Redemption Song: Survival and Opportunity in the Final Chorus of ‘DMZ’

[22 February 2011]

By Michael D. Stewart

PopMatters Associate Comics Editor

When a writer approaches the pre-determined end to a series, it’s important to put everything in perspective. It’s important to put a spotlight on the main theme. It’s important to present a storyarc that not only offers a conclusion, but also sums up the series as a whole. Everything that leads up to this point must organize and arrange the various narrative threads that have been formed since the beginning. All the ducks have to be in a row and ready to be popped off. That’s how it’s done, and that’s how DMZ #62 begins the final push to the end of series.

DMZ’s protagonist Matty Roth has been out of focus for the last number of issues. Writer and co-creator Brian Wood took the opportunity to get a lay of the land from the perspective of the many supporting characters that populate war-torn Manhattan. That was followed by a short history of how the Free States uprising started. The origin of which was purposely haphazard and anti-climatic as to highlight the thin divide between ideologue driven uprisings and populist sentiment. Not everyone in a movement are true believers. Some are survivalists, siding with whoever offers them the best chance of seeing the next day. Some are opportunists, taking advantage of situations and circumstances for their own gain.

The remaining enigma in the series, the nameless Free States Commander, is both a survivalist and opportunist. His duplicity is magnified by his soft skills and ranking within the Free States movement. If DMZ has a central villain, beyond war itself, he is it. He’s a villain who neither believes in the mission of his colleagues, nor cares about how they go about completing it. In a series that is a metaphor about the gray area that is our reality, he’s charcoal drenched in blood and treasure.

The Commander is an essential piece to the final push of DMZ, and what he reveals in the final panels of this issue present a huge wrinkle in the redemption story of Matty Roth. That’s the basic of the present narrative. Roth began as a wide-eyed photojournalist, but evolved into a major player in the war over hearts and minds. DMZ has always been about his journey, about him baring witness to the lengths people go to gain power in a powerless situation. Along the way his innocence was corrupted and he committed a heinous act. He was no longer a journalist recording and reporting. But he wasn’t a survivalist. He was another opportunist.

These chapters of the storyarc ‘Free States Rising’ – and the remaining 10 issues of the series – are about Roth rediscovering how to be a witness. He’s leveraged his power center so that he can be embedded with the US military as it takes back the island of Manhattan. Right away he’s tested. Can he hold to the idea of redemption? How does he weigh the choices he must make? What can he do to clean off the blood on his hands?

Returning for this last stretch artist and co-creator Riccardo Burchielli offers panels that are a reunion of sorts. His pencils first introduced us to DMZ. They showed the strife and terror around every corner. They showed the humanity, and often the lack of humanity, on the faces of the denizens trapped in the battleground. With issue 62, Burchielli shows us a far more different warzone than he had before. The city is starker, bleaker. This is highlighted by the color work of Jeromy Cox. Cox has been along for the entire ride, and his handling of the subtly in the visual presentation allows Burchielli the freedom to take each panel wherever he needs to. Warzones cannot just be crumbled buildings. They must have a sense of enormity and terror. The terror being that anything and anyone can come around the corner and destroy what little safety there is left. Burchielli creates this mood without having to do any heavy lifting. The structure of Wood’s script certainly helps, but it’s really Buchielli’s skill and understanding of the story being told.

After the deep character studies of the ‘Collective Punishment’ storyarc, Matty Roth and the comic itself feels fresh. It feels like a strong foundation has been cemented for the series to drive to its end.  Roth by all accounts is a relatable protagonist. His journey is the journey we all take – just heightened by the circumstances. We will all be faced with choices that will affect us and those around us. How do we choose? What’s our guiding force? Roth has to figure that out, but he’s got time and opportunity.

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