In February of 2012, the comic book series DMZ ran its 72nd and final issue. After nearly six and a half years and twelve graphic novels, Brian Wood’s tale of war in a near future New York City rolled up its final story arc and gave us the last stories from the demilitarized zone of Manhattan. Having recently picked up the final graphic novel to put the cap on my long-time love affair with the series, I was struck by how touched I was as a reader and a New Yorker by the evolution of DMZ’s story. As I said goodbye to what I would consider one of the best complete comic stories I had ever read, I realized something important about the Vertigo title. More than being set in New York, DMZ is the story of New York sung to the hail of gunfire and war-time helicopters. Whatever an individual’s politics, this is a comic book ode to one of the greatest cities in the world.
And this is my tribute, my goodbye, to that amazing comic.
Minor spoilers ahead.
As a New Yorker, you come across a lot of comic books that are set in New York City. DC Comics has Gotham/Metropolis as their dark and light versions of the city while half of the Marvel Universe seems to kick around the Big Apple on any given day. And why not? New York is considered one of the greatest cities in the world, and it doesn’t hurt that the headquarters of the Big Two are in New York. But sometimes in reading comic books and their expression of New York, a native New Yorker can feel like something is missing. They get the glitz right, hit some of the major locations and know what side of town to put the Empire State Building, but how many people get the feel of New York correct? How many people can express the multiculturalism, the class struggle that can change from neighborhood to neighborhood or block to block? Who can get the attitude of New Yorkers right without turning it into a stereotype of a bunch of cocky folk out to shove you into traffic if you get in their way? As a New Yorker, sometimes I read about New York, about Brooklyn or uptown Manhattan or the Bronx and I see the broad strokes but feel like the real flavor’s been missed in the rush for the glam. Art can lose its nuance when dealing with an entity as big as New York City. Thankfully, that is never the case in DMZ.
For anyone who hasn’t read DMZ, the premise goes like this. In a world not too different from our own, a movement starts in the United States that brings secessionist groups together to declare themselves as Free States. They descend on New York as part of their campaign and meet the U.S. with the isle of Manhattan trapped in between. When the dust settles, the United States troops hold Brooklyn/Queens/Long Island and the Free States Armies park themselves in New Jersey. In between is Manhattan, a demilitarized zone cut off from the rest of the US, with four hundred thousand folks still stuck in that no man’s land. That is the world of the DMZ. The story follows Matty Roth, out to help bring the story of the DMZ to the people of the world, as he goes into the cut off island and discovers that everything is way more complex than he initially believed.
Without a doubt, DMZ is a story about war. It is the heartbreak of every entrenched, senseless death in a civil conflict, the brutal argument of a government tearing itself to shreds, and the nightmare of the lives and landscapes changed by violence. Yet set underneath this vibrant political story is the setting of Manhattan, it’s neighborhoods and complicated cultural landscape, and the way it fights to evolve and survive against the hailstorm of bombs and bullets overhead. Wood crafts a world where blocks familiar to any New Yorker become battle grounds, locations and cultural centers become territory to be disputed, and familiar groups change to meet the complications of war. That world is then brought to life by the gritty, intense artwork of both Wood and Riccardo Burchielli in gruff, stark detail by rendering New York and its people in brutal, uncompromising violence and beauty. Without trivializing or glamorizing, The DMZ itself is the true main character of the comic series, evolving alongside our hero Matty in a way very few settings in a story can. By the time the comic book wraps with its heart-breaking “Epilogue,”, a reader feels as though you have watched The City That Never Sleeps beaten, blown to shreds and transformed, but never broken.
Wood is cited as pointing at the post 9-11 atmosphere of New York and the wars that followed as an inspiration for the atmosphere of DMZ. Yet reading the wrap-up issues of DMZ in a New York full of the Occupy movement and reports of political disagreement the world over, the New York of DMZ feels like a world frighteningly understandable and close to our own. That intimacy reaches inside the reader and makes you consider many things about the security of your world, especially if you live in New York. It invokes the bleakness of a city ravaged by political strife yet captures the fragile hope that lives at the beating heart of the real New York. DMZ doesn’t bring you the glitz of Time Square or the gloss of a super-hero filled Midtown. This is the Manhattan of real pavement pounding New Yorkers, struggling to survive in circumstances largely outside their power. And if that doesn’t capture the New York experience, I don’t know what does.
In seeing the end of DMZ, I can honestly say I’m not sad to see the end. Wood’s story lines wrap up with such a grace that it puts most other endings to shame. This isn’t the vagueness of a Lost ending that leaves a strange taste in your mouth. This is the ending that puts you right where you began, right in the heart of New York, and you close the final issue feeling that you’ve come a long way and seen a hell of a lot. You walk away with the stories of a New York that feels real and vibrant and gritty and vulnerable, and so you know you’ve read a real New York tale. And that is the art of DMZ.
I heartily suggest it for any and all, though I will admit that due to the violent content, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Still, isn’t that what they say about New York?
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.