Volume 02: "Body of a Journalist," Interview w/ Writer Brian Wood
The second volume of DMZ, entitled "Body of a Journalist," collects issues 6 through 12. Regular series artist Riccardo Burchielli pencils issues 6 through 10, with Kristian Donaldson featured on issue 11, and Brian Wood providing art for a guide to the city in issue 12. With the premise of the series firmly established in the first arc, this second sortie begins to highlight the flourishing social, artistic, and culinary cultures entrenched in the DMZ. We get a closer look at the FSA, witness the complex resolution of the Viktor Ferguson storyline, and are treated o the first of many one-shot special issues. Zee's story in issue 11 illustrates how radically war changes an ordinary person. Matty's guide to the city in issue 12 gives us the first glimpse into the mindset of the DMZ residents. They are neither USA nor FSA, but their own stand alone entity with a unique sense of identity. Wood offers startling tactical suggestions, such as the notion of having to pull combat troops home to secure Brooklyn because domestic forces are spread thin with regular Army and National Guard troops deployed overseas. Riccardo Burchielli continues to envelop us in a warn torn cityscape, with haunting echoes of 9/11 that still reside in the collective consciousness. He vividly brings to life the idea of "war at home," which is a foreign concept and simply a shock to our senses.
Brian, what was the title of this arc, "Body of a Journalist," intended to convey?
Well, aside from a really vague reference to The Pogues song “Body Of An American,” which my editor appreciated, it’s meant pretty literally – the body, living or dead, of the journalist Viktor Ferguson, last seen in issue #1.
This is one of the reasons that art, any art, is so grand to me, because it can be interpreted differently depending on the consumer. I always assumed the title was referring to Matty. It can refer to his expanding body of journalistic work, but also in a very corporeal sense it refers to his body being physically riddled with summer heat and diseased water. He’s battling that bug the majority of this arc. I thought that was a nice touch, a string of unglamorous realism.
Liberty News feed appears in almost every issue; did you plan this as an expositional tool or did it happen more organically?
Well, it was certainly planned – it kicks off the whole series, but it’s definitely grown as time has gone on. I found different ways to use it, other than just a stage-setting tool – in future episodes I play it off the events pictured in the panels, I (try to) use it to trigger associations in the reader’s mind, and most recently in the “Free States Rising” arc, I use it to tell back story. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, to try and mimic the phrasing and tone of pundit-speak. An art form all on its own.
This arc gives us Zee’s origin, introduces Wilson, and even mentions Decade Later and DJ Random Fire. Was fleshing out the world with more personalities one of the goals?
I think really early on, in the earliest days of the proposal-writing, we all understood the potential in this fictional world for unlimited stories and characters. I didn’t have much of a plan to roll them out, not beyond the core cast. Wilson I made up on the spot – the whole Chinatown kingpin thing came later. And all those people in that 12th issue, Decade and DJ Random Fire, I knew I was creating a potential pool of characters to use in the future, but at the time there was no timetable. I was just having fun creating them.
I said in a previous interview how Zee was referred to, unfortunately, as “the girl” in my pitch… the Zee origin issue was meant to make up for that, if only in my own eyes. It was really well-received, that one, which is why these standalone Zee issues have become a regular thing. The titles all relate: “Zee, NYC,” “Zee, DMZ,”and “Citizen Zee.”
I learned that Riccardo Burchielli is from Peccioli, Italy. My family is from Lucca, which is pretty close, so I can officially say “come stai, paisan?” This is a compliment, but there’s just nothing clean about Riccardo’s style. It’s gritty and full of texture. There’s a global sensibility about it that’s foreign to American eyes. How do you think being European affects his art?
The biggest plus, in my eyes, is that his art isn’t infused with superheroism like, I think, most Americans who work for the Big Two. I remember looking at samples when artist-hunting for DMZ, and a lot of artists, even when they aren’t drawing a superhero, tend towards those types of poses, the clenched fists, the certain angles, the musculature, etc. I was really hoping to avoid that. Going for a European style was perfect, and Riccardo cut his teeth on Westerns, sci-fi, and the ubiquitous Italian title JOHN DOE. Italian comics also tend to be published in black and white, and Riccardo’s pages are as gorgeous uncolored as they are colored.
