9.22.2010

THE BRIAN WOOD PROJECT (Part 5)

In case you missed it;

TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE MODERN PERIOD (Part 1)

If DEMO: VOLUME ONE capped THE EARLY YEARS of Brian Wood’s comic book career, then I suppose I’ll call this next era “THE MODERN PERIOD.” Wood churns out multiple series during this time frame with a gleeful sense of productivity, pitching and launching new series as he seems to be stretching his own artistic muscles and experimenting with different genres. It’s interesting to note that THE EARLY YEARS ran from 1997 to 2003, a total of six years, and included nine works. THE MODERN PERIOD as I’m about to define it, runs from 2004 to 2010, also six years long, and oddly enough, also contains nine works. THE MODERN PERIOD, as you’ll see, is marked by character focused dramas and coming-of-age style bildungsroman stories. Perhaps this is a newfound emotional maturity that’s been aided by natural maturation and the additional life experiences of the writer at this point. Regardless of causality, it’s a clear distinction for this period of work.

THE COURIERS 02: DIRTBIKE MANIFESTO (2004, AiT/Planet Lar): DIRTBIKE MANIFESTO opens with a forced perspective shot that physically pulls you into Midtown Manhattan and Brian Wood’s New York City. In many ways, this edition of THE COURIERS is a transitional work that begins to place the theme of identity front and center, while shifting the other typical Brian Wood storytelling characteristics into their secondary roles.

Identity does play largely into DIRTBIKE MANIFESTO, but it does so in a more abstract sense. The theme isn’t centered on one character’s quest per se, but on the entire subculture that these types of street soldiers occupy in the larger saga. In this near future, the identity dilemma is that this world can actually exist, that these 22 year old messenger mercenaries and their youth culture have assumed a more violent reality. Their identity as mercenaries defines their code of ethics to some degree, as they pledge revenge for a fallen comrade. It’s important to note that this culture exists in complete disenfranchisement; it’s the functional establishment of an independent subculture of non-traditional organized crime. Not only does Brian Wood examine their identity as a slice of their generation, but he also subverts many elements.

It’s fun to see how the very idea of “hip” is subverted; Moustafa wears t-shirts with Menudo and The Dixie Chicks emblazoned on them, and drinks something that looks like Schlitz beer. If you asked a kid on the street today if any of those things were cool, they’d probably laugh at you, but these future characters are able to internalize a contemporary art process by re-appropriating found common objects, and subvert even the subtle decorative elements around them. As fashionistas will tell you, once you have mastered the rules of style, then you can selectively break them, and that creates your own personal sense of style. Simply put, Brian Wood’s characters have style.

Moustafa and Special’s quest promptly takes them upstate (though it’s still New York) and their presence functions as a lightning rod for social tension. The residents of Hicksville couldn’t wear their identity any more prominently than their town’s name suggests, and it’s not hard to see them as precursors to the Militia Movement that spawned the Free States of America (FSA) in DMZ. With their big trucks and “Osama Bin Laden: Wanted Dead” stickers adorning them, the rednecks refer to Moustafa as “swarthy city folk.” Their perception of him is that of a terrorist, though they seem to do just as much terrorizing and extortion. I couldn’t help but think of The Ground Zero Cultural Center/Pastor Terry Jones quandary here; classic “we-them” paranoia in full force, one group’s conservative civil liberties attempting to tromp all over another group’s emerging civil liberties, all in a misguided attempt to… protect civil liberties.

The book quickly transitions from a male centered story to a female focused tale. Special is the one with all of the weapons knowledge and skill, as demonstrated by the cut away rifle diagram and bullet cam, courtesy of artist Rob G. She is the more able of the duo. She is the worldly one. She takes center stage as an action star, supplanting the traditionally male dominated role. Special is the one in control at the motel confrontation and never cedes the power to Moustafa again.

With heaping doses of the subversive, cultural clashes center stage, and a strongly written female rising to prominence, THE COURIERS: DIRTBIKE MANIFESTO is ultimately Brian Wood playfully examining the identity of America’s evolving cultural and generational composition, and the resulting tension it creates.

