Clairvoyance: The Polarized Political Life of ‘DMZ: Collective Punishment’

We live in strange political times. Seemingly polarized beyond our capacity to agree on the most fundamental of ideas, we have become a society of “gotcha men.” The type who look for even the slightest flaw in a person and then exploit it as a vast condemnation of all that someone may stand for. The type of arm chair critics wrapped up in the 24 hour news cycle so tightly that all they can see is how to blame everyone else but themselves. The type who believe what is said matters more than what is done.

While this is not a recent phenomenon–it’s a condition exasperated by the rise of communication technology–it has become all the more real as we suffer through nearly a decade of war, harsh political differences and severe economic turbulence. Add to that our existential wonderment of what it means to be alive in the 21st century? It’s a very maddening time to be alive. Writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers have all tried to answer the questions of our times, or to shed light and express the frustrations in various ways. But, it’s Vertigo’s series DMZ that has been nearly prophetic about our modern world.

Set during the “Second American Civil War” in an apocalyptic near-future, the comic is about naïve journalist Matty Roth existing in Manhattan, New York after it’s become a demilitarized zone between the warring United States of America and the so-called Free States of America. It’s a nightmare scenario where Midwestern militias and anti-establishment groups have gained enough influence and support as to wage war against the Federal government. Caught in a standstill, Manhattan becomes the line in the sand and the island’s citizens find themselves in the crossfire. The series’ focus has been the cost of endless war, urban strife, the human condition under extreme stress, political manipulations and so much more. You might think it’s some progressive’s indictment of the Tea Party movement. Perhaps. However, the series, and much of the groundwork for it, was laid in the years before the Tea Partiers became fodder for cable news. It’s about when we neglect what unites us and surrender to our baser instinct that craves power and authority.

DMZ is more than just a strangely clairvoyant series about our political times; it’s an odyssey away from a black and white world. It’s an ongoing redefinition of what it means to have shades of gray–where nobody has your interest at heart and everyone is out to manipulate everyone else.

This is nothing new to American popular culture. The TV series MASH looked at the cost of war through the guise of the Korean War. Beat Generation authors in their books reflected on the ideals of the American dream in the post war years. Bruce Springsteen through his albums has given voice to plight of the blue collar workers. Reality shows, however subconsciously, have enlightened the extent of our celebrity-obsessed culture. It’s traditional for our authors, artists, filmmakers and musicians to engage us through the various media and genres of our times.

With issue 55 of DMZ, writer and series co-creator Brian Wood began a five issues story arc of one-and-done issues collectively known as “Collective Punishment.” Protagonist Matty Roth had been through a lot in the 10 issues prior. He deserved a break. And what better way to emphasize the second largest character, the city itself, than to present stories in an anthology arc. It’s also a very good vehicle to slow down the series and reflect on the current political and military. A nuclear bomb had detonated not long before. Where do you go after a nuke? Most series end there. DMZ pushes forward.

Each issue of “Collective Punishment” is an ode to the depth of the series. It’s a reflection that not only has the hero of the story suffered, but all those around him too. Wood teams with five guest artists to give each issue its own unique narrative quality. Each issue also takes on the point of view of a protagonist other than Matty Roth.

Creatively, like any series, the arc had its peaks and valleys. The height and depth of which are truly the perspectives of the reader. As a whole, “Collective Punishment” succeeds because Wood takes the time to explore the more humane side of his universe. “DMZ” by all accounts is a brutal series about war and violence, power and weakness, but Wood has always tempered the nature of the comic with tender moments. That element is more prominent in some issues of this arc more than others.

Issue 55 teams Wood with artist Andrea Mutti and centers on a military agent radioing bombing targets. He’s caught in the midst of one campaign and seeks shelter with other DMZ inhabitants. There he sees the cost of what he does. Unable to cope, he runs into the warzone for fear of confronting his guilt.

DMZ 56 focuses on Chinatown gang-leader Wilson, one of the more interesting supporting characters.  Wood pulls back the curtain on Wilson to reveal another curtain, keeping the enigmatic and charismatic ruler of Chinatown a mystery while disclosing more of his back-story. Guest artist for issue 56 Nathan Fox rises to the occasion and delivers compelling pencils and layouts. His thick panels handle the various points in Wilson life with such energy that he might have designed and created the character himself.

With DMZ 57, Wood and guest artist Cliff Chiang look at what’s become of failed suicide bomber Amina. Her previous appearances emphasized the inherent loss of faith and identity that occurs in the middle of a bloody and terrifying warzone. No longer the brainwashed weapon of fanatics, she’s on her own: no friends, no family and nowhere to be completely safe. She was an empty shell, but in this issue we see how much of her humanity has returned. It’s a startling portrait told in a smooth voice that is as calming and tragic as the story itself. Chiang’s art for this issue complements the simplicity of the story remarkably. He adapts his signature style to fit perfectly with what Wood is trying to say. The lines are smooth and clean. The emotions on each character’s face are thoroughly thought out reflecting the emotional weight of the story.

Street artist Decade Later is the subject of issue 58. He’s been in captivity since his last appearance and is finally out. This is Wood’s dedication graffiti culture, and his script is nearly poetic about an artist wanting to leave his mark and remember the city that was his canvas. Here artist Danijel Zezelj brings a much more urban perspective to the panels, their pseudo-realism blending with the wall tags and murals Decade Later creates.

“DMZ” 59 concludes the arc by bringing back Matty Roth. He’s back to being a journalist after spending time as a political operative and militia group leader. His earnest hope for redemption is the thrust of the issue. The people don’t trust him, and some very much hate him. He just wants to find that part of him that was lost during his initial tour of the warzone. Perhaps even recapture some of that naiveté before it was corrupted by his ego.

The unifying element of this run has been the color work of Jeromy Cox. Typically colorists are best described as not getting in the way of the story. Here Cox steps up the game, adding texture and shine that deserves recognition as much as of the artwork. He has been a consistent force for DMZ and his contribution to the visual presentation of this saga has given it a consistency rarely seen modern comics.

By pausing the title with these single issues, Wood has pushed the series forward and heightened the emotional connections readers have with the people and places that have been the backdrop to Matty Roth’s odyssey. The depth coming out of these issues will only aid the tone of the series. “DMZ” is so thoroughly imagined it’s hard not to be engrossed in this book.

DMZ as a series has never slowed down, and though this arc is meant to pause the title, it’s succeeds in driving it forward. What’s to come is not completely know. The feeling from these last issues is that the end is closer. With the constant bickering of our political leaders, and the endless polarization of even our most basic beliefs, Wood has plenty of material to weave into his creation. Our reflection doesn’t look so good in the pages of DMZ. Thankfully it’s more of a funhouse mirror than true likeness. Maybe we reverse the polarization of our society so that this prophecy remains just an artifact of this part of the 21st century.