His portrayal of New York City is pretty convincing. Has he been to NYC and hung out with you or do you supply him with tons of reference photos? How does he nail it?
It was a gradual thing, a process where I supplied reference in the early days. Riccardo lives in Florence, Italy, and his exposure to NYC was limited to films and TV, and whatever he could Google. So, the pencils for the first issue were way off the mark based on the needs of the script… not his fault, it’s not like I could draw Florence correctly either. So for those first few scripts, I went out and shot custom reference for him, for each page. I also started a habit that I continue to this day, for every artist and every script I write, where I put links to reference photos in the panel descriptions. I figure if I’m asking for something specific that needs to be accurate, it’s the least I can do. The artist should spend his time drawing, not sifting through Flickr trying to identify what I’m talking about.
When Riccardo finally did visit New York, which was for the New York Comic Con about six months into the publication of DMZ, he brought his camera and took pictures of EVERYTHING. Even things that would never occur to me, like manhole covers, traffic lights, hydrants, and stuff like that. And the year after that he moved to New York for several months, but at that point he was fully up to speed.
I saw a lot of early sexuality and humor sneaking into the art. There were scantily clad women strewn about in a style on par with someone like Eduardo Risso – and that big fat broad hugging Matty uncomfortably! Was that all scripted?
It wasn’t. It was something of a blip, a growing pain as Riccardo eased into the book. I think he was looking at other Vertigo books for inspiration or as a guide, like 100 BULLETS, or TRANSMETROPOLITAN. We found our groove eventually. It’s a thing with comics, I’ve found. There’s always a period of time where the people involved get used to working with each other, shake out kinks in the story, and otherwise get comfortable. There isn’t the luxury (or budget) in monthly comics, not even at the beginning, to do a bunch of trial runs or redo parts or delay the publication like you might be able to with a novel or a film.
You’d worked with Kristian Donaldson previously on SUPERMARKET at IDW; how did you know he was right for DMZ?
I’m not sure I considered that question, to be honest. One of the best tools you have in comics is to work with a trusted partner, and Kristian is definitely that. If you look at SUPERMARKET, past the pop coloring and cute girls, you see a rather shockingly high level of background drawing, architecture, vehicles, and cityscapes. Not anyone can do that, and DMZ is nothing if not a book that demands a lot of environment from its artists. Kristian was great.
In addition to the strong backgrounds and detail work, Kristian’s art has always felt bright and cheery to me. At first, it might seem out of place in the DMZ, but it’s actually effective here because you see the cheeriness erode as Zee becomes more and more detached during the surreal outbreak of the war.
Unless I missed it earlier, issue 6 is the first time we get a full shot of the FSA split-star. I love that iconography because it really captures the ethos of the movement. How did that symbol come about?
I think Riccardo designed that. It’s perfect, simple in concept, but really unnerving to look at. Vaguely fascist. I designed, more for laughs than anything else, a version of it that REEKS of Nazism. I had considered using that, to really throw readers off in terms of their assumptions about the personalities and motives of the Free States, but cooler heads prevailed.
I think because Riccardo lives in Italy and doesn’t go to many conventions or do interviews, and because DMZ is strongly branded as a “Brian Wood book,” people might not realize to what extent Riccardo’s formed the book. Aside from that FSA logo, Zee is entirely his design, as is Matty for the most part, and Wilson, etc. I put a lot of pressure on him, in terms of what sort of insanity he has to draw. I always joke that it takes me five seconds to type: “Page One, splash page of NYC. Caption: THE DMZ” and then the poor guy spends the next day and a half sweating over it. And he’s done that, I don’t know how many times, for five years. Most comic book artists couldn’t have done it. Some of the guest artists we have who draw a single issue tell me how murderous it was.
Issue 7 is the first time we meet Matty’s father; how did you build this character?
I had a vague notion of Matty’s parents, the divorced couple, one right wing, the other left, and Matty’s father playing some role in the administration. Beyond that, I’m not sure it mattered much at that point. I wanted some fuel for Matty’s stubbornness, his pride and arrogance. In addition to the family drama, Matty’s dad shows us how in collusion Liberty News and the US Government/Military really are.
Wilson, the Ghost Protector of Chinatown, became a fan favorite character. Do you consider him a mentor to Matty?
