After running monthly for six-plus years, December 28 marks the release of the final issue of Vertigo’s long-running series, “DMZ.” Created in 2005 by writer and graphic designer Brian Wood and illustrated by Italian artist Riccardo Burchielli, the title told the story of the second American Civil War. When growing dissension over costly foreign wars split the United States, individual cities and states chose sides, aligning themselves with either the US Government or the succession-bent Free States Of America movement. In the middle of it all is Manhattan Island, the hotly contested demilitarized zone situated between the USA and the FSA.
Opening its story just as the war began to stagnate, the first issue of “DMZ” dropped readers into New York City along with journalism photography intern Matty Roth. Though his boss is killed and Matty is stranded as soon as he lands, in the ultimate case of making lemonade out of lemons the fledgling photog decides to continue his boss’ work and report from the ground. In the process, Matty becomes more than just an embedded war journalist, transforming into a voice for the city and a major player in the ever-shifting politics of “DMZ’s” war-torn America.
Tackling occupation, terrorism, corporate corruption and a host of other real-world issues, Wood and Burchielli are in the final stages of wrapping up the hard-hitting series. With one issue left to go, the creative duo takes a look back on the series with CBR, discussing pivotal moments, the real world politics that influenced the comic and the few regrets they have about “DMZ’s” conclusion.
CBR News: To begin our look back, let’s start at the very beginning of the series. Brian, was there a specific event or occurrence in the outside world that made you decide to tellthe story of “DMZ?”
Brian Wood: It’s funny — this is hands-down the most common question I’ve been asked about “DMZ,” and six years later, I still struggle to answer it. There’s no one thing. Certainly, the current events of the time, specifically post-9/11 NYC and the invasion of Iraq, played their part, but there’s more than that. Dozens of tiny influences within pop culture, as a resident of the city for, now, twenty-two years — things like that. It was all in my brain, until one day it magically cohered.
Riccardo, had you been to New York City before drawing the series? How did you become involved in “DMZ?”
Riccardo Burchielli: I visited NYC for the first time only a year after I began working on “DMZ.” I clearly remember, it felt quite strange to me because even though I had a huge library of photo-references of the city and had been using the web (Google’s street view and such) to help my research on the backgrounds, the first time I took a stroll in Manhattan, I realized my work was completely wrong. Being there dramatically changed my perspective. Pictures are not enough when you want to catch the spirit of a place like NYC: people in the streets, the scale of the buildings, the atmosphere. Since then, I promised myself I would return to the Big Apple as often as I could. And I did.
I began working with Vertigo and on “DMZ” thanks to [Vertigo editor] Will Dennis. It was 2003, and I was almost a freshman in the industry. That year, Will had been invited as a guest at Napoli Comicon and he saw some of my stuff from “John Doe,” the series I was drawing back then. He liked it, but it was a whole year later that he called me to talk about Brian’s work and his new project, “DMZ.” It was shocking and flattering at the same time. I was a newbie, but still, a major publisher in the industry was offering me [the opportunity] to co-author a new series. Wow. “DMZ” was the kind of story I loved since I was a child. It was love at first sight.
As a European, what was it like to work on a series that focuses so strongly on America, specifically, a fictional America that is very tied to real world politics?
Burchielli: I’ve always been pretty up to date with the political climate in the US thanks to websites, newspapers and any other possible newscast out there. However, I think my neutrality, my physical distance from the actual place allowed me to bring a fresh point of view to the situation. I feel sometimes I’ve been cynical and judgmental in a way I couldn’t [have been] if I had been an American citizen.
Brian, how has Riccardo’s work defined the series?
Wood: In purely a practical sense, Riccardo designed the series. He designed Matty and Zee and virtually every other character. He brought a high level of detail and maintained it, which is no small feat considering the sorts of things I threw at him. I like to joke around and say that even just one month of having to draw a wartorn NYC would make 99% of artists run for the hills, and usually, I’m only half-joking. But he stuck in and drew the hell out of it. He’s one of the most reliable, most professional artists I’ve ever seen.
He also brought something to the table that I credit with being crucial to the success of the book, and that’s a non-American point of view. I remember looking at a lot of portfolios when we, my editor and I, were deciding on an artist for the series, and I was really trying to stay away from what I can only clumsily define as a “superhero look,” where, even if it’s not a superhero story, the characters have the muscles, they have the clenched-fist poses, the basic sort of visual lexicon that we are so used to seeing. I didn’t know it at the time, didn’t know how to put it into words, but what I wanted was something more European, and lo, here is Riccardo, who is Italian and had this cool blend of European line work and Japanese speed lines.
Brian, you’ve often described Zee as the “soul of the city.” If Zee was the soul of the city, what do you consider Matty?
Wood: He’s the classic outsider. The tourist. He never fits in. In the end, he leaves.
What about Wilson? Was he a character, like the FSA Commander, who grew and evolved into a larger part of “DMZ” as you continued to write him?
Wood: Yeah, that’s part of the fun of an ongoing. You have the time and the space to adjust as you go. Wilson was designed simply to be Matty’s friend, this quirky next door neighbor, but I liked him so much I started to envision him as being something more, something bigger within the overall story, so I wrote a larger role for him. Looking back, I’d put him in the top five most important characters in the series.
Looking back on the events in the book, there are some key game-changing arcs that immediately spring to mind. The introduction of Trustwell in “Public Works” involved a lot of real world parallels that could be drawn from Halliburton to Blackwater to terrorism. How would you describe Trustwell’s impact on “DMZ?”
