I can’t remember the last time I’ve done a book article that wasn’t about my own, and I don’t think I’ve ever done a single book review, but there’s a first time for everything, right?
We Stand on Guard is a six-issue series published from July – December 2015, and is now compiled in a single graphic novel. It’s the culmination of writing by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Steve Skroce, and coloring by Matt Hollingsworth. The story begins in 2112 in Ottawa, Ontario. After the White House is destroyed the United States invades Canada for revenge and…freshwater? I wouldn’t necessarily call this “SPOILERS!!1!1” since it’s a predictable scenario. By the 22nd century, the United States has run out of freshwater and decided to invade the Great White North and uses the attack as justification for invasion.
The story follows Amber, a child when the invasion happens, and is surviving in the Northwest Territories in 2124 when she comes upon a band of Canadian resistance fighters called, “the Two-Four.” Most of the story takes place in, and around, their underground base near Great Slave Lake. There is also another plot involving one of the resistance members being taken prisoner by the occupying Americans.
That’s all I’ll really say about the plot to avoid any significant spoilers.
The premise of the story is one part the Iraq War, and another part War Plan Red, a military war plan created by the U.S. military in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s for a possible war with the British Empire, and the focus of military action would have been Canada. War Plan Red is actually referenced in We Stand on Guard, but more as a historical precedent than as the actual operation used in the novel.
We Stand on Guard seems like it was trying to make a point about the United States’ behavior in the places it has occupied, specifically Iraq. There are detention camps, special forces, psychological torture, and guerrilla warfare. Basically, it turns Canada into Iraq.
It doesn’t shy away from making the occupation forces out to be typical bad guys, and the resistance fighters to be the typical good guys, and while it’s an interesting concept it ignores the possibility for a deeper and more thoughtful dialogue. Now, someone might think, “But Adam, it’s a comic book! It doesn’t have to be nuanced!”
To that I say, Watchman, V for Vendetta, The White Donkey, and Maus. Just because it’s a graphic novel doesn’t mean it has to be mindless.
What it does well, though, is showing what happens to an occupied and brutalized populace, and makes them more approachable by stripping away anything foreign or unfamiliar. The Canadians look like Americans, behave like Americans, talk like Americans, which brings the idea of occupied/occupier closer to home (figuratively and literally).
The problem is that I didn’t feel anything for these characters, at least nothing that made me feel too invested. All the characters look like they had been models before the war, and there’s one scene where you get a butt shot in a shower of the main character, and she looks oddly healthy for living in the Northwest Territories. Of course, there’s the obligatory, “grizzled old man,” because it can’t be a war story without that. Aside from that, all the characters are pretty similar. One dies? Okay. A bad thing happened to another character in the past? Fair enough. Part of this is because there are multiple plot-lines, and it never feels like you spend too much time with one character. This would have done better as either a longer series, or a longer graphic novel, because at least then there would be a better chance to connect with the characters. Oddly enough, the one character I liked the most was a side character, and I didn’t feel too much about Amber. She’s a generic protagonist. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that a female protagonist is so blah, but on the other hand it’s strangely satisfying that her gender didn’t have to be a focal point. So that’s cool.
Since it is a graphic novel, it would be good to talk about the visual aspect. Look, I don’t know much about drawing, and I sure as hell can’t do it myself, so take the next part with a grain of salt. I thought visually, it was satisfying to look at, but nothing that made me take pause and marvel at its originality. It’s good comic book art, what else is there to say? One part of the visual aspect that I can’t decide if I liked, or not, were the moments of violence. It definitely affirms that it’s a war story and tries to be honest about the brutality of war, but at the same time it feels like it was done for the sake of being “mature” and “edgy.”
Circling back to the writing aspect, it’s an action story, and a pretty uniform one at that. Outgunned underdogs get their hands on some enemy tech, there is a climactic battle, and all is right with the world. The end felt so incredibly rushed that I looked to see if there is a sequel The dialogue follows this formula, and I feel like it was created with, “Mad Libs: Action Movie Edition.” Exposition, banter, lightly seasoned with choice expletives (to remind you this is a mature graphic novel), makes it run together and not really give any of the characters their own voice. There is also one character, a Quebecois fellow, who speaks exclusively in French Canadian, and there is no translation given. I pretty much skimmed his lines, saw if I recognized any words, and pretty well figured out what he’d said based on context. The strange thing is he plays a significant part at the end of the story that made me scratch my head and wonder if they had felt it necessary to shoehorn in a significant part for the First Nations/Quebecois guy.
Now, the one part of this whole novel that mildly irritated me was that it felt like it was trying to be a piece of “Canadian Exceptionalism” much like American media is drenched in “American Exceptionalism.” Obviously it’s not terrible to be proud of your heritage, but it also seemed like it was stooping to a level of mindless nationalism. Part of me hopes that it’s subtle satire aimed at American readers like myself. There were also two lines that stuck out to me that made me consciously roll my eyes. One of the characters, descended from Syrian refugees, mentions how Canada brought in way more refugees than the United States did. It’s a fair point, but the context it’s used in felt like the writer was doing it to say, “Take that America!” The other line is a character talking about Canadian heroes, and one of the names mentioned is that of the Trudeaus, meaning Pierre and Justin. Pierre did a lot of good for Canada, and Justin seems like a good leader (especially in comparison to our own…), but elevating him to the status of hero? He appears to be a good man, and a pretty conventional Western leader, but hero? Who knows what will happen, but talk about the cart before the horse. I get that the dark satire of Starship Troopers (the movie) inspired this, but it felt like it forgot that it was trying to be tongue-in-cheek.
I saw this at a local bookstore, noticed the cover, and thought, “Huh, this looks interesting.” But the cellophane wrapping prevented me from flipping through and seeing if I wanted to sink money into a book that I’ll read in one sitting, and possibly never read again. As luck would have it, the local library had a copy in circulation, and I’ll be honest, I’m glad I didn’t spend money on it. It read like a watered down version of The Man in the High Castle, and instead of making you sympathize with, but question the “good guys,” and make the “bad guys” out to be human too, it just turned it into a juvenile, black-and-white morality, action story.
That is not to say I’m upset that I read it.
The problem is not that it’s terrible, but it’s a book I read once and will probably never read again. I can appreciate the work that goes into a graphic novel, or any writing for that matter, but We Stand on Guard is just too generic to warrant spending money on it. Maybe I’m just being cynical and someone else would find the premise extremely shocking and inventive, but ultimately it felt like a darker, grittier reboot of Canadian Bacon.
Worth a read if you can find it at a library and have an hour or two to kill.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment.
Thanks for reading.