TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE EARLY YEARS (Part 2)
CHANNEL ZERO: JENNIE ONE (2003, AiT/Planet Lar): JENNIE ONE is a prequel to what we’ve already witnessed in the first volume of CHANNEL ZERO. It’s important to point out that when this book opens, although we recognize Jennie 2.5 as our protagonist, at this point in time she’s still simply Jennifer Havel. As Wood will do in latter volumes of THE COURIERS, he likes to tinker with a chopped up and out of sequence chronology; it’s done so here to rewind the narrative and show the origin story of a young art student who would become a revolutionary. Though Wood’s candid political reactions remain the primary conceptual underpinnings of the CHANNEL ZERO universe, we can see other familiar themes and characteristics at play.
The first volume of CHANNEL ZERO was full of speculation surrounding mayoral politics in New York too, but it’s important to differentiate the works in terms of the real world timeline they inhabit. CHANNEL ZERO was pre-9/11 and while it derided Rudy Giuliani’s right wing conservatism vis-à-vis “The Clean Act,” the conjecture it depicted was still open to some interpretation. JENNIE ONE, on the other hand, is marked by a post-9/11 presence and realigns the thrust of the ideological conflict to firmly critique George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism measures, with things like The Patriot Act, which seek to suppress civil liberties, ironically all in the name of protecting civil liberties. Simply suspecting someone of being in a terrorist cell gives the government license to do anything they want when the sentiment is backed by mass hysteria and not the law. Any sort of anti-government “chatter” can now be targeted, even if it is in the form of the provocative art that Jennifer engages in. Through no fault of her own, she’s been labeled subversive, and moves from being a promising art student to being perceived as a budding enemy of the state because the external standards of decency have changed.
As Brian Wood is showing us Jennie 2.5’s origin story as Jennifer Havel, it’s critical to our line of thought to explain that in this context a character’s “origin” is synonymous with their “identity.” It’s the changing political landscape and all that occurs in this world that informs and redefines Jennifer’s identity. As she says, “it changed the city, it changed the country,” and “it changed the world,” but most importantly it changed her. This brand of ultra-conservatism alienates casual dissenters and moderates, Jennifer and her otherwise ambivalent art crowd are forced into a more radicalized state of being, characterized as engaging in “dissident behavior,” which grows into full blown political activism. Jennifer the art student becomes Jennie 2.5, the pirate “info-terrorist” and “media slut.” The story quickly becomes one of discovering identity, the inherent human desire for personal expression, and finding a place in society, even if that place is counter to the majority opinion or governing parties. Jennifer’s old identity is stripped away, so she must now build her identity anew and find a relevant space for Jennie 2.5 to exist in.
While Wood obviously hones the microscope tightly around his female protagonist, it’s not hard for the audience to zoom back out to the larger political arena and assess some of the commentary. This yields a result which is still very much focused on identity, though not of Jennie 2.5, but of our country. Both in JENNIE ONE and out here in the real post-9/11 world, we find the United States at a precarious and turbulent time in history in the years just following 9/11. The very identity of the country is in flux with civil liberties being curtailed to some degree, perhaps most intensely typified in the wake of the Bush Doctrine, both domestically and abroad. With the mere insinuation of dissent or “we-know-it-when-we-see-it” radicalism, you can find government agents swooping down to protect civil liberties, not yours of course, everyone else’s. As tolerance fades and dissent moves slightly away from being patriotic and more toward being perceived as politically subversive, these extreme externalities often create the very thing they fear. If you suppress rights because you fear any whiff of extremism, that climate actually creates greater extremism guided simply by principle. If you’re threatening to take something away and make it illegal, then suddenly people feel like acting it out, whatever it is, just to prove a point. I’m the same way. If you tell me there is a new policy at work, then the first thing I want to do, on principle alone, is to question its merit and efficacy. I want to exercise my right to contradict the policy and find a loophole around it. Whereas if you never threatened my right to engage in that behavior, if you don’t push me to extremism, then I probably would’ve never challenged the ruling or wanted to carry out the action in question in the first place.
JENNIE ONE is also noteworthy because it marks the first full length work in collaboration with the inimitable Becky Cloonan. Judging by the introduction, it appears they were forged in fire together as “art terrorists.” Here she attempts to ape Wood’s own style from the first volume of CHANNEL ZERO to some degree, but I detect some shots that feel influenced by Paul Pope’s brushed ink style. With the clarity of hindsight, it’s also easy to think that some of the shots of Jennifer’s apartment have a line weight in the background details that is reminiscent of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, who Cloonan would later go on to win an Eisner Award with for the anthology 5. As it stands, Cloonan becomes a strong presence in the stable of artists who help define Wood’s own identity as a creator. The duo goes on to produce multiple projects together, helping solidify the inclusion of talented artists as another secondary characteristic in Wood’s body of work.
