Collecting in trade very soon, here’s our final verdict on Darkstar & The Winter Guard, a story told in four parts although the first part was called something different. Always written by David Gallaher and always drawn by Steve Ellis, the four issues tell a gradual tale and bring an old team very much into the forefront of the contemporary Marvel Universe. The Winter Guard, and Darkstar herself, are Russian heroes created by a number of different people during the 70s and 80s. Darkstar came first, created by Tony Isabella and later developed by Bill Mantlo. Mantlo and Fabian Nicenza then spent time with the other Russians, popping them into stories wherever possible and attempting to develop them via cameo. Over time, four of the characters stood out from the others a little. They were:
Red Guardian, the leader of the team and a Captain America analogue for Russia. There have been loads of Red Guardians, and they often served as cannon fodder for other writers.
Crimson Dynamo – a version of Iron Man for Russia, and as a result spent most of his time fighting Tony Stark. Again, Crimson Dynamos were treated as highly expendable indeed.
Darkstar, who joined the X-Men briefly before getting shot and killed. Oh dear.
Ursa Major – a man who turns into a bear. Has managed to not get killed.
While popular with fans, the characters have never been anything like well-known enough to sustain their own series. They had a one-shot once, which introduced about twenty other Russian characters all at once, but apart from that it’s been mainly cameos for the group. So this was a fun chance to finally develop the characters on their own, without cramming in Iron Man or the Avengers to keep sales up. As a result, we got to find out quite a few things about the Winter Guard superhero team.
For one thing, we found out that things in Russia were pretty tense. Whilst the main four team members were still operating at the time the story began, only one of them was the original. The Russian Government had hired three replacements to take over from the deceased Darkstar, Crimson Dynamo, and Red Guardian, while the original Ursa Major tried to keep them all functioning as a team. This was done so that the Russian Government could pretend that their heroes were invincible, thus giving the impression to the Russian people that they were safe. Meanwhile, the other Russian heroes had all left in disgust as a result, and gone off to their varying retreats. The series focuses on the return of a few certain heroes, and how their existence puts the entirety of the Winter Guard program at risk.
So that’s the basic setup. We’re trying to review this without giving anything away, but it’s difficult to explain the setup without letting a few things slip out. Basically we have four issues of awkward team dynamic, mixed in with the occasional undead dinosaur attack or an invasion from an underwater King. While we do get to see a lot of characterisation in the miniseries, the problem Gallaher faces is that he has simply so many characters, all of whom are partially characterised and desperately wanting to be used. And only a few pages. So at times, the characters have to be painted in broad brushstrokes. This works okay for the most part, but it does mean that some characters show up briefly, say one or two things, then leave again. There just isn’t the space for them. The four main characters are well-cast, however, and provide a wide-ranging dynamic for Gallaher to play around with. Red Guardian is a jerk, Crimson Dynamo is unappreciated, Darkstar III is worried about whether she’ll be able to live up to the legacy of her predecessor, while Ursa Major is trying to make everyone play nice. Throwing the four contrasting personalities works well for the series, and acts as a good way of grounding the reader before everything explodes.
Because everything does explode. Given that the Winter Guard have typically been used as cannon fodder, marshalled one-by-one to their deaths, it’s amazing just how many of them are still around for Gallaher to brutally destroy. Things go horribly wrong in this miniseries, and the stakes are raised just enough to make the last few issues genuinely unpredictable. About 50 characters die, several others are wounded, and at least one character has their head stolen. It’s absolutely mental, everything that can happen does happen. Starting off immediately with a tentacle monster trying to eat Russia, the series only gets more bizarre and silly as things go on. The combination of weirdness and violence is interesting and new. Grant Morrison offered high-quality versions of it, but most other writers either pick one or t’other. Fred Van Lente and Jeff Parker are two other names who stand out for managing to flip from one to the other, actually. In this case, the silliness carries on during the violent bits, which makes this perhaps the only comic you’ll ever read where one moment a bear is teaming up with a gorilla to fight villains, the next he’s watching his teammates get eaten by aliens. Everything is in this mini.
Top Five Obscure Russian Characters Who Don’t Appear In This:
4. Gremlin. Hee. Gremlin is silly. Do a comicvine search for him.
5. Synthesizer. A couple of fused scientists who were, like, all electric and that.
3. Elena Ivanova. A psychic, or something. She was cool.
2. Sibercat. An over-enthusiastic man-cat thing.
1. Blind Faith. Is both a Priest and blind.
The art team are on top form. Steve Ellis’ artwork starts off looking scratchy and interesting, before morphing into a more structured but still interesting form. Val Staples puts in some stunning work as colourist, especially towards the end when lots of different power signatures are flashing around the place all at once. Scott Hanna’s inking is likewise very well done (inkers represent!) and adds to the hectic style of Elli’s pencilling. Things get thoroughly off-kilter by the end, and the art team manage to handle having a lot thrown at them all at once. And meanwhile, let’s not forget either that Scott O. Brown letters the mini with an eye to giving each character their own voice. Everyone is on fine form.
Most of the intellectual debate we have for the series is posted elsewhere on the site, in our review for… was it the second issue? Think so. We’re more focused here with doing a simpler review which basically conveys the point that the series reads as a fun, mad, weird and sometimes campy update on the original characters, moving them forwards and giving them a proper place within the MU. It reads, actually, as a love letter to Bill Mantlo’s writing, and you can find a tribute to the writer on Gallaher’s personal website, if you so wish. As far as we’re concerned, this was proper what comics are meant to be like. Entertaining, but built around the characters rather than anything else. Sometimes there was a stray line which sounded odd, or a scene which played out strangely, but the focus on the main four characters pulls everything together and holds it in place. If nothing else, the team have completely cemented Ursa Major as the greatest hero in all of comics.
Our meaningless rating: 8/10. Really good fun.