We Stand on Guard: in 100 years, America seizes Canada for its water

Brian K Vaughan's varied career in comics has had numerous and diverse hits like Saga, the epically weird and sexy space-opera; Y: The Last Man, an end-of-the-world story; now, with We Stand on Guard, Vaughan dramatically ups his body count in a tale of an American resource war that's a lot closer to home than the invasion of Iraq.

When We Stand on Guard launched last summer, it made more news in Canada than it did in America, tickling the quintessentially Canadian anxiety about its southern neighbour, and noting with that very Canadian pride that Vaughan was married to a Canadian and that his storyboarder Steve Skroce (who also storyboards for the Wachowskis) was from Toronto.

As the series progressed — and completed, it's a fully self-contained story now, collected in a single, handsome, hardcover volume — the American media started to take notice, and wasn't always comfortable with what it saw.

The premise of We Stand on Guard is this: in 100 years, the President of the United States is assassinated by a Canadian drone. Canadians insist that it was a false flag operation, but the American retaliation is swift and bloody — and convenient. As the missiles rain down on Canada, enormous machines called "hosers" are maneuvered into place around Canada's prodigious stores of fresh water, diverting them to a USA that has been turned into a dust-bowl by poor regulation and climate change.

The Canadian guerrilla fighters who remain are treated without mercy, and vanquished without risk. The American counterinsurgency uses drones — including building-sized mechas — to stamp out the underground. When leaders are captured, they're tortured in endless neural-interface VR sims, each crueller than the last, while their interrogators telecommute from comfortable offices in the Beltway.

The parallels to 21st century American warfighting aren't exactly subtle, but that doesn't make them easy, either. Modern US military action — even the "boots on the ground" kind — requires fewer fighters than ever before, thanks to increasing automation. This has the side effect of making the wars more politically palatable, eliminating the need for a draft (the economically desperate can handily substitute for conscript troops when you don't need that many warm bodies), and vastly reducing American military casualties relative to the wars of the past century. The fact that all this automation pays huge dividends to the military technology contractors who supply it is the icing on the cake, providing the capital needed for lobbying to make this a self-sustaining phenomenon.

But setting the occupation in Canada changes its complexion, literally, stamping white faces underfoot, provoking howls of anguish in English (and sometimes French). It's embarrassing how well this juxtaposition works, because Afghanis and Iraqis suffer just as much under occupation. But countries that have suffered under dictatorship are somehow harder to stay outraged about when dictatorship gives way to bombardment and failed states, through some shameful subconscious relativism. The "after" is the same, but there's a difference in the "before" that, I'm embarrassed to say, made my alarm and outrage over real-world events lose the urgency they merited.

That's the real subversiveness in this comic. It's not making us imagine what it would be like for people in a rich, industrial country to suffer occupation — it's making us realise how inevitable the occupations in the rest of the world have come to seem.

None of that would matter if this wasn't a good story, and it is: a self-contained, rocketing, aggressively readable, gripping graphic novel in the BK Vaughan tradition. I read it twice in one afternoon, in one sitting, because it's that good — likable characters, exciting action, fabulous art.

We Stand on Guard [Brian K Vaughan, Matt Hollingsworth, Steve Skroce/Image]