Volume 09: "M.I.A.," Interview w/ Writer Brian Wood

“M.I.A.” includes the landmark issue #50, with special contributions by some of the most revered artists working in the industry today. The half-century special frames Matty’s reflections on his time in the DMZ with several shorts full of sharp language and dangerous revelations, including talk of the FSA buying governors, rolling FBI Field Agents, and knocking down banks and National Guard Armories along the way. These disparate elements tell a story of survival and preserving culture, from people who endure conflict and envision a future beyond current events. Issues 51 through 54 reunite Riccardo Burchielli with Brian Wood and examine Matty’s self-exile for his role in the slaying of a wedding party. He is persona non-grata as the DMZ he knows crumbles around him; Parco is missing, Delgado Security Forces are disbanding, arrest orders are issued for members of The Delgado Nation, and there’s the small matter of a missing tactical nuke. This volume has a somber tone, suggesting that Matty may have done some good early on, but also may have lost himself in the process.

Brian, issue 50 really was an achievement. Not only did the series live a long life, but I think some of the big names reflect the book’s status as a modern classic. There’s Dave Gibbons, Jim Lee, Eduardo Risso, and rising stars like Rebekah Isaacs and Fabio Moon. With a roster like this, how does it come together; how much is editorial driving the project vs. you yourself?

It really was Editor Will Dennis opening his rolodex. Well, obviously some of them were people I’ve worked with in the past, like Ryan Kelly, and even though DV8 had not starting coming out yet, I think Rebekah and I had several issues in the can already. Fabio was, way back when, someone who was almost the initial artist on NORTHLANDERS. There are a lot of connections there. The others, the bigger names, all came from Will and his relationships.

Once I had these names, I could write the stories and the little vignettes to match. It’s a real luxury, I gotta’ say, especially the more work-for-hire and licensed work I do, to know who the artist is before you write. You can write to their strengths and to their desires. Riccardo specifically wanted a b/w story, and that’s actually a funny story, perhaps only in hindsight: no one told Jeromy Cox it wasn’t supposed to be colored, and he went ahead and colored it.

Fabio on NORTHLANDERS is a great “what if?” Did you meet him through Becky? I know she’s in that circle of creators/friends with Fabio, Gabriel, Vasilis Lolos, and Rafael Grampa, right?

I think I must have met him through Becky, yeah. We all shared a table once at San Diego. I met Grampa in Brooklyn, and after a bunch of failed attempts, we’re finally working together in the form of him drawing three variant covers for THE MASSIVE.

Did you envision these stories as small shorts originally or were they “leftovers” (for lack of a better term), spare ideas that never blossomed into full arcs?

No leftovers at all. Well, maybe the Ryan Kelly one about the art hoarder. I think that was the only story idea I had in advance. Everything else I wrote as if original.

I have two favorites, though I was selfishly hoping you’d do an issue about what happened in California – just for me! The first is “Looted” by Ryan Kelly, about the art collection amassed from Museum Mile. It seems like this story thread might have started as another urban myth, like the Chinatown Gold?

It certainly could have been its own arc. Perhaps with very limited appeal, though. Not sure if anyone really cares that much if you haven’t taken art history classes… it’s all very abstract otherwise. Ryan and I are both artists, have spent time in art colleges, and it forms a connection with these museums. Working for one, perhaps you feel the same.

I do. I liked the idea that, like Wilson, he’s trying to take the long view of the war, wondering what will happen when it passes. He’s thinking ahead, trying to preserve some of the culture for the future even if he isn’t a part of it. By law, the dude is clearly in possession of stolen goods, but it’s ultimately a very selfless and beautiful act if you examine his intentions.

I think anyone reading that little story would assume that the minute it became possible, he would not only return the art to the museums, but also thank them for the honor of safeguarding it.

And California??? Man, I’ve heard from all over at one point or another, readers wanted to know what’s going on in Chicago, in Miami, in LA. It would and never did happen. I feel like to even hint at that sort of malarkey would be to take the first step down a very slippery slope, one where I bash my head in at the bottom and possibly go insane. DMZ is big enough as it is.

Yeah, I think the minute you leave NYC, or even Matty for too long, then you’re getting away from the emotional center of the book. But, the type of information the FSA Commander drops on Matty is just riveting. The entire city of Chicago being a functional sleeper cell, marching divisions of FSA troops straight down the Hudson, it’s absolutely chilling stuff. I realize they’re probably just terrific sound bytes and not main story fuel, but I always find myself so enamored of those cool factoids in the greater FSA/USA conflict.

I have a feeling that, in the moment, I was having a chuckle writing stuff like that, knowing there was no way in hell I would ever have to follow through on it! But it’s fun, imagining scenarios and situations like that. If DMZ ever has a life beyond the comic, be it a film or a game or a TV series, that would be a good opportunity to expand the scope a bit.

And interestingly, I see other comic series that take on that “what if…” thing… not as a direct response to DMZ, but thematically. There was one called, I dunno’, THE MARKSMAN? A DMZ-like San Diego, as I recall.

I thumbed through that. I think it was even billed as some sort of “DMZ meets WASTELAND” type thing. Considering those are two of my favorite books, it seemed right up my post-apocalyptic alley. But uhh, no, I didn’t buy that book, even for the introductory price of $1. Let’s leave it at that.

There were others… ZERO KILLER? That rings a bell. The core premise of DMZ is not something that’s incredibly original, so I’d be surprised if there weren’t several similar works that both pre and post-date it. I’m also shocked there haven’t been more Viking comics, to be honest.