Wood: Trustwell is there as a chaos-maker. I was deeply affected over much of this last decade by the role mercenary companies like Blackwater (now renamed Xe, by the way, which is pronounced “Zee!”) played in our various wars and the total amount of damage and ill will they left in their wake. I feel like we, as a culture, turned some corner in allowing all of that. And it’s not like it’s gone away. With Trustwell, I simply wanted to create an entity that operates entirely in gray area, that was accountable to no one, loyal to no one and was as much of a threat to peace as the main actors in the conflict. And, in the end, they fade away only to emerge as a seemingly straightforward construction company, welcomed into the peace process. Repulsive.
Were there also real world antecedents to the Day 204 massacre as explored in the “Friendly Fire” arc?
Wood: The Haditha killings in Iraq were the immediate inspiration. I think we were about to move into the Parco story, the election story, when my editor Will Dennis and I both caught the “60 Minutes” interview on that incident and talked about it on Monday morning. We were both so affected by it, disgusted and appalled at so many things, but specifically the lack of any accountability up the chain of command, that I immediately switched gears and wrote “Friendly Fire.” It was one of the very, very few times that current events had that sort of direct influence on a story. Typically, it’s much more removed than that.
Parco Delgado’s introduction marked a huge shift for Matty and the way the DMZ saw itself. Brian, to your mind, what does Parco symbolize, both in the book and to Matty?
Wood: I can’t understate Parco’s importance to Matty, and to the series. He is so central to everything Matty does, from the moment the two meet in #29, all the way up to the end in #72. He is precisely what Matty needs, what he’s missing, and that’s a friend who likes him, brings him “inside,” flatters him and puts faith and trust in him. In the end, of course, it’s proven less than genuine, but at the time, it’s what Matty’s soul has been screaming out for since he landed in the city. Everyone else, including Zee, still treats him as an outsider, as someone not fully to be trusted.
Parco also represents the point when Matty, who has always blurred the line between observer and participant, totally erases that line and starts to pursue his own agenda. He starts off a biased news reporter, covering Parco’s election while at the same time working for it as a staffer. He gets his own security detail AKA hit squad. He deals in arms. He goes totally over to the dark side. He becomes so entirely corrupted that there is barely any way back for him. You might say he never fully makes it back.
I love Parco. “DMZ” could not exist without that character.
At what point did you two realize that the series was going to end with Matty literally paying for his actions — both good and bad?
Wood: I always knew there had to be some payback for Matty. How exactly that would manifest, I don’t think I knew until a few issues away from the end. I laid some pretty significant groundwork, and some clues, at the end of the “M.I.A.” arc, but how exactly I was going to write it, I left it open as long as I possibly could.
Burchielli: I think the first time we understood something about a possible end for Matty and DMZ is just at the end of the “M.I.A.” arc. But Brian decided how to finish the series just few issues before the end. What happens in the final issue will hit many people in the gut, much as it did to me. It felt odd in the beginning, but as soon as you take time to digest it, the ending is perfectly natural. Things end in the only possible direction. Brian is a great writer and the message he delivers with the ending keeps the pace of the powerful story he told with the whole series.
While the penultimate issue gave us an ending for Matty, the very last issue of “DMZ” is going to be all about the city. More than a political fiction, Brian, do you see “DMZ” as your love letter to NYC?
Wood: That’s a slogan we’ve always used, and I really make it pay off in the final issue. I don’t know if, looking at the series as whole, if that’s the one thing I would say to describe it. “DMZ” can be a few things: a war book, a book about media and ethics, about the modern politics of conflict. On some level, no matter what, the city really shines through. I don’t think “DMZ” could work in any other city.
Do either of you have any regrets about the series, or any stories you wanted to tell but just couldn’t fit in?
Wood: There’s just too much. I could have written “DMZ” for 500 issues and I would still feel like I was forgetting something. That said, there are a few side-characters I would have liked to talk about some more, but I think feeling that way must be par for the course. I have no plans to write any more “DMZ.” The way I ended it, that’s it. It feels like the perfect breakup. I’m not going to go back and mess with it.
Burchielli: I happened to work very quickly and there are some issues of “DMZ” that I really don’t like. I’d like to have a chance to do those issues again. But that’s ok. These are the problems on a monthly series, I think. So at the end of the story, no regrets.
Do either of you have a favorite moment in “DMZ,” or a favorite story?
Burchielli: I love all the arcs of “DMZ.” If I have to pick just one, I’ll go for “On The Ground,” the first story-arc. Those pages changed my life. That’s when we realized “DMZ” would grow to be a great story.
Wood: “Friendly Fire,” I felt, was a successful story arc, and the way we fit all those guest artists in worked out well. I like the Wilson storyline, and the Parco one. I guess I don’t have a single favorite moment, no, but an awful lot of high points. Having John Paul Leon on covers was a big deal for me.
Brian, in your eyes, is there one overarching message to “DMZ?” Or do you want readers to bring in their own ideas, connotations and thoughts to this complex series?
Wood: It’s too complex. I couldn’t narrow it down, even for myself. One thing I’ve learned in my career, and something I enjoy, is to allow for different interpretations and not get in the way of that. I’m not going to tell any readers what the “correct” meaning is, because what fun is that for anyone? The topical nature of the series, in addition to my attempts to write it without taking sides, does encourage a lot of divergent opinions about it. I’ll accept them all.
Finally, what part of the DMZ will you both miss the most?
Burchielli: The team. All the friends I’ve been working with, especially Brian. And I’ll miss Matty, who exceeded by far the traits of a comic book character. He’s been the younger brother I had to deal with on a daily basis for the last six years.
Wood: Working with the team. A monthly comic is a bit of a grind, even in the best of circumstances, but the whole crew had my back for six-plus years, putting their time, faith and talent into this project. From the bottom of my heart I will miss working with each and every one of them.
The final issue of “DMZ” hits stores December 28.
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