guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2006

Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ (Vertigo, 2006-). Monthly. $2.99

by Jared Gardner

Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli’s DMZ is one of several comics in our post-911 world reviving the urban and political dystopia of Transmetropolitan—a vision of a corrupt and violent society that has made its devil’s pact with fascism to save it from itself, and a vision of the world that increasingly seems all too prescient. Vertigo’s short-lived Trigger (2005), for example, described a future violently-sanitized city and the terrible human costs of this “victory” over the human stain. But like many of these stories, it didn’t have much to say beyond the original grunt of allegorical rage. More mainstream comics have been increasingly exploring the darker side of the future-that-is-now, including Marvel’s brutal Ultimates 2. But Ultimates ultimately has little to say about anything, so desperate is it to say something for everyone. With all this dystopia in the air and little of it leading to any tremendous masterworks, I did not have high hopes that DMZ was going to do anything dramatically new. After all, what I had seen of Brian Wood’s earlier work convinced me that he was a decent enough writer on the sentence level, but his vision was ultimately too Art School-pious and his politics too Easy Lefty to sustain the attention of this guttergeek—old as the hills and with little patience for twenty-somethings soapboxing to their still-younger readers. So it was with real pleasure and surprise that I discovered in the first two story-arcs of DMZ some truly substantive engagement with the realities of war in our time and a genuinely original story concept that uses the graphic narrative format to take readers to a place that the mainstream media will and can never take them.

This really shouldn’t work. Not for me, anyway. Wood is a writer who lives on the soapbox and seems fairly in love with the sound of his own voice. And there is a lot of it out there, these days, including the vastly overrated
Supermarket (folks are so dazzled by the stylish colorwork they seem unwilling to acknowledge that it is the only thing fresh about the series) and the ongoing series of one-shot stories, Local, which is too high-concept and self-congratulatory by half. If Wood is truly going to become the writer that the comics world is determined he already is, DMZ is going to be his book. And so far, there is reason to think it just might happen for him. Indeed, even in this most incendiary of political comics, the story and art are so good that Wood actually forgets to get on his soapbox for whole issues at a time. And DMZ is a better place because of it.

The concept is pretty old-fashioned stuff in many ways: An America of 5 minutes into the future torn apart by years of brutal civil war, with the island of Manhattan left as a demilitarized zone between the crosshairs of the opposing sides. Our hero, Matthew Roth, working for Liberty News on a summer internship, finds that daddy has pulled strings behind the scenes to get him on a copter as a star reporter’s assistant for a trip to Manhattan. Almost immediately everything goes wrong, as the reporters and their escorts are attacked and everyone except Matt seemingly killed. Trapped in a
Dawn of the Dead landscape with only a cell phone, Matt is trying to make sense of the insanity all around him. Not surprisingly, he quickly meets people who will challenge his preconceptions about the place. And as the only reporter actually on the ground, he will find that he is of increasing value to all sides of the mounting conflict.

Burchielli’s work is quite arresting, borrowing some of the energy and dangerous flirtation with caricature from Robertson’s work for
Transmetropolitan and the inky noir atmosphere from Risso’s work for 100 Bullets. But the liquid slime and ooze that saturate everything from the burned-out Manhattan streets to the polished, gleaming offices of the military elite is all Burchielli, as is his remarkable ability to find beauty in the most miserable of images.

There’s a moment in issue #3 where Matt has to save himself by waiving his press credentials in front of a squad of U.S. marines ready to blow his head off. He hasn’t been in Manhattan long, but he’s already been here long enough to know what he long suspected: that the story of evil insurgents and the Good War being fought to bring them down doesn’t begin to describe the real situation on the ground. But at that moment, he is one trigger finger away from dying as he tries to record the destruction he sees outside the skyscraper window. “Please,” he says, “I’m
with you guys…” And the decision to claim an allegiance that he meant unequivocally just a day earlier now brings tears to his eyes, tears that say volumes more than the heavy-handed black and white politics of Wood’s earlier work. It turns out to be a devil’s pact indeed, as Matt is predictably conscripted as an “embedded” journalist, told by the commander to take photos of the “insurgent cell defeated en route to engage American forces” even as we see the bodies of a family of four behind him. At the end of the issue, Liberty News (“News for Americans”) tells its version (hand-fed by the U.S. Military) of what has transpired that day while the reader is presented with images of the truth, insofar as there is a clear truth to be recorded from this mess.

Issue #4 is the moment when I realized this comic was something worth following into the future—that unlike
Trigger it would have a life past its initial burst of energy, bile, and conspiracy theories. In a one-shot story titled “Ghosts,” Wood tells the story of an environmental paramilitary group dedicated to protecting Central Park and the Zoo from the depredations of War, especially its hungry and desperate victims. After reading Wood’s earlier work, one might be forgiven for expecting a vegan rant against the destruction of trees for fuel and animals for food. But Wood is sufficiently immersed in the ambiguities and miseries of his setting to acknowledge that there are no good guys and bad guys in this struggle between those who would defend the few natural resources of the park and those who would unflinchingly cut down a tree—even the very last—to heat their family for just one night.

It is with the second longer story arc, “Body of a Journalist,” that
DMZ truly finds its footing and its purpose. The first issue of this storyline (which just ended this past month with #10) opens with a suicide bomber attacking a group gathered to pick up water. While the transcript of the Liberty News account of the day’s violence is blandly identical to any night of CNN since the U.S. invaded Iraq, Burchelli’s panels tell a different story—one of dismembered civilians, selfless medics, and American military helicopters circling overhead, using the violence as a justification for violating the no-fly zone. When Liberty News calls Matt shortly after looking for more information about the attack, he throws away his cell phone in disgust. “Sometimes,” he thinks, “I wish it was enough for me to just bear witness to all this shit …. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to talk so much about it.” Indeed, for Wood, a writer prone to talking way too much, the beauty of DMZ is acknowledging the power of the graphic narrative medium to let the pictures do the talking at just the right moment, and to let the disjunction between word and image say more than either alone could possibly say.

DMZ is good and getting better, and it is a soapbox I am more than happy to say that Wood has earned the right to. And Burchelli is in every way up to the grim task of representing the harsh realities of life in war without losing his sense of the humanity and humor that somehow finds a way to survive even in these miserable conditions. There is no comic today dealing with these issues as thoughtfully and as well. And as the war at home and abroad shows no sign of abatement, DMZ’s strange island—which magically serves to represent both Baghdad and Manhattan simultaneously—is perfectly positioned to tell some important stories in the months ahead.