Imagine for a moment that the U.S. was involved in an endless, morally dubious war that had hammered away at a major city. Imagine that that city was perpetually trying to rebuild itself even as internal violence and insurgencies ripped at its seams, and as a private security contractor employed by the American government largely did as it pleased. Imagine that “embedded journalism” about the war was an uncertain mixture of uncomfortable truth-telling and straight-up propaganda. Imagine that democratic elections in the besieged city turned over power to a populist demagogue that nobody outside the city was too happy about. Imagine what would happen if that city got its hands on a nuclear weapon. Now give that city a name: Manhattan.
That’s the premise behind Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s series DMZ, whose fiftieth issue came out this week. DMZ is essentially about the Iraq war and, more broadly, the effect war has on civilians, except that Wood has substituted New York City for Baghdad (and, to a lesser extent, for Kabul and Ramallah and various other hot zones). It’s a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand: if the language and imagery of war journalism seem familiar and safe from being used to describe places that are very far away, they become shockingly fresh again when they’re applied to a familiar place. (One earlier issue opened with an establishing shot of the Queens apartment building where I’m writing this–surrounded by barbed wire and covered in military communications satellite dishes.)
(More on Techland: DMZ #50 Preview)
The protagonist of the series, more or less, is Matty Roth, a callow kid who accidentally becomes an “embedded” journalist, reporting from the contested territory between the U.S. (which occupies Long Island) and the rebelling “Free States” (including New Jersey) for the government-affiliated “Liberty News.” One of the speed-bumps in reading DMZ, though, is that Matty is a distinctly unsympathetic protagonist. As he enters the story, he’s basically an asshole hipster, a know-nothing who stumbles into a position to do some good, and does–for a little while.
It’s interesting to compare DMZ with that other long-running Vertigo series about a journalist, Transmetropolitan. Warren Ellis’s crusading columnist Spider Jerusalem is vicious, mean-spirited and usually out of his head, but he’s basically an incorruptible good guy. Matty Roth, on the other hand, has gradually gotten himself very badly compromised. Like plenty of journalists before him, Matty is drawn to power, and capable of being seduced by powerful people’s willingness to extend a bit of authority to him. Over the course of the series, he’s made a series of increasingly dubious decisions, some of which have directly affected the course of the war, and maybe even extended it. By the end of the most recent storyline, he’s become directly responsible for the slaughter of innocent civilians (in a sequence that echoes the Mukaradeeb wedding-party massacre of 2004), and complicit in bringing about the mushroom cloud that’s rising above the Indian Point power plant on the cover of #49.