Something you may not have realised is that this blog is named after the Russian character ‘Vanguard’, a member of The Winter Guard who habitually carried around a big hammer and sickle in what was one of the most over-literal translations of communism in the history of comic-books. He had a big blue cloak and ginger hair, but didn’t care less about the fact that it made him look exceedingly silly. Indeed, the majority of non-American characters in the Marvel Universe are silly in some way or another, which is why they appealed so much to us as we came into the genre. In recent years Marvel have been trying to consolidate their Universe so that we don’t just get an NYC-orientated view of the World: the X-Men were moved across country to the West Coast, while the 50-State Initiative idea made sure that all the US states got some team to look after them, thus making for a more inclusive atmosphere for readers. And further abroad, Paul Cornell has remade the British contingent of heroes and provided make-overs for established characters like Captain Britain, Meggan, and Black Knight; while Chris Claremont did some worrying things with the Japanese team, ‘Big Hero 6’ and Dan Slott established a Chinese team of heroes over in Mighty Avengers.
Overall though, the Marvel Universe is split into three different countries: the USA, the UK, and Russia. Yes, Russia. Probably as a result of the Cold War, Russia have had a lasting impact on the Marvel Universe as a whole – most notably with The Black Widow, but also with The Winter Guard/The Soviet Super-Soviets. There have always been Russian characters in comics, although it’s only recently that they’ve stopped being evil (hello, Crimson Dynamos!) and become recognised as their own heroic force. A lot of that was due to Vanguard, Darkstar, and Ursa Major, three characters whose ability to cross over into other titles meant that they created a wave of support amongst fans living in Russia and elsewhere. They were in Iron Man titles, Hulk titles, Captain America and ROM… Bill Mantlo probably did more for Russian comics than any other writer, all things considered.
Which is our lengthy way of entering into a review of Darkstar & The Winter Guard #1, the continuation of David Gallaher’s attempt to bring Russia into the modern age of Marvel. While Paul Cornell decided to establish ‘MI13’, in which the various British superheroes decided to group together in order to protect the country with the backing of their public and politicians; Gallaher goes a slightly different route. The Russians are so keen on establishing their heroes as invulnerable that their state-sanctioned ‘Winter Guard’ are all part of a deal in which whenever one of the team dies, they are replaced by an doppelganger. So when the original Darkstar was killed off by Grant Morrison, Russia replaced her with another girl who pretended to be her – and the same is true of the other characters, such as Crimson Dynamo, who is now a woman pretending to be a man. The Red Guardian is a human brain transplanted into a robotic body, while poor old Ursa Major is the only original member of the team to remain.
The issue is focused on this concept, and as such is most rewarding for long-term fans of the characters. Gallaher has an encyclopaedic knowledge of these characters – to the extent where he has been spotted correcting Marvel handbooks, updating Wikipedia and Comicvine, making sure that everything is up-to-date and accurate. Having him in charge of the series is essential, as without that wide knowledge of the characters the concept would fall apart. As it is, Gallaher is able to work the politics of the storyline through the differing perspectives of the characters – seeing Vanguard leave the team after his sister is killed and replaced is far more satisfying when you know that he was killed once, but came back to life. Watching characters like Fantasma and Powersurge (yes, Powersurge!) return at varying points across the story is fantastically rewarding for the readers, and the way Gallaher slowly reveals a backstory to the history of the Guard as a whole means that the storyline feels important and concrete. Gallaher is taking characters who were victimised by major events like House of M or aborted storylines and making sense of them all – streamlining the entirety of Russia into one coherent narrative. And for the most part, he does a superb job of it.
It’s great to see the characters return, but of course there is a big difference between a good memory and a good use of continuity. Anyone can make reference to old stories and look like they are continuing the story of characters – Morrison was notably good at this during New X-Men, referencing characters he killed off whilst portraying them in out of character ways – but here Gallaher makes sure to only include characters that fit into his central concept. Key Russian characters like Blind Faith and Perun are thus-far absent, whilst his use of Fantasma and Vanguard, Starlight and Powersurge is rooted rigidly to the narrative. We’re not phrasing this very well. Basically, the new concept flows out of the old concept of the team, and creates a dynamic which feels completely organic and pushes forward the Russian characters into a more powerful creative direction. To do this we get more pages of political discussion that we do any fighting, although a short, crisp fight scene between The Guard and Krang at the start of the issue provides Gallaher with plenty of opportunity to hurl one-liners around with wild abandon. The solicitation completely threw us, here, as we thought Krang was going to be the main villain of the story – not so, as he is swiftly dispatched by Ursa Major and then vanishes.
