I wish I could say the themes and messages of Brian Wood’s DMZ are less relevant than they were a decade ago, but that is not the case. If anything, this story has become more relevant as the years go by. But even though the central concept of an irreconcilable ideological divide leading to a second American Civil War seems to become more depressingly realistic with each passing day, the stories about humanity and human nature during wartime that DMZ tells remain compelling.
Looking back on DMZ, it is tempting to think of it as prescient. But set against the backdrop of the war on terror and the reality of a post-9/11 world becoming firmly established in the American zeitgeist, it was also very much a product of its time. Yet by focusing on the reality of war for the people stuck in one, the result is essentially timeless.
TW: Discussion of 9/11 and life in a war zone. Violent imagery.
DMZ, which ran from late 2005 through early 2012, takes place five years after a war between the United States of America and the Free States of America. DMZ is essentially set in an alternate timeline that diverged from our own shortly after 9/11. That tragedy and the nature of how it changed world politics is on every page, as is commentary on the rising inequality and divisiveness that seems to define the paradigm it bred. Beyond that sociopolitical brilliance, the art by Wood and Riccardo Burchielli conveys a sense of almost post-apocalyptic society; a sense that we are living in our own ruins, trying to build something new on top of them. That is literally true in DMZ, but it is also figuratively true of many real-life modern day cities. New micro-cultures are emerging and paradigms are shifting against a backdrop of unstable and dangerous international politics and rising inequality. The threat of conflict between armed militia groups and government forces, even potentially leading to a new civil war, is a very real one. Many Americans are afraid they will end up in a real-life DMZ, even as that reality already exists and spreads in places like Syria or Iraq.
While there are thematic parallels drawn to the American Civil War, the ideological contrast between the U.S.A and the F.S.A. is more along the lines of the early Tea Party movement vs the most oligarchic of neoconservatives and neoliberals than it is the Union and the Confederacy. Both sides have real grievances, both sides are mostly full of shit, and the leaders of these powers don’t really care about the people. The ugly realities of those driving the secessionist movement are not glossed over, but neither side is presented as truly being “the good guys” as far as those stuck in the middle are concerned. Politically, the U.S. is presented as a center-right presidency and the Free States as essentially an alliance of libertarian and far right groups. It is further described by Wood as a situation where the middle American militia movement, angry at U.S. military adventurism, staged a local revolt and was able to gain a surprising amount of ground due to the absence of National Guard troops who were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
New Jersey is occupied by the F.S.A. and New York by the U.S.A., with Manhattan remaining officially a demilitarized zone. However, it’s really more of a no man’s land and it’s more similar to the NYC in Escape From New York than the one we know. The majority of the narrative takes place within the ruins of Manhattan and focuses on the people and groups fighting for control of the city and the reality of life for a civilian in a war zone. Wood has referred to the Manhattan DMZ itself as “equal parts Escape from New York, Fallujah, and New Orleans right after Katrina”. When we eventually learn how New York was evacuated, that last comparison is made particularly relevant, as the government is implied to have ignored both poor neighborhoods and black neighborhoods in prioritizing evacuations.
Matthew “Matty” Roth, a young white dude who was evacuated, is a photojournalist intern for a prominent reporter at Liberty News and the son of a wealthy politician. When their team is killed in an attack almost immediately upon arrival in New York City, he tries to rendezvous with his extraction team who will “secure the area”, only to learn that “secure” doesn’t mean “make sure their equipment is safe” but rather “kill anything that moves within like a three block radius”, and he flees for his life as helicopter gunships bomb the area. After awakening in a makeshift hospital, he quickly realizes he has become the only working photojournalist in the entire demilitarized zone. The cockiness he exhibits at successfully forcing the network to promote him from “photo tech intern” to “chief correspondent for the Isle of Manhattan” serves to highlight his entitlement and his perception of the war as something in the news that he can use to further his career. He is presented as something of a wannabe Hemingway crossed with a dash of wannabe Hunter S. Thompson and as a tropey “throw a boy into a war zone and you’ll make him a man” type character. But very quickly on seeing the reality of people living through the hell of war in a place that he lived in only five years prior, he does start to genuinely grow up.
The person who tries to help him to do what we would now refer to as “get woke” is Zee, a paramedic and community organizer who is a woman of color. She rescues injured people no matter who they are or who they fight for; she treats soldiers, militias, and bystanders alike. She risks her life to save others as her unpaid job. While she initially makes Matty believe that she has taken his photographic and communications equipment as payment for her services, she quickly shows that his gear has been kept safe. She wants him to get the real story, not the propaganda the networks want. The first place she takes him is a rooftop community where she runs down how sustainable farming and trade have allowed small communities to thrive on the relatively safe rooftops. She tells him that this is the kind of story he needs to cover and makes him promise to stay true to the reality of people living in the city ruins.
