“On The Ground” collects issues 1 through 5 as Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli embed us violently into the city, right alongside series protagonist Matthew Roth. Matty is a green journalist who has landed what was initially intended to be a photojournalism internship with Liberty News, shadowing veteran Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent Viktor Ferguson. In this arc, Matty meets Zee, a former med student turned unofficial combat medic. She becomes a confidant and mentor, as Matty attempts to navigate the DMZ both physically and emotionally. Wood also introduces us to “The Ghosts of Central Park,” one of many vying factions operating in Manhattan, an anachronistic radical environmental group right in the middle of the city. With Zee effectively functioning as a tour guide and exposing Matty to the many lifestyles and cultures surviving in the crossfire, he makes the critical decision to stay on as a lone embedded reporter in order to tell the stories of the real people caught in the conflict. This provides the basic premise for the series, and kicks off what would become a 6 year run of the book for Eisner Award Nominated Writer Brian Wood.
Brian, what was the genesis for DMZ?
This is probably the most-asked question, in interviews, at conventions and signings, and you might think by now that if I hadn’t thought up a genuine answer that I would have at least invented a fake one… but no. I don’t know where it came from exactly. Well, a big part of it has to be the point of time in history… this was 2003, post-9/11, post-invasion of Iraq, and I was packing up my life to leave NYC for San Francisco. So I had war, politics, and my home city very much on my mind.
But how it all came together the way it did? Not sure. Once I was in SF, I did a bunch of artwork for WARTIME, which is what DMZ was originally called, as well as a map image that was an early draft of what became DMZ #1, Page 1, Panel 1.
I had it in my mind that WARTIME was going to be a b/w, five-issue mini-series in much the same way that Paul Pope’s Vertigo projects were, although I was not in contact with Vertigo at that point. But I knew this was an “important” project for me, a return to a CHANNEL ZERO-esque point of view, and I kept slowly molding it during my time in SF.
I hated living in San Francisco, I’ll add. I loved visiting it, I had a lot of friends there, and I really believed that I would be happy living there. I’m sure there were many reasons why I only lasted 18 months, but a big part of it was just not being ready to have left NYC after all, and I think that homesick feeling fueled both DMZ and LOCAL.
The reference to LOCAL and the homesick aspect is interesting; part of me always felt like DMZ had spun out of a lost issue of LOCAL featuring Matty or Zee in New York City, something you realized had more potential than a single. Do you recall how exactly you pitched it?
I do. I kept all the old drafts. It had nothing to do with LOCAL… that book had everything to do with DEMO and as such was more of a format experiment/refinement in its origins than anything else. I’m pretty sure DMZ came first. The basic idea for DMZ came even before DEMO started shipping in late 2003.
LOCAL and DMZ are miles apart in terms of the parts of my brain they occupy. Polar opposite books and polar opposite in how I approached writing them. With DMZ, I wasn’t trying to innovate anything… I was trying to write what I always felt was a pretty commercial monthly comic. LOCAL, in pitch form, looked like the perfect example of a totally non-commercial comic book series.
You did a great Vertigo blog post about titling a NORTHLANDERS arc called “The Plague Widow.” Was there a similar process for this series or was it always going to be called DMZ?
WARTIME became DMZ simply because around the same time Vertigo had published a BOOKS OF MAGIC miniseries subtitled “Life During Wartime,” and no one involved, myself included, wanted to use the same phrase. So I was tasked with coming up with a new title. I just dug back into my sent emails from 2005 and found this, which I sent to my editor Will Dennis. We immediately decided DMZ was the one:
EMBEDDED - you mentioned this once. I think it’s a powerful word, and a word that has come to mean something in everyone’s mind, so I think in that way it’s a good choice. Downsides: already several books with that name about the Iraq war, and Matty isn’t technically embedded (although pretty close to it)
DMZ - also a word that immediately plants images in your head. I like short titles with impact. DMZ - huge letters across the top. I tried to make it tie in with New York a little bit, like DMZ NYC, DMZ, NY, but nothing seems to work. Haha, how about DMZ, 10012? (yeah, that’s a joke)
NO MAN’S LAND - also the name of an award-winning foreign film a couple years ago about the Serb-Croat war. Conflict there?
ROOKIE - too much like that baseball film, but something suggesting that Matty’s new at this.
MY THREE YEARS OF WAR - something suggesting the time Matty is on the ground. Might be bad lest the series run less than 3 years. :)
WARZONE - too close to Wartime?
