Volume 11: "Free States Rising," Interview w/ Writer Brian Wood

“Free States Rising” runs from issue 60 to 66, and is comprised of two smaller arcs and a single spotlight issue. The first arc chronicles the birth of the movement through the eyes of one man’s induction into the FSA, as he turns from being an arms dealer riding the profitable tide of war to full-fledged FSA leadership. Shawn Martinbrough delivers this two-parter in his dark and ominous style. Issue 60 is aptly titled “Middle America,” and touches on the disenfranchised American Heartland, while “The Jersey Shore” in issue 61 depicts the takeover of the Lincoln Tunnel. Brian Wood’s trademark newsfeed informs us that the US has nearly one million troops deployed in the Middle East, including places like Yemen and Syria, entrenched in a campaign of 39 years of combined war on 6 fronts around the world. Riccardo Burchielli returns to the series he helped launch with the “Free States Rising” arc, captured in issues 62 through 65. In his newly minted role as official UN Observer, Matty witnesses the aftermath of some of his actions and reaches a mental tipping point, as the final surge to Broadway opens with an air strike, and is followed by an intense ground war. We learn definitive revelations about the Indian Point nuclear detonation, as well as the final fate of Parco Delgado. Issue 66 is the last solo issue focusing on Zee Hernandez, recapping the story of her corporeal existence in the DMZ, but also solidifying the figurative notion that she is the physical manifestation of New York City.

Brian, seeing the title of this arc, it’s impossible for me not to think of the Bruce Springsteen song “The Rising,” which he wrote as a response to 9/11. Any subconscious connection there? Does your musical taste even swing toward The Boss? C’mon, tell me you’re over there hammering out the guitar riff from “Born To Run.”

My go-to Springsteen track will always be “Glory Days.” Although, I really like his recent forays into Americana and Irish folk. Anyway, I like “The Rising,” but no connections that I’m aware of.

In the Shawn Martinbrough issues, the idea of the FSA seems to be evolving fast. It’s a movement, it’s a prelude to civil war, and there’s even thought given to the idea that it’s just a means to an end – to force the end of foreign wars and draw troops home. I’ve seen a lot of reviews (mine included) that tend to project their own ideas of what they think the FSA is into the work. It’s tempting to dismiss them by wrongly classifying them as just redneck militia from The Red States. So, in your own words, for the record, what’s the FSA?

The FSA has always been more of an idea than a standing army. The idea of resistance, of a popular civilian uprising, rather than soldiers in uniform per se. So, as such, the FSA is disorganized and fluid in its actions and motivations, and also nearly impossible to point at with a gun and kill. For a decade, America’s tried to point a gun and kill an enemy in Afghanistan.

I’ve consistently shown the FSA as having come out of the Midwest, or Montana, and I get how that plays into the stereotype of rednecks. Early on, I think I saw the FSA as having been born out of the survivalist movement, which is neither Red nor Blue really (of course I did research), but soon after I evolved it into a more national concept. When I knew I was going to be winding down the Commander character, I wanted to show his origins.
And the Commander, a favorite of mine, was one I deliberately tried to write as contradictory as possible. He’s all over the place in terms of ideology and even loyalty, both a friend (born from familiarity) and an enemy to Matty. A pot-smoking long-hair defending the Lincoln Tunnel, what’s not to like?

You’ve always said “the FSA is an idea,” and honestly that took a while to finally click for me. But once it does, you realize what a powerful idea this is to the status quo. It’s the idea of an asymmetrical foe that can be faceless because it’s just a mindset of resistance or opposition. The FSA as, like, America(ns) as a slumbering giant, that might actually wake up long enough to keep their government in check. That’s always there in the background. Dissent as patriotism, a government fearing its people, not people living in fear of their government. Wait, I think I just quoted V FOR VENDETTA…

This was back when the war in Iraq was turning out to not be the slam dunk we were promised, and Rumsfeld was on TV whining that the enemy wasn’t playing by the rules, i.e. lining up politely to get shot. They were not in uniform and were blending into the population, etc. An impossible enemy to find and kill. Sorta’ reminds me of how we won the American Revolution, in part.

Yeah, I think it was Howard Zinn who said that from the perspective of the British Crown, the hit-and-run guerrilla warfare of something like the Boston Tea Party was not some liberating birth-of-a-nation moment, but a terrorist act by a local insurgent cell. Perspective is everything.

