Volume 08: "Hearts And Minds," Interview w/ Writer Brian Wood

“Hearts and Minds” collects issues 42 through 49, with art contributions by main series artist Riccardo Burchielli and frequent Brian Wood collaborator Ryan Kelly. The short parable entitled “No Future” runs from issue 42 to 44 and is brought to life by Kelly. While it’s a specific look at just one man’s personal account of the war, it enriches all of the incidents occurring around it in the larger tapestry. It’s a sharp reminder that war isn’t an abstract concept to be examined clinically from a distance, but it destroys actual lives, and derails the futures of the individuals it touches. It’s a disturbing portrayal of the cycle of pain, predatory indoctrination, and the hypocrisy of war. In issues 45 to 49, Burchielli partners again with Wood, returning to Parco and Matty and their attempts to stabilize their relationship with local DMZ factions and ensure the security of their provisional government. Not only does the DMZ become a nuclear armed state, but in an emotional moment, Matty issues a sloppy order that irrevocably alters the dynamic of his role, and the fallout will be dealt with in more ways than one.

Brian, is Matthew Roth actually the main character of the series or is it the DMZ itself?

It has to be both. I think about it and think about the different phases the book’s gone through and some are more about the city, and some are more about Matty. It’s big enough to be both, I think.

I asked because many reviewers have loosely referred to the city at the main character, but “No Future” is really the first story where you can substantively prove it. Matty’s not even present and it seems interesting that structurally DMZ allows that detour, the book permits a story without its ostensible main character. You always hear that places like Gotham City or the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in SCALPED are really the stars of their worlds. They’re storytelling engines that can churn out anything.

There’s always a bit of downside to that. I mean, I agree with you about DMZ and the other books you mention, but from a practical, or a commercial standpoint, you take a hit every time you appear to deviate from the “real story.” Most readers get impatient, and view things like “No Future” as filler, something that doesn’t really count. Both times I did extended runs of character one-shots in DMZ (Volumes 05 and 10), THAT’S when I got reader mail, asking when the “real story” was coming back.

I like the extreme realities that the DMZ imposes upon people. We see this everyman good cop become an insurgent, and we see Matty the intern become Matthew Roth, a real player in the DMZ. How do you approach character development?

In short, in general, I like to put my characters through hell and see what happens. Any writer will tell you that, though. I like tragedies, I think there is real truth and beauty in sad endings, and there’s a lot to be said in leaving one or two questions open. And I find endless fascination in the point, in the moment in a character’s life when they are at a crossroads, and they KNOW that whatever they do will irrevocably change their lives. DEMO, for one, is constructed from that single point in time, the point of change.

I’d never seen Ryan Kelly’s art so menacing before; there’s a shot of these guys geared up with their gas masks on looking like urban shock troops. Can you discuss your collaboration with Ryan specific to DMZ?

Not to sound boring, but there was no real discussion or mission plan. I think he had just gotten done with his NORTHLANDERS run, and I wanted to keep working with him. He was under a DC exclusive at the time and they needed to put him on something, so it all worked out. And like all my collaborators I’ve worked with before, there was trust and respect on both sides so I just gave him scripts and he drew the hell out of them.

I don’t think you ever say so outright, but these guys indoctrinating Tony in the “No Future” arc are the Nation of Fearghus, right? What’s their story?

That’s interesting… but no, that was never my intent. What they are, by profession, are first responder-types, cops, firemen, EMS, etc. who, for a variety of reasons, were caught within the DMZ after the last chance to get out at the start of the war. It’s safe to say they are all a bit tweaked in the head.

Ah, ok. I think when they’re geared up out on patrol, they just visually looked like some Nation of Fearghus guys I’d seen previously in the run. This crew is the same one that’s holed up in the Empire State Building then? Like that one last holdout we meet in “The Five Nations of New York?”

Yeah, he’s a holdout, afraid to rejoin the world. I agree their gear is visually over the top a little… I think, to Ryan Kelly, I jokingly referred to them as “The Punishers of the DMZ,” and that’s not too far off the mark. But Riccardo had drawn these fur hat dudes into the very first issue of DMZ and I liked it, I liked how they looked and wanted to find a place to use them.

The Bowery and Delancey area of the city is easily the most referenced set of streets in the series; is there something more personal behind that geography?

