10.01.2009

Graphic Novel Of The Month: Give 'Em Hell 54

DMZ: Volume 7: War Powers (DC/Vertigo): Let me caveat this heavily up front by saying that I don’t know how much of a proper “review” this is going to be. It’ll probably be somewhat anecdotal and rambling since it’s very much fueled by a recent re-reading of all seven volumes of DMZ over about a two week period. What follows is likely to be just as sprawling in scope. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – one of the consistent motifs in all of Brian Wood’s projects is the notion of character identity. He’s fascinated with what makes people tick, what comprises their personality, what compels them to act, what causes them to change, and ultimately why they do the things they do and what that says about them as human beings. That broad theme is certainly very much at play in this particular volume, but another dynamic is that DMZ taken in as a whole strikes me largely as a big long love letter from Brian Wood to New York City. It’s personal for him. It’s a love letter to a city he clearly loves, to the city that “you can’t kill.”

New York may change and evolve, but most pertinent – it’s a survivor, capable of enduring even the Second American Civil War. I’ve been to New York a couple of times for work and it always struck me as the type of place where it’s easy to understand the pride its residents feel. It’s understandable why people would be proud to claim the moniker “New Yorker.” There’s that saying that if you can make it in New York, well hell, then you can make it anywhere. As fascinating as it is from a cultural anthropology standpoint, I know New York isn’t for me per se. Boston? Sure. San Francisco? Sure. San Diego? Sure. See, I’m a California boy. I’ve travelled all over the world, I’ve lived all over the United States, but I was born in California. I’m a Native Californian – we make the distinction. My family’s roots are deep here. I’m proud of that. I’ve lived in, let’s see… 9, I think it is… 9 different cities in California. I think that California might be the only other place in the US where people feel that particular sense of intense inborn pride that New Yorkers feel. Because of that, there’s a part of me that wants Wood to explore what’s going on in California in his epic. What happened in the bastion of liberal thought that is the Bay Area? With California and New York basically united against the Red States on most sociopolitical issues, it’s hard for me to believe that The Golden State simply threw in with the Free States movement, especially in particularly crunchy areas like Berkeley. Does downtown LA look like the DMZ too? There sure are a lot of military bases in Southern California. Was there fighting out West? Are there still trouble spots? I know that would probably diverge largely from the main thrust of DMZ, but I so desperately and selfishly want to see that, a one-shot issue highlighting San Francisco or, hell, even just a couple of throwaway lines would probably satisfy me.

Once when I was in 8th grade, and this is really the first feature length story idea I ever had as a budding writer, I tried to write a story about California seceding from the Union. There were some interesting RAND Corporation studies at the time that suggested, based on GNP and some other factors I can’t recall, that California (The “Independent Republic of California,” that is) would be the 7th most powerful country in the world. The San Joaquin Valley alone, as an agricultural entity, is responsible for approximately 80% of the world’s produce. Think about that. When you factor in the revenue streams from Hollywood to the south, Silicon Valley to the north, the impressive rail network, port cities dotting the coast, and the highly concentrated array of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force bases, it gets really interesting. If California was able to take Las Vegas and say, the Hoover Dam along with it, or even a couple of “minor” states like Oregon and Washington (to lock up the coast), well it gets downright scary. Looking back, my story was not very serviceable. It flipped back and forth incessantly from first person narration to omniscient third person. It lacked an essential POV character like Matty Roth, and was actually more an outline of cool “what if?” prospects, but I remember the really amazing tipping point being New York and the New England states throwing in with the Independent Republic of California and forming this bicoastal alliance. The Red States (even though we didn’t refer to them as that back in the mid-80’s) would then be forced to fight a bloody war on two fronts in an attempt to preserve the Union – and lose. Man, I’m really digressing.

Somehow, this brings me back around to DMZ and maybe explains why I have such a fond spot in my heart for the underpinnings of this series. Much like California is a part of my identity, this book feels like a personal experience too. In DMZ: Volume 1: On the Ground, Brian Wood embeds us violently into the city; he introduces us to The Ghosts of Central Park, one of many vying factions to come. Volume 2: Body of a Journalist offers a closer look at the FSA and strong personalities like Viktor and Zee. The “universe” that DMZ inhabits really gets fleshed out in Volume 3: Public Works. It’s here that we see the dueling perspectives of the United States, the Free States, Liberty News, Trustwell, and the UN. Multiple POVs abound; the US is not simply some benevolent force trying to keep the country together, but sometimes acts with malfeasance. The FSA are not simply redneck militia, but possess some genuine and valid points, and the DMZ inhabitants are caught right in the middle. Trustwell backs an insurgent cell, ensuring their continued presence. Liberty News is heavily aligned with the government. The web of influence is endless. Everyone has an angle for sale, and the PR war is just as high priority as the ground war. Volume 4: Friendly Fire focuses on the Day 204 Massacre and proves to be a very pivotal moment for protagonist Matty Roth. In this arc, Matty decides to stop being an impartial journalist. He’s learned that fundamental survival in the DMZ means taking a stand, picking a side, and having an agenda. It plants the seed that needs just a little water to flourish. After some rousing storytelling detours in Volume 5: The Hidden War, which highlights Wood’s version of contemporary artist Jenny Holzer (who awesomely enough has this red LED piece right outside my office door at work) in his character Decade Later, the ever-interesting and charismatic Wilson, or my personal favorite thanks to Nathan Fox – DJ Random Fire, Roth gets his water in the form of Parco Delgado in Volume 6: Blood in the Game. He is journalist turned political activist with The Delgado Nation. His involvement begs me to invoke the Hawthorne Effect – if a detached third party journalist observes a campaign, does the very act of observing it change the dynamic fundamentally and scientifically alter the outcome? The Delgado Nation is about an iconoclast leader, about a political atmosphere more relevant than we’re probably comfortable admitting. If you get the sense that your country is rigged and all of the Michael Moore-isms are true, if dissent is patriotic, if the blood of tyrants enriches the soil of democracy, what happens next? Matty Roth begins to act out his answers to these questions.

