Americans were cast as the invading army in “We Stand on Guard” #1, but the last scene had a morally ambiguous moment when an American soldier cited the “London Conventions,” presumably a set of treaties like the Geneva Conventions that would dictate humane treatment of POWs. In the opening scene of “We Stand on Guard” #2, Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce remove any remaining moral ambiguity.
The brutal treatment of a sweet elderly Canadian couple is attention-grabbing, horrific and funny. It would be overkill if Vaughan and Skroce were only telling the reader how to choose sides, but the level of ridiculousness is intentional. The giveaways are Hollingworth’s cheerful pastel colors, the “Littlest Robot” TV sequence in the background and the absurd sartorial note of the cardigans.
The rest of “We Stand on Guard” is darker and less deadpan, though no more subtle. The world-building lacks the moral nuances of “Saga” or “Y: The Last Man,” stories in which multiple characters with opposing agendas are sympathetic. At first, it seems that Vaughan is throwing away moral complexity, since the villains in “We Stand On Guard” #2 are one-dimensionally evil and make no convincing arguments for their methods or beliefs. If a David vs. Goliath setup wasn’t enough to prejudice readers, the characterization will hit them over the head until it’s clear. All Americans are sinister or thuggish, while all Canadians show their humanity. However, Vaughan’s goal isn’t to show the shades of gray in warfare but to reveal a new angle on American attitudes and military practices by shifting the frame.
The America of “We Stand on Guard” #2 pulls no punches just because Canada has historically been like America’s little brother. It’s no secret that Canada has stood by the U.S. on many fronts and is sheltered by America’s strength. That’s why this “what if” scenario is so potent. It’s a perfect choice by Vaughan, because no other American ally has a cleaner image and cleaner hands. Britain and Canada are America’s closest allies; the shared language and history accounts for that. Brits, though, were once oppressive rulers and colonialists, and American stereotypes portray them as snooty and uptight. In contrast, Americans make fun of Canadians for their politeness, their obsession with hockey and their lack of military might.
Even if the reader already has doubts about Guantanamo Bay, it’s still disturbing to see America treat Canadians no differently from any other suspected terrorists. Vaughan’s narrative tactic is so effective perhaps because of its bigotry from innate xenophobia, since Canadians look and talk more like Americans than collective Western stereotypes about terrorists. I think that most of mental disconnect is because psychologically, Canadians have been classified as “friends,” at least since the War of 1812. It’s like how Westerners feel about eating dogs; the disgust comes from the violation of a cultural boundary. American military tactics just look a lot worse when they are applied to our old friends.
While the world-building works to vilify America, the rest of the story works to further establish sympathy with the Canadians. Skroce’s end-of-flashback transition cements Amber’s role as the point-of-view character. Her initiation into the Canadian resistance movement continues briskly. The vetting a new team member is a tried and true way to introduce cast and a setting. It feels predictable here, but Vaughan is able to use the well-worn scenario to good effect.
Mid-issue, there’s a gratuitous naked shot of Amber, since Skroce’s camera angle is more titillating than informative. Despite this unpromising opening, the dialogue after the shower shot is some of the strongest in the issue. Coywolves are a fun creation that adds richness to the world-building, and Vaughan and Skroce show Dunn’s happier, softer side briefly. Amber is technically the naked one, but it’s Dunn who really bares himself. That twist feels deliberate and it’s a clever departure from the usual cliche of first-person brooding in the shower.
Skroce’s linework for flesh and faces is knobby and anxious-looking, and some of the interiors look cluttered, but those all fit well with the tension of the plot. His delicate straight lines for vehicles look beautiful, and he handles both emotional talking heads scenes and action well. Hollingsworth’s colors are brilliant in the opening scene but, later on, they have too many purple and blue monotones that flatten Skroce’s detailed backgrounds in several scenes.
The ending is no surprise, but it adds more suspense. “The Basement” grows in creepy stature with each repetition of its name. It’s the “Room 101” of “We Stand on Guard.” Like Orwell’s “1984,” “We Stand on Guard” #2 has heavy-handed but nonetheless effective and powerful storytelling.