THE WAR FOR NEW YORK
THE NEW YORK WAR
ON THE GROUND
THE AMERICAN WAR
LOST IN MANHATTAN
WITNESS TO WAR
You’re a meticulous career planner, was DMZ part of a larger strategy in your career portfolio?
Thanks for noting my career planning! I do that, at times to the annoyance of others, like editors, but I defend it because so far, knock on wood, I’ve made the right choices. Anyway, working for Vertigo was a career choice since day one, literally back in college in 1995 when I decided making comics was for me. But DMZ wasn’t what I first pitched. I was holding on to that idea for myself… I was afraid to give it over to the DC Comics “machine,” whatever that might have meant to me at the time. A loss of control, maybe. So I pitched him (Will Dennis) THE TOURIST and SUPERMARKET and a few other things but nothing was working for them. Finally I wised up and emailed in DMZ and that was that. It was a good lesson learned, which is to always present your best idea, to never hold the best back.
I’m curious how much of Brian Wood exists in lead character Matty Roth?
Ugh, not too much, I hope. Matty is pretty fictional overall, but there are aspects to his appearance, his back story, and his general loser vibe that I did filch from a guy I worked with once, and that’s about all I’ll say about that so I don’t out that person.
I think there is something to Matty’s journey of sort of figuring himself out that I can relate to. Moving to the city as a young guy, bouncing around from influence to influence, not really knowing who you are. Screwing up. I did that. But so did everyone else, though, which is why he’s a character that a lot of people loathe. They see their own fuck-ups in him. Same with Megan in LOCAL.
I think that’s more where I was going with that question. It probably was more subconscious, but it always seemed to me that as Matty was being dropped into the unfamiliar world of the DMZ, there was some parity with you being dropped into your first ongoing series at Vertigo, both fleshing out an evolving identity. Matty and Brian, both 5 letters, Roth and Wood, both 4 letters, am I reaching with this last bit?
Probably! Roth was literally picked at random in a pinch… I remember needing a last name and scanning the bookshelves lining my office walls, finally resting on a copy of “Goodbye, Columbus” by Philip Roth.
As far as being dropped into an ongoing series, yeah, there may be something there. That was a pretty intimidating thing, especially since I went in with all the intention in the world of doing a little mini-series and staying out of the way of the big boys. Suddenly I’m being asked to plan my series out to the three and four year mark, and just trusting in myself and my editor that I’d be able to pull it off as I went. And no, that doesn’t make my editor a stand-in for Zee!
Warren Ellis once referred to DMZ as “political sci-fi.” Is that accurate?
I wouldn’t have used the word “sci-fi,” but I know what Warren means and I find that flattering. I’ve used that term a few times myself. I’ve also called it a war drama and a political action-adventure. Depends on the context. Any story that runs for six years and some 1500 pages is bound to fit into several different labels.
I know you don’t do a lot of self-analysis, but do you consider DMZ dystopian or post-apocalyptic? How do you describe it in genre terms?
I’d call it “war” before I would use either of those terms. I called CHANNEL ZERO dystopian so the same might apply to DMZ, but there’s a problem with all of this that largely exists in my own head, which is, to me, DMZ is not set in the future. I mean, technically it is and most readers would say it is, but one of the “tricks” I use in writing it is to pretend like it’s not, to never write anything that couldn’t happen or exist right now (with the exception of a few bits of military technology). I never want to lose the relevancy of the story by making it too "future." An example of that is I tend to give Matty an older model film camera, rather than some cutting edge digital thing or the DMZ version of Spider Jerusalem’s camera-glasses.
Tell us how 9/11 impacted you and the creation of DMZ.
I find this a funny question… not funny ha-ha, but funny weird, since it’s true that 9/11 affected the creation of DMZ absolutely, that the book could not have existed without the event and what kind of world we’re living in as a result, but whatever thought processes that are involved with that must have happened almost entirely in my subconscious. At no point did I sit down and say, okay, now is the time I craft my response to 9/11 in comics form, or anything like that, and early on I would try to downplay the connection to avoid the book being mis-categorized as a reaction piece or merely an anti-war rant. But yeah, there’s an obvious and undeniable connection.
How did Riccardo become involved with the series?
It was as simple and as boring a thing as finding his work in a stack of portfolios in [Editor] Will Dennis’ office. Will had made, and still makes, trips overseas to conventions and collects samples from artists for that very reason. This is also how I “found” Davide Gianfelice for Northlanders too. I liked the look of Riccardo’s work, which was European in tone but would occasionally blend in other stuff like manga speed lines. But what clinched it, in the end, was that he drew a couple “fake” DMZ pages, some unscripted pages he made up based on, I assume, a description of what the series was about. Check them out:
I think a combination of the strength of the work and the initiative of doing that without being asked made him the one.
