Brian Wood: State of the DMZ

Brian Wood: State of the DMZ

DMZ #40

One of the great things about comics is they provide creators a platform for creating entire worlds. The world Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, and others have created in DMZ is at times frighteningly like our own, but at the same time a work of the imagination impressive in its scale.

Now in its fourth year, the series has taken many twists and turns, created memorable characters, and introduced readers to tough questions about major issues of the day. Brian Wood took some time to answer some questions for Newsarama readers about the series, where it's been, and where it's going.

Newsarama: You literally threw a bomb at readers in the most recent DMZ, issue #40, and I think they'll be surprised and even shocked by where Matty is going. This wasn't such a direct ripped-from-the-headlines story...anything you want to tell us about where it came from?

Brian Wood: From the earliest days of planning this series, I knew there had to be a WMD story in there. That was such a hot topic at the time, it was a word on everyone's lips. I had some story notes and I think I had it planned for the fourth volume of the book. Then I finally got around to reading the end of the comics series The Losers, and oops, there was my story, right there. They beat me to it. So I shelved it. But in the context of the Parco Delgado story it seemed to have new life, new possibilities, and I wanted something for The Ghosts to do again, so here we are.

This is a far-reaching event in the story, probably one that will be there to one degree or another for the rest of the series. What I am most looking forward to, without giving too much away, is showing how Matty, with his newfound power and autonomy, is going to eclipse even

a nuclear bomb.

NRAMA: American readers are clearly going to see Parco as an Obama analogue even though the differences are fairly obvious. Are you trying to draw the lines sharper between them, or are you embracing the connections?

BW: If I am doing anything I am edging away from those connections. They surprised me at first... I hate to say it but the only thing Obama and Parco have it common, aside from running for office, is their skin color, and people should know better than to make assumptions based on that.

I feel comfortable saying this outright, especially as the “War Powers” storyline draws to a close: Parco is not a nice guy. He never was, he was always too conniving, too manipulative, too selfish, too much of a worker, a player. Greg Palast called him, what, a thug in a greasy t-shirt?

The question remains, though, is where he goes from here, especially with his new deterrent. Do you need to be a piece-of-shit thug to be a politician in the DMZ world (or in any world)? That's actually a pretty valid question.

DMZ #40, page 18

I hope no one out there thinks Obama is a street thug. The people who actually inspired the Parco character, the Chavez's and the Maliki's and the Chalabi's and the Sharpton's... now you're getting closer to the mark.

NRAMA: Do you feel responsibility to the message behind DMZ or to the story, first and foremost? Pedantic books can be boring, but it can feel almost irresponsible to ignore the issues in the world.

BW: I was just asked this in another interview, and it stopped me in my tracks, because what is the message behind DMZ? That sounds funny, coming from the creator of the book, but does the book actually have a message? I have my reasons for writing it, sure, but I don't think the book is trying to driving a single point home to any of you (other than, probably, "war is bad" but no one needs to be told that).

I don't think its a "the moral of this story is" kind of book. It's a big sprawling allegory set in an action-adventure world, and I think it's the sort of thing that people are going to find their own messages in.

I felt compelled to write this because, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, I had a lot of thoughts and opinions and somehow just writing them into a blog wasn't cutting it for me. If there was one thing we had enough of in 2003, was people online pontificating about the war.

But at the same time I had an editor, Will Dennis at Vertigo, asking me to pitch a book. I am not saying every writer should feel this obligation, but speaking strictly personally, I felt I shouldn't waste this opportunity to create a new series on something relatively trite. I felt I was lucky to have this chance, the platform to say something that a lot of people would listen to, and I didn't want to waste it.

NRAMA: I read your blog post about the things people said post-election, about DMZ being irrelevant now and how you see it as more relevant than ever. But DMZ does have a certain Bush-era feel to it—as I wrote, calling it the definitive Bush-era fiction—and as the mood of the country shifts, and (hopefully) Guantanamo closes and troops come home from Iraq, where will you go?

