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Comics You Need to Read: DMZ

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… Almost unprecedented war, pitting a country against itself on an epic scale. It’s impossible to predict how history will judge this conflict, but however it does, it will be tinged with a profound sadness that I suspect we’ve only just begun to realize…
DMZ, Vol.11

When DMZ was first released in 2005, its concept – while grounded – would still have been considered slightly outlandish. Written by Brian Wood (Channel Zero, Demo, X-Men), the comic takes place during a second American civil war, where runaway government spending and burgeoning foreign conflicts have caused the rise of a secessionist army calling itself the Free States of America. Between the FSA and the United States government is the Island of Manhattan – the titular demilitarized zone – and its denizens, who have become little more than political props: whoever controls Manhattan controls the perceived heart and soul of America.

Within this larger geopolitical story is the tale of rookie photojournalist Matthew ‘Matty’ Roth, who gets abandoned in Manhattan during his internship with Fox stand-in Liberty News. Matty is, put delicately, an arsehole: he’s selfish, childish, and not really smart enough for us to put up with those first two flaws for long. When he does good, it’s usually to change the opinion of somebody close to him rather than as part of a guiding code of morals and ethics. Matty is a mercenary, in the literal and emotional sense. But that’s what makes him so fun – he’s not a hero. He’s just the protagonist.

Matthew Roth, DMZ's dickish protagonist.
Matthew Roth, DMZ’s dickish protagonist.

The Manhattan DMZ isn’t far removed from Baghdad or wartime Sarajevo – it’s a kind of city-wide Sniper Alley. Whole sections of the island are no-go zones, controlled by tribal warlords and FSA insurgents, and everyday life is often punctuated by the kind of violence westerners aren’t used to seeing. But it’s not all doom and gloom; New York is still New York, complete with block parties and various countercultures. Brian Wood spent a lot of time in New York, graduating from the Parsons School of Design in 1997 and later working for Rockstar Games, and his ‘local’ credentials are on full display in detailed descriptions of the city’s various locales.

Halfway through DMZ’s 72-issue run, Wood started to branch out with one-shot tales about Manhattan’s other residents. These stories, drawn and inked by a range of incredibly talented artists,  are just as important as the story of Matthew Roth – they give us the little slices of life that Matty can’t. Random Fire, about a world-renowned DJ who comes to play a set in the DMZ, investigates the various ways people profit off war and how it affects those already trapped in it; Wilson chronicles one man’s journey from low-level gangster to warlord ruler of Chinatown; Free States Rising shows how a grassroots movement that wants to fight the man can become just as bloated as the system it’s working against.