Stuck in a paranoid and frightened quest to crush it's enemies abroad, the US government forgot about the thousands of armed militias that reside within America's borders and the unthinkable has happened. These militias have rose up and America is in the grips of a second civil war and the once bustling metropolis of Manhattan is now a no-mans land and the site of vicious fighting. This is the premise for "DMZ," a new ongoing series from Vertigo that launches today by writer Brian Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli. CBR News spoke with both Wood and Burchielli about "DMZ," a series that gives new meaning to the lyrics, "If I can make it there I can make it anywhere."
The idea for "DMZ" has been percolating in Wood's imagination for quite awhile. "I've been a resident of NYC for a long time, around 13 years, not counting my 18-month time away on the west coast," Wood told CBR News. "Spending every day for 13 years in the city would give anyone a lifetime of story ideas and 'DMZ' is exactly that: city stories, but amplified. Setting them in a war zone just amps up the intensity, the stakes, the emotion, the action."
The opening of "DMZ" drops the readers right into the thick of the war torn concrete canyons of New York City. "The war's been going on for years, and in fact it's reached a stalemate," Wood explained. "People are starting to lose interest, and its not front page news so much anymore. But what you do learn about it in the first issue, in broad strokes, is that Middle America, literally, has risen up out of frustration, anger, and poverty to challenge the government's position of preemptive war and police action throughout the world. It's left America neglected and unattended, and also unprotected, at least from a major threat within its own borders. Then isolationist and religious militias get involved and arm the people, and then it's suddenly the Second American Civil War. They push to the coasts where they're stopped, creating a no-man's-land in Manhattan, with the 'Free Armies' in Jersey facing off against the US Army in Brooklyn.
"The politics of such a conflict are a little weird," Wood continued. "Initial reactions to the news of this book have made attempts to paint it as a 'liberal ranting against the conservatives,' but that's not actually possible in this scenario. Democrats can be and are every bit as hawkish as Republicans in times of war, and anyway, the two warring groups in 'DMZ' are just extremists fighting extremists. Homegrown insurgents fighting an extremist government regime, and it's the sane, normal people of all political affiliations that are caught in the middle."
The United States of America might not exist as a whole in "DMZ," but the US Government still holds sway over many areas. "We can assume that Manhattan is not the only hot spot in the country, that similar sorts of lines have been drawn on the West Coast as well, although they don't play into the story, at least not initially," Wood said. "Matty [Roth], the main character, comes from Long Island, which is still very much The United States of America, but is under a media and security umbrella like nothing anyone's seem before, and its made him a very sheltered young person."
Growing up in sheltered Long Island means Matty is in for a very rude awakening when he enters the real world. "He's a college grad from Southampton, Long Island, a white kid who applies for an internship at the TV network his dad chairs the board at," Wood stated. "He's not political, or even socially conscious. He's a passive blank slate, a victim of mainstream culture saturation, and that's what makes him such a great personality for this story. He's experiencing an entire new world for the first time, one that's raging right next door to him, and we're along for the ride."
The internship Matty applied for will be a life changing one, just not in the way he expected. "An icon in TV journalism, a guy that's covered all the major conflicts of the last 50 years is heading into Manhattan to do a series of stories in hopes of jolting people back into being interested in the war, and to raise ratings," Wood explained. "Matty's a photo tech, the guy that's changing lenses and carrying equipment around and handing people coffees.
"But they don't get a half-mile into the city before the cease-fire breaks and the helicopters go down and suddenly Matty finds himself abandoned and alone in the city in the middle of an insurgent attack," Wood continued. "He hunkers down for the night, contacts his bosses in the morning, and arranges to be picked up and brought home. Without giving the ending away, its safe to say that events conspire to keep him in the city. He actually has a really unique opportunity. He's there in the DMZ, where so few reporters ever manage to go, with all this broadcast equipment and an expense account. He could stay and file stories and the network would probably run them. Exclusive material. But will he stay? He lacks the training and experience of a real journalist. How does that factor in?"
Once he's inside the DMZ, Matty discovers the brutal, frightening and violent realities of life in war torn Manhattan. "Think equal parts 'Escape From New York', Falluja, and New Orleans right after Katrina," Wood explained. "Manhattan is a city largely abandoned and the people that have stayed are the very poor who had no hope of fleeing on their own or being part of anyone's evacuation plan. A lot of snipers and insurgents have moved in and there are AWOL military who are hiding out. Add to that a whole mess of kooks and crazies and holdouts."
