Volume 04: "Friendly Fire," Interview w/ Writer Brian Wood

For the fourth arc of DMZ, Brian Wood and a talented roster of artists present the “Day 204 Massacre,” a friendly fire incident in which 198 protesters are gunned down by US military forces, scarring the psyche of the country irreparably. “Friendly Fire” brings into question the reliability of multiple eyewitness accounts, shifts the narrative to potentially untrustworthy narrators, and suggests that in war there is no clear cut blame to be castigated. The true enemy is likely war itself. The very idea of a friendly fire incident is an indelible part of war that nobody likes to acknowledge, but Brian Wood bravely charges forward to examine one of the most traumatic incidents to occur in the DMZ. Artistically, the stories are framed so that as Matthew Roth investigates, each flashback account relayed by a Day 204 eyewitness is rendered by a different artist, underscoring the idea of perceived differences in reality depending on point of view, and leaving the audience reeling in uncertainty. “Friendly Fire” collects issues 18 through 22, with art contributions by Riccardo Burchielli, Nathan Fox, Kristian Donaldson, and Viktor Kalvachev.

Brian, issue 18 references summer in NYC as “the killing season.” As a New Yorker, does the heat really get to people in such a dramatic way?

Nah, it doesn’t make people murder other people, but it does make you seriously consider it. Joking aside, summers here are really unpleasant. The heat may not be that bad, but the humidity kicks it up several levels, and all that causes the stink to seep out of every sidewalk and trash can. The subway system is a giant brick oven, and the whole place just radiates. You pretty much have to run your air conditioners from May to October.
I wanted to take that common experience all New Yorkers share, that sort of inside joke, and amplify it within the DMZ. No one has air conditioners, I don’t think, in the DMZ. I can only image the smell, the disease, and the stress in that situation.

Nathan Fox is an artist I was immediately impressed by and have bought everything he’s done. I keep saying “he’s the next Paul Pope,” and here he provides the flashbacks for PFC Stevens’ story. How did your collaboration with Nathan come about?

Nathan and I started talking a long time ago, and I honestly can’t remember how we started talking. I know for a brief moment I talked to him about drawing LOCAL (how’s that for a “what if?”), and like a lot of artists I work with, we spent years talking until the right thing came up. I love his art, and I really enjoy working with him, and it depresses me every time I offer him a book and he’s busy doing something else.

Riccardo is certainly my favorite DMZ artist, it seems like a title he was meant to do. But, if for some reason he couldn’t work on the book, Nathan Fox would be my next choice. His style has this bulbous kinetic energy to it; there’s danger lurking just below the surface. I think he captures the danger and unpredictability of the environment, yet also the warmth of the people. It’s an engaging mixture. I hope you guys get the chance to collaborate again some day!

Viktor Kalvachev was another nice addition to the DMZ tapestry; he provides the flashbacks for Sgt. Nunez and his account of the Day 204 Massacre. How did you arrive at the plan to have different artists depict the different characters’ accounts?

We, meaning me and Vertigo editorial, are always looking for opportunities and ways to be creative within the pretty uncreative world of the DC Comics monthly grind. There is such a system in place, a deeply entrenched “way of doing things,” and breaking away from that is pretty difficult. But we always try, and this was a really successful example. Riccardo, as I recall, was originally contracted to do 10 issues a year, that was what he wanted, what he was comfortable with, which is why DMZ has a lot of guest artists. At the time “Friendly Fire” started, he was due to take that short break, and so I decided to think of a way we could use that to the advantage of the story, to not just have a “fill-in” in the middle of an arc. This way, Riccardo could have a hand in each issue, even if only a couple pages, and the Rashomon-style narrative could be reinforced by the guests.

Issue 21 contains one of my favorite bits of imagery in the entire series. It’s the Army General that looks suspiciously like Abraham Lincoln, overtly emphasizing the Civil War motif. Where did this idea come from?

See, Justin, this is one of those times you have me running to look at a copy of DMZ, because what you just described I have zero recollection of, and didn’t notice the first time around! I’ll have to hand that one to Riccardo… I never give him much direction for these sorts of nameless “suit” characters. Generally I say something like “an army officer, white guy, pretty typical,” and then Riccardo just does what he wants. Only in civil wars, I guess, do commanders have chin beards.

Well, however it came about, it’s very clever emotionally. Because he looks like “Honest Abe,” you want to trust him and accept what he says at face value, but by this point the audience has been in the DMZ long enough to be suspicious of everything they see and hear. It’s a conflicting moment that you can’t reconcile in your mind.

