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DMZ, volume one: On the Ground
Collects: DMZ #1-5
Writer: Brian Wood
Artists: Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Wood
Colorist: Jeromy Cox
Letterer: Jared Fletcher
Cover: Brian Wood

By Michael David Sims
28 March 2008 — DMZ: On the Ground is a conundrum.

Before I go any further, allow me to set the stage: DMZ is the story of Matty Roth, a young photojournalist who's been thrown into a war zone. Problem is, he didn't volunteer for the job, and his military escort was assassinated right before his eyes. Sounds like this story is about Iraq or some other faraway place, right? Yeah, but it's not. DMZ is set in an alternate reality where a second civil war has divided America. The unstable demilitarized zone (RE: DMZ) is the island of Manhattan, as well as being Matty's new home.

Now that you know the score, I present you with my problem: the concept is sound, and, given the right conditions, not that impossible. However, the execution is both off and preachy.

Through the in-world news channel, from the first page we come to understand the divided nation in which the story lives. The invisible newscaster tells us about the world — from the outside — making it seem as if those inside the DMZ are bloody savages who'll just as soon eat your face as they would explode themselves into martyrdom. Brian Wood does a good job capturing that voice, but it's a wee bit heavy-handed. It's rather obvious that the newscaster doesn't know what's really going on in the zone, and is only going off of teleprompters and speculation — which isn't unlike the newscasters on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC who recount life inside of war-torn Iraq without ever having been there.

The parallels are clear, but the newscaster (RE: Wood) pushes it too far, crossing the line from subtle to preachy. And it isn't just the disembodied voice. Shortly after landing in the DMZ Matty meets Zee, a former med student now offering her assistance to the wounded. She takes him on a whirlwind tour of the zone, including a rooftop café where Matty is treated to a lush meal. Surprised by the tofu and vegetables, Matty blurts, "They say people here are eating mostly rats and pigeons." Zees disgruntled response is very much the author's opinion on the state of cable news networks: "'Rats and pigeons.' Like we're animals. See, this is the sort of thing you guys should be reporting on."

Incidentally, I don't disagree with Wood's stance, and I don't mind comics with a message — as long as that message doesn't smack me in the face over and over and over again. But that's what the author does here. "Here's my opinion." SMACK! "Here's what I have to say about this." SMACK! "We need to change things." SMACK! Every issue it's the same thing: the world sucks, the news media lies, no one knows the truth and only Matty, the rookie journalist with a heart of gold, can cure the world of its social ills — through true, street-level reporting!

Remove the head-beating, and, again, I like the concept. Hell, Transmetropolitan had a message and its lead character was attempting to "cure the world of its social ills — through true, street-level reporting," but never was I smacked around by the author. That's why I love Transmetropolitan, but feel DMZ isn't for me.

What also hurts the book is its pacing. Within one issue Matty is swept into the zone and left alone after an assault destroys his only means of escape; he then meets Zee, who opens his eyes to the world by showing him what life inside the DMZ is really like; when he's finally able to contact the news channel that sent him in, he's told to head for an extraction point, but along the way he's nearly incinerated by a US-sent missile; hardly phased by the deafening blast, Matty tosses his cell phone away, and opts to stay inside the zone as its only reporter. (Furthermore, as Matty and Zee walk into the sunset, they pass a graffiti-stained wall which reads "WAKE UP" — more of the not-so-subtle message, brought to you by Mr. Wood.) Matty's transition from the unwilling to the willing happens way too fast, and ultimately hurts the character.

Look, I work at a liberal arts college. Due to this, I'm surrounded by political activists whose causes date back to the 1960s, as well as college kids who jump at any and every cause because it's cool (or whatever) to be against the current administration. The old-timers, I have respect for them because they've stayed true to who they are and what they believe. These kids, not so much, because I literally see them rally for anything. For them it isn't about believing in something; it's about attention-grabbing and not going to class.

That's what I see in Matty. He went from an "I'm not even supposed to be here today" whiner to "fuck the man, I'm staying in the zone" news hero in 24 pages because it's the current cause. Yes, in the third issue he contemplates going home, but quickly changes his mind, noting, "There was never anything cool to do in Southampton at night anyway." See my point? He's all but saying, "Well, if I lived somewhere cool, pfft, fuck the zone. But yeah, this is better than boring old Southampton." There's nothing endearing about Matty.

DMZ really could have been a gem of a book, but I fear Wood's story has been overwhelmed by his desire to pontificate about the media and the military. The first two issues are all about building the characters and world, and, despite my gripes with the pacing, do a good job setting the DMZ world apart from our own. The third issue, oh, that's when the big, bad American military invades the DMZ, roughs up Matty (at gunpoint), kills innocent civilians and threatens Matty's life (at knifepoint) if he doesn't risk his life to save a wounded soldier. Sigh. That's right; the soldiers won't even risk their necks to save a comrade. Instead they force a milksop journalist into harm's way. So at the end of the day, it isn't those inside the DMZ who are the "bloody savages," but the US military — and this is shown over (SMACK!) and over (SMACK!) and over (SMACK!) again. Have I sighed yet? Well, have another: sigh.

Despite what you might think, I'm not down on DMZ because of the author (remember, I absolutely gushed over Wood's Northlanders); I'm down on the book because it's an awesome concept spoiled by a noticeable agenda, poor pacing and an unlikable lead character. There's hope for DMZ, as I think Wood might be able to build Matty into someone with whom we can identify. Though to do that he has to make sure Matty is in the zone because he wants to be, not because Southampton is boring or the cause is the it thing. Moreover, if his message can take a backseat to the story, the book will really blossom. There's nothing wrong with using comic books to further an agenda, just don't treat readers as if they're too dense to get the message.

DMZ: On the Ground is only $10, which is the reason I called it "a conundrum" to begin with. At that price and the strength of the concept, regardless of my gripes, I almost feel like recommending it. But, really, I can't. If anything, give it a read at your local library or Borders. It has potential and I will return to the series — to see if my concerns have been addressed — but I just can't recommend owning this first volume.

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