As he makes his way through the city, Matty will meet many of the "DMZ's" colorful cast of kooks, crazies and holdouts. "We immediately meet Zee, a nursing student who takes care of the wounded Matty and helps herself to a lot of his first aid supplies as payment," Wood said. "She becomes his unofficial minder and guide, showing him how to move around and where to go to not get killed, where to eat and where some good stories are. But she has a seriously healthy amount of distrust for any powers that be, and Matty is a walking symbol of government aggression, media bias, and ignorance, and they are often times butting heads. In the first arc you'll also meet some AWOL military kooks, engineering students who're trying to rebuild the city even as it's being bombed, Eco-terrorist crazies, and see a really great rooftop restaurant."
Joining Wood in chronicling Matty's experiences in the devastated Big Apple is artist Riccardo Burchielli. "Riccardo is an artist my editor, Will Dennis, hooked me up with," Wood said. "He's got this crazy detailed way of telling a story, his action is really powerful and I don't think I have ever worked with someone who has such an enthusiasm and drive to make comics (ok, except Becky Cloonan)."
"DMZ" is Burchielli's first American comic book. His work caught Will Dennis's eye when the editor was visiting a comic fair in Naples, Italy. The two began corresponding and Dennis asked Burchielli to submit some work for "DMZ." Burchielli, whose first language is not English, told CBR News, "[Will Dennis] contacted me at the beginning of this year and told me that it was possible to draw some trials for a new series approved at Vertigo and written by Brian Wood (who had meanwhile seen my works and was struck by the boards of 'Chourmo,' an old story of mine where I dealt with the graphic style of a military action theme).
"I think I fainted... I could never expect something like this could happen to me. Later on, once awake again, I started working at the first sketches and I drew a couple of trial boards, which I sent to Brian and Will together with some model-sheets of the characters," Burchielli continued. "Luckily they liked the artwork, and as soon as Karen Berger agreed, we started planning our collaboration."
Collaborating with Wood has been an enjoyable and rewarding experience for Burchielli. "The way he writes is very clear and simple and I rarely have trouble when dealing with the boards," Burchielli said. "And he's really quiet as well: he lets me set the board and choose shots and sequences with a lot freedom. We mainly debate about New York. I've never been in the States, least of all in New York, and this sometimes gives me some trouble when realizing the city and some processes of life in it. Anyway, he provides to me a lot of photographic reference and gives me advice about all aspects of New York life."
"DMZ" may be Burchielli's first American work, but he has not changed his style for his new audience. "I go on drawing like I've always done because this is the only way of drawing I know and I'm able to perform," said Birchielli. "I really like simplicity in the stroke and a graphic synthesis that sometimes takes its inspiration from the 'clear line' of the French comics and from some South American authors. I've always loved Juan Gimenez and Moebius. Of course, I'm a lot more nervous and excited (and thus more careful when working), both because I have to face a public I don't know that's much larger than the Italian one, and because I find myself working in the big world of American comics, which I was always amazed at as a reader."
Burchielli has enjoyed the creative freedom he has in bringing war ravaged Manhattan and it's inhabitants to life. "I have a lot of possibilities to give vent to my imagination thanks to the fact that the whole story is set in a city half-destroyed by war and thus the characters in it are less formal and stereotyped than in other stories of other genres," Burchielli stated. "I can put debris at any corner, I can invent buildings that don't exist yet, I can write whatever I want on walls and I can make the characters wear the strangest things."
The level of detail required for the military aspects of the book is really the only difficult part of "DMZ" for Burchielli. "The most difficult aspect, still speaking from the graphic point of view, is a kind of thoroughness I have to keep when reproducing all things belonging to the military world," he explained. "This is just because they need more time to be realized and be credible."
Burchielli particularly wants to bring to life the interesting cast of characters with his art on "DMZ." "I'd like to be able to reproduce with my art the true moral and emotional depth of the characters (all of them) appearing in the story," Burchielli said. "I've been trying my best up to now, even if it's not enough. Brian's work on the scripts is really great and I want mine on the boards to be up to it.
"I've been happy to work on DMZ from the very beginning for two reasons: first of all it is a wonderful story of a transmetropolitan setting, with decadent atmospheres. A genre I've always loved from the graphic point of view, as it lets me have a bit more freedom when creating scenery and characters," Burchielli continued. "And second, it is a deep story that somehow places itself in the relevance of the last years. I hope my work is just as good as Brian's texts."
Brian Wood has enough ideas to keep Burchielli busy and keep "DMZ" running for many years. "Its designed as an ongoing, hopefully for years and years, and I have no concrete ending planned, just a rough outline of where I see the series in six months, a year, three years, etc," Wood explained. "I have no shortage of ideas, and no doubt the subject matter will remain relevant for some time to come, so I hope to be able to tell all of them."