The concept is a strong one, which means that Gallaher can focus on fleshing out his new characters without having to bash the readers round the head with the ‘legacy’ idea. Both The Crimson Dynamo and Darkstar were created by Gallaher and Steve Ellis in their previous ‘Hulk: Winter Guard’ one-shot, and here they get sorely-needed characterisation to individualise them. Ursa Major is portrayed as the veteran character who has seen it all before, and as such gives the team a sense of power which would otherwise be missing. Without at least one original member on the team, the final cliffhanger (the return of the Protectorate) would have fallen flat. As it is, we now get the excitement of seeing Ursa Major on opposing sides to his old teammembers, even though neither of them are particularly in the wrong. Again, it’s this filtering of the storyline through the characters which provides much of the excitement in the storyline. While it’s kinda interesting to have a new team fight an established team, it’s far more interesting to have former friends standing on opposing sides.
We’re not really reviewing the issue here, as such, you may have noticed. Well, that’s because we’re not very talented writers. But hopefully you’re getting an idea of the overall storyline and style here. Gallaher is essentially using the DC template of legacy heroes but focused solely on this small base of Russian characters. As a result, we get a lot more tension out of the story, because anyone could die at any point. Unlike the US heroes who have merchandise and film rights, the Winter Guard are still relatively unknown characters whom Gallaher can mutilate as he sees fit. Anything could happen to them – and did, but you’d have to have picked up the previous one-shot in order to realise that. The team do a good job here of making the story accessible – Gallaher gets the team introduction across at the same time as he introduces the main concept of the Winter Guard as a whole, which leaves him more space for the personality-driven scenes. There is far more talking here than fighting, but that setup means we have a second issue which seems like it can’t move but for story elements and payoffs. While there is a lot of setup in this issue, things do feel like they are moving forward. The overall story of Marvel’s Russian characters is changing, and the end result will serve to push them into a wider audience.
Let’s not forget the rest of the creative team here: Steve Ellis goes for a more refined and straightforward look here than his sketchy and kinetic previous work with the one-shot, which means that the fight scenes are not quite as madcap. His use of perspective and facial emotion during the downtime moments of the storyline are superb, and the fact he can convey emotions coming from a giant bear, a robot, and a robot suit is exceptional – in particular the sequence between the new Darkstar and Ursa Major stands out as a great moment. He perfectly captures the feeling of the dialogue, and you can see just how close his working relationship with Gallaher is. They have a great synergy, as the art complements the dialogue without overshadowing anything. The fight scenes and scenes where The Guard are celebrated by their public have a suitably epic feel, but at the same time the characters always seem slightly overshadowed by the wide open spaces of Russia. We’re imagining that this is a deliberate move, in order to impose the idea of the overpowering nature of the Russian state, but even if not… it still looks great. The colouring from Val Staples also deserves mention, managing not to be too grey. Whenever people usually depict Russia in comics, everything is grey and white, but here there is a powerful sense of vibrancy as the colours pop off the page. Staples appears to have particular fun in depicting Starlight’s shiny hair.
Hmm. Not a great review, this! But at least we’ve managed to get a few ideas off our heads which seem worthy of further discussion. We enjoyed the issue so much that we couldn’t bear to look at things critically. You won’t see us arguing the small points or bits which we liked best or worst. Sure there are some niggly things about Krang’s depiction here, but really the meat of the story comes from the personalities of the various characters, all of whom come across as completely different and individual. The goal is to make sure that the characters are defined and brought into a modern age of comics – that goal has been achieved. No matter what happens for the rest of this mini or for the Guard in later years – the creative team have managed to establish the characters and team for later writers to use. No more are they bit-players or relegated to cameo appearances – they’ve finally reached a level which equals that of the X-Men or Avengers. They are, ironically, now their own team. We’ll have to wait and see if they can do the same thing in-universe.