Vanguard Book Three – Dan Butcher
Defeat is a state of mind. No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.
The British superhero team. I love them, I especially love small press and indy versions and they continue to bring energy and invention to the genre. Vanguard is a long-running webcomic by Dan Butcher that has also been successfully collected in print, with this latest collection being launched at the True Believers Comic Con this year.
Britain has always had a slightly awkward relationship with the superhero. The superhero is an inherently American creation, and by American I mean a product of the United States with a heavy emphasis on the ‘big two’ publishers Marvel and DC.
Sure, there were heroes who came from British publishers. We only need to remember those slaughtered by the Fury in Alan Moore’s classic run on Captain Britain. Heroes of the calibre of Robot Archie and Billy the Cat. Safe to say that these products of D.C Thomson and IPC lacked the glamour and excitement of Superman or The Hulk. Gloriously weird but often pale imitations of their US counterparts, Cliff Richard rather than Elvis.
Another approach is to explore the tension between the slick, big gun superheroes of the US and the more domestic British versions. Pat Mill’s Marshall Law and Grant Morrison’s Zenith are good examples. From the indy scene we have had interesting versions such as The United from Johnny Canon. What would really happen if we had near omnipotent beings loose on the Earth? How would they be controlled and manipulated by governments? How would they be policed and regulated? Would they even bother being anonymous heroes? Or would they monetize their abilities in the realms of the pop star or social media ‘influencer’?
Dan Butcher’s Vanguard takes up some of these strands. The latest volume collects issues 10 to 14 of the series. The heroes of The Vanguard had faced manipulation, power politics and an enemy they could not and did not defeat. This collection looks at the aftermath, fifteen years later. Society has changed in horrifying ways. But resistance is stirring.
In this volume Vanguard delves deeper into the myths and legends of Britain. Gods of the skies and the hunt with deep Celtic roots – almost forgotten, just their names lingering in the mountains and rivers and flickering at the edge of our consciousness. The Arthurian legend of the hero who will return when England needs him .The underdog story of Robin Hood and his merry men living wild and free in the forest and sticking it to the aristos. The popularity of these tales through the centuries is no mistake.
Take your gifts, gather your wolves and reclaim what once belonged to the free peoples of this land. The time is near. You must bring winter, my cailleach, my wolfshead.
One of those aristos, spoilt brat Vivien provides one of the stand out characters of the book. Whilst somewhat one dimensional she is gloriously over the top in her childish diabolism. She is a character reminiscent of some of the creations of Garth Ennis in Preacher or the pages of Roald Dahl.
The big advances in this volume come with the plot. Having the heroes cast down and defeated, really defeated, works brilliantly. It creates a sense of genuine peril, emphasises the seriousness of what they are up against and allows for new elements to be brought forward. Neither is the narrative just one of goodies and baddies. There are ambiguous forces at play and the reader is never sure what the right move is for our protagonists.
Action scenes have a dynamic energy. However I wasn’t a huge fan of having the character names displayed in logo format during fights. The lettering in Vanguard uses a variety of fonts, some work better than others and maybe less is more.
Character design is excellent. Pendragon grows into his costume as the tale progresses and the designs for Wolfshead, Wight Wytch, Deff Boy and Little Miss Pinky are memorable. The art is accessible with an animated feel but takes on a more serious tone when the story asks for it. There are also some impressive contributions from artists Martin Simpson and Steven Stahlberg.
If you dig action, dystopian tales and superhero mythmaking then Vanguard will appeal. The book may have some rough edges but it is consistently more entertaining than most ‘big two’ books out there and a great deal more inventive. Get in the Van!