Pipeline: The Beauty & Violence of Vaughan & Skroce's "We Stand On Guard"

Tue, February 2nd, 2016 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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WE STAND ON GUARD

wsog6 cover

The recently concluded six issue Image Comics miniseries felt like it flew under the radar a bit, but sales were actually strong, and it's a good miniseries. Brian K. Vaughan wrote it, which should be enough for most comic readers, but then he got Steve Skroce to draw it, which marks his first major comics work in years. Fittingly for what I wrote in this column last week, Skroce is a storyboard artist of, most famously, "The Matrix." Add in Matt Hollingsworth on the colors and Fonografiks with the letters, and you have a very pretty package.

In the story, America invades Canada. It is a ruthless and quick war. Canada loses. "We Stand on Guard" follows a small patchwork group of Canadian rebels fighting their oppressors. The point of entry character is Amber, who is a young girl in Canada when the city is bombed to pieces, leaving her and her slightly older brother to run for their lives. Flash forward a decade and Amber is alone in the woods, where she meets up with and joins the rebels, just prior to the war coming to them directly.

It's interesting to read something Vaughan has written that's not meant to be an ongoing series. The conflicts and changes happen super fast, much to the story's advantage. You know how Vaughan can suck you in with a killer ending with every first issue of his various series? He gets to do that in every issue here. No character is sacred. No situation is static. Things escalate very quickly, with serious repercussions.

wsog cast
It's a good-looking group of rebels, don't you think?

This is not a nuanced thought piece on the horrors of war or anything like that. This is a strongly plotted series that pays off its set-ups in short order. Given the short amount of time we spend with them, we do get to know the characters pretty well, but there's still not much time for major changes in their relationships or revelations about their pasts or anything. The characters are there in service to the ideas of the storyline and its bleak future. This is an ideas book, a science-fiction book informed by the modern world taken to an extreme. The interrogation that takes of most of issue #3, for example, is horrifying and brilliant all at the same time. Vaughan's imagination on that one is sickening, yet effective. The final battles in the last couple of issues are inventive and beautifully drawn, using the technology that's explained earlier in the series.

Skroce's artwork is controlled and well detailed. He is meticulous in his background work, much in the way you'd expect to see in a European bandes dessinée album perhaps, but less often a North American title. Intricate details are drawn in establishing panels and wide angle shots. Close-ups are usually devoid of background details, as the foreground portion necessarily demands all of the reader's attention.

And, of course, when you need someone's head to explode or blood to splatter everywhere, you can count on Skroce to draw a level of detail you'd only expect from the likes of, well, Ryan Ottley. Skroce's detail goes well beyond that, though, aiming more for the Geoff Darrow school of design, without being quite so over the top. But if you need someone to draw a battle scene with drones and ships and tanks and robots and guns and collapsing caves, he's your man!

wsog landscape
Even when it's just a field, Skroce fills it with detail. Look closely, though, and you'll see the repeated shapes of those plants. There's some cloning work being done here, but I don't care. The end results are strong.

There's obviously a lot of design work that went into this comic, and some of it is shown in the back of the issues. Skroce had to create all sorts of futuristic technology, uniforms, and weapons, but it all pays off. It feels plausible and it all fits together. I don't know and I don't care if he's building models and drawing over top of them. It looks and feels great.

Matt Hollingsworth's colors are beautiful. They show off Skroce's line work, while breaking apart the layers in each panel. Skroce's art can get very busy, particularly during fight scenes with multiple combatants and machines, but Hollingsworth's colors naturally place each item on the proper layer. His bold color scheme separates the browns from the greens, and then easily shifts to the blues and ambers. It all depends on the situation.

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Beyond that, he uses a lot of textures in the coloring. The books feels like a late-80s Marvel graphic novel. It has that feeling of being colored on a specific type of paper, letting the page's roughness give the colors a toothiness that diverges from so much of the super slick styles that dominate comics today.

"We Stand on Guard" is a good read and a real page turner. Vaughan's plotting and snappy banter carry the day, with lots of strong visuals from Skroce and Hollingsworth making this a book worth lingering over on nearly every page. I don't know if they've announced a collected edition yet, but I think it'll be worth picking up if you missed these issues and enjoy Vaughan's other work, particularly "Saga". It feels like it comes from a similar attitude. I'm hoping for an oversized hardcover book reprinting this, just to see all of Skroce's detailed work, but even a simple trade paperback will work nicely.

Yes, I'm still a dreamer.

PIPELINKS

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GEN13 EPIC RE-READ: "GEN13" #3 - #5

The next three issues of the series form one larger story, the most entertaining "Gen13" story to date. It fires on all the cylinders you'd want from this comic. You get a leap in quality and consistency from J. Scott Campbell's art, some beautiful bright coloring from Joe Chiodo (and a paper quality to support it), character interplay, raging hormones, and slight bits of angst mixed among the comedic parts. And, yeah, it's an homage to "Indiana Jones" in many ways. It's a strong mix of ingredients, playing to everyone's strengths.