THE COURIERS 03: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY FUNWRECKER (2005, AiT/Planet Lar): THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY FUNWRECKER completes the transition begun by DIRTBIKE MANIFESTO, away from the focus on high concept subversive hooks and makes the character first approach the primary concern. In this tale, Brian Wood hits rewind and addresses the origins of Moustafa and Special as our beloved mercenary courier duo. For our purposes here, “origin” is just another word for “identity.” By showing us how they met and how they rose to power, the origin story functions as a series of historical events that tracks their identity quest and ultimately informs their present identity.

Before I dive in, I’ll say that Johnny Funwrecker is an endlessly entertaining character. He’s like a demented, more comical version of something that would come later, like a protoplasmic version of Wilson in DMZ. It’s lines like “I give you lots of money and yummy food, you guard and shoot for me?” that really sing, with their broken English and no nonsense pragmatism. The Fox 5 news chopper buzzing the New York skyline also feels like some odd corollary to the oppressive vibe we experience in DMZ. It all plays like a precursor to the political clashes and formation of fiefdoms that DMZ exploits more thoroughly. Reading this a careful second time, I appreciated the way that Brian Wood doesn’t insult his audience. The law enforcement and New York acronyms like “OCD” and “LES” aren’t defined for us; they must simply be parsed in context. Wood’s secret identity as a closet foodie and his affection for the diverse cuisine of NYC is still in effect as well. At times, Special seems to be most concerned with the best babaganoush in town or the precise locations of the best street vendors, not the bullets whizzing by her head.

We learn that Moustafa began life as a grungy weed hustler and Special was a young adrenaline junkie bodyguard/driver who didn’t lose her cool when the shit hit. The subversion still comes in the small details, with Moustafa’s D.A.R.E. shirt, or his Mudhoney poster, or Special’s Travis Bickle shirt, but it really hits its stride with how Special is managed as a character. Even though she “scored through the roof” on culturally biased tests, her ultimate role as a leader rejects traditional gender identity. She’s concerned with the advancement of women in traditional organized crime and turns the typical ascension process on its head. Special is quite a strong female, and it’s worth pointing out that she’s not just some femme fatale window dressing love interest, but her very presence sublimates the archetypal male dominated crime stories we’ve been conditioned to. She is the protagonist. She is considered the more “senior” of the partners. She trains Moustafa and indoctrinates him into the Courier Clans. She’s in control. She’s the one who knows hand to hand fighting tactics. She’s the weapons expert. She knows the city. This is a carefully constructed character that reverses gender roles and continues the tradition of subverting common tropes in Wood’s body of work. Her character becomes more important than the plot or the hook, the character-driven vs. plot-driven paradigm has shifted fully.

We’ll see generational tension continue to grow as an undercurrent in Brian Wood’s output, but there’s a fantastic early example found in this volume of THE COURIERS. It occurs when Moustafa and Special visit his home and encounter Moustafa’s mom. The entire interaction occurs in just a single page and it’s one of the most concise and effective displays in the entire scope of Brian Wood’s work. His mom quickly dismisses Special in a biting ethnocentric display. It drives the generational tension and a cultural rift that fuels a large portion of the narrative and Moustafa’s entire character arc.

THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY FUNWRECKER is ostensibly about the demise of the prior generation’s crime boss, as he’s supplanted by a younger, more subversive, female protagonist. At its heart, it’s the story of how this pair of unlikely partners rose to prominence and the events and life choices that forged their identities.

And at long last, Wood solves perhaps the greatest mystery in THE COURIERS; we finally learn how Special got her facial scar.

LOCAL (2005, Oni Press): LOCAL takes a few twists, unexpected turns, and enjoyable digressions along the way, but at the end of the day, this is absolutely Megan McKeenan’s story about personal identity. She travels, she gets in over her head, she makes mistakes, she engages in a wide spectrum of social relationships – from healthy to downright dangerous, she learns, she grows, and by the time we return to her years later in issue 12, she finally has a sense of who she is as a person. Megan has learned to love herself and to be thankful for all of the different decisions along the way that formed her identity.