BW: It's my job, every day, to think of the worst case scenarios to current events, and it should come as no surprise that I am not so sure the mood of the country is shifting all that much, especially after we all come down from the high of the election.

Guantanamo might close, but we have probably at least another year of continued human rights abuses going on there. I seriously doubt troops will come home from Iraq anytime soon. Even if they do we have a President who seems eager to expand war in other places.

DMZ #40, page 19

The optimist in me, the one that's there when the pessimist clocks out for the day, that optimist hopes I am wrong, but I kind of doubt it. We don't have a liberal or a progressive in the White House, we have a moderate Democrat who likes to cut a deal. I have no doubt things will get better, but by how much? Will we be able to get back to pre-Bush status in this country? And was that really all that great, back then?

Anyway, if I am right or if I am wrong, it really only has a marginal affect on DMZ, which was kind of the point I was striving for in that blog post you mentioned. While it's true that DMZ would not exist if 9/11 and the Bush Administration hadn't found love with each other, I'm not sure my book needs them anymore to stay topical. Or rather, taking Bush out of the equation doesn't lessen how topical it is.

NRAMA: I see the complaint often about your books that your lead characters are "unlikable," but this to me is an important quality of your work—you give us characters who screw up, repeatedly, learn from their mistakes, make clear choices, and have complicated responses to complex situations. Matty in particular is not much of a hero, and now more than ever we're seeing him make some decisions that seem very obviously bad.

BW: I agree that a lot of my characters are unlikeable, and I think where I differ from the readers who would cite that as a negative is I find immense joy and pleasure, when I read other fiction, in enjoying a character in spite of it, rather than because it’s easy and obvious to like a likable character.

I would actually put forth that some of the great characters in pop culture are horrible assholes, real vicious sadists (Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Vic Mackie, etc... you see where I am going) so a naive screwup like Matty seems fairly easy to get along with.

But Matty, like you said, is not a hero, and he isn't an anti-hero or anything connected to a hero. He's a chronicler, first and foremost, and he's a young guy who trips and fumbles and is witness and instigator and pawn and target and scapegoat. He's the reader's eyes and ears, but I am not sure we are meant to love him, you know?

NRAMA: Matty as a journalist provides another layer to the "eyes and ears" metaphor. His job as a character as well as his job within the narrative is to tell the story, to record the story, and it's always been one of the more interesting things to me about DMZ to look at it not just as a story about war, but a story about war journalism. Now with Matty getting more involved with Parco, it's not as much a story about journalism anymore. He's becoming more of an actor and less of a chronicler.

BW: It's worth noting that while Matty may have at times played at being a journalist, and accidentally was one from time to time, he is not a journalist officially. Right off the bat we learn he was hired as an intern, a peon, never expecting to be anywhere but in a cubicle.

His sense of objectivity is nonexistent, he is constantly cutting deals and looking for shortcuts and getting too involved, thinking that his mere presence in the city makes his voice important . Come to think of it, this may actually be some kind of semi-subconscious commentary on how I see the news media, and, as you say, the blogosphere and the pundit class.

NRAMA: The biggest fear for so many of us now isn't external threats, it's the economy. Any plans to deal with these issues in DMZ? (Of course, it's rather tough to do so in a book set in a place like the DMZ, but in early issues of the book there were lots of references to sustainable living that the residents were forced into, not out of high-minded "green" concerns but because it was how they had to live.)

BW: Probably not. DMZ as a series is more or less planned out from now until it ends, and like you said there is not an easy place to insert this stuff. There is no bogeyman in the economic crisis, or no one bogeyman, anyway. People in the DMZ have bigger things to worry about.

I've been flirting around the notion of money all throughout the series, implying there is money but it's next to worthless, to clarifying that, okay, currency may be worthless but there is something still to be said for precious metals, but at the end of the day if you can't fill your stomach with it or heat your house with it is probably not worth all that much. I think there is still a story to be told, there, somewhere.

NRAMA: Certainly with the Chinatown Gold storyline there's still an implication that money is required for power, as money changed hands from Wilson to Parco to the Ghosts. Parco described his need for money as a way to win respect from the outside world, but I think what he bought with that money sends a powerful message as to what money is used for and its limits.

