Guardsmen is a graphic novel published in 1989 in and around the Commonwealth of Nations and has widely become acknowledged as a masterpiece not only of the Superhero genre but the graphic novel medium. Initially published in twelve issues (which are now collector's items) it is more easily available now in one volume. Since 1989 it has not been out of print. The author is Aaron Moore.
One of the central conceits of the work is to look at history if superheroes were in fact real. The resulting alternate history portrays a 1980s wherein the Commonwealth is engaged in a "cold war" with the alliance of the Scandinavian Realm and SNOR-ist Russia dubbed the Old World Bloc. The Bloc has stockpiled far more atomic weapons than in real history, mostly out of fear of the only superhero with actual powers--Captain England.
The Guardsmen of the title are semi-official team of superheroes who have all-but-disbanded over personal conflicts. When one of them is murdered, this sparks an investigation that unravels a largescale and startling plot. Members of the Guardsmen are:
- Captain England - the recipient of godlike powers in a one-in-a-quintillion accident that allows him to manipulate matter and energy at will. Originally a somewhat timid man, he at first agrees to become his homeland's symbol and protector but grows increasingly disconnected from humanity over time.
- Black Harlequin - A masked fighter willing to take on covert missions from the Commonwealth, he seems a cynic and fatalist and seems to suffer from a bipolar personality disorder. It is his murder that begins the story, and much of his past is revealed in flashbacks.
- Dr. Merlin - one of the most brilliant minds in history, Kemrese Gwilliam Von discovered the underlying physics behind what had been called "magic" including the fifth force. After a career of crime-fighting using gadgets based on his discoveries, he then un-masked himself and built a financial empire with new technologies.
- Madame Shadow - A martial arts expert from Cherokee Nation, she is a lesbian estranged from her family and the others when her orientation became public knowledge. She is one who insists on investigating the murder of Black Harlequin, and in the process re-connects with her old friends the Gemini.
- The Gemini are a set of fraternal twins, named Castor and Polluxia by their parents, retired superheroes called Captain Justice and The Jaguar. Raised to become a perfectly coordinated team of crime-fighters, they are withdrawn from society and both undergoing therapy while trying to stay apart.
The plot eventually shows how Madame Shadow persuades the Gemini to reunite--with grave emotional consequences for them both--in order to discover Black Harlequin's murder and the reasons behind it. Captain England becomes interested in their efforts, and it is with his help they discover than the murderer is none other than Dr. Merlin. His plan was to end the Cold War by staging an attack on the world, framing himself and his fellow Guardsmen for the deed in a bid to take over. But his plan calls for all of them save Captain England to perish. While England stands by, increasingly confused by linear time, Castor fights Dr. Merlin and allows Madame Shadow and his sister to escape. The island where the Guardsmen had their HQ and which Merlin was using as a base is destroyed by an atomic weapon launched by the Bloc (at the Commonwealth's plea).
In an epilogue, Captain England returns from space long enough to check on Madame Shadow and Polluxia living together incognito in New Amsterdam while a new detente is being forged all over the world to maintain an active defense against him. He resolves to go create life elsewhere. It is strongly hinted some kind of romance has begun between the two former superheroines. Meanwhile, Castor's diary of the investigation falls into the hands of a free-lance journalist who had until then been a peripheral character and has the most rigid loyalty to the truth at any cost.
Critics hailed the work almost immediately as a work of genius, and fans of the series quickly became quite devoted. Some groups such as the Alliance for Public Decency condemned it outright, not only for its graphic depictions of violence (unsually realistic for the medium) but its portrayal of sexuality and even lesbianism. It has been banned in many public libraries and continues to stir controversy, not least because of its denoument wherein countries like the North American League and the Federated Kingdoms are seen in a negative light (or can be).
Efforts to turn the graphic novel into a motion picture continue but have rarely gotten past the script-writing phase.