The international landscape of the Marvel Universe gets a closer look in June when Russia's team of superheroes, the Winter Guard, gets its own mini-series.
The three-issue Darkstar and the Winter Guard is written by David Gallaher and drawn by Steve Ellis, the team behind the popular High Moon series on the Zuda webcomic site and this month's graphic novel release, Box 13. The mini follows up on the success of the Hulk: Winter Guard one-shot that featured the same characters and creative team.
The Winter Guard has shown up throughout Marvel history, with its four members: Darkstar, Crimson Dynamo, Red Guardian and Ursa Major. But this team is a little different because its four heroic team identities aren't always filled the same person, employing the use of rotating members when someone retires or dies.
Newsarama spoke with Ellis and Gallaher about the three-issue mini-series, what Russian fans think of the series, and what makes this team so unique.
Newsarama: Dave and Steve, that one-shot you guys did really piqued the interest of fans in these characters. What do you think it is about Darkstar and the Winter Guard that makes fans want more? How are the characters and concept unique in the Marvel Universe?
David Gallaher: I think fans are excited to learn more about characters who have been part of the Marvel tapestry for decades now. The legacies of Crimson Dynamo and Red Guardian have roots in the '60s. Darkstar made her debut in the '70s. And Ursa Major debuted in the '80s. But — despite their history — these characters are all essentially blank slates. I think part of the novelty and excitement comes from the fact that the readers get to uncover a new part of the Marvel Universe. There's a sense of wonder and discovery about it all as we watch these characters achieve their full potential.
As far as what makes them unique? Well, apart from being from a different nationality with different cultural norms, I think the Winter Guard has a little more pageantry than the other teams in the Marvel Universe. Their mere presence boosts morale. I often refer to them as the 'Yankees of Russia'. They are celebrated heroes. If you are a Russian citizen, this is the team you root for ... the team you want to see triumph over every situation. As a member of the Winter Guard, you'll be in front of cameras, spotlights, and a cheering crowd of citizens. That's the public face of the Winter Guard.
The private workings of the team are a different matter altogether. Every member of the team — Red Guardian, Darkstar, Crimson Dynamo, and Ursa Major — they are all 'Red Shirts' of the Marvel Universe. When one hero dies, they are replaced by another candidate or understudy who steps into the role. For example, this is the seventh Red Guardian, the third Darkstar, and the 13th Crimson Dynamo. Each member of the team is willing to lose themselves in their role and sacrifice themselves for the good of their nation and the people they serve. It's a different form of heroism, certainly, but it's no less valid.
Steve Ellis: The team is made of "eternal heroes" who represent ideals rather than individuals. And the people who fill the roles of the heroes are doing an honored job rather than fulfilling a personal quest. The idea is there will be a Red Guardian no matter who wears the suit. This sets up interesting dynamics on a team where characters can and will be replaced.
Nrama: Have you always been fans of these characters?
Ellis: I've somehow grown an affinity for them over the years. I've liked Crimson Dynamo for awhile now. I even worked on his mini a few years back from Epic. And the others have always seemed to be in the background, running around frequently as enemies or as "the other." I like the idea of doing a team that isn't normally in the spotlight but have the potential for a very rich world.
Gallaher: I started collecting comics around the time Captain America #352 hit the stands. I picked up the issue because Speedball had made an appearance in it, but then I found myself hooked on the main story of Vanguard, Ursa Major, and Darkstar trying to defect. So, yes ... I've been fans of these characters ever since I started collecting comics, and I've followed their appearances for years. Part of the appeal writing the book is getting in touch with the intangible "awe factor" I had when I first read about these characters. I also find it rewarding to build on the foundation that Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Kurt Busiek, Stan Lee, Peter David, Mark Gruenwald, Jeph Loeb, and Fabian Niceza laid down. They've left me a lot of great material to work with.
Nrama: What kind of research have you done as you've been exploring them? Are you making an extra effort for authenticity?
Gallaher: It was important to me that the story felt comforatable in the Marvel Universe. I have a stack of reference that I think covers almost all of Marvel's Russia at this point — stuff like Starblast, an obscure Ursa Major story from Marvel Comics Presents, Quasar, and X-Men vs. Avengers. While I don't feel tied to all of that history, it does feel good to consolidate a lot of the material into one story. And yes, we strive to be authentic to the source material, while also not being constrained by it.
Ellis: Wow, I've read through issues of ROM from the early '80's editions of The Soviet Super Soldiers. I've also had to keep track of 13 different Dynamo armors. And, I have to say if it wasn't for David looking over my shoulder, I'm sure I may have forgotten the way a character looked in this one panel from an obscure issue from the '80s. But that's the thing — over the years these characters have slowly built an entire world around them just piecemeal and we've only just gotten glimpses of it until now.