There’s this full page shot in issue 61 of ConEd taking down the power grid and for a moment we see the spire of the Empire State Building lit up. When I was in NYC last summer, I went to a midnight wedding on a rooftop down in Tribeca, and was really struck by how iconic that beacon of light is. Do you think that building has become the de facto skyline image with the WTC gone? Shit, this is a long-winded question, but what I really wanted to get to was how do you think that a New Yorker reads DMZ differently than someone not as familiar with the city’s geography?

I don’t know a single New Yorker that claims to love the Empire State Building in the same way they might the Flatiron or the Chrysler or the Woolworth. But, it’s so recognizable, and I tried to include it as much as possible since DMZ’s audience is global, and probably only .005% of those readers are familiar with NYC like the locals are.

I was at a function about a month ago that was on the 50th floor of a Midtown building and witnessed all these die-hard New Yorkers just awed by the view of the Chrysler Building. Not much tends to awe our cynical, blackened hearts.

While in New York, like every other tourist, I walked by Ground Zero and was surprised to find that my reaction wasn’t very positive. All these families were taking pictures with their kids, like it was Disneyland or something, and it really twisted my stomach. It was a real carnival atmosphere. It just cheapened the whole thing. I expected more… reverence, I guess? I couldn’t wait to get out of there and not be part of the problem. I couldn’t help feeling that this revulsion must be how Zee and the locals partially feel when outsiders come into their city. What do you make of this phenomenon?

I’ve actually never been. I mean, I’ve walked by the construction site a lot (my wife works a couple blocks away), but I’ve never seen the memorial or walked on that walkway or anything like that. It’s not out of any particular emotion other than pure lack of interest. But I think it’s a fair comment about Zee… the idea of tourists wanting to gawk.

I like the symbolism of this guy having to get through the Lincoln Tunnel as it starts flooding. There’s a spiritual transformation with those baptizing waters of the Hudson as he enters NYC. I just want to confirm, this is the origin of the infamous FSA “Commander” we see pop up at various points throughout the series, right? How does he go from being an arms dealer loosely affiliated with the FSA to full-fledged FSA believer, and a leader of the movement?

Well, like I said, the FSA is pretty loose. What I wanted to tell with this mini-arc (the first part of “Free States Rising”) is how he sort of came into the fold of the FSA and then left it and went off and did his own thing. I guess you could call him a cell (maybe?) affiliated with the larger movement. I don’t know if he was ever a believer. He joined up for the amnesty, for the cover, mocking the “brotherhood” language one of the REAL true believers used.

This might be a question for Riccardo, but is that an old Fiat 500 that Matty is thrashing around in? He’s gotten pretty good at power-sliding it around corners.

Any chance I get, I give him a chance to draw that Fiat! He first did way back, maybe in volume 3, and I remember he was so proud of it, representing the Italian automotive icon. I’ve never forgotten it. I think we see it in again in the last volume.

I have a very specific question here and then I’ll follow up with my theory. There’s a panel in issue 62 where Matty is almost entirely in silhouette and there’s white text against him as the background. He’s talking about how you can’t control chaos and have to give into the tide of events. It seems to be this little Zen moment of clarity. What’s that about?

Less clarity than just trusting to the fates. It’s not the clearest scene in the world, but he essentially walks out into the open and is trusting the city not to kill him (very much like the rooftop scene in volume 2). Matty is very much in this mindset now, much less concerned about self-preservation. It’s all part of the wind down.

I thought it was truly the first time that Matty becomes self-aware, on that precipice you talk about, knowing his decisions will steer his future. I think this is the precise moment he becomes a man, he decides that nobody is going to use him, not the FSA, not the USA, not the military, not even Zee and his need to belong, not his dad, Liberty News, or Parco Delgado. And yeah, he’ll walk out and take his chances; if he dies, he dies, if it works out, it works out. It’s like a switch flips and he knows what he’s going to do regardless, he’s not appealing to anyone’s approval, but to his own internal moral compass.

It’s certainly when he first walked the walk as far as that’s concerned. At the end of the “M.I.A.” arc when he was talking to his dad and turned down immunity from prosecution, that’s a fantastic and brave gesture, but it’s all just talk until he physically and literally commits, which he did here.