I think he’s Matty’s friend, which is probably more important to him than a mentor. Matty’s one of those guys who thrives off being around a charismatic person, who feels flattered when someone cool hangs out with him. Wilson’s that guy, to a degree, but always a little removed. He’s gives Matty advice and perspective in a non-threatening way, but it’s really Parco who comes along and, to use an awkward expression, sweeps Matty off his feet.
Matty does seem influenced by Wilson’s advice. I like that moment when he tells Matty to broadcast in order to prove he’s alive, to tell the truth about what happened to Viktor, to do it for himself, not for Liberty, not for the FSA.
I did notice that Wilson’s character changes pretty drastically from his first appearance. At first, he seems like he’s just Matty’s eclectic techie IT support. Little do we know he’s one of the most powerful figures in the DMZ. Was that shift intentional or a course correction?
Course correction. At first he was the oddball neighbor that Matty could talk to – one of the things I struggled with early on is that Matty had no friends and therefore as a writer it made things difficult that Matty couldn’t verbalize a lot of what he was thinking. No wonder Brian K. Vaughan gave Yorick a monkey [Y: THE LAST MAN]. At one point, it was suggested to me that Matty should have a dog, for this reason. Anyway, with Wilson I just saw an opportunity to expand the character. It sort of implies that Wilson misled Matty, posed as a fairly innocent person and so maybe he was using Matty for some reason, but I like to think that Wilson needs a guy like Matty to talk to as well, someone who exists out of his crime boss world of sycophants and victims.
The suggestion of the dog makes me think of that mangy emaciated mutt running around with Matty uptown in the M.I.A. arc. I have more questions about that dog when we get to M.I.A., but for now I can’t resist asking, what would you have named Matty’s sidekick dog?
Who knows. I probably would have just called it “the dog,” knowing me. I have a lot of trouble coming up with names. Half the people in DEMO don’t have names.
I’m curious how you’d describe Matty’s relationship with the women in his life?
A disaster, basically. I used to make jokes about how Matty is doing what every guy in his 20’s does in the city, or should do: date a lot of interesting women, but never take it anywhere beyond that. He’s a bumbler, a fool. A few of them have come to tragic ends, though.
Speaking of women, I just wanted to add that Eve Lindon was gut-wrenching. She seems like this small touch of warmth during a cold time, but Matty just learns he can’t trust a soul. Anything you can add about Eve?
Well, I had written that woman into the script as a sort of nameless functionary, and then it just seemed like an opportunity was there to build Matty’s back story, so I went back in and added the bit where she’s part of his past.
That reminds me, a few years back I was asked by DC, the west coast office, to write up a treatment for a DMZ TV show. That was a fun exercise (I use that word since no one ever did anything with my pitch) in trying to marry the existing story to the rules of a television show, as they were told to me. I tweaked a million things, but two very major changes were to bring Parco into the story right at the start, and to hugely expand the Eve Lindon character, and introduce her much, much sooner as well. I should really post that treatment online, but I feel like I only should if and when an actual DMZ adaptation is made.
You’ve heard about the “Hawthorne Effect” in science – the act of observing something changes it. Do you think that applies to Matty and his presence in the DMZ?
I think Matty’s had a hugely disruptive affect. Sometimes it’s deliberate, like with Viktor Ferguson, where he literally stops an invasion via blackmail, or when he partners with Parco, and other times it’s more subtle, like in his interviews with Stevens, the soldier in “Friendly Fire.” I think a lot of readers tend to miss all the really, really good stuff Matty accomplishes in those early days – he literally saves the city. Before his screws it all up again. That was always the thing: here’s this person who is supposed to be objective (but note: Matty was never a journalist), but he sticks his nose into everything, meddles with everything.
We learn a little more about the timeline of events in the war, with the Helena, Montana uprising and the drive east to Allentown, PA. Do you have the entire war mapped out in your notes?
No, that was actually meant to address the reader reaction, a lot of whom could not fathom, or accept, that the back story was not available and was not the point of the story. I got a lot of mail, some of it really furious, about this. I really did believe that it was not, and is not, the point of the story, and I also knew that if I was to map it out like a timeline, it would just be inviting these same sorts of readers to poke holes it in, to say “this or that could never happen,” etc. In other words, a nightmare. The story starts when the war is already too far along, and it’s about what happens NOW, not what caused it a decade in the past.