While Matty’s early articles paint an excellent picture of life in the DMZ, the first one that really stands out is the Ghosts of Central Park. The urban legend is that an elite special ops team defected from the U.S. military but, rather than joining the F.S. forces, they occupied Central Park, which they defend from anyone. They seem to pop out of thin air, attack, and disappear. Matty seeks out these “ghosts” and finds a group of people that have moved into an old zoo facility and expanded it to an underground base. After knocking him out and taking him captive, they bring him back to their compound where he awakens next to a live panda, freaks out, and is then invited to join his erstwhile captors for an interview and tour. They explain how they are running an underground bamboo farm and are environmentalists who want to protect the remaining trees in Central Park from being cut for timber. Matty sees massive fields of bamboo which were grown from what was in the panda habitat and how it is being used not only for timber but for the myriad of ways bamboo can be used. They explain that they make way more than they can use and they want his article to get the word out so people can get dirt cheap (or free) bamboo for firewood in the winter and whatever else they need it for. Then the fighting starts; timber raiders have come and they are armed to fight the Ghosts.
The Ghosts are victorious, but this story does not gloss over the fact that these men are killing people to stop them harvesting firewood; it faithfully represents the moral ambiguity that accompanies war, even when the people fighting it are sympathetic. In the ensuing gunfight, the man who had been the most developed character of the Ghosts and the one Matty was essentially embedding with is mortally wounded, partly due to saving Matty’s life. This is a moment that recalls the archetype of the soldier dying saving a journalist made famous by real life tragedies where a photographer or reporter captures an image of death while risking it themself. He tells Matty, seemingly in his dying breath, that they are the Ghosts (having denied it initially), to which Matty responds that he was already aware. In this, and other, moments DMZ really examines the crossroads of journalism and soldiery; how in the moral environment of a warzone the professional detachment of a photojournalist is in conflict with their human instinct to want to help. While emotionally intense and difficult to come to terms with, the point is also made that by documenting the truth of the war and getting it to the people, his camera is more powerful than a gun.
As this point is made to Matty, so DMZ seeks to make the point to readers. Written in the post-9/11 and pre-Obama period, the point that a free press is crucial to a free society is one that DMZ makes time and again. That’s a point that has become more vital over the years as Obama’s war on whistleblowers gave way to Trump’s war on the “fake media”, as media becomes more concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations, and as the notion of a free and fair press is continually threatened. In the world of DMZ, this is examined in the form of escalating cover ups as Matty documents atrocities on both sides in articles that he sometimes has trouble getting released.
As the series progresses, we see Matty develop both personally and professionally. He begins to love the city and truly call it home, even insisting on returning after he is evacuated. As he continues to work, becoming ever more “active participant” than “neutral press”, we are given more detail on the events that lead to the war. We learn about Matty’s shady father, who has become a close advisor to the president of the U.S., a man presented as manipulative and hawkish. We meet the F.S.A. generals and learn that they’re very much what one would expect from a unified militia movement that became an army; a lot of rhetoric about freedom accompanied by lots of guns and oppression. The realities of daily life are accompanied by exposition on the corruption and lust for power that fuels most of the actions on both sides of the war. In seeing all this, I can’t help but think that it represents a feeling that many Americans have right now: the feeling that we’re trapped in a war zone and none of the people in power really have anyone’s back.
Matty becomes increasingly connected to the cause of the people of New York, but he also retains much of his entitlement. This culminates in him becoming an operator for the “provisional governor of New York” and ultimately ordering a paramilitary group to “kill the fuck out of the first group of bad guys [they] find”. This order is given after Matty is beaten by soldiers, then has, essentially, a hissy fit at Zee over calling him out on his bullshit but never giving him credit when he does things right. As a result of that outburst of entitlement, his order ends in a mass slaughter of civilians at a wedding party which provides political cover for a nuclear strike against a power plant where the new “governor” is hiding an ICBM. His entitlement and power-lust in the self-delusional guise of “healing the city” lead to massive escalation of violence and he is ultimately forced to confront the fact that his own toxicity is as much a threat as that of the people who drove the war in the first place.
During all of this, Zee is continually the voice of reason. While Matty plays warlord savior of New York, Zee continues to get on with the business of literally healing the city; she picks people up and patches them up so they can carry on. While there are flashes of the “magical negro” trope in some of her characterization, she is largely meant to highlight the danger of wealthy white male allies becoming the dominant voices in the struggle of other peoples. There are other characters of color in DMZ, but most of the main ones are white men. White men like Matty. While he does genuinely embrace that street level struggle for survival, Matty can’t entirely escape the toxic entitlement that he was raised around and he regularly abuses his privilege (not always unconsciously) for personal gain. Part of the overabundance of white dudes in DMZ comes off as an attempt to highlight the fact that many real life “powers that be” are powerful white men and they absolutely abuse their privilege to everyone else’s detriment. Zee is something of a counterpoint, as she does a lion’s share of the actual work and gets very little credit or recompense. The complex interaction between class and race is explored in the best of these moments and it is heavily implied that the culture this toxicity breeds is what often leads to these atrocities in real life.
While we seem to be moving towards a future much closer to that of DMZ than even Mr. Wood anticipated, the message of human solidarity in the midst of authoritarian power struggles is one that carries weight and gives some hope. Hope that if we can’t always learn from history, we may still have time, at least, to try and learn from alternate history. It is famously said that “all wars are civil because all men are brothers”, but as we look back on the brilliant (if somewhat depressing) vision of DMZ, we might want to remember that in all wars, civil or not, the ones who suffer are always civilians; and almost all of us are civilians.