Set in a near future where a second American civil war rages, a lone journalist is stranded in the middle of New York City, now a brutal no-man’s-land. Mirroring current events, DMZ is an unforgiving look at what a ‘war on terror’ can do to a civilian population.
I’ve been told that I need to start reading Brian Wood’s Vertigo series, DMZ. I meant to, I really did. From what I heard, it was exactly the kind of book I like: dark, gritty, urban, bleak, yet full of unexpected hope. I looked forward to it, but wasn’t certain when I’d find the time. Now that it’s coming to an end, I finally picked up the first three graphic novels, which collect issues 1 to 17, and … it’s everything I was told to expect.
The story begins with Matty Roth, photo intern, being dropped into the middle of a war zone. As if being left behind weren’t bad enough, he’s got people shooting at him and strange girls pointing guns in his face and an alarming tendency to faint under pressure. Poor Matty. He can get out or he can bunker down and turn his misfortune into a chance at the big time, a chance to be the only working journalist in the DMZ. Which just happens to be Manhattan, caught in the crossfire between what’s left of the USA and the “Free States” currently occupying New Jersey and points west.
Wood shows a NYC we can imagine without having to squint too hard. It’s a brilliant premise, turning a city with as much cultural weight as NYC has into a hotly contested battle zone. It turns familiar territory into a whole new world, an alternate history two steps to the right of where we are now. To say that Wood loves this city is an understatement – it serves as both backdrop and character for two of his other titles, New York Four/Five and The Couriers, and he lives in Brooklyn – but in DMZ it’s transformed.
There are all kinds of little bits of fun in the book too, meant for people who have a vague idea of what New York is, as both a historical landmark and a place where the cutting edge is sharpest. Central Park? The Zoo? The Flatiron Building? They’re in the books. Art installations and vegan restaurants and Chinese gangsters and tattooed girls whose thong underwear is visible over their low-rise jeans? Here. All the bits of truth that become ideas when they filter out of the city and into popular media can be found, eventually, in DMZ, but they serve as anchors, pulling the book back into our world, and giving us landmarks to guide us along the way.
Wood has to be given credit for another bit of world building – even though the book is marketed at an arguably male (and white male, at that) audience, because that’s still the bulk of the comic book buying population, his characters are not only white or male. His main character is, sure, because we have to give the reader a person to identify with, but most of the other white males in the book are military, soldiers. Matty’s friends and neighbors are the people you’d expect to see living in New York today. To have whitewashed the city would have been an unforgivable sin, and one I’m glad Wood didn’t make. In addition, he gives us the full range of humanity’s potential, so that it isn’t just the white men who save the day, but the black architecture student, the hispanic female med student, the elderly Chinese “grandfather”, and so on.
Yes, of course, there are the punks and the thieves and the whores. It is still New York.
What makes DMZ work for me is that while there is a big war going on, and Matty, as the “outsider” does have to reflect on why it started and where it’s going, the bulk of the people in the story don’t have time for that kind of philosophizing. It’s not a book where people sit around a diner talking out their big ideas on long swathes of dialogue. There’s running and hiding and exploding bombs and dying children and conspiracies and fucking and making mistakes and trying not to die. A lot of simply trying not to die. It gives the story a frenetic layer of action on top of which can be thrown a little heavy thinking, if there’s time.
There are 72 issues in the series, before it ends, and I think I’m going to have to read them all.
On the Ground. Collects Issues 1-5. ISBN 1-4012-10627
Body of a Journalist. Collects Issues 6-12. ISBN 1-4012-12476
Public Works. Collects Issues 13-17. ISBN 1-4012-14762