Welcome to America's nightmare: welcome to America's second civil war. Written by Brian Wood, with artwork by Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ is a comic series set in an unspecified near-future during America's second civil war. Yet for all the allusion to a near-future setting, I found reading DMZ to be an incredibly contemporary experience. This is a story that could very easily be happening right now, especially given the growing divide that we are currently witnessing in the American heartland.
Whilst the background relates to America's second civil war, the focus of DMZ is not on the factions striving for dominion, but on the DMZ - Demilitarised Zone - of the title, which in this case is Manhattan Island. With the existing United States government on one side, and the grass-roots independent-movement FSA (Free States Army) on the other, the original inhabitants of Manhattan find themselves caught between these two factions. It is these people that DMZ focusses upon: the civilians and non-combatants, who are often set aside as collateral damage or acceptable losses in military parlance, who have no interest in the war that has been thrust upon them, other than surviving. DMZ is a story about the little people.
"This is a war of extremes pushing against each other. But the stories lie in the middle. Here, in the city. That's the interesting stuff" (DMZ: Body of a Journalist)
Having recently completed its story after seventy-two issues over a six-year period, DMZ has since been collected into twelve graphic novels produced by DC's Vertigo imprint. These graphic novels collect each of the twelve story arcs (usually five to seven issues long) into a complete package. These graphic novels are my preferred format for reading DMZ, as you have a greater appreciation for the story as a whole.
Volume 1: On The Ground (1-5 )
Photo intern Matty Roth is the sole survivor of a helicopter crash in the former Manhattan Island, and now DMZ. Surviving on his wits, and in his new role as an embedded war correspondent, Matty begins to explore what life is like in the DMZ.
Volume 2: Body of Journalist (6-12)
Having adapted to life in the DMZ, Matty Roth meets the local commander of the FSA. The commander reveals that Roth was not the sole survivor, and Roth becomes involved in a high-profile hostage exchange between the FSA and United States government.
Volume 3: Public Works (13-17)
With the civil war having entered a stalemate, the private-military company Trustwell Inc. enter the DMZ with the apparent goal of restoring order. All is never what it seems in the DMZ, and Matty Roth goes undercover as local labour to learn of Trustwell's plans.
Volume 4: Friendly Fire (18-22)
Day 204: the massacre of innocent civilians by US troops during a peace-march, and cause of the stalemate between the USA and FSA forces. As the sole embedded journalist in the DMZ, Matty Roth becomes involved to oversee the public trial of the soldiers involved, to determine who ultimately was to blame.
Volume 5: The Hidden War (23-28)
An ageing graffiti artist, a Triad gang-lord, a field-medic, a rogue Special Forces soldier, a hard-core club goer, and a failed suicide bomber: all are the subject of single issue character studies exploring how their lives have changed in the DMZ.
Volume 6: Blood in the Game (29-34)
With the ongoing stalemate, and proposed cease-fire between the FSA and USA factions, attempt is made to restore order to the DMZ with the first elections since the civil war started. Whilst the FSA and USA both have their approved figureheads, it is the outsider street-talker Parco Delgado who captures the hearts of the inhabitants of the DMZ.
Volume 7: War Powers (35-41)
No longer content to be merely a journalist or a mouthpiece, Matty Roth rolls in with his own security force and mandate to heal the city. Will this be the start of a brand-new day via the barrel of a gun, or will this end with the fall of petty warlord?
Volume 8: Hearts and Minds (42-49)
Parco Delgado, as provisional governor of the City of New York, details his first 100 days at breakneck speed, and redraws what you know about DMZ. Matty's first task under the Delgado regime involves tracking down the source of one of the DMZ's greatest urban legends.
Volume 9: M.I.A. (50-54)
Following the events of Parco Delgado's "Delgado Nation", Matty Roth has gone into hiding. It is only due to his chance encounter with a downed helicopter, when Matty makes it his personal mission to return the pilots' dog-tags he found, that he realises his role in the DMZ is not over yet.
Volume 10: Collective Punishment (55-59)
A series of five single-issue stories take place during an intense "shock and awe" bombing campaign, with Matty Roth and characters old and new, as they weather the brutal storm.
Volume 11: Free States Rising (60-66)
Matty Roth watches as the FSA and the US wage civil war on the island of Manhattan. Old allies and enemies resurface, and Matty must prove that after all he's been through he is a changed man.
Volume 12: The Five Nations of New York (67-72)
Whilst New York City begins the healing process, the political realities on the ground are impossible to ignore. Matty Roth has seen to it that everyone's voice is being heard, but will the social order devolve into anarchy, or will a new New York be discovered underneath the rubble?
Central to DMZ is the embedded photo-journalist Matthew "Matty" Roth, who we follow throughout the series as he grows from being a photo intern who survived a helicopter crash, through realising his pivotal role as the only one able to reveal what life is like in the DMZ, to his acceptance of the consequences for his actions. Unlike some characters in comics who are both infallible and invulnerable, Matty Roth is flawed. He is stubborn, often given to making rash decisions. Refreshingly, Matty is not a soldier, nor does he possess any combat training (other than surviving in a war-zone), and his greatest weapons are the articles that he writes.
Neither is Matty Roth alone, as the supporting characters in DMZ are just as rounded and interesting as the central character. The principal of these is Zee Hernandez, a once student nurse who became one of the sole field medics in the DMZ after she chose to stay in Manhattan after the evacuation order was given, as her Hippocratic oath demanded that she provides aid. Independent World News reporter Kelly Connolly is an excellent foil to Matty Roth, who offsets Matty's naiveté with jaded experience. Finally, and most fascinating of all is the Triad gangster Wilson, who assumes control of Manhattan's China Town, becoming not only their warlord but protector. One particular piece of dialogue by Wilson reverberates wonderfully with the tone of DMZ.
