Brian Wood’s New York: The Conclusion of the DMZ Series

There are many ways to read Brian Wood’s and Ricardo Burchielli’s recently concluded DMZ (DC/Vertigo, November 2005- February 2012, final trade collection released in June 2012): as a metaphor for American military occupation in Iraq, as a parable about the perils of seeing all threats to civil order as coming from ‘the outside’, as a speculation on the future of America’s ‘culture wars’, as a critical examination of leadership in social and political movements.

Furthermore, the context in which one reads the series also prompts changes in its meaning. For example, reading the first arc, “On the Ground”, at the time of initial release in 2005-2006, an intensely violent period in the US occupation of Iraq, is a different experience than is reading, or re-reading, the same collection seven years later after withdrawal of American military forces. Along the same lines, DMZ is a book where history and geography continued to get made, and new characters, such as the Trustwell military contractors and Parco Delgado, founder of the “Delgado Nation” and elected leader of a short-lived provisional government for the DMZ, consistently provided new ways to read the series and to understand its significance to the world outside.

Regardless of the frame, the picture inside is consistently of New York City. Whatever the social and political issues Wood and Burchielli, and their occasional collaborators, chose to examine through the series, those examinations were always grounded in and refracted through New York. This commitment to place, and to this place in particular, is not unique to Brian Wood’s work in DMZ; this commitment runs through a decade and a half of work by the author, both as a writer and as artist. The interest in place, and the depth of that interest as expressed through New York, is a primary reason why Brian Wood’s books were instrumental in sparking my adult interest in comics.

My introduction toWood and his New York came not through DMZ, but through Couscous Express (ATI/PlanetLar, 2001; with Brett Weldele). That title led to the Channel Zero books — Channel Zero (ATI/PlanetLar, 2000), Jennie One (ATI/PlanetLar, 2003; with Becky Cloonan), and Public Domain (ATI/PlanetLar, 2002) — The Couriers (ATI/PlanetLar, 2003-2005; with Rob G), and, ultimately, to DMZ. While still working on the latter, Wood also produced The New York Four (Minx, 2008) and The New York Five (DC/Vertigo, 2011) with artist Ryan Kelly. Wood and Kelly’s Local (Oni Press, 2008), a series devoted to exploring place and places, includes an issue set in Brooklyn.

What interested, and interests, me in those earlier works is Wood’s focus on identity and on the city as a particular site for the practice of youth culture and for making a place for oneself. The ethnic, racial, cultural, and political diversity of New York is put to critical use by Wood’s protagonists as they attempt to become who they want to be. Olive Yassin, the protagonist of Couscous Express, finds herself both hindered by and, ultimately, intensely loyal to her immigrant parents and their way of life. Jennie of Channel Zero wants to resist the corporate state that defines life in Wood’s near future New York, but finds herself becoming part of the same media and image machine she is trying to subvert. The mercenary scooter-couriers of The Couriers have to decide how much risk is too much and what ethical lines they won’t cross in pursuit of cash. The young women in the The New York Four and The New York Five are constantly negotiating connections to friends and family, school, and boyfriends and girlfriends.

New York is more than a backdrop for these characters, it’s a specific context, one where the sheer number and variety of other people, and possible ways to be, is both empowering and also ensnaring. Young people, when presented with choices, do not always make the ‘best’ ones. The breadth of opportunities in New York sets traps and opens doors. Wood’s work consistently shows all of these sides of being young in the city.

Wood’s work is also mindful of the ways in which the opportunities that come from the cosmopolis do not fall to everyone equally or in the same way. Class, gender, race and ethnicity, and how those open up or circumscribe one’s choices, is always present. This is shown clearly in The New York Five where each character’s family experiences and backgrounds come to the fore in ways that push them forward, hold them back, or prompt unexpected detours.

More broadly, Wood positions himself on the side of people on the social margins of the city, and with those who resist efforts to make New York a ‘safer’ place, that is, more homogenous, where the rough edges of cultural difference are smoothed out and refined into a shape more pleasing to the corporate mainstream, but, ultimately, alienating to most of the everyday inhabitants.

Wood’s formative works on the city were written during and immediately after Rudy Giuliani’s administration. Channel Zero, in particular, can be read as a critical response to the mayor’s campaigns to ‘clean up’ New York and crackdown on ‘quality of life’ crimes. I was in graduate school at Syracuse University in the ’90s. I visited New York several times during that period, and, at the same time, a number of friends and family relocated to the city. When I picked up those pre-DMZ books, I saw a vital, critical response to, and representation of, ‘my New York’.

Continuing this thread, DMZ is written largely from the perspective of those in Manhattan after the city becomes a demilitarized zone (a DMZ) between the forces of the secessionist Free States and the U.S. federal government. This includes both recent arrivals and long-term residents, but is particularly written from the side of those already in the city and who chose to stay after the outbreak of war. The characters who best exemplify this aspect of the series are Zee and Wilson.

Zee is a paramedic who becomes intertwined with the main character, journalist Matty Roth, first as an interlocutor and later as a lover and confidant, but whose primary vocation is as a defender of the people of the city. She devotes herself to caring for the sick and wounded, those victimized by the war, and who, by choice or circumstance, remain part of the city she herself loves so much that she stays in the face of violence and death. She is instrumental in Matty’s own transformation into a local and defender of New York, and is an enabler of his work in chronicling the experience of the war from inside the DMZ.

Wilson is a Chinatown gangster, but also fiercely protective of his corner of Manhattan. Another of Matty Roth’s resident informants, Wilson chooses to provide for himself and those left in Chinatown. His mission is more parochial than Zee’s, but no less an embodiment of the city as home for his particularism. Wood and Burchielli’s rendering of his funeral in the final arc, “The Five Nations of New York”, is affectionate and indicative of a character meant to represent the spirit of a people and a place.

New York has always been a city where strangers could find a place to be welcomed and where anyone can ‘go native’. The conclusion to the series completes this trajectory for Matty, who begins as a shallow, self-interested outsider, but ends as someone who sacrifices himself so that others may get on with the task of rebuilding. His work as a journalist becomes a form of remembering the city before the return of ‘normalcy’, and the making of a new incarnation for New York.

The title of the final story to DMZ, “The Five Nations of New York”, is an index of why Brian Wood’s variation on the city reads as ‘real’; the city is always contested, and the ways in which any individual comes to the love the place is never quite the same as someone else. While Wood clearly has no sympathy for, for example, the real estate developers who look to turn the destruction of war into post-war profits, he still acknowledges that they are a part of the city; they as much as anyone else, participate in the making of place. Resist, remember what the city was like before the old is replaced by the new, but there’s no pretending that others don’t exist in New York.

It seems unlikely that Wood is done with New York, but even if he were to stop writing the city, the conclusion of DMZ would still define a body of work about a particular place that is as rich evocative as anything else you could hope to read.