Kristian Donaldson comes in to provide Zee’s account of Day 204. It seems like Kristian ended up focusing on Zee a lot during the course of the series, was that pairing intentional?

I’m sure it was in my subconscious, or maybe Zee is just more fun to draw than Matty? I can see that. And yeah, Kristian is our #1 guest, in terms of number of pages drawn. I love the way he draws the city. I mean, I love the way he draws everything, but he never shies away from the backgrounds. This is a huge part of the reason he and I are working on THE MASSIVE [Editor’s Note: The new Brian Wood & Kristian Donaldson series beginning in Dark Horse Presents #8 – January 2012!].

Is the inclusion of all of the guest artists purely an artistic decision, or is there a more functional conceit with keeping Riccardo on schedule?

Well, like I said, it’s all part of the arrangement that periodically we have to bring guests on. I think Riccardo wishes he could have drawn every page of DMZ, but I know he also wants to be a human being with a life and see his girlfriend and his friends, and so on. DMZ is not an easy book to draw, and I think the fact he takes two issues off out of twelve is really pretty sane. But there are also times when he doesn’t take that break, like now as the series rolls to an end… he’s drawing #62-72, which is 11 in a row, and there was another time, around “Hearts And Minds” to “MIA,” where he worked straight through for a year or more. So, it’s a little flexible.

There were other times where the reasons were different, like with “Collective Punishment,” which was designed to allow Riccardo to take a much needed break from the world of DMZ and draw some NORTHLANDERS.

It’s going on 6 years now and the book has never shipped late that I recall(?). That’s gotta’ be some kind of record.

I’m sure there are times its missed by a week, but most people don’t consider it “late” unless it skips a month. We’ve been pretty consistent.

We haven’t talked about Jeromy Cox yet; his coloring really pops, particularly with Nathan Fox’s pencils. His palette runs these huge color swings, from dark greens and earth tones, to vibrant reds and oranges, even to dull gray rain. What is your interaction with Jeromy like?

My interaction with Jeromy is pretty non-existent, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I consider Jeromy to be like Riccardo, in that he is an original member of the band who’s stuck with this book of mine since day one, turning in the work like a pro for 6 straight years. But the nature of the monthly comics system means that he and I don’t really interact – I don’t get to proof colors (I wish I did!) at DC, or really give him notes other than what I write into the script.

But every so often he does email me for clarification on something, so that’s our chance to talk and chat. But in general, meaning on all my books, I consider it a sign of things humming along nicely when I DON’T have to be in constant contact with a collaborator. I like to place all my trust in them, and they in me, and we stay out of each other’s hair and get the job done.

I noticed that you never actually say what title Matty’s dad holds, or what his specific job is. But, he works for Liberty News, right? He’s an executive there, or some liaison with the military? He’s clearly complicit in the whole relationship.

Yeah, that’s been fuzzy a little bit. Early on, I had his dad as some executive at Liberty but what that was specifically didn’t matter. All that mattered at that point was he would be in a position to secure a job for his son. Over time, and as the series grew, I evolved him into less of a binary guy with much more nuance, like perhaps he was starting to see both sides just like Matty was. At some point, he’s stripped of his job, and then is able to use whatever leverage he still possesses to smooth a path for his son. It’s a little tragic, I suppose, but speaking as the writer he only ever existed to do those things for Matty. The same with his mother, come to think of it.

Tell us about the zinester girl who publishes Snoozer #9; she seems too specific to be purely fictional. Is this character based on a friend or real acquaintance?

Ah, Snoozer, one of my characters I wish I had the space to develop more. Snoozer is pure fiction, and she first appeared in #12. She surfaces much later, and incognito, as the voice of Radio Free DMZ, but that’s a detail that is more for my own personal entertainment than anything else. She, and Radio Free DMZ were both ideas that came too late in the series to be properly utilized. Another regret.

Ah, cool, I didn’t know she was the voice of Radio Free DMZ. I don’t think we were talking much yet, but I remember sending a test email to the account just to see if it was hot or if it’d bounce back. It was live. I always felt that you were going to do more, something viral or interactive, with Radio Free DMZ?

I wish I could have done more. I got a bunch of emails to that address, but not THAT much. But really it was a victim of time, and having to clear any sort of promotions through DC Comics’ PR Department, which tends to be very conservative. When the “Metal” arc of NORTHLANDERS was ramping up, Riccardo and I had an idea to run a soundtrack contest, to ask readers to send us original music based on nothing but the solicitation copy of the first issue, and Christ, the legal hoops DC would have made us jump through, it just sucked all the fun out of it… for us and for anyone who wanted to enter the contest. I think one of the requirements was that they couldn’t use the word “Northlanders” in the song. WTF? I can’t pin Radio Free DMZ on them… it’s my fault for not exploring that more. It was too big an idea too late in the game.

