THE BRIAN WOOD PROJECT (Part 8)
PART 1 – INTRODUCTION & OUTLINE OF WHAT’S TO COME
PART 2 – THE UNIFYING THEME OF IDENTITY
PART 3 – TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE EARLY YEARS (Part 1)
PART 4 – TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE EARLY YEARS (Part 2)
PART 5 – TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE MODERN PERIOD (Part 1)
PART 6 – TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE MODERN PERIOD (Part 2)
PART 7 – TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE POST-MODERN PERIOD
RESTATING THE PRIMARY THEME & CATALOGUING SECONDARY TRAITS
If you’ll indulge me while I restate the obvious, it seems fairly well established that identity is the unifying theme of Brian Wood’s entire body of work. I’m a visual learner, so I thought it would be fun to try and put this into an outline format, list all of the secondary traits we’ve been able to identify, and then try to see how (or if) the evolution of the periods I’ve created line up.
1) IDENTITY = Primary Unifying Theme (Required Element)
2) SECONDARY CHARACTERISTICS = Supporting Themes or Traits (Optional Elements)
- THE ARTISTS! I’m a writer so I naturally gravitated toward writing about the writing, but I don’t want to give the artists short shrift in an intensely visual medium. One of the most obvious characteristics that I’ve barely touched on has been Brian Wood’s consistent collaboration with a roster of amazing artists. This isn’t a story theme obviously, but it’s an intrinsic part of the holistic Brian Wood experience. For the most part, these artists are up-and-coming talents, dealing with creating an identity even for themselves, a professional one. With relatively rare exceptions like Croatian phenom Danijel Zezelj or the occasional pin-up from a veteran like Dave Gibbons, who have both been working successfully for some time, Brian Wood’s artistic collaborators are not extremely well known or considered “hot”’ by whatever inane standard Wizard Magazine would judge by. Let me just list off a few to demonstrate: Becky Cloonan, Nathan Fox, Riccardo Burchielli, Ryan Kelly, Vasilis Lolos, Brett Weldele, Davide Gianfelice, Kristian Donaldson, Steve Rolston, and Rebekah Isaacs. Many of these artists have become recurring collaborators as well; people like Ryan Kelly and Becky Cloonan have collaborated on multiple projects over the years, positioning their artistic quality as yet another recurring trait amid the body of Brian Wood’s work.
- WELL WRITTEN WOMEN. I hesitate to use the standard verbiage “strong female lead,” which is deceptively limiting to what’s actually occurring. Simply put, not all of the females are classically “strong,” and not all of them are necessarily the leads in the stories they reside in, but they are all written extremely well regardless of their adjectives. It’s also important to note that this isn’t a mutually exclusive category. All of his characters are well written, but not all of his characters are women. As one counterpoint, Matthew Roth is written incredibly persuasively, running the gamut from pathos to logos, if you want to invoke classic Greek communication modes. My point here is that whether it’s Jennifer Havel, Special, Pella Suzuki, Megan McKeenan, Riley Wilder, or Gem Antonelli, what you can be assured of is that when a woman does appear as a character in a Brian Wood joint, she will be extremely well written and avoid many of the clichés associated with “gender as identity” as seen in typical and more mainstream comic book fare.
- NEW YORK CITY. It’s not coincidence that New York pops up in multiple Brian Wood books. When it does, there is at a minimum a feeling of insider knowledge of the city, and at the most intense, a palpable love for New York. Brian Wood isn’t just infatuated with it in a wide-eyed childlike sense, but proud of its citizens, culture, cuisine, resiliency, and the identity of a shining beacon that it represents to the rest of the world. In so many ways, New York is The United States. For many immigrants, New York was The American Dream. He’s proud to be a New Yorker. When you peel away the human character arcs and the contemporary political discourse, DMZ is a big love letter to the city, which rises to prominence as the book’s principal character. THE NEW YORK FOUR couldn’t make it any more obvious: “New York City. It awes me into silence sometimes.”
- BILDUNGSROMAN. It might initially sound like a difficult reach, but if you liked Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS or that brand of coming-of-age story, then don’t let the jump from the quotidian indie autobio scene to the more mainstream trappings of an indie insider scare you, because you’d like quite a few Brian Wood books as well. I’d say that SUPERMARKET, LOCAL, and THE NEW YORK FOUR are probably the strongest, most palatable examples of this dynamic for potential newcomers to this writer, but there are certainly elements of youth culture maturation in all of his work. DMZ has it in Matthew Roth’s story, various arcs of NORTHLANDERS possess it, it’s all over both volumes of DEMO, and even something masquerading as a superhero book, DV8: GODS & MONSTERS, has traces of it.
- GENRE SUBVERSION. It began almost immediately in his career; there is always the sense that Brian Wood will flex any given narrative to tell the moral and thematic story that he wants to tell, regardless of whatever characters or setting he happens to be working with. Give him Marvel’s Mutants and he will create a rich subtext of generational tension and youth identity in GENERATION X. Give him the bold hook of a US Civil War, and he’ll show you a boy grow into a man within the DMZ. Give him free reign to highlight the vibe in different cities, and he’ll show you a girl grow toward womanhood in LOCAL. Give him swords and Vikings, the mother daughter duo of Hilda and Karin, and he’ll give you the emotional depth of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in NORTHLANDERS. Give him washed up gen-actives from an expiring imprint, and he’ll give you an identity laden deconstruction of the superhero genre in DV8. His work transcends its most obvious origins and sublimates the most commonly used tropes to become something entirely different and defy predictable audience expectations.
- MARCH OF PROGRESS. I was originally going to title this secondary trait “generational conflict,” because I think the meaning is a little more intuitive, but I also think it’s too limiting. The broad sweep of The March of Progress can create all types of cultural conflict and social tension, the generational variety being just one example. Brian Wood has alternately used “the old” vs. “the new” sequential progression as a loose mechanism to create tension between technologies, religions, generations, families, societies, and all manner of paradigm clashes that impact the lives of his protagonists directly. Due to the flexibility of its cast and structure, NORTHLANDERS is probably the best example of condensing many of these conflicts into just one book. There is frequently discussion of “the old ways” (in some cases that exact phrasing) clashing with whatever the influx of current social trends is.
This probably isn’t an exact match up, but I thought I’d take a stab at it. Looking back at the periods, it seems that THE EARLY YEARS utilize the identity theme more subtly and then marks these initial works primarily with strong high concept hooks (CHANNEL ZERO) and genre subversion (DEMO: VOLUME ONE), while laying the talent of an up-and-coming artist on top of it.
In THE MODERN PERIOD, we witness an increased reliance on that thematic thread of identity as a primary through line, there is still occasional reliance on the strong hook (DMZ) and genre subversion (NORTHLANDERS), and the plentiful supply of young fresh artistic talent remains. Wood then heaps on the secondary traits of the bildungsroman (LOCAL, NEW YORK FOUR, SUPERMARKET), the passion for New York City, the strong presence of well-written women, and clashing values vis-à-vis The March of Progress with an intensity not seen before. He also shifts to a very character focused model, favoring that narrative tool in the toolbox more than just the “shock and awe” of the plot-driven strong hook.
Closing things out (for now) with THE POST-MODERN PERIOD, we see Brian Wood using the primary theme of identity, and continuing to choose from his ala carte menu of reliable and multi-faceted secondary tools. He then takes this heady blend of professional hallmarks and begins to explore an elite pantheon inhabited by revered writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis. In short, we see an active deconstruction of the superhero paradigm, with some embedded meta-commentary on the industry’s most prolific genre.
I’ll see you in two days for the conclusion of THE BRIAN WOOD PROJECT.