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

By issue 12, with its first year of publication rounding out, creator and writer Brian Wood’s project for DMZ became clear. In “New York Times”, the standalone comicbook itself takes on the form of a ‘zine chronicling the life and times of those trapped in the demilitarized zone that Manhattan has become during a fictional second Civil War. Protagonist Matty Roth is barely seen in the publication-within-a-publication, yet his voice abounds. Interviewing locals, detailing the locations of safe routes and food markets, and even delineating the anatomy of a street attack, “New York Times” seems to have the feel of what DMZ’s creator might have hoped to achieve with the book, had an economic model driven by sales figures not dictated production terms.

Issue twelve is a pure artistic cry, apparently what Wood himself had hoped for the comicbook. The format for the series, where the majority of the time is spent in storyarcs chronicling Matty Roth’s ‘tour of duty’ on Manhattan as an embedded journalist and a fractional amounts of time are spent on self-contained issues like #12, seemed locked down. Readers could look forward to the story of Matty Roth, and occasionally, to stories that flesh out the DMZ’s history of occupation.

Or so it seemed.

With storyarcs like “Public Works” (where government contractor Trustwell is exposed as using terrorist cells to ensure a need for their security forces) and “Friendly Fire” (where Roth reports on a military tribunal brought against a US Army squad charged with killing unarmed civilians), rounding out the series’ second year, a shift in the story format seems to have occurred. DMZ, more and more, became a collection of stories about a dynamic place in its second year of publication. The DMZ had its own story to tell. Its own history to relate, its own codes and rituals to honor. Not just the random experiences of Matty Roth on a perverse human safari, DMZ began taking on the proportions of a grand and sweeping classical novel, something that might easily have been penned by Tolstoy. In the truest sense of the term, Brian Wood became a ‘graphic novelist’. The emotional events described in his work were connected to readers not through words only, but through sequential art.

But given the inventiveness and ceaselessness of Wood’s artistic genius, the rounding out of the second year of publication would equally prove to be an incomplete unveiling of DMZ’s project. By the end of year three, with the psychologically wrenching events of “Blood in the Game” and the particularly taxing two-parter “The Island”, Wood’s project for DMZ would finally be unveiled in full. DMZ is about something deeply embedded in the human psyche; the need to address, through art, the possibility of social inequity and injustice. DMZ, like the work of Bertolt Brecht, is a mirror, a kind of social gestus.

“Blood in the Game” which ran an as-yet unparalleled total of six parts, was an almost direct response to the historical presidential campaign run by then-Senator Barack Obama. Published co-terminus with the 2008 presidential campaigns of Democratic candidates Obama and Clinton and Republican candidate McCain, the storyarc revolves around the DMZ’s first election.

In a narrative arc that closely resembles reality, a candidate almost universally beloved by the voting public rises to national attention. Parco Delgado, the people’s candidate in a true sense in that he too finds himself trapped in the DMZ, hits the political and national consciousnesses like a hurricane. For the first time, the DMZ inhabitants find themselves with a public voice, that mostly speaks for their needs to the broader American mainstream. Clearly styled on Obama, Delgado is a gifted orator who finds himself caught in the machinations of corporate America (particularly the monolithic Liberty News). Like so many Americans during the previous election, Matty Roth finds himself actively choosing a side. Supporting Delgado means Roth having to forego his ‘observer’ status as a member of the press. But this act of supporting Delgado is more rewarding than clinging to ‘observer’ status. The decision to leap off the fence brings an ongoing evolution Roth’s character.

The final storyarc of year three, two-part story “The Island”, chronicles in excruciating detail the traumatic events of Matty Roth’s trip to Staten Island where the US Army forces have dug in and headquartered themselves. In a surprise twist, as Roth discovers when he first lands, the soldiers on both sides of the conflict have enacted a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ resulting in a de facto truce. But no argument on ethics holds sway over this détente. The facts on the ground are simple; soldiers on both sides have long histories together stretching as far back as childhood, and both sides have something the other wants. Staten Island, the headquarters of the US Army, has become ground zero for smuggling contraband.

But an unfortunate turn of events plays out. The US Army commander responsible for Staten Island has a can of the neurotoxin ricin stolen. This bio-weapon was little more than a souvenir taken by the commander on an earlier mission. But the chance of the canister being weaponized by the insurgent Free States Army, quickly allows the situation to descend into Abu Ghraib-style interrogation. The true psychological horror lies in the ease with which friend turns on friend. Americans torturing Americans is almost too much to abide. Yet this is not simply torture pornography, Wood is making a clear statement about the overarching political system that allows for such horrors to exist. To reach behind the myth of personal culpability, Wood treads the same ground as Dr. Phil Zimbardo in his landmark book, The Lucifer Effect.

In the early 1980s, John Carpenter shocked movie-going audiences with his post-apocalyptic vision of a Manhattan that backslid into barbarism in his film Escape from New York. Escape from New York was very much reliant on the old genres of the Western and the Horror. Like unknown gunslinger, Snake Plisskin strides into town to right wrongs and stare down the town bully. But the town bully is soon discovered to be a vampire, a human denatured into a demon. Wood’s DMZ treads a very different path. In the blasted, ruinous landscape that is the Manhattan DMZ, the human spirit endures, and even begins to flourish. Rather than centralize the exploits of an inhumanly exaggerated hero, DMZ presents a platform for interrogating the bigger questions of our time. How does culture color our opinions around war and freedom? And what role should individual autonomy play in the face of a war culture?

While DMZ offers no direct response to the particulars of the American situation, Wood does manage to frame questions around how in a single decade the nation could have moved from confronting the 9/11 attacks, to a condition of ‘war without end’. In directly confronting issues around the choices made both personally and politically, Wood presents DMZ as a cultural catharsis. During the Bush Administration and even after it, DMZ becomes not a political commentary, but an artistic one.