Body of a Journalist: Brian Wood Talks Life in the "DMZ"

Sometime soon, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, maybe in twenty years, there is going to be a second American Civil War. It will be fought between an anemic United States military and the assembled outraged citizens of America, the so-called Free Armies. The US will be pushed to the edge of the Atlantic, and after the initial hostilities the war will stagnate. One of the lines that will be drawn is in New York City, a town too big to be taken but also too big to be held. It's a frightening world we see every day on the news -- but with Americans as the ones running for cover. And you know we do everything bigger. The line will go right through Manhattan; literally a DMZ, populated only by the poor, the destitute, the angry and the insane.

Into that DMZ will go one of the world's most famous journalists and his intrepid news team. They will all be blown the hell up.

All accept Matty Roth, the naive and idealistic young intern. After a year of reporting in the DMZ with nothing but a camera, a cellphone, and an inescapable urge to tell the truth, Matty's landed the scoop of a lifetime: an interview with the leaders of the Free Armies themselves.

"DMZ" is created and written by Brian Wood, known for underground hits like "The Couriers" and "Demo," and illustrated by Italian artist Riccardo Buchielli. Since its 2005 debut, "On the Ground," (which CBR News covered in an article by Dave Richards), the Vertigo title has quickly become both a fan and critical favorite, earning props for its slice-of-life characters, scathing satire, quirky humor, evocative artwork, and its stark portrayal of every day life in a realistic urban war zone.

Volume 2, "Body of a Journalist" was released this month, and CBR News hooked up once again with writer Brian Wood to talk about the book, his return to comics illustration, and what real life personalities and events informed the compelling "DMZ" saga.

In "DMZ" volume 1, "On the Ground," we and America (such as it is) see through Matty's eyes and lenses that besides the "insurgents" and various other psychopaths running around, also living in post-Civil War Manhattan are some very real patriots, each trying to get on with their lives (such as they are) in the middle of a war zone. As Brian Wood explained, "In the first year, Matty's gotten insights into the culture of this New York, the factions controlling its different neighborhoods, what they eat and read and listen to, and broke a major story on his own, one that will secure his safety going forward and give him a lot more autonomy to pursue the stories he wants."

While all of his experiences in Vol. 1 "On the Ground" were shocking, frightening and often life-threatening, Matty's certainly a bit more at-home in "Body of a Journalist." "He has friends, a stable place to crash, and he's been accepted by the city to a degree," said Wood, referring to Matty's initial status as a kind of nuisance/n00b/celebrity during his first year in town. "Tolerated, more like it. The jury is still out as to whether he'll end up as 'one of them' or keep his outsider status. It takes any newcomer a decent amount of time before they can be considered a New Yorker, both in the real world and in 'DMZ!'"

Comfier as Matty may now be in his physical surroundings , Wood warns that readers shouldn't expect the young journalist's life to get any easier, or for that matter, any less endangered . "What gets dropped in [Matty's] lap at the start of this arc is going to put all of that to the test. For his first big story, it's just about as bad as it gets. In a very real sense, the future of the war, how it will go from that point onwards, is fully on his shoulders."

Placing that enormous weight squarely on Matty's shoulders are the leaders of the Free Armies, the men responsible for igniting Civil War II. Matty's status as an embedded journalist in the DMZ make him the perfect tool for them to communicate something to the other side, something very important. The details are crucial to the story of "Body of a Journalist," making it difficult to reveal too much about what exactly Matty learns from the Free Army leaders, suffice it to say that it - like the entirety of the "DMZ" series--will resonate loudly in the political climate of today, and has a lot to do with the eerily familiar relationship between the United States and Matty's employers, the odious Liberty News organization.

"Fox [News], yeah," said Wood. "Although I really took it to an extreme with Liberty News. In 'DMZ,' the legitimate government is so on the ropes, it's really -literally, even--pushed into a corner. It needs all the help it can get, and Liberty News is there to do its part.

"I intentionally blur the lines there, with uniformed military personnel on staff at the network, to create the idea that the government, the military and the media are one and the same."

While no single real-life event inspired the story of "DMZ" Vol. 2 "Body of a Journalist," Wood noted that the image on the cover of the bagged and bound journalist is one that we should all be familiar with, unfortunately.

The journey of Matty Roth advances at an exhilarating rate for what is just the second volume of an ongoing series. He begins as an intern-turned-journalist, advances to political pawn, and ends up by the end of "Body of a Journalist" as something some readers might characterize as a hero. Brian Wood has his reservations, though, feeling that neither term "journalist" nor "hero" is quite accurate.

"Matty's become a journalist by default, " Wood explained. "By accident, really. He's not Spider Jerusalem, a seasoned writer banging out these op-ed columns under contract, but rather a total rookie who lucked into this situation and is trying to make something out of it. In Vol. 2, I see him as being constantly on the defensive, being manipulated by both sides to their respective ends, and he's just trying to keep his head above water and avoid more spilled blood. Without spoiling the ending, he does make a decision that's neither very journalist or heroic, at least not in the way those words are most commonly used."

Of course, "DMZ" Vol. 2 "Body of a Journalist" is not all about guns, blood and hard news. What's really endeared this title to fans and critics are the stories "DMZ" tells between panels; the portrayal of a community trying to survive as their city is literally crumbling around them. Wood peppers the book's larger arcs with bits of back-story about the DMZ's origins and that of its fascinating denizens. Beautifully illustrated in a detailed yet heavily grungy style by Riccardo Burchielli, readers of "DMZ" become in minutes just as familiar with the neighborhoods and their inhabitants as if they were living in the DMZ themselves.

