… Almost unprecedented war, pitting a country against itself on an epic scale. It’s impossible to predict how history will judge this conflict, but however it does, it will be tinged with a profound sadness that I suspect we’ve only just begun to realize…
When DMZ was first released in 2005, its concept – while grounded – would still have been considered slightly outlandish. Written by Brian Wood (Channel Zero, Demo, X-Men), the comic takes place during a second American civil war, where runaway government spending and burgeoning foreign conflicts have caused the rise of a secessionist army calling itself the Free States of America. Between the FSA and the United States government is the Island of Manhattan – the titular demilitarized zone – and its denizens, who have become little more than political props: whoever controls Manhattan controls the perceived heart and soul of America.
Within this larger geopolitical story is the tale of rookie photojournalist Matthew ‘Matty’ Roth, who gets abandoned in Manhattan during his internship with Fox stand-in Liberty News. Matty is, put delicately, an arsehole: he’s selfish, childish, and not really smart enough for us to put up with those first two flaws for long. When he does good, it’s usually to change the opinion of somebody close to him rather than as part of a guiding code of morals and ethics. Matty is a mercenary, in the literal and emotional sense. But that’s what makes him so fun – he’s not a hero. He’s just the protagonist.
The Manhattan DMZ isn’t far removed from Baghdad or wartime Sarajevo – it’s a kind of city-wide Sniper Alley. Whole sections of the island are no-go zones, controlled by tribal warlords and FSA insurgents, and everyday life is often punctuated by the kind of violence westerners aren’t used to seeing. But it’s not all doom and gloom; New York is still New York, complete with block parties and various countercultures. Brian Wood spent a lot of time in New York, graduating from the Parsons School of Design in 1997 and later working for Rockstar Games, and his ‘local’ credentials are on full display in detailed descriptions of the city’s various locales.
Halfway through DMZ’s 72-issue run, Wood started to branch out with one-shot tales about Manhattan’s other residents. These stories, drawn and inked by a range of incredibly talented artists, are just as important as the story of Matthew Roth – they give us the little slices of life that Matty can’t. Random Fire, about a world-renowned DJ who comes to play a set in the DMZ, investigates the various ways people profit off war and how it affects those already trapped in it; Wilson chronicles one man’s journey from low-level gangster to warlord ruler of Chinatown; Free States Rising shows how a grassroots movement that wants to fight the man can become just as bloated as the system it’s working against.
Brian Wood’s writing is staccato and prescriptive, turning Matty’s innermost thoughts into an easily-digestible wire service dispatch, and where it really shines is in its examination of modern journalism: Wood takes us through the various dilemmas that Matty and his loose band of colleagues and rivals face while doing their jobs, and it’s not always easy to stomach. Kelly Connolly, from CNN stand-in Independent World News, takes photos of orphaned children and bloodstained soldiers with chilling ease. Matty is a first-responder to suicide bombings and mass shootings, but he’s not there to help: he’s there to capture it for the 6 o’clock news.
Of course, a comic isn’t a comic without images. Main artist Riccardo Burchielli does a terrific job of illustrating; his work is grimy and dirty, full of hard edges and worn down faces that tell us as much about the state of the DMZ as Wood’s writing does. In some sections of the book, Burchielli employs a layout meant to mirror the actual photographic journalism that the main character conducts: single images – the wounded being carried to ambulances, a man holding his dead child – are placed alongside text from Liberty News, evoking the feel of a nightly news report in progress.
When it was first written, DMZ was about the post 9/11 world and the (unlikely) possibility that all of America’s unjust wars might come back to bite them at home. Looking back on it now, the comic seems eerily prophetic, especially in regards to the rise of the Free States of America. They’re a loose collection of sovereign citizens, hard-line Republicans, Nazis, and people who are genuinely concerned about the state of their nation. The FSA act as a kind of case study in how populism can unite disparate and dangerous groups – groups that otherwise might not get along – against a common enemy; in this case, establishment politicians and people from other countries.
It also shows, when widespread inequality and acts of racism are becoming more common, that strength comes from unity. The inhabitants of the DMZ come from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds, but they’re shown to be the only group that can actually stand together. They help each other out pro-bono, offering food and medical attention and shelter to anybody, including Matty – a total outsider who might well have come to exploit them. The United States government is crumbling, and the FSA is rife with factional infighting, but Manhattan is almost a country unto itself – where the people speak a different language and conduct themselves by the rules of the city, not the rules of the country.
justify;”>In a time when America is still fighting overseas wars and the nation is embroiled in political and cultural turmoil, DMZ is more relevant than ever. It tells a story that could very well take place next Sunday, and shows us a world that isn’t so different from our own – a world where people couldn’t get along and everything had to be put back together. When I first picked up DMZ, it was an enjoyably ominous what-if. Now, it’s “what’s next?”