the plot of the miniseries is the repercussion the new Darkstar has in relation to their archenemy, the Presence, and how that legacy affects them in the long term and how it affects many relationships in the long term," he added. "And an ancient threat the Presence has ties to. Mwahahaha!"
Look for "Darkstar and the Winter Guard" landing in comic shops everywhere June 3.