Vertigo recently published the twelfth and final trade paperback volume of Brian Wood’s DMZ, and since it was one of my favorite comics of the last decade I want to take a moment to look back over its history. And I want to open by saying something presumptuous: I believe I understand at least part of what Wood was trying to do maybe a little better than other people, because I believe I followed somewhat the same impulse in writing my novel Soap and Water.
Remember where America was back in 2004, the year when Brian Wood was conceiving DMZ. (It launched in 2005.) We were fighting two wars and more of us were beginning to wake up to the fact that at least one of those wars was utterly insane. George W. Bush was on his way to winning reelection despite the insanity of those wars and the revelations that Americans had abused prisoners probably with his knowledge—which would soon be confirmed, as we learned of the worldwide torture network he’d created. He was winning in a campaign in which neither side talked about these things: John Kerry tried to get America to give a shit about his completely irrelevant Vietnam heroism and licked his lips nervously a lot, while Republicans made fun of his Purple Heart, called him French, and put anti-gay measures on the ballot in swing states to draw bigots to the polls. It was a surreal, frustrating year in which politicians and news outlets seemed determined to ignore the biggest things America was doing.
Now, I know I am out of the mainstream. I protested the Afghanistan invasion from the start—perhaps the last protests I really joined—and was devastated when the bombs began to fall there. (FWIW: I thought we needed to treat bin Laden as a criminal rather than legitimize him as a warfighter, and send a targeted military operation to bring him to trial for murder rather than invading and occupying a whole country, which I thought could do no good. I still think that.) But by 2004 I know I was no longer alone in thinking we were mostly ignoring some truly horrible shit going on in our names.
My response was to write a repressive military occupation right into the heart of America, and so was Brian Wood’s. I think the initial motivating feeling goes something like: “Let’s see how you like it.” Which is less vindictive than maybe it sounds. It includes a desperate desire to make readers understand that Iraqis and Afghans are people, just like us, and to ask them to imagine what war would be like if it did happen to us.
I set my war out West; Wood put his in Manhattan, the city he inhabits and loves. It’s a war between “Free State” militias and the armed forces of the rump USA, and Manhattan is the no-man’s-land separating the two sides, Free Staters in Jersey City, the USA in Brooklyn. Into this danger zone Wood places Matty Roth, a journalism intern in his first day on the job who winds up alone, the only survivor of a news crew when it comes under attack. He goes to work in the DMZ with a camera, a mike, and a laptop editing suite.
I have written before about how Wood takes Matty step by step down his road of good intentions until in Volume 8 of the series, he finally damns himself to hell. Now that Volume 12 has wrapped up, I can say for sure that Volume 8 marked the climax, and everything since then has been denouement. Matty has been desperately trying to put things right as the USA has inexorably ground toward victory, until at last he settles for doing the job he was supposed to do from the beginning—documenting the DMZ for the public and posterity—and then gives himself up to the punishment he believes he deserves. It’s in a kangaroo court, and clearly he submits to be convicted of much worse things than he ever actually did, but he doesn’t fight it because it’s a punishment, which I guess is good enough.
See, in the end it wasn’t enough for Wood to condemn the base profiteering and stupidity of our two insane wars. He does that, most explicitly with a stand-in for Blackwater. But he also shows us the seduction of trying to manage violence to do good. Matty stands for the Paul Wolfowitzes and Thomas Friedmans, those crazed Wilsonians who thought we could set up a democracy in Iraq with a war and thereby transform the Middle East. Just like America in the most generous reading possible of our leaders’ motives, Matty gets in over his head trying to do the right thing.
It doesn’t matter if we were trying to do right, Wood wants us to understand. The deaths were real, and so is the guilt. The decent thing to do is not to demand to be understood, but to very humbly say sorry and slink away. Let the war zones rebuild despite our best efforts to help them rebuild, as Manhattan is beginning to do at the end of DMZ.