Caitlin Fairchild recruits the rest of her team to join her on a mission to an island (near Madagascar) where she might find some clues as to her father's life. When their boat capsizes, the team is split up and must find their way back together and home safe. They just have to get through a ship full of pirates and an island filled with Coda warriors guarding the Fountain of Youth first.

gen13 5 fairchild

The Coda island of women warriors gives Campbell a chance to draw lots of Amazonian scantily-clad women. A ship full of pirates are mostly caricatures of Wildstorm Studio employees, I think. (I can't name them all, but I think I recognize a couple of them. Mike Heisler? Joe Benitez?) The man who they rescue from the surrounding jungles gives Campbell a chance to warm up on his Bruce Campbell caricature, that he'd use to a stronger degree on "Danger Girl" years later.

gen13 codas

Mostly, the Coda gives Campbell the perfect chance to show a number of women in small armor plates, strappy shoes and accouterments, and the occasional diaphanous gown. Comics pro tip: Give the audience what they want.

Campbell's storytelling continues to find its style, after being jumpstarted by Jim Lee in the initial miniseries. The pages breathe a little more, and certain Campbell trademarks become regular occurrences, such as the overhead shot with the partial flooring pattern. Campbell also does a great job mixing up the facial expressions in these issues. It's nowhere near the level of a Kevin Maguire, but it's still further ahead than the average comic artist of the time, or even today.

Of course, the whole series is drenched in teenage hormones. One of the funniest parts of this story is when Grunge is captured, has "relations" with a number of the Coda, and is too smitten to realize he's being set up to be their next sacrifice. Tied up on a cross and soon to be sacrificed, Grunge worries about the warrior's kinks that they'd tie him up like that, rather than his own impending demise.

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Brandon Choi's script juggles a lot of balls in the air for this story. With the Gen13 team split up into odd pairings, there are three separate stories that need to converge for a big finale. There are connections between all of the people that run into in those separate pieces, plus links back to the general Wildstorm Universe. None of those elements drag the story down, which continues on a fast pace, alternating between the various plots quickly to keep things interesting.

The actual credit for the issue is "Story" and that goes to Choi and Campbell. I might be over-simplifying here. My understanding is that, particularly early on, the two would talk over the plot, but Choi was doing the finished scripts. Campbell took a more active role later on.

gen13 3 cover 000

To go along with this storyline and Campbell's Drew Struzan-inspired "Gen13" #3 cover, the logo on the front cover gets an update. The stiffer, more geometrically-sound design is replaced by a font with more personality (courtesy of Comicraft, I'd bet), accompanied by an orange-to-yellow gradient that cements the "Indiana Jones" comparisons. The logo doesn't stick around past this storyline, which is a bit of a shame. I think it works even better than the original, though it may not always match the tone of future stories as well.

This is the storyline where "Gen13" kicked into gear. After an initial miniseries to tell the origin story of the team and a crossover interruption with the on-going series' second issue, it feels like enough stuff has been set up that Choi, Campbell, etc. could start to play with things. The adolescent angst is there in all the romantic triangles and unrequited loves, but the light-hearted tone and adventure is also there to keep things lively.

gen13 montage
It's a travel montage, complete with the red line charting their course across a map! I can only imagine how far they pushed the Wildstorm computers in putting this spread together with 1995's technology...

That all said, the next two issues are fill-ins. On the bright side, it's Jim Lee handling the art.

Two last things I wanted to bring up:

"Gen13" #4 has a cover date on it of August 1995. "Generation Next" #2 over at Marvel had a cover date of April 1995, four months earlier. Given the vagaries of release dates versus cover dates, that span might actually be longer.

Is Campbell taking influence from Chris Bachalo here, or is this just a coincidence? Here are the splash pages of those two issues.

gennext vs gen13

Were circles THE motif of 1995, and I've forgotten about it?

They do share one thing in common: Comicraft lettering.

The second thing brings us back to the letters page for this bit of fan art:

gen13 3 sommariva

It's from Jonathan Sommariva in Canberra, Australia. I recognized that name immediately as someone whose work I've seen on Instagram and Twitter. He did the "Go Boy 7" comic for Dark Horse's short-lived Rocket Comics line a decade ago. He's still drawing to this day, currently working on the covers for IDW's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" comic. It's another name from the letters columns done good. I love it.

Next time: Jim Lee brings DV8 to Gen13. I guess the series was doing well enough to get the spin-offs churning quickly...

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TAGS:  pipeline, gen13, we stand on guard, brian k vaughan, steve skroce, image comics

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