BW: Sure, a half ton of gold talks in any situation, and that sort of "money" is why we have conflict diamonds funding wars. In the Wilson one-shot, though, he talks about dollars, paper money, being so close to worthless that he can scoop it up and stash it for future use, and amass enough of it to blow on pointless stuff like a brand new tank.

Parco needs his cash infusion primarily to shore up his immediate support. He's got a small security force and for all his populist appeal, control over a very limited part of the city. He is constantly moving, presumably for safety reasons. First up he needs to buy breathing room from his immediate rivals, the local leaders. And the bomb. . . well that's for the benefit of the outside world.

NRAMA: I love Wilson, and a few people I've talked to about DMZ have expressed the same sentiment to me. I'm guessing that he's not going to sit back and just let Parco walk off with his money...anything you want to tease us with on that front?

BW: Wilson's stated upfront that his aim, when all is said and done, is to "own" the city, so it's safe to say he's got plans of his own. But he is a last-man-standing kind of player and is biding his time.

DMZ #41

NRAMA: Zee is coming back for an issue of her own. My reading of Zee has always been that she is the DMZ. That as Matty grew more in tune with the city he lived in, he grew closer to Zee and finally she allowed him in, and when he started to sell out his principles, the city rejected him. That seems even clearer in the last issue, with the hazy vision of Zee out the car window. Talk to me more about Zee and where she's going.

BW: Zee really needs a larger role in the series and its something I have always struggled with, more so as more and more people tell me she is their favorite character. She was originally meant to function in the role you just described, a character for Matty to push back against, but I don't think that's enough. It makes me a little sad because I am not sure I have the space or the time to do her justice, but with DMZ #41, I am starting to try a little harder.

"The DMZ", meaning the concept, is just so huge, and even 6 years of 22-page chapters is not enough to hold all the stories I could write. Not sure what to do about that, since the book cannot run forever, and actually I think it has a sell-by date (unconnected to current events). I have a couple ideas for side miniseries and special one-shots, and I hope I can talk to Vertigo about doing some of them. I have one idea called "The Battle For Broadway" that won't go away, and Riccardo and I want to do something DMZ in black and white.

NRAMA: I remember hoping, after Zee and Matty got together, for you not to make her "just the girlfriend." And especially as Matty heads down the road he's chosen, Zee seems necessary as a foil for that and as someone the readers can hang on to.

BW: In #41, the Zee one-shot, we get a glimpse at what is probably some serious psychodrama on her part. Zee's always been so aloof, her facade firmly in place, always knowing what to do, always with the scorn for others. While it's good she eventually gave Matty the boot for his shenanigans, we can kind of start to see why she put up with him for as long as she did.

NRAMA: Nikki Cook is drawing that issue. Can you tell us something about working with her, and with the other artists who've done DMZ stories in between Riccardo's work? Did it mean something to you to have a woman draw this story?

BW: It doesn't mean anything, really. I think it would be a little annoying of me to say, "Well, this comic is about a girl so I guess I need to go get a girl to draw it.” Nikki would have beaten the shit out of me if she thought that's what was behind it.

I've wanted to work with Nikki for ages, she's a great artist with great storytelling skills, and after a couple false starts on other things, the timing just worked out for this one. I'm sure it won't be the last time we work together, either.

Riccardo is my co-creator and obviously the guy who created the look of DMZ, but I always like working with guests, both just for the fun of it and also because it makes the series that much richer for the readers. Looking at Vol. 4, which has four artists working on the same story, really creates something much more than the sum of its parts. I'd love to do something like that again, but coordinating it was. . . not easy.

NRAMA: Is there anything you'd change about the series, looking back on it now?

BW: A million things. Mostly structural stuff, though. I know the series has warts and all like all books do, but I try and make an effort to look forward more than I look backwards. I've written a 900-page novel called DMZ and I am not even 2/3 of the way done. Hard to beat myself up over a few details when I've accomplished so much already.

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