Life During Wartime: The Cultural Catharsis of Bryan Wood’s DMZ

At first glance, two of the at least half dozen works that share the title “Life During Wartime” bear almost no resemblance to each other.

In Lucius Shepard’s sci-fi novel, protagonist David Mingolla meets and falls in love with Debora amidst the tumultuous background of near-future Cold War Central America. But US Army Specialist Mingolla is soon co-opted into the elite PsiCorps. Through genetic enhancement and neurochemical manipulation, Mingolla becomes prepped for the most subversive mission of the Cold War yet. The story plays out in the fictive ‘Occupied Free Guatemala’ and crescendos to a showdown in Panama City.

Shepard’s novel also offers a series of homage to Philip K. Dick, particularly the latter author’s the novel The Man In The High Castle. As with Dick’s novel, readers experience the world of the characters as mediated by the fictions the characters themselves seek out. With The Man In The High Castle, characters seem to gravitate towards the I Ching-inspired “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”. In Shepard’s novel, Mingolla and Debora both read Juan Pastorin’s fictional short story collection, “The Fictive Boarding House”. Also in a doff of the hat to PKD, Shepard offers Mingolla as an untrustworthy narrator, due to his consumption of vast quantities of ‘Samurai’ and ‘Frost’ (stimulants that activate his psychic traits but also leave him unhinged).

“Life During Wartime”, the Talking Heads ‘New Wave’ single from their album 1979 Fear of Music, de-prioritizes the view through the eyes of wartime (albeit Cold War) combatants. The Talking Heads single has an entirely different focus. The single taps immediately into the emotional and psychological sacrifice that comes with existing in a warzone. With America thrown into a second Civil War, the song’s protagonist finds himself throw into a cultural nihilism. Even his identity has been lost to him (as attested to by the vast numbers of passports he carries), but he still feels a deep-seated loss when wandering by CBGB’s and seeing it vacant. The song’s most famous lyric, ‘This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no night club’, would prove to be not only the refrain of the Punk generation, but also the intro to the Sheryl Crow song “All I Wanna Do”.

These two conflicting strands, the vast and epic scale of a life lived during wartime, fueled by grand political changes, and the psychological torment in the face of a lost popular culture, are brought together in Bryan Wood’s landmark series, DMZ. Set against an America torn apart by civil war, journalist Matty Roth finds himself inserted into Manhattan, this fictional war’s De-Militarized Zone. Now approaching its 50th issue, DMZ reaches beyond even the two “Life During Wartimes”, to offer something entirely new — a visual catharsis of the post-9/11 condition. This week’s Iconographies offers an in-depth analysis of DMZ and creator Bryan Wood’s role as the visual conscience of our era.