"I'm no gangster, this war is gangster" (DMZ: Hidden War),
For the most part, DMZ uses the vehicle of Matty Roth's character to tell the story of America's second civil war, from its grass-roots beginning in the militias of middle-America, through its stalemate in New York where we first pick up the tale, to its final conclusion several years later.
The only times that the focus of DMZ deviates from Matty Roth are during the Hidden War and Collective Punishment story arcs (volume five and nine respectively). In Hidden War we are presented with individual issues focussing on secondary characters we had encountered or previously heard mentioned in the series. These issues often provide further insight into their background, exploring what happened to them before the war, or the consequences of their encounter with Matty Roth. Collective Punishment similarly follows five individual story-arcs (one of which follows Matty Roth) set during a cataclysmic bombing campaign in the DMZ.
One of my favourite pieces to DMZ was the supporting New York Times (issue 12), a Rough Guide style introduction to the DMZ. It is through this piece that we gain a true feeling of what life is like in the DMZ. This had little relevance to the ongoing plot, yet as a scene-setting piece it was wonderfully crafted and generated a palpable atmosphere that lasted throughout the series. It was the section about the local artists and musicians that I found especially fascinating, as it explored how life in the DMZ had affected their artwork.
Whilst DMZ is an endlessly fascinating series of graphic novels, it is not one filled with happy and light reading. It is not "fluffy". Within the pages of DMZ we explore the issues of government-sanctioned terrorism, private military companies, state-run media, rogue military units, torture, and scape-goating, to name but a few. It would be very easy for Brian Wood to shy away from these heavy topics, and focus on the sleek military hardware and gritty government agents charging around shouting "Dammit!". However, the focus of DMZ has always been on the politics of the situation, and how it affects the "little people"; and because of this DMZ is the series that everyone should read, if only for an understanding of how politics affects us.
Developed shortly after the events of 9/11, the writing of DMZ is obviously influenced by America's reaction. This is most apparent when the series deliberately alludes to the War on Terror, as well as the more jingoistic elements of American culture. Whilst it goes without saying that Brian Wood loves his country and the city of New York, he is obviously critical of the abuse of power by elected representatives.
Brian Wood has a strong ear for language in his writing, as he manages to capture the unique dialect and mannerisms for each person and their background. Thus, a Triad gangster native to New York naturally speaks vastly differently to a European Political Consultant who had grown up in San Francisco during the sixties. The character's speech patterns often reveal insights into the character, as more often it is not what they say, but how they say it that matters. Similarly fascinating are the news commentaries provided by the Liberty News network and the Independent World News network which overlay the ongoing story. These news agencies have different political affiliations, and thus their news reports are presented in such a way as to reflect these allegiances, rather than the reality of the situation.
Yet for all the studies in corruption and politics, DMZ remains a balanced read. For every scene where characters are engaged in intense conversation, we have in contrast an action-filled scene filled with sleek military jargon and high-tech weaponry. Action in DMZ is written in a very unglamorous way, and is never sensationalised. The violence is raw, brutal, and bloody.
It is a credit to Riccardo Burchielli that he manages to convincingly portray these diverse scenes using the same art style. This uniformity in artwork adds to the flow of the story, without losing any of the pacing for the individual scenes.
The artwork in DMZ is unique, as it has a style all of its own. In an industry that is quickly becoming over-run with crisp computer generated artwork (some of which looks stunning, but for many looks sterile and bland), DMZ stands out from other comics with its sketchy, almost grunge style, pencil-work that fits very well with the war-torn setting of DMZ, and further adds to the atmosphere.
Contrasting the interior artwork are the book covers. Instead of the grungey artwork, we have hyper-stylised cover designs that would not be out of place in the latest corporate brochures, with its info-graphics format and iconography. The cover artwork frankly looks amazing, and gives DMZ a look that is strikingly different.
If there is one criticism I have with DMZ, then it is the use of boobs. I have no problem with boobs, in fact I quite enjoy looking at them. But with DMZ - especially in the Hidden War story arc - I found them to be overly used to the point of being physically impossible (I am quite sure a body cannot be contorted in such a way as it was in one panel where butt and boobs could be seen facing me at the same time). That is not to say that DMZ objectifies women, or that they play second fiddle to men. Women such as Zee and Kelly are often shown as being just as capable and ruthless as men - if not more so in the case of Matty Roth. Instead, it just felt that the number of times I found myself looking at a pair of boobs bordered on the gratuitous, which is a shame given the otherwise strong portrayal of women in the series.
It must be said that DMZ is not the first comic series to have have a journalist as the central character, or to consider the issues that are explored here. Journalism is an excellent background for central characters, as their occupation demands that they seek new stories and their articles make the perfect narrative devices for scene-setting. Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan is one such example where these tools were exceptionally well used. Those who enjoyed Transmetropolitan, will find much to like in DMZ, as both involve themes of authority, corruption, and exploitation. Yet for all the similarities, there are sufficient differences that DMZ remains a fresh read, as Transmetropolitan is set in a far future with a more anarchic humour to the narrative than that which is found in DMZ.
With stunning artwork and excellent narrative throughout, DMZ is a powerful series of graphic novels which explores issues that need addressing. If the truth is our government's nemesis, then DMZ is Public Enemy No.1.