Welcome to the DMZ. Take your safties off.

I like comic books, in a vague way. I’m supposed to, I think–the New York Times Book Review is publishing articles about Robert Kirkman’s (of The Walking Dead fame) ascendancy to partnership at Image Comics, which shows that Ms. Kakutani and her crew are taking comics seriously. Johnathan Letham has always been intrigued by the mystique of the superhero (see The Fortress of Solitude), and Micheal Chabon can’t seem to shut up about it. In a way, giving comic books–excuse me, graphic novels–a nod of respect has become obligatory for American readers. Who wants to haunt that drafty old ivory tower, anyway?

While harboring a collegial respect, I’ve never been a great reader of comics. My friend Shawn, an incredibly articulate and penetrating reader of pulp, shills Marvel’s Ultimate comics on me from time to time, and while I tend to enjoy them, I’m never motivated to read them on my own. The gloss and high-polished glare are offputting, no matter Marvel’s efforts to steep the Ultimate universe in contemporary reality (Captain America, for instance, is dropped into Afghanistan). I wanted something grittier, something I would have to scrub out from underneath my fingernails.

Shawn, via a guru named Kevin Ireland, delivered.

“It’s called DMZ,” said Shawn. “I think you’ll like it.”

In the first panels, a young man with sunken shoulders sits on a bench, plugged into an Mp3 player. He looks like he’s waiting for a train. The ashtray beside him is overflowing, and the walls around him are spangled with grafitti. Above his head, a tattered bill reads:

ATTENTION: IN THE EVENT OF MISSILE, MORTAR ATTACK OR AIRSTRIKE, PLS PROCEED DIRECTLY TO THE DESIGNATED SECURITY AREA AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.

Below that, scrawled in marker:

EVERY DAY IS 9/11.

His name is Matthew Roth, and he’s not in Baghdad. He’s on Long Island, waiting to be taken to Manhattan, the DeMilitarized Zone in America’s Second Civil War.

Written by Brian Wood with artwork by Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ is charred black, tightly wound and utterly uncompromising. This is a comic book with a mission often attempted, but only sometimes acheived by comics: to indulge in fantasy while holding a mirror to our reality. Considering DMZ’s premise, the risk of descending to cheap polemics is high, possibly even inevitable. However, Wood and Burchielli have created something that is shrill with indictment, but dense with plot and character. The story, not the message, compells us. The world is intoxicating in its humanity–reading it, the magic of truly good fiction sets in and we get drunk off the lives of others.

But DMZ is a strong and bitter liquor, more of a tonic than a treat. Roth is disappointed and betrayed at every turn. Stuck between two Americas–“America,” pushed back to Long Island, and the “Free States,” which rose in the midwest and pushed east like a tidal wave–he is shuttled back and forth, both pawn and bargaining chip.

There are lighter, almost whimsical notes. The first trade paperback, On the Ground, is essentially a “Welcome to the DMZ” guide, a smattering of shorts that settles both the reader and Roth into the New New York. One of them is the story of an ex-Marine sniper who went AWOL and ensconced himself in a water tower. With his super-sniper rifle, a complicated gun mounted on a tripod with a viewfinder reminiscent of the Virtual Boy, he can survey the surrounding city for miles, reporting on movements or possible threats to his neighborhood. Roth finds him with his barrel pointed into downtown Jersey City. His purpose isn’t lethal–he ran out of ammo months ago. Instead, his scope is fixed on a slender woman with long bangs, a high-powered rifle propped across her shoulders and a whiteboard that reads “WHERE ARE YOU?” The sniper scrawls “SORRY BABY” onto his own whiteboard and sticks it out the window. This is how they talk, one whiteboard at a time, two lovers totally oblivious to the havoc around them. It’a awe dressed as fancy–the reader is charmed, but overwhelmed by the concept of a warzone love affair, lived out through a telescope lens.

When DMZ is dark, it’s pitch black. In the third book, Public Works, Roth is cornered into assisting a suicide bomber. Instead, he stops her from blowing up the Secretary General and his staff. She lives out the rest of the book in a daze, trapped with an inexplicable lease on life that leaves her isolated, cut off from those who see her as a terrorist and those who see her as a failure, a traitor. She ends up a beggar, a spiritual derelict picking her way through trash cans. And the Secretary General is killed anyway, ambushed and executed when Plan A fell through.

At its heart, DMZ is a paean to New York City–its people, its neighborhoods, its singular, sovreign culture. Despite the air strikes, missile strikes, invasions, assassinations, snipers, mortars, and kidnappings, culture flourishes underground. At the end of the second book, Body of a Journalist, Woods and Burchielli added as an appendix a “community newsletter,” highlighting the maverick magazines, novelists, and music clubs that manage to spring up between the explosions.

Caught in the crossfire, a nationless Manhattan has only itself–its backstabbing, sniping, murderous self. And ultimately, that’s better than being on either side. The DMZ’s residents don’t leave because there’s no place to go, because the time for evacuation has passed. Their home is a warzone, but it’s still their home.

In a comic thick with ethical compromises and moral quandaries, Roth clings to one absolute like a shipwrecked sailor–the truth. When his sponsoring news agency hangs him out to dry and warps his stories, Roth goes rouge and freelances for whoever will take the story. His back painted with crosshairs, he is a poster child for ethical, responsible and courageous journalism, a Murrow with a baseball cap and a split lip. It’s surprising how little the reader minds his valiant, crusading truth-seeking; perhaps we’re just thirsty for the kind of journalism he represents.

Oh, and the art is fucking incredible. The lines are clear and precise, allowing the jumble of detail to create a sense of raggedness rather than a loose, pretentious style. Ligne Claire, French for “clear line” is the style I’m talking about here, I think–see Marvano’s work in his adaptation of The Forever War. Of course, I may be totally full of shit.

Thankfully, I still have the fourth and fifth books to enjoy. I expect I’ll be writing more on DMZ. In the meantime, pick it up. If the comi–ahem, graphic novel hasn’t yet made a case for itself as serious literature, DMZ does, and emphatically. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.

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