Review by Peter Duncan
Sometimes, joining a comic mid-way through its run isn’t a bad thing – and that’s definitely the case with Dan Butcher’s Vanguard.
Published as a web-comic since 2012, this tale of UK superheroes has just seen the publication of a third collected volume. Covering issues 10 to 15, Vanguard Book Three comes in at a whopping 192 page edition, containing a fascinating story with artwork much improved on that which graced the strip’s debut.
The story opens with a “Fifteen Years Later” and a short sequence that introduces a mysterious meta-human – and the news that, since the bad old days of previous volumes, England has flourished and become powerful in the world again… but at a cost. Success has come at the price of a tyrannical society ruled by a new, financially based, elite where corporate powers have the final say in everything and even justice comes at a price.
Dan skilfully manages an entertaining and clear exposition of the new society in one terrifying and yet slightly comical sequence, as we meet the corporate police and get to understand the importance of their billing practices.
From there, the story moves rapidly, clearly and is always entertaining. There are old forces of resistance that have remained hidden and new heroes that arise from the segments of society not sharing in the new-found wealth.
If this sounds like yet another gritty superhero story, it isn’t. While I’ve seen comparisons to The Authority or The Boys, Dan pulls off the clever trick of playing with light and shade, so the comic never gets that unrelenting grimness that many modern comics have.
There are funny moments, even when dealing with the most unpleasant of characters. Notably, that includes a family of the new aristocracy who have the most unpleasant, and yet comical daughter since Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
What’s more, the humour doesn’t seem as cruel or cynical as in books like The Boys, which i has been compared to. It makes a nice change.
This is all helped by Dan’s artwork, which betrays his background in animation and graphics. It is what we used to call ‘cartoony’, but the style helps with maintaining the lighter mood and there are certain sequences which are simply beautiful.
I asked Dan about one early sequence of pages, set in the New Forest, and what techniques he used to set up the stunning backgrounds.
“I used two different methods”, he said, “one was to use a photo as a base, then composite over it with different elements, then draw and shade over the top to bring it more into line with the rest of the comic’s look”.
“The second method was to use the photo purely as reference. Using Photoshop, I’d build up through layers, silhouettes of trees, grass and plants from a database of images I’d previously drawn”.
“Adding a mist helped sell the scene”.
The art in that opening New Forest sequence sold the book to me, and from there the art moved the story quickly with action and adventure and that light and shade that balanced action, horror and gentle humour with a very entertaining plot.
If I had to raise a complaint, it’s that sometimes the sound effects seem obtrusive and that I’m not a big fan of the “background characters out of focus technique” that Dan uses from time to time.
Otherwise, this is a mature and classy Small Press comic, and book three is a good jumping on point. I never felt confused or lost and didn’t feel the need to read the previous issues to understand what was going on.
And, as it happens, I did go back and start to read the web comic version of Vanguard from the very beginning.
The links to Book Three and the events in it kept me reading and I quite enjoyed the earlier volumes as a result. But Dan has improved as a writer and as an artist since those early issues. If I’d started with those first few pages, first published some eight years ago, I’m not sure I’d ever have gone on to read Book Three.
I think this is true of much of the small press and, as a result, what become gems can be missed by passing judgement on first issues, as creators can and do show huge improvements over a few years.
I read Vanguard Book Three in a single sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. It isn’t ground-breaking and it deals with themes that have been covered by comics many times in recent years. But it is entertaining and thought-provoking – and is a great demonstration that comics that deal with real social issues don’t have to be that serious.
• Vanguard Book Three is on sale now direct from Dan Butcher, price £16
192 pages | Cover illustration Martin Simpson | Issue Ten cover by Steven Stahlberg | Contains graphic violence and is not suitable for children
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found on his webpage at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk