Re-Reading Comics: DMZ (Wood)

Last week I talked about O’Malley’s first book, Lost at Sea. You can read my review here.

It’s a weird time to pick up Brian Wood’s Vertigo series, DMZ. Normally I wouldn’t think too hard about recommending it. When I read it the first time time, DMZ was exactly the kind of series I like: dark, gritty, urban, bleak, yet full of hope. Long enough I could spend a day binging dozens of issues, and collected into graphic novels so it’s easy to pick up. I looked forward to reading it, and when I finally did, it was everything I was told to expect.

Now, though, with our real NYC under lockdown from a very real threat, fictionalized versions struggle under an extra weight, and I’m not sure DMZ holds up the way it used to.

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 hunker 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.

Long before the pandemic hit, Wood showed a NYC we could imagine without having to squint too hard. It’s a brilliant premise that several other writers had before him: turning a city with as much cultural weight as NYC has into a hotly contested battle zone. Familiar territory transformed into a whole new world, an alternate history two steps to the right of where we are now.

To say that Wood loves New York is probably an understatement – it serves as both backdrop and character for other books, New York Four/Five and The Couriers, and he lives in Brooklyn – but in DMZ it’s the macho jungle, the glistening wasteland, that so many dudes expected. And sure, he’s talking about 9/11 and Afghanistan and how media is intertwined with terrorism. Those things needed to be talked about! But you have to wonder why the paramilitary murder cult version of NYC is the one we so often see.

Because that’s not the New York that’s making its way through disease and isolation, the New York now facing a higher death toll than the terrorist attack that’s hung over us all for the last 19 years. What we’ve actually got is a city of friends and heroes, stepping up, going to work even when it might kill them, checking in on neighbors and posting TikToks of their parents dancing. NYC under quarantine is taking a serious look at who’s the worst off right now – the people who are left behind or kept down by racism and poverty – and actively working to help them up. Right now, people are dying, and instead of descending into lawlessness or martial law, New Yorkers are clamoring for help for those who need it and calling out injustice whenever they see it. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.

There are all kinds of little bits of fun in the book though, 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.

And of course, there are punks and thieves and sex workers. It is still a white man’s idea of New York.

To be fair, Matty’s friends and neighbors are almost the people you’d expect to see living in New York today. To have completely whitewashed the city would have been an unforgivable sin, and one I’m glad Wood didn’t make. I can see him trying to give 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 Latina med student, the elderly Chinese “grandfather”, and so on. But like most white dudes, he can’t help centering his idea of those people, as archetypes, and misses little bits of depth I think another writer would have realized they deserve.

Even when someone finds their people, it, uh… usually doesn’t end well. Every bit of hope (and there are good moments, I promise) comes with an equal helping of cynicism.

What will make DMZ work for most readers 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.

Maybe that’s what you need right now. If so, please call your local comic shop and place an order.

Notes:

Updated April 8, 2020 – If you’re in NYC and want a treat – or if you want to send food to a friend, there’s “Iconic” food you can order right now. If you have hospital-grade masks, gloves, or other PPE (even a single box), please check out how to get those to healthcare providers in need. And if you’re in NYC and need help feeding yourself/your family, this page lists resources for you.

Stay home, and stay safe.

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