My second favorite is “Heart of North Jersey” by Riccardo Burchielli. What led to it being rendered in black and white?

Riccardo’s wish, basically. I think if it had been up to him, DMZ would be a black and white book. It’s his roots, working in Italy, and I can appreciate that. I wonder if he every really warmed up to seeing his work in color, in anyone’s colors. I’m the same way, about my own work. I would have done the DMZ covers in b/w if I was king of the world.

Upper Manhattan is portrayed as very bleak. Humanity is hanging on by a thread. What can you tell us about this suicide scene that Riccardo nails? It’s black and white, with no background, and just that splash of red.

Not much, except that both Riccardo and Jeromy know their stuff. And yeah, I am harsh on that part of town, but I actually lived there, right on those exact streets that Riccardo drew. I got into Google Street View and took shots of the neighborhood. That long staircase in the first issue is a very well-known landmark. This is possibly one of the most referenced sites in the whole comic.

I lived on 189th and Bennett Ave. when I first moved to the city, in 1991. It wasn’t that bad, overall, but a total shithole by today’s standards. I would walk my brother’s dog through the little parks, which were carpeted with used condoms and crack vials (ah, crack vials, very retro), and, more frequently than I ever would have guessed, the bodies of dead dogs. Here I was, some dorky kid from Vermont, only feeling safe because of the massive German Shepherd I was walking.

But that part of the city remains my favorite to this day, the strip of the Upper West Side that runs along the river. The architecture is great, the views, the green areas along the water. It feels old, like a European city.

Riccardo turns in another amazing full page shot of the downed chopper that Matty stumbles upon. What are the dog tags that Matty wants to return symbolic of?

Yeah, it was really hard trying to communicate this shot to Riccardo, the very specific sort of airshaft (or “courtyard” if you want to be kind) that these old buildings all have. The dog tags were the first of Matty’s attempts at redemption, at doing the right thing, even when it doesn’t benefit him necessarily. And to sort of turn away from the knee-jerk prejudice he might have about American soldiers… that this guy in this chopper is a real person, whose family deserves to know. He decides to walk it out, expecting nothing in return.

I definitely felt that small sliver of redemption, the opportunity to do one last compassionate thing right. I think the symbolism of the dog tags also gets back to the title; it’s another title that offers multiple meanings. Matty is M.I.A., Parco is M.I.A., the nuke is M.I.A., but these soldiers in the downed chopper are also literally what the military refers to as M.I.A., before they’re confirmed as K.I.A.

You take a hard jab in this arc at The Bush Doctrine, the thought of preemptively striking anyone deemed an unlawful combatant. Did the right wingers ever get riled up?

No. Honestly, I don’t even know. Can we call it the Bush Doctrine? It’s also Obama’s Doctrine. It’s the American Doctrine, really, we should get used to it, as disgusting as it is. Plenty of lefties like it too.

Where did the idea come from to have Matty run this gauntlet using everything he knows about the city to get to the 59th Street Checkpoint?

I wanted to put him in danger. Or rather, to have him put himself in danger. It may have been a stupid thing for him to do, a pointless risk, but he felt he needed to make that walk, to put himself last for once. The idea is noble, but on the other hand, it’s sort of a selfish thing for him to do, reeking of wanting to be a martyr. But this was a first step for him.

Parco’s sister Rose has a very hard-edge punk look; she’s probably one of the most distinct characters visually, how did this come about?

Ha! I forgot about her. That’s 100% Riccardo. I think I just told him to draw a female Parco or something. Wow, I really did forget all about her, that’s crazy. Riccardo did a great job.

There are numerous shots of Midtown, Central Park, and Lower Manhattan just getting demolished. Sure, it’s fictional, but is that hard to do considering your love of NYC?

It’s so abstract, it’s easy. Maybe as the inventor of all that chaos I’m the one to be least affected by it.

Matty comes to this final realization that his role should be official scribe of what he’s witnessed in the DMZ, and then suddenly the official UN Observer role materializes. How did you reach this point? I couldn’t tell if it was planned or maybe you’d actually written yourself into a little corner.

Matty turns himself in, literally, when he arrives at the checkpoint, no doubt expecting the book to be thrown at him. But his dad comes in with this offer to go back out there and be this observer of sorts, a gesture for the US to prove they are being transparent in their final invasion of the city. Matty’s not a UN employee, or a Liberty one, really, but a neutral set of eyes. He sees in this an opportunity to take advantage of that position to complete his own work, his own account of the war. And – and this is something that was widely missed – turns down amnesty for his crimes. That scene right there was the start of the path that ends up with him in a courtroom.

As a funny aside, re-reading that scene with his father, there’s a line in there where Matty expresses a lot of frustration: “So sick of seeing people with guns!” That was direct from my own heart to the page. At that point I was sick to death of writing about guns and war. I was starting to actually get depressed about it.

Hold on, you said you can maintain some sort of writer’s detachment from the abstraction of bombing New York City, but at the same time you were sick of writing about guns and war to the point it was infecting the dialogue. So, where’s the line? When you look into the abyss, when does it look back for you personally?

I don’t know where the line is specifically… like, I can’t point to it. Maybe it was a cumulative thing, combined with the violence of NORTHLANDERS. But there came a time when just writing the words “assault rifle” or “handgun” would affect me physically, would drain me of something. It felt tedious, on one hand, and also I felt like I was past it somehow, that my time writing a war comic was done and I didn’t need the trappings of war to write a politically-aware action comic. So here comes THE MASSIVE for me to prove the point.

End Transmission

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