LOCAL seemed to start with the DEMO formula, with a series of loosely affiliated one-shots that would explore people and their different locales instead of people and their powers, but began to take on a life of its own. Megan began to recur, and then she took center stage, her own strong female personality imposing its will on the author. I remember arguing in single issue reviews that Megan was following the old writing adage of “characters writing themselves” and was pushing back on Wood, defending her rights as a sovereign creation. She wasn’t content to exist in a book that was also meant to be about other characters and their cities. She wanted the story to be about her, because she needed her fictional self to be further defined. She wanted her identity revealed. Megan’s dynamic is an amazing testament to the power of story and the power of creation. This interactive existential play rivals the type of myth manipulation, literary infusion, and fourth wall flirtation that Neil Gaiman became so well known for in SANDMAN.

The most obvious secondary characteristic is that it also features a well written female lead, but identity is the belle of the ball. It’s pure Brian Wood in that when you strip away the eye-catching window dressing of the hook and abandon the fun digression (like my favorite issue featuring the band Theories & Defenses), identity is easily seen as the strongest theme. There’s even one entire issue dedicated to Nanci Bai attempting to co-opt Megan’s identity from the souvenirs of her life, and the philosophical implications of that.

At the highest level of interpretation, LOCAL is about the way that every choice in life, every decision diamond on a flowchart, every divergent Robert Frost path less travelled or road not taken, leads you to the moment you’re at now. The only way to derive value from existence is to be fully present in each of those moments, and acknowledge that the journey is what defines you. The destination spots are merely brief pauses in which to take stock of the impact of the journey on our identities.

DMZ (2005, DC/Vertigo): As it nears its final year of publication, DMZ should go down as one of the best examples of early 21st century fiction, period. When you survey the creative landscape, it’s interesting to note that precious few comics have openly addressed residing in a post-9/11 world with any real sense of gravitas. Yeah, sorry, Spider-Man and Doctor Doom weeping at the WTC site doesn’t count. The other that sticks in my mind the strongest is Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ EX MACHINA, which closed the very first issue with a shocking hook about a superhero preventing just one of the World Trade Center towers from falling. As good as EX MACHINA is (a blend of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant THE WEST WING and an Alan Moore style deconstruction of the superhero paradigm), it is still very much rooted in fantasy. It’s got superheroic trappings running all over it and resides in an alternate reality where only one of the WTC towers fell, which immediately pushes itself out of our reality. DMZ fully acknowledges the events of 9/11 and then ventures forward into a not-too-distant future where the US overextends itself abroad, social unrest peaks, and a loose conglomeration of (mostly) “Red States” (for want of an easy identifier) attempts to secede from the Union as The Free States of America (FSA) and a Civil War ensues.

While it is perhaps the ultimate in Brian Wood high concepts for my money, he makes a smart choice to root the story in a character first approach. Functionally, this is very pragmatic since it provides the audience a relatable POV character, in an otherwise un-relatable setting, but it also allows Wood to once again adopt identity as a central theme. The story is ostensibly about The Civil War, but it is primarily the story of Matthew Roth, who is literally dropped into the DMZ of Manhattan, which separates the FSA territory from the remnants of the USA. Over the course of several years, Matty grows from being a green wannabe journalist into being a main player in the DMZ. It is the story of Matty’s quest to define himself, what he stands for as a man, and what his values are, all heightened by attempting to survive in a place where conflicting and shifting values are the norm. It should be no surprise by now that the notion of identity is a central philosophical tenet in DMZ.

In terms of secondary traits shared by other Brian Wood works, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is New York City. If you stretch the definition a bit, DMZ’s most important character is the city itself. I’ll forego a painful Batman/Gotham City analogy and simply say that DMZ is like Brian Wood’s big long love letter to the city. The city that is resilient. The city that will never die. The city who’s citizens’ spirits are indestructible. The city that will survive even when a war is being waged on its front doorstep. The city that will live on when forces threaten to destroy its rich culture and very way of life. You could probably take this a step further and say that not only does DMZ feature the theme of identity, not only does it exhibit the secondary trait of including New York, but there’s a third layer that blends the two; embedded commentary at play about Brian Wood’s own thoughts and identity as a New Yorker.

Note: Since we’re at the approximate half way point, I wanted to take a moment and remind everyone that THE BRIAN WOOD PROJECT is a 9 part series. We’ve just completed part 5, and part 6 will be posted on Friday 9/24. I’m posting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from Monday 9/13 until Friday 10/1. See you in two days…

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