In "Zee, NYC," Vol. 2's penultimate chapter, guest-illustrator Kristian Donaldson collaborates with Wood to create the touching history of Zee, the neighborhood nurse-turned-medic and companion to Matty. We see in this flashback the story of the last days of old New York, when the war had reached the Big Apple and Zee was a med student working in an emergency room. Casualty after casualty came through the ER with stab wounds, gunshots and other assorted scars of a city choosing sides and tearing itself apart. When it became clear that the government's "plans" to evacuate New York's poor and underclass were laughably bad, Zee bravely decides to remain in Manhattan and provide medical care to her devastated community; New Yorkers turned refugees.

With so much action and information packed into "DMZ's" larger plots, there isn't much room for wholly character-based pieces like "Zee, NYC," although Wood hopes to create more in the future. "We will have more guest artists - including Kristian again [Donaldson and Wood collaborated on the IDW mini-series 'Supermarket']--and possibly more 'solo' issues, although not until sometime after issue #22, which is the end of the fourth arc.

"We're moving directly from 'Public Works' [Vol. 3, in production as of this writing], into 'Friendly Fire' [Vol. 4] with no solos in between. 'Friendly Fire' however, will be drawn by several different artists, handling different points of view Rashômon-style."

Also going solo in Vol. 2 "Body of a Journalist" is the remarkable short story "New York Times," with text and art by Brian Wood. Expertly designed and illustrated in Wood's trademark style, "New York Times" is a densely packed typografikal tour guide of the DMZ. Included are profiles of the community's various subcultures, factions, creative movements and colorful characters, along with the sort of street-level anecdotes and cultural outlook that has defined Wood's best work. This chapter of "DMZ" is the only full-length comic Wood has drawn since his breakout work, "Channel Zero."

"There have been a few more than just the back-up short in 'Demo,' but nothing longer than a half-dozen pages, so I tend to trace a pretty direct line from 'Channel Zero' to ['New York Times'] in terms of drawing comics."

Selection of "DMZ" covers by Brian Wood

Wood provides the evocative and occasionally brilliant covers for all "DMZ" books, a process that's seen him create more work on a more consistent basis than most fans are used to. "I've always drawn a lot," Wood said. "Just not so much for comics. I did a lot of layout work for the 'Grand Theft Auto' games - nothing you would ever recognize, just layouts and storyboards for the renderers--as well as editorial illustration for other clients, t-shirt work, CD covers and 100+ pieces for the Nike Shox campaign back in 2004.

"But drawing the 'DMZ' covers is different than any of that because it's ongoing and narrative in its way, a job that never really ends, which is a strange feeling for someone who started out in editorial illustration where you get an assignment, do one drawing, and that's it."

Among the characters profiled in Wood's "New York Times" short story are the city's remaining artists, musicians, restaurateurs, and "The Ghosts," ex-special forces troops who protect what's left of Central Park. They live in the zoo and take care of all the animals that survived the initial conflicts in the city, and nobody dares cross them. Also featured is Matty's friend Wilson, a peculiar old Chinese man and his army of grandchildren who have aided and protected Matty on several occasions.

The Ghosts, Wilson and his clan are the most uniquely Brian Wood flavors of "DMZ." All of Wood's best work has featured such bizarre casts, those underground DIY squads of insanely talented people who walk unnoticed among the rest of the population. This aspect of "DMZ" connects the book nicely to Wood's other NYC stories going all the way back to "Channel Zero," which itself was set in a politically devastated New York City of the future.

"I definitely think that the NYC I depict in all of those books are more or less the same, even with the war in 'DMZ,'" agreed Wood. "Not sure where that comes from exactly or why my subconscious works that way."

Indeed, in this respect "DMZ" may be the ultimate "Brian Wood Book;" a culmination of his seven or eight years of work up to this point. All his graphic design, photography, writing and illustrating- almost all of which mixes power politics with sidewalk culture and so-real-you-can-punch-'em characters-- have been building towards the inevitable result that is "DMZ."

While most comics offer escapism, "DMZ" offers in the guise of its high-concept premise nothing but reality . To flip through the pages of "DMZ" is to click through the channels of our real world 24-hour news networks. We see every day people around the world whose liberties and lives are sacrificed constantly by greater powers for the sake of political strength, financial gain, or abstract notions of justice. Only in "DMZ," the refugees and the insurgents are Americans. Blindingly relevant, true-to-life and more than a little inspiring, "DMZ" has become an all-time fave of most who've read it.   The title has been written up in the New York Times, Slate, Variety, The Onion, and, most prestigiously, the title was twice mentioned on CBR's staff lists of the top comics of 2006.

"I'm writing yet another deliberately NYC-centric book, an unannounced OGN that's not like any of these other books," Wood announced. "But will it be the same NYC?"

Besides that graphic novel, the future offers much more Brian Wood to be had. "Local" continues its run at Oni Press, and the creator's recently announced a new graphic novel he's writing for Top Shelf to be illustrated by Matthew Woodson. "Northlanders," Wood's Viking comic for Vertigo is presently in the early stages of production, as is a motion picture based on Wood and artist Rob G's cult "The Couriers" series.

"DMZ" is, one would think, the sort of high-concept project that would attract film and TV opportunities. When asked about any such prospects, Wood answered, "I get e-mails all the time from studios inquiring about movie rights, and I just forward them along to Warner Bros. [DC Comics' parent company], since it's their movie to make. I hope something happens, though."

"DMZ" Vol. 2 "Body of a Journalist" is in bookstores now.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Vertigo forum.

An Original Justice Society Member Just Went Full-Blown Evil

More in Comics