You’re not known as a big “co-writer” type, so how collaborative is it, how much input does Riccardo provide into the design and direction of the series?
Story-wise, the direction is purely mine. It’s true that I am not a co-writer type. I have zero interest in brainstorming with anyone on my work, be it another writer, an artist, an editor… unless it was deliberately planned from the start (I’ve said in recent interviews I had this idea to work on a book with David Lapham as a co-writer). But DMZ is so specifically me in concept, and developed by me in detail before we even started looking at artists; it’s stayed that way.
BUT, this is not the same as me giving the artist freedom, or leeway, or leaving the design work up to them. Riccardo designed all the characters in the book. I had done a couple drawings of Matty, but Riccardo designed him the way he wanted. And in the same way that I like to be left alone to write, I try and leave the artist alone to do their thing. I try to limit my changes to the art to one instance per issue (usually a zoom or an angle change). So as we’ve progressed with the series, Riccardo’s really put his visual stamp on the book in a huge way. The book is co-copyright him in the legal sense, and he’s the co-owner in a very tangible sense as well. I love the guy, he’s given 6 years of his life to this project, a real leap of faith for a guy who had never worked for on something this long before.
You provided cover art for the first 34 issues; what can you share regarding your cover process?
I flew by the seat of my pants most of the time. I’m an illustrator in the sense that that’s what I went to school for, but since I wrapped up CHANNEL ZERO in 1998, I barely drew anything. Maybe a dozen pieces a year, and I am not very fast or very versatile. The DMZ covers are what I do best, and I did them the only way I knew how.
I say all that because an illustrator needs to be able to adjust and adapt and take notes and revise the work to fit the criteria of the job – all things I don’t do well. So at times when my covers would be rejected by people at DC, for whatever reason, it was always a real struggle for me to accommodate what they wanted. I was really ready to be done by #34, and I think the book is much stronger with JP Leon taking over that role. I do enjoy making the covers for the trades, though.
How was the transition to John Paul Leon for issue 35 and beyond?
It was fine. He’s incredibly talented, and like I said, it made the book better overall. I think I remember him telling me he felt awkward at first, stepping into a job where he had to follow 34 covers that, for better or worse, were very unique in their execution… but I asked for JP to take over for JP’s style, not for a version of what I do.You also did some of the interior art for those early issues, right?
I did a few pages in each of the first five issues, and then I did all of #12. It was a cool experiment but never really gelled the way I think everyone thought it would. Time was also a factor for me… I was starting to pitch NORTHLANDERS, LOCAL was struggling schedule-wise, and I decided it was better for me to spend my time on the writing and let Riccardo have those couple pages instead.
You crafted the DMZ title logo, what can you share about that piece of the business?
From 1999-2003, I worked as a designer for Rockstar Games, and in that role I created dozens of logos and hundreds or possibly thousands of logo variations, and for me this was easy. I whipped up a sheet of DMZ logos for Will Dennis in what was probably an hour and sent it over. We picked one, easy, much like picking the title “DMZ” (by contrast, the NORTHLANDERS logo was a huge, drawn out struggle).
What’s the reception been like for the series from your perspective?
More than anyone expected. I talk about this with my editor from time to time. No offense intended to anyone, but who would have thought it would have lasted six years? Or even two years? That it would be translated into seven-plus languages and I’d be flown around the world to talk about it? (There was a brief minute some years back when a massive Japanese publisher wanted to host Riccardo and me for a few months while we produced new, original DMZ for that audience.) So on one hand it’s humbling and confusing and as hard as everyone’s worked, there have been many other Vertigo books where everyone worked just as hard and their books didn’t survive. So, yeah, humbling and very gratifying.
One reaction I thought we would get more of and barely got any was from people accusing me of being anti-American or something like that. I thought for sure someone from the other end of the political spectrum would have some comments for me, but …nothing. Not sure if I’m happy about that or disappointed, to be honest.
Yeah, this was actually one of my follow up questions, no attacks from the Right Wing? I swear I remember reading a review that used the terms “liberal fantasy” around the first time we meet Soames and The Ghosts of Central Park, but I couldn’t find it again to cite it. Do you think it’s just not on the radar screen of the people “from the other end of the political spectrum?”
