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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

DMZ: On the Ground

written by Brian Wood
art by Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Wood
colours by Jeromy Cox

What's It About?
A second American Civil War has broken out, anti-establishment militias banding together in the American heartlands to form the Free States while the US government is busy fighting foreign wars. US forces have managed to halt the Free States' advance in New York. The US holds Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island while the Free States hold everything inland of New Jersey. In the middle is Manhattan Island, a no man's land, a warzone known to the world as the DMZ.

Matty Roth is a young photo-journalist interning with Liberty News (“News for America and Americans!”) attached to an award-winning journalist being flown into the DMZ. Caught in an ambush the news team and its military escort are slaughtered, leaving only Matty alive. With only a press pass for protection Matty finds himself the only embedded journalist in the centre of the warzone. Either it'll make his career or kill him.

What's Good About It?DMZ is a very direct satire. The situation in Manhattan is a well-researched mirror of recent events in Basra and Kabul. Setting the story in New York allows Wood to explore the realities of these foreign warzones in a place more recognisable to the audience. New York boasts some of the most famous landmarks in the world and seeing them devastated by war offers a the reader new emotional point of reference for the events they see on the news.

Our point-of-view character Matty Roth is appealingly out of his depth. Though he has a professional reason for being in the DMZ he hasn't an ounce of experience. He starts from a position of complete ignorance so his introductions to the realities of war are also ours and each encounter fleshes out the world even more. Almost every character he meets has a story to tell: from the US deserter who has discovered a new use for a sniper rifle without ammunition to the medical student who's the nearest thing to a doctor most people in the DMZ are likely to see any time soon.

There are also smaller touches that add detail to this world such as the glimpses we get of a memorial made from shot-up city buses or a tiny piece of graffiti that reads “Every day is 9/11”. Wood's story deals not with the epic sweep of the war but the minutiae of civilian life from the shape of the community to the simple question of how people feed themselves. It isn't all doom and gloom, Wood presents us with more than a few of those precious little moments of hope that keep people going in such terrible times. In spite of their circumstances, the people of the DMZ have more than war in their lives.

Matty Roth's story reads very much like the autobiographies war correspondents publish in their retirement, full of little personal incidents that shed light on everyday life in terrible times. One of the high points of the book is a chapter in which Matty's press jacket and credentials are stolen, a more precious commodity in the DMZ than his laptop or even food supplies. What follows is a desperate chase through the streets of Manhattan for the only things that keep Matty's life marginally safe.

What's Bad About It?
I include this as a warning to the squeamish: this is not a series that pulls its punches and it contains some pretty visceral imagery. Most notable is the image of a group of children injured in a bombing, including one wearing bloody bandages on the stumps where his arms used to be. For the most part as bloody as the world of DMZ is the art doesn't lend itself to visceral gore but Burchelli really pushes the boat out on that scene. It draws very much on the famous Vietnam War photograph of the little girl with her back on fire after a napalm attack.

Finally, you don't learn an awful lot about the actual war. Throughout the story of On The Ground remains a personal journey. There are more than a few action sequences but the story of the larger conflict remains unexplored. If you want a story with the sense of closure of seeing the whole conflict begin and end you'll walk away from On The Ground disappointed.

What's the Art Like?This book is drawn in two styles by two different artists. The majority of the story, the narrative portions, are drawn by Riccardo Burchielli with shorter portions representing news stories drawn by writer Brian Wood.

On The Ground rarely goes in for epic set pieces but when it does Burchelli knows how to pull out the stops. Here we see a whole page image of a naval bombardment on Manhattan. Here you see not only the massed explosions of the bombardment but also the structural damage already evident in the buildings from previous attacks. There's one skyscraper in the foreground by the docks with what must be a dozen floors' worth of windows blown out.

For the most part, though, DMZ takes place on the human level and here we have Roth and his guide, medical student-come-doctor Zee, visiting a rooftop the residents have converted into a public garden. This is a scene I've already alluded to, the one where Zee and Matty discuss how the people of Manhattan manage to feed themselves in a sealed warzone with no farmland. Not only does the design of the roof garden show how even in the most terrible of circumstances people will still manage to build something, its also a scene that confronts Matty with his own ignorance. Before this he had only vague urban legends of life in the DMZ to go on and believed that all the people of Manhattan had left to eat were rats and pigeons.

This last example is from one of the Woods-drawn news story pages. The style is far sketchier, more raw than Burchelli's. In a way these sections are more emotionally charged than the rest of the narrative being in effect Matty's deepest reflections on events. They're also far more static, more in the style of photographs than depictions of moving, living people and places.

Other Information
On The Ground (ISBN 978-1-4012-1062-5) collects first five issues of DMZ, it retails for £9.99. Amazon currently has it listed as out-of-print but with (at time of writing) plenty of second hand copies available from their Used & New listings. Vertigo shifts books in and out of print all the time to make the most of their resources so this is most likely a temporary situation.

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