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.
Not new in 2010 and therefore not eligible, but back in print for the first time in 10 years and worth buying: Cages.
#6: Brian Wood, DMZ Volume 8, Hearts and Minds
After years in the war zone that was once Manhattan, journalist Matty Roth’s bad decisions finally catch up to him in this volume. He makes one wrong step too many and loses his soul. Along with Northlanders Volume 4, The Plague Widow, this book cements Brian Wood as one of the best writing any kind of comic today. Also good from Brian Wood this year: the reissue of Local.
#5: Brian Michael Bendis, Scarlet
Brian Michael Bendis has given us the origin story of a revolutionary and promised us a revolution. We’re only a few issues in, but so far he hasn’t pulled back from that extreme commitment. I hope he never does.(I also wrote about issue #2.)
#4: David B. and Pierre Mac Orlan, The Littlest Pirate King
This late entry from Fantagraphics elbowed its way on here after I’d published the initial list. A children’s tale with a deeply messed up, traumatic ending and beautiful art.
#3: Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint
I hadn’t loved what Chris Ware had been doing over the last couple of volumes of Acme Novelty Library. Frankly, not many of his fans did. Read the self-deprecating product descriptions on his Drawn and Quarterly page sometime (“flat,” “slow,” “always dreary”). With Lint, though, he’s done something not only affecting but politically relevant by taking us inside the mind of a man something like George W. Bush.
#2: Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza
Joe Sacco wove together descriptions of present-day Gaza with accounts of two smallish war crimes from fifty years ago to create arguably the most important comic of 2010. Ten years after the Holocaust, young Jews act out a version of the same dark drama.
#1: Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura, I Kill Giants
Childhood escapes from troubled home lives into fantasy are hardly unexplored territory, but Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura executed this one perfectly. I called it the Bridge to Terabithia of comics and I meant it. (Also very good by Kelly this year: Four Eyes.)
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.