Wednesday, February 21, 2007
  Short Review: DMZ, Pride of Baghdad
Wood, Brian (writer, artist), Burchielli, Riccardo (artist). "On The Ground" & "Body of a Journalist". DMZ #1-12. Vertigo, 2005-.

I recently got back into reading comics almost entirely by chance (by which I mean Wikipedia or course.) DMZ has been my first foray back into graphic fiction, and on the whole it's been very enjoyable. The story takes place amid a modern civil war in the United States. Three years before the start of the comic, an organization (or perhaps an anarchic sort of loose federation) called the Free States rose up against the U.S. government. The fighting was not localized, but quickly came to a standstill around Manhattan, which became a demilitarized zone (hence DMZ) which neither the Free States nor the U.S. Government occupy. Further details about the war are somewhat sketchy, which is a little bothersome. The author (Brian Wood) seems to imply that the Free States are composed largely of preexisting militias, which would seem relatively right wing, but he occasionally seems to link them to more liberal issues like anger about post 9/11 U.S. foreign policy. Significant elaboration is generally avoided, which I didn't like at first, but I've slowly realized that the political situation that caused the war is not the primary focus of the story. Instead, the story is focused on the residents of the war torn Manhattan.
DMZ is rather journalistic in tone at times, which is understandable, as the main character is Matt Roth, a young photojournalist. In the beginning of the story, he's thrown rather unexpectedly into chaos and fighting in Manhattan as an outsider, but he slowly makes a home for himself there as the issues progress. Wood spends quite a bit of time showing how every aspect of the city has been transformed by war, from the psychological effects on the residents themselves, to the ways that communities have both been destroyed and have sprung up out of the ruins, to the sheer physical destruction of the landscape. The art, which I can't believe I haven't mentioned yet, is amazing and is a crucial part of the story, as it definitely gives events an impact they wouldn't have without a visual component.
I'm interested in why the author chose to tell the story the way he has. He certainly has a political point to make, as the U.S. Government and the media are portrayed in a very, very dim light. Still, he doesn't concentrate on the wider political concerns enough to make this the main focus of the story. I suspect that there is a dual purpose in concentrating on the personal aspect of the way the war has had an effect on the residents of Manhattan.
The first purpose seems to be to bring war closer to home in the most literal way possible. Certainly the scenes of urban destruction and faction warfare have been inspired in a large way by what's going on in Iraq right now. In the story arc I've just started ("Public Works", starting with issue #13) terrorism, including suicide bombing, is made an explicit issue, as the main character manages to infiltrate a cell. These scenes seem to be engineered to prevent us from being able to so clearly think of both the perpetrators and the victims of these acts as always "others" who live in very different worlds from us. The imagery of Americans living in the same kind of war-torn conditions we hear about in the countries we invade seems to be very targetted.
Secondly, a cautiously hopeful message about the possibility of human cooperation seems to seep out from the cracks of the destroyed and violent city. At times it's anarchistic in tone: the art scene on the island is portrayed as flourishing, money has been largely abandoned, people cooperate and there are vegan restaurants. A group of paramilitary environmentalists guards the central park zoo and runs it as an eco-friendly bamboo farm. This is undercut, of course, by the constant violence of faction warfare and the prevalence of paranoia. Still, most of the problems on the island are portrayed as being caused by forces clinging to concepts of private property and hierarchies of power, whether these are large forces from the outside (like the U.S. Government and perhaps the Free States) or smaller internal ones such as the various street gangs or paranoid snipers who hole themselves off in buildings they've claimed.
Ultimately DMZ is pretty compelling. While the visual format is definitely crucial to the story, I think the episodic nature of the short issue comic books that it's published in is somewhat detracting. The art, and the social ecosystem of the island are so detailed that in comparison the stories sometimes seem a little compressed. Still, I'd definitely recommend it.

Vaughn, Brian K. (writer), Henrichon, Niko (artist). Pride of Baghdad. Vertigo, 2006. 136 pages.

Speaking of political, post-9/11 comics, I also just read Pride of Baghdad. It's okay. The story is a dramatization of the real life escape of a pride of lions from the Baghdad zoo during the bombing of Baghdad. The art is good but I've been a little spoiled by DMZ. The tone is a Lion King for grown ups type of thing, with really cheesy animal hijinx interspersed with much more serious and unsettling moments. I didn't read very far into the metaphor of the escaped animals as the Iraqi people because, firstly, that's kind of ridiculous given that other nationalities are portrayed as humans, and secondly because it's hard to tell where the metaphor stops and the politics specific to a pride of lions begin. The end is sudden and painfully moralistic. I
should read this again because I suspect it may be deeper than I gave it credit for upon initially reading it, but I'm not really compelled to.

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