Gallaher: In terms of how we are portraying Russia, we are striving for naturalism over absolute authenticity. We've done a significant amount of research. Steve used to live in Russia and speaks Russian. And I talked to many Russian fans and friends who helped make sure I got certain aspects of the language correct.
Ellis: I've done a lot of research on bears, trying to make Ursa Major feel natural — or as natural as you can make a were-bear look. And I've really tried to set the scenes in real places within real cities in Russia. I want it to feel right and look interesting.
Nrama: Have you gotten any feedback from fans who are actually in or are from Russia? What do they think of this group?
Ellis: It's funny. I have heard a bunch from fans from Russia, and I think there is genuine excitement, but that puts us on guard because you don't want to be too "cranberry," which is slang for the stereotypes that tend to come up when Russia is depicted in most entertainment. You know — too many Communist references or hammers and sickles on everything.
Nrama: For people who aren't familiar with this Darkstar, what's her story? And what can you tell us about the group?
Gallaher: As Darkstar, Irene 'Reena' Stancioff controls the Darkforce, a powerful darkforce that allows he to fire energy blasts, make energy constructs, teleport, and fly. Reena was genetically grafted to resemble the original Darkstar; but, stepping into the role of a dead woman has left her feeling nervous, insecure, and uneasy.
Anton, who is the seventh Red Guardian, is in an engineer inside the body of an LMD. He fights with science, math, and a nearly industrutable shield. He's the Russian version of USAgent with the brain of Tony Stark. Galina Nemerovsky is the 13th person to pilot the Crimson Dynamo armor. She is smart, independent, confident and one of the best pilots around. Her independence and confidence also drives her to ask questions about things she shouldn't ask questions about.
Want to know why Stephen Colbert thinks bears are the No. 1 threat facing America? Well, I like to think it's because of Ursa Major, a mutant were-bear who is the only member of the team to not be replaced — yet. Ursa also has never really gotten over the loss of the first Darkstar, and that's something that weighs on him.
And finally, we have Dmitri Bukarian, who served as the fifth Crimson Dynamo, and is now the acting liason for the team. He works with the Russian Executive Security Committee to ensure the team is operating at full potential. So, that's the team — a patriot who fights with science, a were-bear, a power armor pilot, a girl who controls an incredible darkness within. It's a rough and tumble group to be sure.
Nrama: Steve, how have you tweaked the designs of these characters, their costumes and their equipment? And what's your overall approach to drawing them?
Ellis: There are a lot of things. I designed the Crimson Dynamo from the ground up. Red Guardian used to be all red and white, now he's red black and white he's wearing a more military style of belt. There's a new shield for Red Guardian. And there are some others things I can't talk about that appear in the second and third issues...
Nrama: David, you're one of few writers, besides Jeff Parker, who has utilized the Agents of Atlas. How are they involved in the mini-series?
Gallaher: Warlord Krang, after suffering a mental breakdown, believes that he has been chosen to mate with Namora off the Russian coastline. This incident throws the Winter Guard and The Agents of Atlas together for several pages of mayhem, punching, and kicking.
What happens as a result of that ... well ... that's where the story truly kicks into high gear.
Nrama: What's theme behind the story you'll be telling in this mini-series?
Gallaher: The basic theme of the story is one of belonging. How do we fit in? And what happens when we don't.
Ellis: And there's honor, valor, sacrifice, and monsters!
Nrama: You're dealing with more than one villainous threat in this mini-series. What can you tell us about what the Winter Guard is facing?
Gallaher: We open the story with Krang and an army of sea monsters. Krang, a Warlord of Atlantis, has literally gone off the deep end. In issue two, we present The Sword of Judgement — an obscure team of terrorists from Black Widow's past.
Ellis:The Presence — the father of the original Darkstar — who is displeased that his daughter's identity has been usurped is coming back. He's really creepy and a blast to illustrate! He has a very "Hannibal Lector" vibe.
Nrama: What other characters will we see in this mini-series?
Ellis: There are a few other characters, but I think we have to keep them under wraps for now.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about the mini-series?
Gallaher: I think Steve Ellis is doing remarkable work on this book. If you are a fan of his work on High Moon or Box 13, you are really going to dig this stuff he is doing here. Scott Hanna's inks and Val Staples' coloring are out of sight. It's a crazy fun book jam-packed with monsters, mutants, menaces galore! And hopefully, if the book is successful, it will lead to more down the line.
Ellis: Scott Hanna and Val Staples are doing an awesome job. It's great know your pencils are in such capable hands. David is writing a great story story that honors the tradition of these characters. Here, the characters are driven by their emotions and their actions. It's crazy and insane, and I think fans of the Marvel Universe will totally dig it.