Sunday, August 23, 2009

Beyond The Capes: DMZ

I thought I'd take a minute and recommend a comic book you might not read but really should. Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ is a a clever, dark and thought-provoking read from DC's Vertigo line of comics. I've only had the pleasure of reading up to volume six (following it solely in trades) but what I've read has blown me away. I'm not the first person to recommend it and I hope I won't be the last.

DMZ is both a social commentary, an heart-in-your-throat action book and the best comic book discussion about what the press should do (and what it actually does) since Transmetropolitan. This is not an easy, light-hearted read and nor should it be. In a country where people have started wearing guns to public meetings about health care, a story about a Second American Civil War tearing us apart should strike any American as maybe a little too close to home. In DMZ, the island of Manhattan has turned into a Demilitarized Zone, a place where the line in the sand between The Free States and The United States is held but continually shifts. What makes this book shine is that this isn't yet another story of soldiers at war - it's about the people trapped between the soldiers. The stories are of the ones just barely getting by in a warzone, the stories the news almost always avoids. DMZ is fearless enough to focus on people living their lives in a country torn apart, great and small, happy and miserable. All of this is documented through the P.O.V. of a young, inexperienced reporter named Matty Smith, who is unexpectedly and unwillingly stranded in the heart of New York City. His stories soon become fought over and occasionally edited without his control or consent by the powerful news corporations. He doesn't stay inexperienced or naive for long, instead becoming angry, frustrated and sad as he damn well should. Riccardo Burchielli's art is grungy and expressionistic but detailed enough that everything and everyone you read about feels painfully real, complimented perfectly by Jeremy Cox's muted but varied and expressive coloring.

A lot of people have held up mirrors to our society since the beginning of the so-called "War On Terror", notably Brian K. Vaughan with his heartbreaking GN Pride of Baghdad (and, one could argue, Y: The Last Man). DMZ doesn't just hold up a mirror to war, it is demanding enough to hold up a mirror to our mirrors. DMZ assaults the Fox News agendas and top-down policy dictations from the Government that shape the public perceptions of any war. Matty Roth, the protagonist, is occasionally powerless for all his access and insights. It's a hellish, frustrating read but all the same more noble for how occasional quixotic Matty's quest seems. Much like the character Zee - a med student who deliberately stayed behind when Manhattan got evacuated to tend to those who couldn't get out in time and Matty's initial guide to the DMZ - half the nobility of the character's quests are how futile they seem in the face of overwhelming destruction, hatred, blood and greed. At it's heart, then, DMZ isn't necessarily as story about how divisive, messed-up and painful America can be - it's about how people are strong enough to find hope in even the most horrifying of places. There is a one-shot story in DMZ about a graffiti artist called 'Decade Later' who risks his life for years to do just one thing in a warzone - make art. If you read that story and don't feel something, then I feel sorry for you.

In short, DMZ is an amazing, insightful read that I think people will look back on and read long after the history books close on us. Like the best fiction, DMZ will give future generations insight into our current troubled society to understand just who we are and exactly what the hell we were thinking. Also, well, it's just plain awesome. Hell, I had the pleasure of meeting Brian Wood at a recent con, got a signed copy of the first trade and have actually loaned it out to a friend the first chance I got.

Do your brain and heart a favor and give it a read sometime.

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