Man, I could probably name ten reasons why that’s the case, but I don’t think every instance was done so consciously. In terms of practicality, those are wide open streets that lend themselves well to action and other scenes where we need to move around a bit. And, truth be told, they sort of look the part of a war zone, lots of rundown buildings and warehouses, although The Bowery has become something of a high-end restaurant row now.

I never lived on those streets, but spent a lot of time walking them. Delancey terminates at the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn, and Bowery brings us down into Chinatown, both important DMZ locations. And lastly – and if there is anything at all to this, it’s purely on a subconscious level – in the days after 9/11 when I first got into the city, I came up on Delancey to the stench of war and the sight of soldiers. Maybe my mind’s making connections.

In this arc, we learn the other side of Viktor Ferguson being taken out, which is a self-referential loop back to the very first issue. Was this planned from the start or just one of these happy coincidences you were able to take advantage of?

Total spur of the moment, right as I was scripting. I saw the opportunity to connect a few events, which is something I think comic book readers are hard-wired to respond to.

There’s some really poetic commentary on the legacy of the United States in this opening arc; things like “another failed state” or “the sun is setting on America.” Do some of these statements reflect your own political worries or are they purely character driven?

I think it’s all just more examples of real world buzz words that are part and parcel of how I write this book. “Failed states” is a political term that was probably a strictly insider term until fairly recently. I love using them; I love them in an anthropological sense. I love the idea that we, as every day citizens, know the names of field commanders in Iraq like we know the names of the people on American Idol (or we used to… it seems like the era of celebrity commanders has come to an end).

But sure, I hear on the news about this idea of America fading in terms of cultural importance and financial power. I believe in the concept of ebb and flow, and I think all empires eventually recede. I hope it doesn’t happen here, because on the way down, this country, so deeply divided in ideology, will probably rip itself apart.

In issue 45, there’s an opening shot of Matty standing in Angel’s doorway with a sidearm strapped to his leg. I think it’s a really inspired image that’s full of swagger; where did that come from?

I think I would have to credit Riccardo with that, the swagger and the gun. It works perfectly.

It does! It definitely captures this new persona he’s putting on. I had the feeling that you got one of those pictures in your head that you do sometimes as a writer and then couldn’t shake it. Like you had a vision of Matty in that doorway and then had to figure out how to get the character to that point to satisfy your own sense of creativity.

I’m generalizing, but it seems like if the 90’s was largely about the art, then we entered this period where it seems like the pendulum swung over to writers getting the bulk of the credit in comics. Is this part of the reason you’re always careful to point out that Riccardo is billed as co-creator? Seem like people might give him short shrift for what he actually adds to the series?

I think it’s true, in general, that artists are often overlooked when it comes to crediting the creation of a book. I think a lot of that has to do with how a comic is put together – the writer goes first, the artist second – and the assumption that whatever is on the page has to have been written in the script. In the case of DMZ, and other books I can think of, it’s such a “Brian Wood book,” if you forgive the phrase. It’s very much my brand, to the point that Riccardo is simply forgotten about. I can count on one hand the number of times he’s given interviews in the American comics press… in the last SIX YEARS! I’ve done dozens and dozens, if not over a hundred. He was never asked to come up on stage for the Vertigo panels, and it was mortifying for me to be up there with Riccardo sitting down in the audience.

Riccardo’s done a lot. He designed Matty (with a little input from me) and designed everyone else (with zero input from me). The FSA flag is his. He drew the hell out of the book and made it real, all those hundreds of splash pages of the city, all the detail, all the machinery. He deserves just as much credit and respect as I do.

How does Matty’s relationship with Parco change post-election?

I think Parco kind of disses him a little bit, or at least cools off in his friendship. We saw a bit of that in the previous volume, post-election. All part and parcel of how Parco sees Matty, and now that he has the office, most of Matty’s value vanishes in his eyes. He gives Matty a job but cuts him out of his inner circle. And the job he gives him… well, Matty’s the guy who gets to stand up and tell the world they have a nuclear bomb. It’s Matty’s face and voice that will forever be linked to that announcement. All this has sent Matty over to the dark side, if you will, and into his “warlord” phase. This is his darkest time.

