Brian Wood, Channel Zero, DMZ, and United We Stand

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WARNING: Possible Spoilers!

I am a new Brian Wood fan. DMZ was my introduction to his writing. I picked up Volume One at the Mid-Manhattan Library and immediately put Volume Two on hold. In DMZ , Brian imagines a modern day Civil War, where Manhattan is the border between the United States and the “Free States”. New York is part of the US. New Jersey is a Free State.

The story is told by Matty Roth a naive and inexperienced photographer with a US news agency is sent to accompany a popular reporter into Manhattan. Something goes wrong, there is an attack. Matty is separated from the reporter and the army unit he was supposed to accompany. I apologize for being vague. It’s been a while since I’ve read the books and I am a little lost on the details.

What I do remember, however, was how excited I was reading his story because he chose to focus on the residents of Manhattan (some who couldn’t make it out on time and some who chose to stay) rather than the politics and the combat. What impressed me was the “it-could-really-happen” sensibility. It helped that I live in Manhattan and could without a leap of faith or an imaginative stretch see what Matty saw being played out.

I got to hear Brian speak at the Dark Horse presentation at the 2012 New York Comic Con. Among the interesting things he said was his current comic, “Massive gets beyond what DMZ is… it gets beyond the politics of an event.” I never thought of DMZ as being “political”. In fact, it’s one of the things that appealed to me about it. The story (at least in the first three volumes I read) tells is about a group of people broken up into smaller communities attempting to restore a sense of “normalcy” and pre-war routine, while establishing new rules and societies. It wasn’t about politics or war, but about people trying to figure out “Where to now?”

Underneath the formal story in DMZ, is a media war. It’s subtle but it is there. It is a criticism of the news (or what we accept as news). News corporations compete (sometimes unethically) get the “best” stories. This notion of a compromised “truth” or media as a manipulative propaganda tool is the primary focus of Brian’s first comic book, Channel Zero.

In Channel Zero, a woman named Jennie tells the origin story of her social activism in the aftermath of the “Clean Act”, a decency act that quickly turned into a campaign of censorship and intellectual subjection. As I read, I felt many of the ideas in DMZ grew out of Channel Zero — notions of revolution, manipulating media, cliches of the sleeping masses, and collateral damage.

The concept of pirate radio or stealing broadcast signals is not new. In Jennie’s world she momentarily interrupts commercial broadcasts with images of her art protesting the government’s control of TV and broadcast media. She is eventually caught, sentenced, and then exiled.

What is interesting about this story is not the revolution being incited, but Jennie’s realization that in her desire to rebel she has become what she is rebelling against. Post-exile she has become a celebrity. There are whole “underground” commercial entities devoted to selling her tee shirts and other memorabilia. Pre-exile, advertisers were plotting ways they could sell time during her broadcasts. Even her arrest was a calculated TV ratings event!

During his New York Comic Con 2012 presentation, Brian said he had spent a lot of time trying to sell Channel Zero to film and TV companies. He said, now he is thinking about what an updated Channel Zero story would look like? I think it might be interesting to see a world inundated with the products (and by-products) of “free media”. We live in a camera-phone world. We have Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and a host of media outlets to disseminate the images and videos we create. Perhaps, Jennie’s challenge now, is being heard amongst the white noise of media unbound.

The “wars” (or call to war) presented in Channel Zero and DMZ, continue in Ultimate Comics X-Men. The United States is in the midst of a Civil War, with Captain America taking over the US presidency and Hydra attempting to create a “Free State”. It’s a familiar X-Men story of anti-mutant discrimination but told with Brian’s talent for balancing highly stylized suer-situations with plausible real world resolutions. The Nimrods destroy the White House and begin a homeland invasion assisted by Hydra and anti-mutant militia. Captain America takes over leadership of the country and defeats them.

After the war, the mutants are relegated to what is essentially a reservation. The story is immediately recognizable as a sort of modern retelling of the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act, the law that created the reservations. I am eager to see where Brian takes the story. Is this the Ultimate Comics version of Genosha, Magneto’s mutant island refuge? I’m pretty sure mutants won’t be happy with the piece of the pie they were given. I’m pretty sure a revolution is at hand but how will it happen? What will incite them to action? I am eager to see where Brian takes the story.

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