Brian Wood is one of the industry’s best "recent" success stories, a creator who cut his teeth in indie comics (Channel Zero, Couscous Express), took a swing at superheroes (Generation X), and then finally found critical and commercial success telling his own stories, most recently at Vertigo.
In truth, with a dearth of new material from their early ambassadors and perennial favorites, Wood may be the face of Vertigo today. With three series currently on the publishing roster, he’s certainly producing more pages for the sixteen-year-old adult readers imprint than most anyone else.
Both of Wood’s ongoing series reached anniversary issues in February, as DMZ – which chronicles journalist Matty Roth on the ground in Manhattan during America’s second civil war – published its 50th issue. Northlanders, a series of independent storylines set in Viking culture, achieved its 25th issue.
Additionally, in February, Wood resuscitated one of his most popular and acclaimed indie titles, launching a new Demo series.
We caught up to Wood to quickly find out where each of his series stand at this point, and get a glimpse into what’s coming up.
The original Demo started off as done-in-one stories about super-powered young people, but as the series progressed, the supernatural elements quietly drifted off-stage, leaving human and personal dramas.
Wood says that people have always interpreted the fantasy elements in different ways. “That’s always been something interpreted differently, if or how the back half of the original Demo was supernatural, or superpowered. It’s clear I stopped making direct analogues like I did in the first 4 or 5 stories, but there was always something there. I think the only one that wasn’t at all was #11, the kids working the night shift at the supermarket.
“That said, these new Demos are all very clearly supernatural in nature, or at least how I define that to be. They are also classic Demo in the sense of having somewhat open endings and mercurial characters. I’ve been criticized for that plenty, but I truly believe it’s an essential component – it’s part of what makes the book was it is, and what makes readers relate to it in such profound ways.”
Demo marked the debut of Wood and artist Becky Cloonan as a creative partnership, and Wood acknowledges that renewing the collaboration is a huge part of reviving Demo.
“I love working with Becky,” he exclaimed. “She lives near me, and I see her often, so it wasn’t that much of a change working with her. I mean, I love her to death and love her work and we do get along well, but all that said it’s a very hands-off partnership. We stay out of each other’s way and out of each other’s creative processes. It works out great for us.”
Refusing to give too much away, Wood would only say of the upcoming second issue of Demo v.2 that although it does deal with what drives a socially challenged man toward stalking a woman, “it’s something else altogether – something pretty sinister. I think it’s already been said elsewhere and is not much of a spoiler … it’s a story about cannibalism. The rest I'll leave to the story itself to tell.”
As for the future: “Always, but just like with Vol. 2, the timing and circumstances have to be right,” said Wood of thinking about returning for a third Demo series. “We'll know it’s time if/when we all see it that way.”
DMZ, reaching its 50th issue, is fast closing in on the issue count of several of Vertigo's tentpole titles, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man (60 issues each) and Preacher (66). The accomplishment of his series lasting as long as those Vertigo standard-bearers is not lost on Wood.
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we started off with high hopes, of course, but it was almost scary to hope or wonder if we would make it this far,” he explained. “Speaking just for myself, I couldn’t even fathom such a thing – the longest single story I had written prior to DMZ was the 6-issue Fight For Tomorrow. The fact the book has shipped 50 issues, and that I am starting to write the script for #55 shortly is, to be frank, humbling. Especially thinking about all the excellent other series that have not made it this far. I still mourn the absence of Brian Azzarello’s Loveless, to name one example.”
Four years ago, when DMZ launched, the war in Iraq dominated newspaper headlines, the series focused on the survival of people in a war zone. As Matty has become more established in the system, DMZ has shifted to a home front/political serial, as similarly, newspaper headlines turned inward to the state of the United States.
Wood explains: “Yeah, we had to move past the everyday vignettes at some point and get to the central story, which for most of the series is Matty’s story, and specifically his rise and fall within the world of the DMZ. Current events, sure, they are and always have been a huge part of the book, from its original idea to a persistent background inspiration, and even at times making a direct contribution to the plot of a story, like in the “Friendly Fire” arc (volume 4).”
DMZ #50 is a collection of short stories by a range of artists, including series’ regular Riccardo Burchielli and newly-minted DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee, all telling stories Matty’s experienced in Manhattan.
