Created by: Brian Wood
Published by: DC/Vertigo
ISBN: 1401210627 (Amazon)
Pages: 12 volumes
A hundred million years ago, when I was in high school, I thought war was cool. And maybe even rad. I read stories of warriors from prior eras and about the glory and honour found in a battlefield death for a good cause. I licked my chops in adulant glee while devouring films like Red Dawn and Edge of Darkness. The thought of dying and killing for the good of the homeland was a relishment. I was, in fact, a moron.
Sure, I had been sold a bill of goods, the lie that war is glorious and that dying for nation is an honour. But I was a kid with above average intelligence. I should have known better. I should have seen myself being led by the nose, reacting irrationally to the chummed waters of nationalist propaganda. But I didn’t. I believed in military power. I believed in America. I believed in the honour of combat. I believed that it was entirely within our national rights to bomb those who would make American living inconvenient.
I actually said at some point that we should just nuke the Middle East and solve all our problems. I believed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and I loathed those revisionists who would suggest the Enola Gay to be anything other than necessary. I was xenophobic and intolerant and blind to the fact that people are people. I hate that there was a time when I was ever this person. And I hate that I lived in a society that would encourage me to have been this person that I hate having been.
Which brings us to DMZ.
At some point in the near future, due an increasing number of unpopular presidential decisions, a movement arises in Middle America demanding the right to secede. Various militia groups join up and soon, within the very borders of the American society, a new American nation begins to take shape. Soon, America plays host to a second civil war—one between the establishment United States (and its Foxish media mouth, Liberty News) and the hillybilly-chic Free States. The Free States make rapid progress toward the East Coast and soon are on the edge of Manhattan, where they come to a sort of stalemate with US forces. Manhattan, whose population has been cut by two thirds, is the new battleground—a demilitarized zone where combat occurs despite (and often to spite) a variety of truces and ceasefires in effect. Manhattan is the DMZ. An easy place to die.
Where DMZ is so successful is in its ability to bring readers a sense of what it might be like to inhabit such a terrible place and circumstance. Wood certainly concerns himself with the military operations that terrorize the city and the political monsters (a.k.a. ideologies) that command those operations and the media machines that justify such monstrosities—but that’s not what he’s all about. Instead, the first and foremost object of Wood’s attention is the citizenry, the people who never have voice enough in these blasphemies of humanistic endeavor.
Part of the power of DMZ for Western readers (or at the least for Americans) is that the victims are people we know. They are ours and they are innocents. They are doctors, nurses, teachers, mothers, first-responders, artists, architects, and small business owners. They were minding their own business. And, most importantly, they are Americans.
One of the great obstacles between the average American and empathy is our inability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of anyone who doesn’t share our privilege and power and history and social evolution. Maybe it’s our geographical isolation. Maybe its that we miraculously came out of WWII as the super power11This is probably largely due to our geographic isolation from the actual two battlefronts of the war. and hadn’t the understanding of world affairs not to abuse that. Maybe it’s that Manifest Destiny has been grilled into our psyches since grade school—even though most of us don’t actually believe in any such thing as divinely orchestrated fate. Maybe it’s that we’re still too white, Protestant, and privileged as a whole people. Whatever the reason, when we hear of the plight of those in other DMZs, we struggle to care. Or maybe we don’t even struggle. Maybe our apathy is so great that we can’t ever even get to the point of realizing there’s something to care about. It’s a good thing then that Matty Roth exists in the DMZ.
Matty, the series’ protagonist, is a wish-to-be photojournalist who gets an assignment to shadow a popular newsman on a forray into the DMZ. Their helicopter gets shot down and Matty is the only survivor. Suddenly, by no design of his own, he is an embedded journalist in the middle of a warzone—and the new voice of the people of New York, whether they want him to be or not. While he tries to understand both the Manhattan that was and the Manhattan that is, we see that he hopes to be a part of the Manhattan that will come to be. Matty’s struggle for survival is the story of the people’s own daily challenge. There are the combatants of the greater war that always threatens to spill out onto the streets. There are the Blackwater-esque contractors in place to rebuild the damaged city who cause more trouble than they solve. There are the tribal kingdoms that arise from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, each fiercely protective of their claimed territories. There are the individuals who begin to crack under the strain of anarchy and the constant threat of death or torture. And none of these are in place for the good of the citizen.
It’s horrible, really.
After I graduated from high school, I read a little more. I travelled a bit. I became friends with people whose families did not hail from Orange County or California or even anywhere in the US-held territories. I encountered the internet when the World Wide Web became a thing. And gradually, piece by precious piece, the paradigm of power and violence I previously cherished fell apart. It crumbled under its own weight and inability to express anything that coordinated with the world as I came to know it. I became repulsed by my prior naivete and arrogance. I grew, I think, and matured. Because my mind was cleared of certain barriers, my heart was given a chance to understand, to empathize. It was a too-long process of maybe a decade.
But if DMZ had been around back then, I might have saved myself several years.
I haven’t really spoken to the actual quality of the craft that goes into the telling of Wood’s tale. By and large, the production is pretty top-notch. The writing and plotting are strong. Wood presents largely believable situations that reflect the kinds of stories we already may be aware of from the Iraq disaster of the last decade. The art too is almost always suitable and well-fitting with the cacophony of the DMZ. I’m not any kind of native New Yorker22I’d been there once, at 2am, and my experience was decidedly negative. so I can’t speak to the accuracy of its depictions of streets and neighbourhoods, but it looks enough like the New York in my imagination to sell the story.
If I have one complaint about the series, it’s that when Matty takes on a change in character around the halfway point of the series (during the Parco campaign), I didn’t feel the writing justified the abruptness of the shift. I never felt comfortable that the Matty of the first half of the series would so immediately become this new Matty. I’m not complaining too much though, because the shift whether earned or not does take the story in an engaging and worthwhile direction. So there’s that.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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