My theory about this comes simply down to the timing of the book’s release. It was pitched and accepted during the pretty intense first year of the Iraq invasion, and I grimly remember joking with my editor that, man, we better get this book going quick, in case the war ends before we solicit in Previews. This was early 2004. The book arrived in stores in November of 2005 and I really feel that public opinion had shifted to the point where most people had stopped being so rah-rah pro-war and any anti-war messages in the book were falling on receptive ears.
Or maybe it’s just not that controversial? It got full page write-ups in The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Independent, etc., so clearly it passed in front of a lot of people’s eyeballs, so if there is to be any drama it would have happened already. The worst I get is snarky stuff like “liberal fantasy” like you said, from the comic book reader-reviewer community.
How did you finalize “On The Ground” as the title of the first arc? I remember reading it in singles, thinking you were going to call it “Live From The DMZ,” after Viktor’s intended story.
That was one of those things that wasn’t even really discussed. It was always “On The Ground.” That was such a catchphrase at the time – and I remember it was also during the first Gulf War – and I was really out to make that cultural connection. I would revisit that idea in later trades, using modern war slogans, like Friendly Fire, Hearts & Minds, War Powers…
You don’t waste any time in the first issue; people are getting shot by page 15 and the chopper goes down by page 17. Was that lack of decompression something calculated or more organic?
It was more about packing a whole bunch of stuff into the first issue as a common sense sort of “hook the readers!” thing. Looking back, we really do cover a lot of ground, from Matty being intro’d, to the city being intro’d, the crash, the death(?) of Viktor, Matty meeting Zee, her touring him around a little, his failed extraction… I don’t know if that sort of compression is the greatest thing, though. There’s not a lot of depth to any one thing in that issue. It’s good for a #1, but I’m glad I slowed down a little as I went.
We talked a little bit last time about 9/11; early on, there’s a tight zoom shot of a graffiti scrawl that says “Every Day is 9/11.” Riccardo also delivered a two page spread on pages 34 and 35 of the trade, which essentially looks like Ground Zero. Were you ever hesitant about being that bold or it being perceived as shock value?
That little phrase really took off at the time, and got me some feedback both positive and negative. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, and we could have asked Riccardo to leave it off if we wanted, but we didn’t. It really wasn’t meant to be such a big deal, just a little bit of wall-scrawl that helped place the events of DMZ in the context of our own world. The first of several references to 9/11, actually. That line got picked up by, if I recall, marketing, and appeared on a couple house ads and was also used extensively for this gallery exhibition we had in Lucca, Italy.
Looking back on it now, I’m glad we used it, but I can see how it might have helped, even just a little bit, if we hadn’t, in terms of communicating to early readers that this is not a partisan series. It was never meant to be that, but it took me a little time to find the right balance walking that line. 9/11 was still really politically charged at the time, and any reference to it in any context other than one promoting the Bush Doctrine was suspect in the eyes of many.
Do you think there’s such a thing as a post-9/11 aesthetic? Was that even in your lexicon when collaborating early on?
Certainly not in mine. I think we’ll be able to judge that some time in the future, at least a decade from now. I mean, I believe there is one, but it’s still swirling around us and history needs to fix it in place. I remember being on a panel, a Vertigo panel, at some point in the first year of DMZ, and some new books were being talked about: ARMY @ LOVE, UNKNOWN SOLDIER, LOVELESS, and HELLBLAZER: PANDEMONIUM, and someone commented on how we were all heavy on the subject of war. This was not an editorial arrangement; this was what we all wanted to talk about, apparently.
Some of the early imagery really stuck with me. The very first page of the series has the map of Manhattan and that lone soldier with his eyes glowing amid the black silhouette. Do you recall what your thought process was for that image?
That was the first image of DMZ, back when it was WARTIME, a good two years before I would actually pitch the book. I cannot recall the thought process in detail, but this was me, in NYC, in 2002. One of those cases where current events was heavy on the mind. I remember some concern when I wrote that into the first page. There was a minor pushback to my opening the book with dense news narration… actually my using news broadcasts at all was something a few people had problems with. I was told it slowed things down, it wasn’t interesting or exciting to read, and was possibly pretentious (or would be perceived that way). To me, this was how I made comics, at least in the cases of CHANNEL ZERO and JENNIE ONE. And it’s hard to imagine DMZ without it.
It’s very hard to imagine without it. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the series. At times, I find myself more interested in those newsfeeds, the back story of the war breaking out, and the mythos of things like your oblique references to “The Helena, Montana Uprising” or whatever, than the actual Matthew Roth narrative.
What does Viktor Ferguson’s character embody; where did he come from?