But I buckled a bit and wrote a couple pages to try and meet these people in the middle. I can’t remember how it was received at the time, though. I think I name-dropped Allentown because that’s where Becky [Cloonan] was living at the time, or she did live there for awhile while drawing DEMO.
This is interesting, you mentioned up top that you continued to do the one-shots because the Zee issue was well-received, and now you’re meeting a bit of the fan demand for the back story. Some of your characters (I’m thinking of the lead singer from Theories & Defenses in LOCAL) have been very vocal about just putting it out there and not catering to expectations. So, will you adjust your writing based in part on fan feedback? How do you know when to stick to your plan vs. when to give them what they want, for lack of a better phrase?
I have adjusted based on reaction, yeah. As far as when and why, I don’t have any set rules. And while I think it’s best for the story to never do this, in the case of DMZ, I was launching a series, my first, designed to run for years. I wanted it to run for years, and so was more sensitive to how readers were feeling about it. In hindsight, I’ve learned that it probably wouldn’t have mattered… when it comes to creator-owned books it’s almost impossible to move the needle, to do something to affect change in orders, short of having a film or TV adaptation to come out. DMZ would not have been cancelled if there was only one Zee one-shot, nor would sales have risen if Matty had a dog. So I still believe the wisest course of action is to write what you want, regardless of the voices on the internet, but I know how easy it is to let those voices trigger self-doubt.
I’m reminded of this website, a fairly popular one run by a retailer, and in that first year of DMZ he predicted the series would crash and burn several times. When #3 shipped, he was critical of how that first arc concluded. He thought #12 was a total disaster, and so on. This is a guy who is a veteran, is a smart guy, and all his instincts were telling him what I was doing were terminal missteps. Not only was he wrong, but DMZ trades continue to place high in his “best of the year” sales lists. I say all this just to further underscore the point, that the needle that is the monthly sales trajectory is pretty hard to impact.
Talk to us about the intent of issue 12 and the process of creating art for an entire issue. The last time you’d done this was, what, CHANNEL ZERO?
Yeah, more or less. I’ve done a couple teeny things here and there, but DMZ #12 was the first full length comic issue I had drawn since the last CHANNEL ZERO in the late 90’s.
When DMZ started, the intention was that I would draw part of every single issue, as well as the covers. I had pitched DMZ originally as something I would both write and draw, and while DC didn’t want that (and I was probably foolish to think I could do it), this was a good compromise. And sure enough, I was not able to maintain that, due to time issues. I am not a fast artist. DMZ #12 was my last hurrah, so to speak.
I drew about 60% of it by hand, ink on paper. I scanned that in and finished it in Photoshop, color and all. It was hell… I mean, it was rewarding, but it just reminded me why I was not a monthly comics artist. Just that one issue beat the hell out of me and I’ve never been more thankful for Riccardo.
It sounds like an “issue 12” isn’t something you’d want to do again? Because this silly thought jumped into my head that you could do a gag issue in NORTHLANDERS, you know, “Sven’s Guide to Orkney,” the village with the best haggis, local brothels, Viking zinesters prior to the invention of the printing press, the whole bit.
My editor Will Dennis gave me a book about Rome that was sort of like that, called “Rome on Five Denarii a Day” or something. But nah, joke or not, the next time I draw a comic, I’ll self-publish it and sell it myself, most likely. It’ll be a thing I do for myself, keep it out of the machine.
I noticed there’s a picture of an Invader mosaic on the cover of issue 12. I also really like the Day 204 poster; you can almost imagine someone like Decade Later or Shepard Fairey wheat-pasting those up all over the city. Why is street art a recurring medium in DMZ?
You know, the cover of #12 that printed was a sketch. I dropped in all those photos as placeholders for other images I would eventually draw, in order to get approval for the design of the cover. Then, since that and the final looked so similar, there was a mix-up. I believe the real cover is in the trade, but here it is here. I’m sure that Invader image, along with several others, is a copyright violation. Never my intention.
People like Shepard are on a whole other level, of course, but the street art thing is just the way my art’s always looked – when I was in art school I worked in that style, very analog, with paper, the photocopier, and a lot of glue sticks. When I do work digitally now, I’m just trying to replicate that same look.