In the end, JENNIE ONE proves to be a cautionary tale with a robust sense of political discourse that perhaps eclipses the identity thread at times, yet it’s still very present in the formation of Jennie 2.5 (nee Jennifer Havel) and her burgeoning sense of self. It’s about art as a form of communication and expressing dissent as a timeless act that is essential to a purportedly free society. It continues the tradition of strong artistic collaborators and uses New York City as a familiar and beloved backdrop, with casual references to “The Mott Street Riots,” The Bowery, The GWB, and a “Queens bound J-train.” It highlights the social tensions of a new generation birthed on September 11, 2001 – it too a date which will live in infamy. It employs a well written female character who comes of age while fleshing out her own identity by defining her role in society right before our eyes. JENNIE ONE certainly has a more immediate sense of danger being on the doorstep than I felt from the original volume of CHANNEL ZERO. Aside from supporting the identity thread, the most powerful take away for me from JENNIE ONE is that Wood opens the story with the plain text “New York City. Now.” It’s a solemn reminder that this dystopian state can exist at any time if we’re not careful.
POUNDED (2003, Oni Press): On the surface, POUNDED looks like a stereotypical Oni Press book. It’s a little offbeat, with a punk rock influence laid slickly on top of what would otherwise be a straightforward slice-of-life story. Enter Brian Wood with additional layers of meaning and an off type narrative structure.
Heavy Parker thinks he’s on top of the punk scene, operating under the illusion of control, advocating hard music, DIY ‘zine production, sex with whomever he wants, and generally flaunting it in the face of the stagnated middle and upper class sets. But, we learn quickly that Heavy’s persona is all a front; his identity is a façade. In reality, he’s not very talented; he’s actually a spoiled rich kid with a dope apartment, all signs of the very trappings that he seems to be railing against. With his self-loathing buried deep, his sexual conquests seeking to add value to his fake life, the notion of character identity is front and center.
POUNDED involves a basic life choice that grows to be a pivotal identity dilemma for the protagonist. Heavy is presented with a series of events that redefine his social composition and fragile faux identity. When Heavy’s girlfriend Missy shows up after her brief exile at college, she’s now the one who appears to be largely in control, having fleshed out a true punk identity for herself. To some extent, Heavy’s identity quest becomes one of role reversal with Missy. Heavy becomes the one pushed out of the social scene, Missy rises to dominance, and it subverts their positions as characters, along with their traditional gender roles. This process makes Missy a really strong and well-written female. She almost steals the show with how well written she is. Through Heavy’s fall from his self-aggrandized heights, his quest to redefine his identity would seem to offer some measure of redemptive transformation, but Wood avoids the obvious. He subverts this predictable trope in romance books, and has his protagonist not learn much of anything.
In the end, we can see that Wood does indeed use the primary theme of identity, along with a couple of secondary writing traits. Though we see the story set in Vancouver (because artist Steve Rolston wanted to draw his hometown), this could easily have taken place in New York where the punk scene really flourished. So, identity is still the headlining band, with genre subversion and well written females being the opening acts. On top of it, it’s almost as if POUNDED was an effort to exorcise these youthful punk traits from the creator and the project had acted as a cathartic cipher for his own creative identity to evolve. In a 2005 chat with Brian Cronin at CBR, Wood commented that he had no real desire to revisit POUNDED and had moved on: “My old stuff was all ‘zine-style punk rock stuff, almost exclusively... but now I have a lot of different methods in my toolbox.”
FIGHT FOR TOMORROW (2003, DC/Vertigo): FIGHT FOR TOMORROW’s lead character, Cedric, says that growing up in the fight camps under the brutal supervision of his captors “taught me how to be a man” and “taught me how to fight.” Yet he hates them for making him who he is as a person; he hates them for imposing that identity upon him without his consent. And so, FIGHT FOR TOMORROW is immediately the story of Cedric attempting some redemption for his actions, and of trying to find his lost love Christy. In a larger context it becomes his quest to define himself, to take on an identity through choice, not by default due to his oppressive surroundings.
One secondary story trait involves the fairly strong presence of New York; there are mentions of The Bowery section of the city, a lot of influence of the local Triads, and it almost seems to be some twisted cousin to the environment that Wilson inhabits in DMZ. There’s a bit of generational tension with “Little Brother” hanging out with the wrong crowd, and Cedric tries to prevent him from assuming an identity that mirrors Cedric’s own. The underground fight rings are a subversive sub-culture themselves, and it’s also interesting to me that sometimes collaborator Nathan Fox did the cover to issue four.