He’s simply The Establishment, the old way of looking at things, the conservative viewpoint (not meant in the political sense). He’s the old guard to Matty’s rookie-ness. I handled it a bit bluntly, a bit two-dimensionally, but I figured that was called for.
Yeah, ok, I asked because the juxtaposition of him and Matty in the opening scenes of the first volume really stuck with me this time. It’s almost as if Viktor is this dark reflection of what Matty will become in a few years. He shifts from being this punky kid outsider to a more gruff and grizzled veteran of the DMZ.
Zee is a really important character; where did the idea for her come from?
This is interesting. Zee didn’t have an identity for several drafts of the proposal – she was referred to as “the girl,” which at a glance is kind of obnoxious and more than a little misogynist, like she didn’t matter. But as time went on, and after the obvious was pointed out to me by a friend, I realized what the reason was: Zee is the city. An individual embodiment of the city, the soul of the city, and I had been subconsciously writing her in that role for years before I saw it.
When Matty and the city are good, like in the “Body of a Journalist” arc or the “Friendly Fire” arc, things are good with Zee as well. But when Matty and Zee have a falling out, it coincides perfectly with Matty’s standing with the city, like during the end of the election story and in “Hearts & Minds,” obviously.
I never caught the corollary between Matty and Zee’s relationship and Matty’s standing with the city. I guess I thought of it more functionally and less symbolically. She’s the first person Matty meets in the DMZ, and he learns the culture from her. She’s an escort, tour guide, and mentor to some degree. A lot of that first period is Matty trying to live up to Zee’s expectations of him, to transcend his outsider status, which I suppose, does fit with her as a living embodiment of the city.
You’re more of an organic thinker and don’t consciously plan some of these things, but Matty is an interesting ideological construct to me. One way to read him is that his naïve nature is a sin, the chopper attack and crash is the dark descent, and the DMZ becomes his hell. Do you think he initially represents the general public’s political apathy?
He’s certainly meant to be apathetic, not much of a thinker, certainly not someone particularly interested in politics in any meaningful sense. He’s the sort of guy who gets his news from headlines only, probably the sort of headlines the New York Post prints.
There was a guy I worked with shortly after 9/11, and he is the person who most informed the creation of Matty, typically inspiring the worst traits in that character. At my day job we all used instant messenger to talk with each other, and in his little status space, where you could type a little tagline everyone could see, he wrote “Syria Next!” This was a few days after U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad. That’s the sort of knee-jerk shit Matty Roth would think, I figured, based on what the pundits on cable news might be saying. I used to imagine a pre-DMZ Matty Roth sitting on his couch in Long Island, eating Cheetos and playing Xbox.
The briefest glance at the comments section of most major news sites would make you think all of America is not unlike this Matty Roth, but clearly that’s not the case. I do think that there are too many uninformed Americans when it comes to our wars and current events, but I chalk that up to not being naive, but us having access to too much information, too many opinions.
The imagery on the cover of issue two reminds me of UK street artist Banksy. There’s a very representational quality to your graphic design work, almost like street art stencils, a sense of re-appropriation of found imagery. You’ve also slipped mentions of Jennie Holzer, Keith Haring, and Basquiat into your work. Is this just personal interest or residual energy from your education at Parsons?
Yeah, it all comes from my time at Parsons. The art and design work I do on DMZ is a continuation, a refinement, of the CHANNEL ZERO “style,” which, at the time, was 100% analog. I didn’t own a computer, and this was 1996-ish, and Parsons had yet to really stress the value of computers as creative tools. Found imagery, stencils, fax, and photocopier effects – I did all that by hand. I ran art through my fax machine for visual effects, I bought hacked Kinko’s cards to experiment with copy art, to scale my stuff up and down. I cut stencils and searched through the image library at school for stuff to use/steal/incorporate. I really, really miss those times. I used a lot of glue sticks. Now, I do all that digitally, but my goal is to always try and recreate that analog look.
My eye is always attracted to it. There’s something about the analog method that just seems so much more raw, more pure, more guerrilla, more unfiltered, like a direct connect from the brain of the artist to the brain of the viewer.
When do you think Matty decides to stay in the DMZ as an embedded journalist, is there a precise moment?
I like to think it’s the moments immediately after he’s almost killed at the end of #1, even if it takes Zee talking him into it for him to admit it to himself.
For sure. Though the seed is planted earlier as you said, I always thought it was solidified on the rooftop garden café that Zee takes him to. She basically tells him this is the type of thing he should be reporting on. I think Joseph Campbell would call this the “crossing the threshold” moment, the first step into a larger world.