There’s finally a very terse conversation between Parco and Matty. Even though Parco clearly used Matty, he does call Matty on his victim trip, saying that he didn’t make Matty do anything he didn’t want to. It seems like this was an important conversation for you to get on the record?

I think it’s ultimately true, and there is one thing I wanted to be very clear about: Matty is guilty as hell, of capital offenses. So is Parco, but the worst Parco did in terms of his relationship with Matty was to enable him, to encourage him, typically in a “bro” sort of way. Matty’s responsible. When the series ended, I got a lot of pushback from readers who were sort of appalled at what I did to Matty, at how he ended up. That he would be considered guilty. Maybe the expectation that because he’s the “hero” of the book he somehow would prevail? He’s a murderer! He trafficked a nuclear weapon! He’s guiltier than a lot of the villains in the DMZ.

In issue 64, Matty learns that Wilson is dead. We go on to learn about the UN Ambassador that Trustwell assassinated, there are mentions of PFC Stevens, and DJ Random Fire has apparently gone on to a successful career overseas. It has the definite feel that you’re tying up little loose ends. How did that feel to begin closing up shop?

I felt relieved. In so many ways I like to talk about, but in this case it was a relief to actually be pulling it off, to be snapping the puzzle pieces down and realizing it’s all starting to look like a complete picture. This was my first time writing a big story like this.

There’s a pretty intense scene where the US kills the FSA Commander right after he gives up Parco. It seems like this pushed Matty over the edge to release (or threaten the release of) the info he had on Indian Point. Is that accurate or do you think he would have released it anyway just out of spite?

He never would have, I don’t think. He knows the value of it (Parco’s life) and also the potential to prolong the war. It’s an interesting choice he makes (with Zee’s encouragement): cover up the truth, but hasten the end of the war. And, to a degree, take the blame.

In issue 65, there’s a military tribunal for Parco. Is he just assuming that he’s going to die? That this tribunal is just a formality, so he might as well be blunt and tell the truth?

The tribunal was valid, but in the scene after, and the one after that, we see Matty cut a deal with the President to spare Parco’s life in exchange for the proof of the truth about the nuke. Parco gets exiled instead. I remember my editor being surprised at that, assuming that Parco would die. I couldn’t kill everyone! Haha!

It seems like Matty threads a very tiny needle. The US gets what it wants by taking the FSA Commander and Parco Delgado off the board, and Matty has used the info he has about US culpability in the nuke detonation to keep Parco alive. His ownership of that small piece of truth actually saved a life. He did some good for once, which might be all Zee ever wanted from him, not to get anyone else killed, to protect people, or protect the city. Is this the beginning of his road to partial redemption, or at least squaring up to become a man?

It’s all of that. It’s a very “grown up” decision for him to have made, in the sense that it’s rational and not based on emotion or revenge. In effect, he takes care of everyone – everyone gets something they want – except for him. There’s no direct benefit to him, and he knows it and makes the deals anyway. He does this partly out of guilt and partly out of maturity.

It is all very fine, and subtle in some ways, and requires looking back at the body of the crimes Matty’s committed, and a lot of readers missed it entirely. One thing that really bothered me was this sense among some readers that all this was rushed and half-assed and made up on the spot, when it was a process that began at the end of the “M.I.A.” arc.

Instead of “Every Day is 9/11,” we seem to reach an emotional turning point and get the more positive “We Love NYC” in background graffiti. Is this another thing that Riccardo just did of his own volition or was it scripted?

It’s all Riccardo!

How did you approach what is really the last substantial Zee story, “Citizen Zee,” in issue 66? Where did you want to leave her, or what did you want to say about her?

I wanted to do one last Zee issue, a third one since I like groupings of three. Riccardo wanted to draw a Zee issue, and I saw an opportunity to give some first-person context to a lot of the decisions she made in the recent past. It’s also her final issue, in the same way that Wilson got his, and Decade Later got his, and so on. We still see her in the final volume, but her story basically ends here.

It nicely recaps her existence in the DMZ, highlighting her caring for Matty despite some of his actions. It seems like you consciously went into this knowing Zee really is the city itself, she takes care of her residents, warts and all, but because she’s this living embodiment she can never really leave.

Not to get ahead of us, but in #71 she leaves the courtroom, and she is gone, vanished into the city. I like to imagine her literally disembodied and absorbed, as silly as that is. Metaphorically, let’s say.

End Transmission

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