Mr. Roth’s press conference shows how important shaping public perception is. If the FSA is largely winning the ground war, it seems like the USA is trying to win the PR war, is that a fair statement?

Ownership of the moral high ground is key, always has been in this series. It’s the one thing the USA has been searching for in its fight with the FSA, the smoking gun they need to just move in and level the place. They had it, I think, way back in volume 2 with the death of Viktor Ferguson. Or rather, they manufactured it. And who’s to say they didn’t try when they nearly bombed Matty in the first issue?

The FSA has its own version of the moral high ground, inherent in their existence. And while it’s not enough for them to win enough public support to level anything, it allows them to exist and resist, and keep on with that for as long as the US fails to do anything to counter it. I heard this once, in reference to Iraqi insurgents: all an insurgency has to do to win is not lose. The burden’s always been on the US to act. And not until Parco and the nuke have they had a clue how to do that.

Do you think there’s a self-perpetuating aspect of war? It struck me that Zee has essentially “created” Martel, and Parco has essentially “created” this version of Matty.

And Zee created the previous version of Matty. He didn’t even want to be there, she talked him into it. But, you know, Zee really isn’t Zee, but rather the city, so it was the charm, such as it is, of the place that convinced Matty to stay.

Is Matty suffering from PTSD?

That never occurred to me, but I can’t imagine he’s not. Maybe he never got over it.

Yeah, I think it manifests in this arc. The classic symptoms are presenting… he’s paranoid, he’s having flashbacks, he’s having trouble sleeping, having weird dreams about Kelly and Amina, and then he sets out on this path of violence, absolutely loses his shit with that sloppy order. It’s such a defining moment. Soldiers beat him up, he understandably reacts with intense anger, confusion ensues, and he just steps right into a big pile of dog shit. As a reader, you’re just watching it play out helplessly, it’s like one of those moments where you want to shout at the TV, “no, no, don’t do that!” It was just masterful manipulation of audience emotions.

First, talk to me about the “sloppy order” sequence, for lack of a better phrase. How’d you formulate this, his “warlord phase” that you mentioned?

In a bid for respect (after seeing Parco cool off on him post-election), Matty gets his little security team… I think this was in Volume 07? He asks for it in exchange for gun-running the nuke. Now he feels tough and ballsy and important and has the Parco name backing him up. He goes overboard, goes a little crazy, and takes it too far. I think he forgets the power he has, and when he, in the heat of the moment, orders a hit on the guys who just beat him up, he’s so sloppy about it that his squad misunderstands and kills a bunch of innocents.

I know that LOCAL had a soundtrack, but have you ever imagined one for DMZ? I always hear The Rolling Stones' “Paint It Black” during the sloppy order sequence.

I think if there were ever a DMZ movie, my suggestion would be to hire some rappers, maybe also a metal band, and task them with creating some original music that would sound like hip-hop from a future war zone. Hardcore from a future war zone. It can’t sound like anything current, and they shouldn’t worry about commercial appeal. It’s the sort of thing I can hear in my head, but hard to describe. It’s like when, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I heard some examples of rap from France, from Algeria and Senegal, from all over the world, and that was new to my ears and it sounded so alien, so advanced… that sort of thing. Artifacts from a future culture.

Here’s the big question, maybe for people who are just catching up on the series: What’s Parco’s end game?

I’ve always maintained that Parco’s intentions were pure, in terms of helping his city out. He truly wants what’s best for it, at least in his own mind. His execution is garbage – manipulative, violent, cynical, and dishonest, but he sees all that as a necessary means to an end. His goal, to make Manhattan independent and sovereign, is probably good. Why not? Both the USA and FSA treat the place like shit and with impunity (not to mention Trustwell). If the nuke was never in play, if it never existed, would Parco have succeeded in the long run? Maybe. Probably. At the very least he might have improved its lot quite a bit. But he overplayed his hand with the nuke, thinking an extreme projection of power was the key to it all.

Two random bits before we move on: I just wanted to say that Riccardo nails that two page spread of the slain wedding party. It’s chilling, like a smaller scale Day 204. And two, man, I felt really bad for Angel. He just got dragged into this whole mess; Matty came and recruited him and then he has to disappear after this wild incident goes down.

That was not the best end for that guy, yeah. He kept his head straight, more or less, while Matty lost his.

End Transmission

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