During the recent election, I think it was John King at CNN that characterized (then) Senator Barack Obama as “part professor, part preacher,” and (then) Senator Joe Biden as “part steelworker, part statesman.” I always liked that. It makes me think about the unlikely pairing of Parco Delgado and Matty Roth, which culminates in DMZ: Volume 7: War Powers. Somewhere early on in DMZ, Brian Wood promised to deliver us the “post-9/11 New Yorker.” I think Matty Roth could be that archetype. He is the post-9/11, post-Obama, post-United States, citizen and resident of the DMZ – itself becoming a sovereign state, himself growing from boy to man, mirroring the path his city is on. He represents a brand of asymmetrical citizenship of a truly modern world, with an ability to cross political boundaries and warring factions, to ignore imposed demographic and artificial geographic boundaries, to consider the multi-faceted positions of any given issue. He understands the power of words, why the remnants of the US Government refer to the FSA movement simply as “those insurgents” as a way to discredit their position and not acknowledge them as a legitimate entity.

Volume 7: War Powers is a game-changer. It now feels like everything is just teetering on the edge of chaos. In this arc, Matty Roth found a cause he believes in. Matty walks with a purpose. He’s become a player. As a writer, Brian Wood is careful not to use outright analogy, but to employ the use of allegory. See, analogies are prescriptive: Trustwell represents Blackwater or Halliburton, that’s analogy. But allegory is subscriptive; it allows for wider inductive reasoning and interpretation on the part of the audience. Something like Trustwell can then become your corrupt local government, the tyrannical HOA, the morally questionable employer, the crooked cops you dealt with as a kid, the oppressive parents, or whatever else the reader needs it to inhabit in order to hold meaning and power for them. DMZ is a visceral piece of work; Civil War, by definition, means that we’re literally killing each other. Perhaps Wood’s greatest contribution is educating people to consider all sides of an argument, that the modern labels being thrown around by the media and the government are too easy, too fast, and too clean. That “right and wrong” depends on point of view, and you have to get a little dirty to fully comprehend complex issues.

Shit, I haven’t even talked about the art yet. You know, I have some favorite moments. Nathan Fox, doing his post-Paul Pope impression of DJ Random Fire, was an instant classic in my eyes. Danijel Zezelj’s murky inky art came with just the right touch of paranoid claustrophobia. Kristian Donaldson’s stark bold lines give a particularly well suited cold aesthetic. Nikki Cook’s soft supple lines lend a sense of compassion in an otherwise heartless set of circumstances. But as far as artists go, series co-conspirator Riccardo Burchielli does the bulk of the heavy lifting here. His crisp detail and lithe figures were the perfect match to the themes Brian Wood wanted to explore. Burchielli just delivers over and over again; his art is disarmingly charismatic. The gritty pencils lure you in, making you feel as if you’re walking down a side street in the city, right alongside one of Wilson’s grandsons, or peering out a broken window right next to an eager sniper rifle. You can feel the grime against your skin, smell the acrid smoke in the air, hear the bullets whizzing by dangerously close to your head, sense the weariness in Zee’s eyes, the quiet rasp of malnourished Matty Roth, the determined growl of an energized Parco Delgado, the desperation in Amina’s whisper, or even the threatened ennui of a random UN peacekeeper.

So yeah, I don’t know how to wrap this up properly since it’s so divergent from the type of review or analysis of a book that I’d normally write. I guess it’s just my personal impressions of the book as a whole and what it’s meant to me. Here’s to you, DMZ. I’m looking forward to the next couple years of stories, likely as full of twists and unexpected surprises as the first 45 or so have been. It’s been a catalyst for introspection on the craft of writing or what’s going on in the news every day of our lives – not to mention, just damn fine entertainment. This book couldn’t have existed 10 years ago, it’s a true product of its time; I sincerely predict that it will be recognized in the future as an example of the works emblematic of early 21st century fiction. Grade A+.

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