DMZ, Vol. 1: On the Ground
written by Brian Wood
illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli
Few works feel as authentic and relevant to current-day crises as Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s DMZ. Borne quite clearly from the sensibilities of post-9/11, it takes all of the horrors and damage of warfare waged abroad and brings it home in a fully realized, potent reminder of life during wartime, a life the vast majority of American citizens have been politely oblivious to aside from the brief, sanitized images they see on the nightly news.
Wood and Burchielli do not pull any punches. They recognize the interplay between the military and the media, and the power of exclusive stories and the compromises made to score big, flashy headlines. They recognize the scary, heartbreaking effects of war, from the corpse-strewn streets left in the aftermath of a car bombing or an air strike to the disfigured, bloodied children caught in the crossfire.
The DMZ of this book isn’t Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not the riotous streets of Egypt or Libya. It’s New York City, on the Manhattan Island. On the Brooklyn side of it sits the continental United States; on the other side, New Jersey and inland, is the Free States of America. Here are the frontlines of America’s second civil war.
Matty Roth, a photojournalist intern, is assigned to help a Pulitzer-winning documentarian’s tour of war-torn NYC. Immediately after their helicopter lands, they come under assault from guerrilla forces. Roth is the only one who survives, leaving him trapped and alone in the city. All he has is a press pass, a laptop, and a camera. What he sees and learns about life in the city compels him to work, and so he files stories, films interviews, takes photographs. It’s a job that makes him a friend to some, an enemy to others, and what he finds is a truth that has been squelched and ignored.
Rooftops painted with the simple phrase “HELP.” The Empire State Building half-ruined, surrounded by towers of smoke and fire. In the opening pages of DMZ, this is the first image of a New York decimated by five years of warfare, an image that seems all too real, all too iconoclastic.
Wood’s script and Burchielli’s pencils work symbiotically, creating a fictional world that teems with life, one that is instantly, frighteningly recognizable, yet safely foreign. From the mangled bodies to a snow-covered Central Park that has long since been razed for firewood, you’re there, right alongside Roth and his documentarian lens. From the very first pages, it is impossible to not be fully sucked into the world that’s being created here. While the hows and whys of this revolution are, in this opening volume, ignored, it makes little difference to the overall emotional impact of the story and its engaging forthrightness.
The political commentary is obvious. The spoon-fed media messages that serve as more propaganda than truth, meant to demonize an enemy we don’t even know, let alone understand. Wood could have safely told this story with Iraq as its setting, but instead he takes the bold step of placing it directly inside our comfort zone, inside a well-known American city. He forces readers to question the issues of insurgency and occupation, asking us to place ourselves directly on the frontlines. The insurgents of DMZ were artists, doctors, chefs. They still hold concerts and art shows, they help care for the wounded, they tend to rooftop gardens and host dinners high above the streets because it’s safer than being on street-level where you can be attacked by snipers, crazy people, or car bombs.
DMZ is horrifying, almost exhausting, in its authenticity. It’s an engaging, addictive alt-history that pulls readers in and shoves their faces in the muck, forcing them to examine the life and destruction around them as they’re taken on a whirlwind, guided tour of a New York made unrecognizable but still wholly familiar.
It’s unclear who the villains are. Each side has a story; each side has a reason. While readers of this first volume may not know exactly what those stories and reasons are, they’ll be sure to pick up the following installments to find out.