Life During Wartime: Brendan Talks DMZ
Posted September 13, 2009on:
Brendan’s a speech/comm grad student somewhere in Texas and an old buddy of ours. He can drink two of us, hell – maybe all of us – under the table. He can make with the smart so we gave him a column. Look out for him to pipe up every now and then. You know, when we can convince him to stop working on his thesis or whatever.
Earlier this month, Vertigo released the seventh trade paperback of Brian Wood’s creator-owned title, the phenomenal DMZ. The seventh in the series’ run (which began late 2005), “War Powers” collects three story arcs spanning issues #35-41.
For those unfamiliar with my favorite ongoing title, DMZ follows Matty Roth, a young twenty-something photojournalist residing in and reporting on happenings from the island of Manhattan- now a demilitarized zone between the United States army and an uprising of separatist militias collectively known as the “Free States.” As both sides vie for strategic advantage over the now largely-evacuated city of New York, those who stayed behind live in a setting that Wood has described as resembling Escape from New York and Katrina-aftermath New Orleans, as violence and disrepair plague the front now known as “The DMZ.”
As you might imagine, the series finds plenty of action in a world in which warring locals trade sniper fire, Central Park is patrolled by special forces deserters–turned-conservationists, and rocket attacks periodically rain down flaming rubble upon the lower east side. But the book is especially fulfilling when read as an extended parable, examining the effects of real life American military adventurism on civilian life. DMZ has become a standout comic in recent years for the ways in which it mines human drama from its premise. As Matty is pulled in every direction by forces political and personal, he grows up before our eyes right in the middle of all that chaos.
And such chaos is of a kind that many of us will find our generation defined by. I just turned 27 years old, which means I’ve spent essentially my entire adult life in the George W. Bush age. The twin towers, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the entire War on Terror- they’ve all loomed large over my life. Yet as the decade has dragged on toward its close, even the most geopolitically aware among us have had a hard time making sense of it all. Our input’s been so thoroughly overloaded in recent years that we’ve developed an estranged relationship to the global brand of tragedy plastered over the daily news. As Americans, we know that we are somehow connected to it, and intimately so, but we still can’t really fathom it fully.
With the constant, deadening flow of information, it sometimes feels as though we’re expected to place everything into context in real time. But the truth is that only now, years after events’ first acts, do we truly have the perspective to produce a unique creative lexicon in which to discuss them.
It’s good that new works of art are being produced through which to share a cultural experience, rather than just slapping a Buffalo Springfield song over images of bombed-out buildings and dead bodies in the desert. When considering what art will help define our uniquely terrifying times, a few authentic-feeling documents do come to mind: “The Hurt Locker” and “Generation Kill”, sure; and “The Wire” in a more roundabout way. But right there with (and arguably foremost among) them, DMZ takes its rightful place.
The three stories in “War Powers” make that case as well as anything else from DMZ to date. The first arc follows Matty during his recent sojourn away from Manhattan across the narrows, and examines the bonds of camaraderie shared by opposing soldiers serving on the remotest fringes of the actual fighting. That premise offers up several scenes that ring with an almost absurdist quality- one that’s rendered all the more surreal for its totally natural plausibility. The men’s party-filled run of seemingly endless downtime gives way to a tense, frightening string of hours when something goes wrong, forcing new friends to act like instruments of war again.
As he does frequently throughout DMZ, Wood’s deft writing (this time glimpsing into how the psychologies of enlisted men are by turns blurred and twisted by wartime) is almost subliminally tied into a bit of NYC-centric social geography. “The Island” arc is set on the routinely ignored Staten Island, an outer borough of the city that’s largely left on its own and a place that the typical New Yorker likely never thinks twice about.
This arc reminds us that while not every second of war is horror, when a bunch of jacked-up war machines are left unchecked and to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time until something really bad is going to happen. Here, in just two issues, little is wasted in either words or panel space, and “The Island” manages to cram one of the best arcs of book’s run so far into a mere 44 pages.
Most of the remaining pages of “War Powers” are then devoted to the titular story arc. Upon Matty’s return to the DMZ, we find that his relationship with Zee has been strained past breaking, and that she’s nowhere to be found. Their mutual disaffection is the silent culmination of some subtextual elements from the series’ last major arc, “Blood in the Game.”
While “love” has always appeared to be something of an opportunistic venture in the DMZ, it’s clear that Zee and Matty are special to one another and that their relationship is more than grasping onto whatever human connection they could when it became available. But the dedication they share toward their respective works, coupled with their ferocious needs to remain self-reliant seem to have overpowered the urge to actually be with one another (at least for now.)
Of course, Zee was also pushed out of the picture during Matty’s love affair with political idealism and the rise of Parco Delgado, a former gang member and self-styled voice of the people of the DMZ. The transformative power of Matty’s newfound true believer-ism really has made him something very different than the documentarian skeptic he’d become since arriving in Manhattan as a wide-eyed, ignorant kid. Now Matty Roth carries a rifle instead of a camera, and is running errands for Delgado’s nascent regime while they consolidate power in a fortified base of operations called Parco City.
It’s only a matter of time before Parco City begins to feel more like the West Bank than the Green Zone, and as the “Delgado Nation” asserts itself more forcefully, a creeping suspicion sets in that the independent nation of Manhattan might not be the solution after all. Rather, we may be witnessing the rise of the first inevitable failed state that fucks up the region more than anything that was there before its existence. Matty questions his loyalty to Parco and his place within the administration as the boundaries of what Delgado seems willing to do with all that power broaden more and more, and begins to resemble the entities that New Yorkers thought they were rejecting on election day.
For the bulk of the “War Powers” collection, Wood’s words are complimented by the art of series regular Riccardo Burchielli, whose renderings of Manhattan manage to evoke specific aspects of the story’s setting. At times it’s a battlefield, a disaster area, and a reclamation zone, yet it remains the beloved hometown of its inhabitants in spite of it all. And while many reviews will drink in such renderings of the city and take the easy route of dull platitudes (“The best character in DMZ is New York itself!”) that’s really quite lazy, and is wrongly dismissive of Wood and Burchielli’s greater strengths.
The portrayal of New York in DMZ is intimate, sure, and proudly displays a native’s love of his city, but it does so first and foremost through the eyes of people who live in the story. With characters as nuanced and well developed as Matty Roth, Parco Delgado, Zee Hernandez, and a host of recurring players from all over the island, we learn about the place through the characters’ lives. NYC is undoubtedly a uniquely rich backdrop, and it is best used as exactly that- a place unlike any other that quietly informs the motives of DMZ’s characters, adding greater richness to the narrative’s depth.
A fine example of this comes in the one-shot issue that concludes the trade, which follows Zee as she makes her way out of the retaining walls of Delgado’s new seat of power and back into the dangerous, unfamiliar parts of Manhattan. When the violent reality of life in the DMZ reasserts itself, we see the extent of Zee’s commitment to her practice as she begrudgingly helps the scared and wounded agents of an occupying force: a stranded cell of the Halliburton/Blackwater-evoking private military contraction firm Trustwell Inc.
As a coda to this edition’s main plot, “Zee, DMZ” demonstrates the singleton-issue as interstitial storytelling device, and is crucial to both the pacing of DMZ as a series as well as adding to our knowledge of this New York. Some forty-plus issues in, we’re still discovering new parts of the city- and new people to worry about the future for.