DMZ: A fresh take on "What If" / by David Anderson

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Sometimes I think the only amendment in the Constitution anyone remembers is the Second Amendment.

They sure as hell can’t figure out the first, what with all the people trying to get the Bible taught in science class and the people trying to make it illegal to criticize certain people and the people trying to outlaw particular types of protests and...you get it.

But we sure as hell know what the Second Amendment is, that glorious Second Amendment, because chances are you’ve heard someone talk about it.They may have an NRA sticker, or talk about their favorite guns nonstop, and they’ll tell you how the second was designed by the founding fathers as a stopgap measure. They'll tell you that the Second Amendment was written so that if the government ever got tyrannical, it would be up to the true vanguards of democracy—your neighbors—to kill everyone responsible.

Of course, most of these gun nuts won’t go and start a shooting spree in an attempt to "liberate" the country from whatever they think ails it. Every now and then you’ll hear about a "sovereign citizen" who gets into a gun battle with the cops over his Second Amendment rights, but overall, the possibility of these people flipping out and starting a "Second American Revolution" is still confined to secret fantasy territory.

DMZ is a comic book series that tells the story of what happens when the fanatics wish upon a star and have their dreams come true.

The overarching scenario is the stuff of 1990s militia fantasy: the Midwest explodes into armed revolt for whatever reason—the reason is deliberately vague—and because the majority of the US government’s military assets are deployed overseas, including the National Guard, there is very little to stop the revolt from spreading throughout the country and devastating a majority of the population. The full extent of the damage is unknown, but these revolutionaries—christening themselves the Free State Army—manage to push all the way to New York City, where the fighting devolves into a stalemate and Manhattan becomes a Demilitarized Zone.

This DMZ is where the comic's stories takes place.

Enter Matthew Roth, an intern at his father’s company, Liberty News, which has pulled some strings to allow him to be a photography crewman for a Pulitzer- Prize-winning journalist who is entering the DMZ to do a story on the lives of people living in Manhattan. Events quickly spin out of control and Matt is left stranded in the DMZ as his helicopter abandons him to rocket fire.

What follows is a fish-out-of-water story in which "Mattie" is forced to try to acclimate to his new surroundings. At first he tries to escape, but as he discovers new things about the people and places in the DMZ, he comes to find a place as its voice in the midst of violence. The person that helps him stay alive is Zee Hernandez, a former medical student who became a paramedic for the city when the war came.

But this isn’t just the story of Matthew Roth, of course, or of Zee Hernandez. It’s the story of New York City, told from the perspective of a city that is sympathetic to neither the US government nor the Free States. Both sides have exploited it and caused enough ruin to turn the city neutral, not just as a DMZ but as a separate place politically, as much as the two warring sides are from each other. The military hasn’t done much to convince the citizenry that they are out to protect them, and the FSA are such an alien culture—“redneck fucks”, according to some—that it’s hard to imagine why they think they know what’s good for NYC, or why they think it ever needed liberation in the first place.

This is what makes the series so fresh compared to the billion other stories and movies and video games that use New York City as its background. Any time you see a war flick the actors are divided along black and white lines, where the heroic American army does no wrong and the enemies are the most base types of villains, almost convincing you their brains have been replaced with a generic Mark II Hate America computer. In contrast, this is a story about the innocent and the interlopers, the people who struggle to survive the crossfire produced by the two warring factions, wondering who is in the right. And for the most part, you’re not really sure—both sides have different motivations, legitimate grievances and do enough horrible things to each other and the bystanders that you can never really tell who the good guys are. In fact, the only good guys might be the New Yorkers themselves. This is a story of the things most Americans devote nearly zero time to thinking about—what it’s like to live in a warzone without military training or a gun, where just because a man wears a uniform does not mean they are there to help.

Call it anti-American or anti-military all you want, this is still an engrossing story, and the characters are very well developed, even when they fall into familiar relationships and character arcs. Watching Mattie and Zee evolve is particularly interesting since you would think Zee, being the Virgil to Roth’s Dante, wouldn’t change much—but she’s not numb, and Roth’s effect on the city affects her and her relationship with him. Along the way we see characters who stand for many different points of view—like an ex-Army infantryman who has exiled himself—all of who have different reasons for what they do in the DMZ. Yet they are written in a way that they don’t sound like walking soapboxes. All of them are, or at least feel, real and human. They don't read like the kind of one-dimensional characters you usually see in this type of war comic. You will find plenty to reject about fighters from the FSA and from the government, but you will also find things to sympathize with from both as well.

The art style reflects the drab cityscape Roth operates in. Colors aren’t usually very bright, which makes sense considering the giant concrete jungle we are touring, so recently eviscerated. This helps make real bright colors, like in a farmer’s market or a Chinese restaurant, really stand out against the post-war setting and its grey skies. Don’t expect to see any supermodels in this city—the people here have been worn and ravaged by this war, and it shows in every dirty pore on their skin. Still, as a display of their resilience, you will see a lot of them decked out in typical New York fashion—Zee is Hispanic but does her hair up in blonde dreads, and there is no shortage of people dressed in urban styles. This is a city that has adapted to life in no-mans’-land while still retaining and modifying its old identity.

Overall DMZ is a very well-thought-out comic that is executed flawlessly. The story is solid, the characters are engrossing and the art direction is great. The only drawback this comic has is that you haven’t read it yet.

TL;DR: DMZ is a comic that manages to take a cliche setting and wring something newly interesting out of it, with a solid storyline and visuals to match.

DMZ is written by Brian Wood and illustrated by Wood and Ricardo Burchielli. It is published under DC Vertigo Comics. This is a review of Volume 1, which contains issues 1-5. Pick it up at your local comic shop. If you can't find it there, try Amazon