In FIGHT FOR TOMORROW, identity is a commodity and was literally for sale in order to survive. Cedric sells his life story rights to escape the fight camps, seeking to replace it with something more meaningful. Part of Cedric’s identity seems to be missing without Christy, and when he finally finds her, he must learn to let go of his past persona in order to be someone new, letting her go in the process. Cedric must fight this system of oppression so that he can create a healthy new identity and a bright new future. He must FIGHT FOR TOMORROW.
VAMPIRELLA/WITCHBLADE #1: BROOKLYN BOUNCE (2003, Harris Comics): I admit that I didn’t buy this when it came out in 2003 and wasn’t even aware of its existence until I consulted a Brian Wood bibliography in preparation for this project. I’ll also admit that I expected it to be absolutely awful based solely on the reputation of the characters involved. It was surprisingly ok-ish, and it was curious to see how Wood would handle the project, since he so rarely takes on company owned characters, let alone ones with such a cheesy reputation. Purely visually, Steve Pugh’s pencils improved in the three years or so between this and his GENERATION X work. And hey, the copy I was lucky enough to find in a $1 bin (shout out to Jamie at SoCal Comics) had a swanky Mark Texeira cover.
On the narrative side, if you squint really hard you can start to make casual connections between this and the rest of Brian Wood’s body of work. The book does star two relatively well written female characters. And umm, it is called “Brooklyn Bounce,” so it’s about New York to some degree. Wood laces the dialogue with some NYC references to commuting across the bridge to Bay Ridge, for example. The link to our primary theme of identity is not extremely overt, but I think you can make the case for a light connection. This is a fairly standard team-up book, in that the headlining characters meet and initially mistake each other for the enemy, fight briefly as is the tradition, and then join forces to take on the true foe. The book is told from the POV of Sara Pezzini, aka: Witchblade, and to some degree she questions her role and who she wants to be in this adventure. Is teaming up with Vampirella the right thing to do? Does her alliance with Vampirella generally support “the good guys” or “the bad guys?” She openly wonders whether or not she should arrest Vampirella in her police officer persona, or let her go as she does, because knowing there is someone else out there like her makes her feel less alone in her Witchblade guise.
So, we arguably have a thin use of the primary identity theme, and then paper thin use of the two secondary traits of New York and well written females. I don’t personally think it’s that big of a deal if the VAMPIRELLA/WITCHBLADE: BROOKLYN BOUNCE one-shot doesn’t fit the typical Brian Wood schema strongly since it’s so divergent from the typical body of work. If something like DMZ or LOCAL dropped out of alignment, then that would be a strong counterexample. If this is a deal-breaker for you that this one little anomaly tends to stray a bit, that’s just something you’ll have to reconcile on your own. Let’s move on, shall we?
DEMO: VOLUME ONE (2003, AiT/Planet Lar & DC/Vertigo): I think the basic pitch for the original DEMO series was essentially residual energy from Wood’s brief stint at Marvel Comics writing GENERATION X. If you look closely, it’s basically him wanting to tell more realistic and reimaged X-Men stories, without the X-Men, without any superheroic trappings, and without actually uttering the word “mutant.”
DEMO: VOLUME ONE is a garage band mix-tape of isolated stories about teens manifesting weird powers and abilities, then having to contend with whatever emotional or physical fallout ensues. They’re self-contained and none have any bearing on the next, other than the common unifying theme of the identity crisis surrounding the characters portrayed. Physical manifestation of these latent adolescent abilities really acted as a tangible representation of the social anxiety and awkward malleable sense of identity that every teen experiences to some degree.
Wood is aided by recurring collaborator Becky Cloonan, her own malleable art identity at play; always in black and white, but every issue exhibits such a diverse range of experimental artistry. It’s easy to get lost in the intense stories and track Cloonan’s tonally shifting art style, so that you almost miss Wood’s deliberate subversion of the genre. He is modernizing and sublimating a humongous property, the UNCANNY X-MEN(!), one that’s been widely accepted in the mainstream world, and he’s successfully upending it right there in broad daylight in a way that nobody previous had attempted for the 40 years since its inception. I’m resisting rambling on more about DEMO: VOLUME ONE because its virtues have been extolled and its sense of experimentation and revitalization of the genre have been generally praised around the interwebs for years now. It is certainly one of the crisp highlights in a terrific career.
In some ways, this was a quiet coup d’état; in others, it was a bold proclamation to the world – a writer named Brian Wood had arrived.