Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s The Old Guard #4. Written by Greg Rucka (Wonder Woman, Lazarus) with art by Leandro Fernández (The Discipline, The Names) and colors by Daniela Miwa (Doc Savage, Shaft), this issue explores the pain of eternal life through the action-packed experience of five immortal soldiers. (This review reveals major plot points.)
“The Old Guard” is the nickname for the oldest active-duty regiment in the U.S. Army, but the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment has nothing on the team of immortal soldiers at the center of The Old Guard. The group’s leader, Andy, has been alive since ancient Greece. Two of its members were on opposing sides during the Crusades. These characters have lived through many wars, but they’ve finally encountered a genuine threat to their survival: a sociopathic businessman who wants to discover the secret to eternal life for himself. But maybe death isn’t such a bad thing.
Greg Rucka’s story for The Old Guard is rooted in the tragedy of immortality, and these characters have all suffered endless loss because life never stops for them. Each issue reveals new details about the past, and it forces artist Leandro Fernández to draw a wide variety of characters, locations, and cultures as the story takes massive jumps back and forth through the timeline. Rucka previously worked with Fernández more than a decade ago on Queen & Country and Wolverine, and they’ve both grown considerably in that time. Rucka has written for so many different artists that he’s developed a talent for crafting stories that play to his collaborators’ specific strengths, and Fernández has made major leaps refining his linework and composition without losing the bold graphic elements that energize his artwork.
Daniela Miwa’s vibrant pastel coloring is totally unexpected for a high-octane action thriller, and the more figurative palette works well with Fernández’s linework to set the tone and amplify the tension. The flat rendering of bright colors intensifies the contrast of the inks, and while the coloring is loud, it never distracts from what Fernández has put on the page. It’s hard not to compare The Old Guard to Rucka’s other two ongoing Image series, Lazarus and Black Magick, and each has a distinct storytelling voice and art style that separates it from the others. Fernández’s exaggerated artwork and Miwa’s expressive coloring give The Old Guard a drastically different look from what the art teams of those other series are doing, and Rucka tells a more dynamic, quickly paced story to capitalize on the energy in the visuals.
All three of Rucka’s Image ongoings have been optioned for development by Hollywood production companies, with the first two being adapted for television while The Old Guard would land on the big screen. It’s common practice for creators to use comics to sell ideas to Hollywood, and Rucka has ideas that can translate easily from one medium to the other, but still take advantage of the unique storytelling opportunities of comics. A lot of this comes from trusting his artists and letting their individual voices come through loud and clear, and the opening scene of this issue is a great example of how Fernández deepens the narrative with visual tricks that would be difficult to replicate in live action.
This quiet scene of Andy and Nile talking on a cliff in Les Baux-De-Provence looks at the internal conflict Nile is dealing with after being told she should abandon her family or risk even greater heartbreak in the future. The two women bond as Andy shares her own pain and offers some advice, specifically that Nile take good care of her smartphone because images of her loved ones are priceless mementos that the rest of the immortals never had. The two characters are visually connected by being in silhouette, and keeping them in that same frame for five panels highlights each shift in their body language, which gradually brings them closer together. A bird flies past in the background, adding depth of field to the otherwise flat panels while also creating a sense of forward movement, which picks up as more birds appear. The final shot of Andy standing alone in the midst of these birds is a beautifully serene portrait of the character, and the gentle pink, orange, and purple colors give the reader some softness before Andy returns to her hard, long life.
Rucka knows how to write compelling narration that flows smoothly, and Andy’s inner monologue elucidates key themes while providing important pieces of information about the very long history of the characters. The reader is in the same position as new recruit Nile, learning more about this group in the midst of a major crisis that is getting worse with every issue. Andy has a complicated relationship with her memory, and as much as she wishes she could regain the memories she’s lost, she’s also bitter about the memories she does have, reminding her of people she used to care about. One of those people was Atticus, a slave in Virginia who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, lived in poverty in London, and eventually met Andy when he was on the run from the law in the Australian bush. (All this before he was 30.)
The opening page of the Atticus flashback is full of smart decisions that heighten the emotion of each panel. It opens with a panel showing Atticus in his prime, fading in from the white background as Andy’s memory conjures this perfect image of him. Panels are laid on top of this idealized Atticus, a subtle touch that indicates that this is the version of Atticus at the foundation of Andy’s opinion of him, and it doesn’t change when she’s talking about him as a slave or as a vagrant on the streets of London. The panel borders aren’t straight lines because this is an unstable memory, and each image focuses on expressing a specific emotion because, as the narration states at the start of the issue, Andy’s memories have become more about the feeling of a certain time rather than what actually happened in reality.
This issue’s action sequences aren’t as big as some of the fights in previous issues, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. There’s one page in particular that showcases how smart creative choices intensify the impact of action beats. Joe and Nicky (the aforementioned soldiers in the Crusades) have been captured by the maniacal Steve Merrick, and they briefly gain the upper hand when he tries to stab them. Then Joe gets shot in the head and the tide turns against them again. The headshot is depicted in silhouette with Joe falling forward into thick, jagged speed lines, and then Fernández pulls back to show a view of the conference room from outside the window, giving a wider shot of the chaos that erupts after the bullets start flying. That panel is especially notable because of how the borders of the window continue to break down the action into smaller moments from left to right, and letterer Jodi Wynne puts the “Bang! Bang!” sound effects behind the window borders to strengthen the idea that the viewer is watching and hearing this from a distance. The final panel of Joe being stabbed over and over again is shown from Joe’s perspective, and the manic fury of villain Steve Merrick is even more severe when shown from his low angle.
Rucka has been spending a lot of time exploring the idea of war from different angles during the past year: Lazarus takes a more grounded, political approach in its current World War storyline; Wonder Woman uses superhero fantasy to explore war as a more abstract concept; and The Old Guard delves into the lasting trauma of war through the experience of characters who can never stop fighting. The Old Guard #4 ends with a cliffhanger that blows up the established character dynamics, and it’s a betrayal that gets back to the curse of immortality that is at this series’ core. Life never ends for these characters, and if they had a chance to end their suffering, why wouldn’t they take it? For one member of this team, betrayal is a reasonable act if it means that his eternal war can end, and Rucka has done such strong work establishing the tragedy of these characters’ existence that this motivation makes total sense.