“Always, with every book I write, I know who the artists are ahead of time and write the scripts different according to what I see is their strengths and weaknesses. Or what I know they like to draw,” Wood explained of his approach to scripting. “In the case of #50, I knew Riccardo was dying to show off his black/white artwork, so I gave him something visually moody so he could really play with the lights and darks.
“But as solid as Riccardo is,” he expanded, addressing the pros and cons of having guest artists interpret the world Burchielli has created with him, “I think it makes for a much richer world, in the DMZ, to have these guests artists in to flesh it out. Ryan Kelly’s take on the city, particularly, is impressive, and a high point for me in #50 was seeing Eduardo Risso draw Wilson.”
The 50th issue is designed to give new readers an immersive experience into the world of DMZ.
“Maybe. Maybe a little bit, as I do reference past characters,” Wood said of issue 50 offering nuggets to long-time readers, “but above all else I wanted a pure reading experience. The often-quoted ‘jumping on point,’ a special issue that even people who only read DMZ in trades and perhaps are not up to date even on those can read and not be lost or have anything spoiled. Timeless DMZ stories.”
Once imagined to run approximately 60 issues, Wood has revised his estimate of DMZ’s running length. “Probably more like 70 now. I revised that a year or so ago. I've mapped out the rest of the series and I'd be shocked if it was more than 70, 72 at the absolute most.”
Wood’s third Vertigo series, Northlanders, is, in many ways, similar and dissimilar to DMZ. Both deal with survival in borderline lawless society, but the Vikings in Northlanders do so without media or communications. It’s simply kill or be killed.
Despite the surface difference, Wood quickly became very aware of the thematic resemblances between his two series. “Yeah, the similarities at first were striking, and it was clear I was writing it that was subconsciously. DMZ is such a pervasive influence on my life – I’ve been living with that book to one degree or another since 2004, every single day of my life. It was bleeding into Northlanders, which was cool, but once I identified that, and as my continuing research on that book grew, I made the conscious effort to move the two books further apart. I didn't want to keep hammering home the same points, you know?
“There will always be comparisons to draw, because at their core the two books are about tumultuous, violent periods of history (one real, one imagined), but I just don’t want to connect those dots so neatly.”
Though a few critics have taken small umbrage with the historical accuracy of Northlanders, grounded the stories in ultra-specific facts was never part of Wood’s agenda.
“History always has to take a backseat to the story,” he explained. “If not, the story starts to suffer, starts to alienate the reader and I run the risk of sounding like I’m talking at the reader rather than engaging him/her.
“Ideally, the historical stuff, and my research, should be almost invisible to the reader. It's there, but it’s in support of everything else. It’s the rigging holding the scenery up.”
He added, “I strive for a high level of historical accuracy … very high, and I think I hit the mark way more than I miss it, and I generally know when I miss it. It’s a conscious choice when I do. I sometimes have to fudge history a bit to accomplish something in the story. But overall I have a lot of pride for what I do with that book. I kill myself doing research, and there is no one and no other book that does that.”
Northlanders #25 is the fifth chapter of the “The Plague Widow” arc, a story line revolving around a town beset by dangers from outside.
To no surprise, the antecedent for this story, despite diverging from Viking history, is obvious. Wood said: “I’ve been holding on to notes, for what seems like forever, for a story about the plague, the Black Plague. But I could never find a way to use it. So I broke down and absorbed it into Northlanders, changed it to an anonymous, more localized outbreak, and went with it. It’s not based on a specific historical event … in fact, I think this story is the least historical of all of Northlanders. Everything is invented. The stuff that is hardcore accurate, though, is the architecture in the story’s city, referenced directly from a recent trip to a recreated town in Norway, and the knowledge of sickness humans had at the time. I actually set the date of the story to coincide with the theories floating around the Middle East at the time regarding the transmission of illness. The character Boris, we can presume, has brought this information north.
“For this story,” he expanded, “what I wanted to do was write a survivalist horror tale, something that made use of the weather, and really amp up the human misery. I love winter, myself; I love snow and I love how snow can look in comics. Leo Fernandez nailed it. This story is turning out to be 100% of what I envisioned it as being. It’s perfect to my eyes.”
While DMZ is counting toward a conclusion within the next two years, Northlanders has no firm expiration date.
“Not really,” Wood said of any planned finale. “It’s not one single story, so there is no natural end point. I’d like to keep writing it for years, though, as long as I have stories. It’s the most enjoyable project I’m working on right now.”