It seems like you really enjoy taking familiar NYC landmarks in DMZ and turning them on their head. Is that a fair statement?

Well, a couple things: first, it’s fun to do that, and secondly, it’s an expectation of the series. And, I guess thirdly, these landmarks are what people know of NYC who don’t live here or have spent much time here. A generic street means nothing to someone halfway around the world, but the Empire State Building or the Flatiron does. These are visual elements that ground the story in real life.

Yeah, I was thinking of the shots with JFK airport being used as an entry point into the war, or the Statue of Liberty being riddled with holes and missing part of the torch. It really sells this idea of “war at home” visually; it’s so jarring and unfamiliar.

Do you think you’ve ever incorporated horror elements into DMZ?

I wouldn’t say so. Horror as a genre is not something I feel I have a good grip on. I’d say the same thing about comedy. I remember years back Brian Azzarello was really pushing me to do a run on HELLBLAZER, he really thought that was a good idea and a good career move for me to make. I spent weeks trying to wrap my mind around it, to figure out just what I would do with that book, and in the end I just drew a blank. Not my thing.

Now, since NORTHLANDERS, I feel like I have a slightly better capacity for it, but still not so much. There were a few NORTHLANDERS stories that grazed the edges of the horror genre, such as it is, and now I’m doing something pretty overtly horror in my SUPERNATURAL mini-series.

The full page reveal of the hooded figures, in the rain no less, seemed like this classic horror shot to me where you can almost hear the shrill music screeching. It’s a surreal moment. It really makes you feel for the soldiers, to understand a little of the fear and panic they must have initially felt.

I always thought of that as a completely silent scene, no sound at all but the footfalls.

What is the ultimate message of this arc?

This arc had a very specific genesis. I think I was gearing up to start the election story for Volume 4, what ended up being Volume 6, and one Monday morning my Editor Will Dennis and I were swapping emails about a 60 Minutes we had both seen the previous night about the Haditha Killings in Iraq. The soldiers who were involved were being interviewed by one of the anchors, and it was appalling how they were being treated. The hatred was plainly visible on the anchor’s face… it was clear he found these soldiers to be the lowest of the low, and his questions were skewed in that regard. It made me really uncomfortable to watch, and Will agreed.

So that was the idea, the notion that a low level soldier who is given some impossible set of instructions – impossible in the sense that the conditions on the ground are something that no soldier can predict or be trained for – and once they screw up, all the blame is loaded on this soldier while no one up the chain of command takes responsibility. We changed the DMZ story on the fly, at the last minute, one of a few times in the series we let something happening in the real world direct us. “Friendly Fire” is a high point for me, and is the volume most cited as reader’s favorites, I’ve found.

I’m glad you brought up Rashomon earlier, because there are certainly some cinematic qualities to this arc. All kinds of film references flooded my brain. For example, I was reminded of Courage Under Fire, with differing accounts of a chopper crash, as Captain Karen Walden, a female pilot, is being considered for the Medal of Honor. There’s some crap melodrama acting in that movie, but the core incident is really interesting. When I try to reconcile this arc as a critic, “Friendly Fire” squarely delivers the notion of Civil War, emphasis on “civil.” By definition, we are literally killing ourselves. That’s the short take.

My longer take on it is that it’s probably more about causality. Asking “why did this happen?” Not that it’s the high water mark for cinema or anything, but I remember an interview with Oliver Stone about the film JFK. It was criticized for not offering any clear position or theory on the assassination. He essentially said that was the point, to overwhelm the audience with so many possibilities, to give the audience that inconclusive sense of disorientation and confusion, because that’s what it felt like in real life. The Day 204 Massacre feels the same way to me. There isn’t a nice tidy conclusion. There isn’t any real answer provided to the “why” question other than: “shit happens in war.” That's why you're supposed to avoid it at all costs.

I remain completely unsatisfied and annoyed at the idea that any reason can be summed up as “shit just happens.” I think it’s how people collectively cop out, remove themselves from the subject, mentally scrub the guilt away. I had a similar reaction to the “Not In Our Name” peace movement slogan when our current wars were starting. It’s too bad, but you don’t get to say that and then watch from the sidelines. It’s true that I, for example, didn’t agree with those wars and I hated how they were sold as something the country was automatically supportive of, but my disagreement doesn’t mean I don’t share some of the responsibility. That’s one of the reasons why the 2004 re-election was so dismaying, and Obama’s lies about ending the wars ASAP… we, the people, are continually unable to be heard in this matter.

End Transmission

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