Sunday, November 9, 2008

DMZ: War, what is it good for?

It's never a good sign when you have trouble coming up with something to say about a book.  Hopefully this won't be a waste of everyone's time...

DMZ, volume 5: The Hidden War
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Riccardo Burchielli, Danijel Zezelj, and Nathan Fox (with colors by Jeromy Cox)



I've been following Brian Wood's Vertigo series about a war-torn New York City since the beginning, and it's been a consistently good title, covering issues about life in a war zone in a way that (hopefully) gets insulated, safe Americans to realize what it's like to have your life torn apart by death and violence.  For the first four volumes (or 22 issues), Wood focused on reporter Matty Roth, who covered the situation on the ground and ended up involved in some important events while trying to show the outside world how Manhattan's inhabitants survive living among constant explosions and gunfire.  But this volume sees a slightly different approach, almost completely sidelining Matty in favor of getting a glimpse into the lives of some other, more minor characters, some of whom have appeared previously and some who are new.  It's basically six one-shot issues, but taken as a whole, they delve into the lives and thoughts of these characters in a way that would have been impossible when sticking to the normal storytelling as filtered through Matty's reporting.  It's a nice change from the usual, and a good way to do a series of "breather" issues between major storylines.

The first story follows a graffiti artist who goes by the name "Decade Later".  He is still living in the DMZ, trying to keep creating art as the city crumbles around him.  We get some flashbacks to before the war, as he developed his art and philosphy and refused to join either side of the fight.  Eventually, the story seems to take a turn toward commenting on the unethical imprisonment of "terrorists" who may or may not actually have any involvement with actual terrorist activities.  It's an oddly-structured issue, and possibly the weakest of the stories here, but it has some effective scenes.  Regular series artist Riccardo Burchielli illustrates the issue, and he does a decent job, if not the best I've seen.  Jeromy Cox really adds to the atmosphere with the coloring though, especially in the pre-war flashbacks, which have a nice washed-out feel, as if those times were less "heavy" than the current violent atmosphere:



The second story follows Amina, the suicide bomber from the "Public Works" storyline that Matty "rescued" (which effectively cut her off from all support, since she couldn't go back to the terrorists and she refused to let him help her).  Since then, she has moved to the Bronx, and survives by running deliveries for local (wannabe) criminal bosses.  It's far enough from the main fighting to not be too dangerous, but she still has to watch her back.  She ends up getting caught up in a squabble between corrupt military and local gangsters, and it looks like no matter how hard she tries, she's not going to be able to stay far from the war for long.  She'll probably make more appearances in the series, but this is a good opportunity to get a glimpse at her thoughts, as she resents Matty for what she sees as condescension and naivete:



It obviously wasn't easy for her, as someone of Middle-Eastern descent in post-9/11 New York, and when she got stuck in the DMZ, she didn't have many options; considering the suspicion with which she was viewed by seemingly everyone, throwing her lot in with terrorists didn't seem like a bad choice.  It's definitely not something any sane person would endorse, but sanity isn't necessarily an option when you could die at any time.  This is the kind of thing that Wood does so well with the series: help us relate to people that might make inexplicable choices, while not glorifying or even approving of their actions.  He also makes the good point that people don't have the luxury of leaving the horrors around them.  Even innocent people, who might try to get as far away from the fighting as possible, will eventually be affected.  It's easy to forget, when we live half a world away from these countries, but when it's happening next door, there's always the possibility that the violence is going to find you.

We get an art change-up in the third chapter, with Danijel Zezelj illustrating the story of Chinese gang boss Wilson.  It's another fascinating tale, as we see how Wilson used the opportunity of the war to gain power in Chinatown and then act to cut it off from the rest of the city, creating a sort of ethnic safe haven for his own people.  He has "his people"'s best interests at heart, but how much of it is motivated by petty racial strife and pursuit of power and money rather than actual good will?  It's the sort of thing that happens all the time in war-torn countries, and once again, Wood does a great job of recontextualizing it so we can recognize it happening in a more familiar location.  

The art in this chapter also bears special mention; Zezelj has a really distinctive style, full of heavy shadows and moody atmosphere.  It works pretty well for the most part here, although the color doesn't always do it favors.  Cox mostly sticks to monochromatic colors, with lots of variations on reds and browns:



Which makes the occasional bursts of color all the more distinctive:



But, as can be seen in some of Zezelj's other work, he probably looks best in simple black and white, and a scene in which an explosion takes place demonstrates that especially well here:



It might have been a risk, but I would have loved to see the entire issue done like that.  That's beautiful stuff.

The next chapter is the most Matty-centric one in the volume, as it deals with the death of his sometime-girlfriend Kelly, a reporter for a Canadian TV network.  As with much of the rest of the book, it's striking stuff, as we see her body on the first few pages (along with Wood's beautiful cover of the issue) and then flash back to see the events leading up to it.  She was a driven woman, and as her pursuit of success increased, so did her desensitization to the horrors around her, culminating in a scene in which she photographs an abandoned child without even seeming to realize what she was looking at.  It's harrowing stuff, seeing the deadening toll that exposure to constant violence can take, and what happens when she realizes this and takes action to deal with it is horribly sad.  As with the rest of these stories, and the series in general, Wood does a great job giving his characters real emotions, making them human in an all-too-realistic situation.

The next chapter might be my favorite, at least on the artistic front, since the excellent Nathan Fox steps in to illustrate the story of a young DJ hoping to make his big debut in a DMZ nightclub.  Unfortunately, he gets bumped in favor of a popular DJ from Japan who is coming into the city to make a live recording.  It raises the issue of exploitation of people's suffering, as when celebrities try to make some statement about helping people but are really just aggrandizing themselves.  Looking at it from the point of view of the people being helped/exploited, it's horribly condescending, and that feeling breaks out into violence here, as it seems to in every issue.  It's a nice little story; that is, it's a good comic, if not an especially happy experience.  But it does have some really good art; I love Nathan Fox's style.  He throws in a lot of detail, but makes the storytelling as clear as it should be, whether capturing emotions and gestures:



Or splashing some glorious, chaotic violence onto the page (I especially like the streaks of color that follow moving sources of light):



Finally, we get a story about Soames, a member of the Free States army, which is fighting an insurgency against the United States.  I don't believe he has appeared in the series before, but this seems to set up some future appearances.  Here, he deserts the army after becoming disillusioned with their hateful mindset.  He ditches the boat that they take into Manhattan, and then he strikes out across the island, hoping to defect to the other side.  On his way there, he gets wounded and ends up feverish, hallucinating that he is hunting in the wilderness.  Burchielli turns in some of his best art in the volume, especially in a splash page in which Soames imagines that he is laying in the midst of a field of animal skeletons:



Eventually, he decides that he can't identify with either side enough, so he stays in the DMZ, probably destined to show up later at some point.  The story ends up being an interesting look at the war zone from the perspective of an outsider.  There's no sign of life in Manhattan, outside of the people shooting at each other.  Soames is amazed that anybody actually lives there, since simply travelling across the island nearly kills him.  Hopefully, we'll get to see how he adjusts to living in this inhospitable territory.

So overall, this volume ends up being a really good respite from the usual examinations of geopolitics, complicated military conflicts, and ethical quandaries of its young protagonist.  While Matty Roth is a good lead, it's nice to get a break from him and see life in the DMZ through the eyes of some of its other residents.  I look forward to seeing what large-scale conflict takes place next.  Brian Wood really has a great book here, and I hope it continues for quite some time.