Usually I try to write about new comics, but Brian Wood’s latest trade paperback volume of DMZ is remarkable enough to warrant comment. Long series can flag in their later volumes—see Preacher, for example, or the last couple flaccid books of Ex Machina. But in Volume 8 of DMZ Wood has put together his finest story of the series, one that’s all the more remarkable because to do it, he completes a slow transformation that’s been underway since Volume 1.
Our hero Matty Roth is an accidental war journalist reporting from the area that used to be called Manhattan but is now known only as the DMZ, a contested zone between Free States militia–controlled New Jersey and USA-controlled Brooklyn. He’s risked his life to broadcast important exposes on the mercenaries of Treadwell (a Blackwater/Halliburton hybrid), and given voice to the beleaguered remaining inhabitants of a ruined city. A couple of volumes ago he decided he wanted to step off the sidelines and try to change things for the better, and threw in with first the candidate, then the newly elected mayor Parco Delgado. Many of his friends in the city have been suspicious of this new path, and especially suspicious of the new mayor, but as Matty has come to feel like a resident of the DMZ, he’s come to believe he needs to take action on its behalf—and we readers have sympathized.
But in Volume 8 Matty’s new path causes him to finally, decisively lose his soul.
The volume opens with an overture, the story of another man losing his soul. A cop wracked with grief over the death of his family in the civil war joins a cult that turns him into a bandit, then a murderer, and finally a suicide bomber.
It’s a miniature of Matty’s tale: mistakes made in reaction to strong emotions build each on the one before, until it becomes almost unthinkable for the man to admit how wrong he’s become. In Matty’s case, those bad decisions have been piling up for several volumes, and now that he’s taken to going out with armed men, fighting the U.S. government’s violence with violence, he’s in a position to give an order that gets innocent people killed. That he does it in haste and accidentally is clearly no excuse.
This progression is all the more effective in that I, at least, never saw it coming. I was on Matty’s side all along, believing in his rationalizations for his actions. And then all of a sudden we see how wrong he’s been, and for how long.
For all its postapocalyptic, sci-fi overtones, DMZ has been praised by many as a comic that does more than almost any other to bring the reality of war to its readers. This latest change in Matty is perhaps the most audacious effort in that vein to date.
It’s one thing to show us soldiers and tell us that war has changed them, as, for example, Garth Ennis does in his many War Stories books. Or even to present us with a nominally innocent character and then immediately show him being changed, a kind of origin story that is fated to happen so that we can get to the character in the state we’re going to know him for most of his story.
It’s quite another to introduce an innocent character into a war zone, invite the reader to identify with him, and then slowly, over the course of years of serialization, show him evolving into a kind of monster.
I wonder to what extent Wood had this in mind from the beginning. I certainly want to see where he plans to take it from here.