It doesn’t matter if you’ve got ten “make love not war” tie-dye T-shirts in your closet or a hawk tattooed across your forehead, September 11th had a significant and lasting impact on Americans everywhere. This includes comic book writers, as is apparent in one of Vertigo’s newer titles, DMZ. Writer Brian Wood makes no effort to hide his inspiration for the series. On page three of the first issue, the words “every day is 9/11” are written among a dense cluster of graffiti just below a map giving direction for an emergency evacuation. This scribbled message is magnified in a panel at the bottom of the page and serves as a powerful indicator for the direction and intensity of the story Wood has to tell.
The country has been divided between the United States of America and the self proclaimed “Free States”. The Free States are described by Wood as “New Jersey and inland”. Manhattan, the DMZ (demilitarized zone), lies between the two warring sides and very little is known about what actually goes on there. The people and press of the United States seem to know only slightly more than the reader does about the actual living conditions on the island. This sets up photojournalist intern Matthew Roth, along with a team of experienced war journalists, for a trek into the unknown. Many of the details of the war are initially left unsaid, though I get the impression that the back-story will be revealed bit by bit as the series progresses.
Once on the island, Roth finds that things are far from stable in Manhattan. A surprise attack leaves him stranded, as the helicopter he rode in on is wrecked and the rest of his group is dead or dying. This is where the story really begins and the reader starts being drawn into Wood’s vision of a divided America. The first issue quickly becomes politically charged and demonstrates some of Wood’s views on government and politics. The Unites States military is portrayed as ruthless with a penchant for brutal efficiency. They are unconcerned with collateral damage—American civilian casualties—and instruct Roth to take fluff photos and to “crop out the small bodies”.
Wood and artist Burchielli more than succeed in turning New York into a war zone. The residents of the DMZ struggle for life just as an inhabitant of any contemporary war torn nation might. Water, electricity, fuel, etc., have all become rare and valuable commodities. And the United States government is anything but helpful as it operates off the assumption that Manhattan is home solely to violent insurgents. The inhabitants of the DMZ want only to be left alone, but become terrorists of sorts in order to defend themselves against the indelicate U.S. maneuvers to root out Free States guerillas. This in turn only bolsters their negative image in the United State’s eyes, creating a kind of vicious cycle.
The reader learns more about the DMZ as Matthew Roth does. The people and places that he encounters have a genuine feel for the most part. Wood’s characters possess vibrant and memorable personalities and the action has a certain edgy believability that that really stands out. There is something very human about the world and the people that Wood has created and this works well to help the reader become immersed in the story. Another interesting element of DMZ is the widespread graffiti. It gives the setting a gritty and desperate feel while also performing as a subtle instrument for storytelling. The scribbles that cover walls and cars serve as interesting devices for characterizing the city and the people living there, displaying anger, frustration, and at times humor and irony.
Stylistically, DMZ is very attractive. One can tell that the art for this series isn’t done by average comic artists. Brain Wood not only writes these books, but he also works very closely on the graphics with artist Riccardo Burchielli. Wood’s influence is apparent, especially on the cover art of each issue, which looks more like it would come from a graphic design studio than from the pencils of traditional action-oriented comic book artists. This is a welcome aesthetic change and I think it would be good to see more of this kind of graphic design applied to other comic books.
DMZ begins with great intensity and intrigue. A large part of the appeal of this series is that it drops the reader, along with the main character, right into the middle of a war and thus allows the reader to feel the same confusion and anxiety as that character. Seeing such violence and destruction unfold in the streets of familiar cities rather than across an ocean is a poignant reminder no nation is invincible (even, gasp, America). I hope that Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli will continue to bring us the fresh and imaginative stories and characters that have given DMZ such a strong start.