DMZ #41 - "Zee, DMZ"

The one-shot is Brian Wood's forté. If you wanted to make a case for Wood being one of the best contemporary writers of comics, you would be hard pressed to find a single issue which better illustrates his particular strengths without the baggage of his occasional weaknesses than the current issue of DMZ.

"Zee, DMZ" is a wisp of a comic, which you can read in about five minutes, but there is more actual human stuff going on in its 20-odd pages than in your average issue of Final Crisis. Part of what makes Wood a particularly skilled architect of comics narrative is that he tends to give his illustrators the freedom to allow the images to convey as much of the actual story movement as Wood's words. This is something I have mentioned before, specifically with reference to Wood, but it strikes me as something that is fundamentally important to comics that a lot of writers are missing. Comics are a visual narrative form and as such, the images, as much as the words, should be part of the narrative's motive force.

What text there is in "Zee, DMZ" is masterfully used. As is common in this series, the opening pages feature text of news reports concerning events happening in the DMZ. This news-ticker narrative not only very efficiently provides the necessary set-up for the story told in the issue, but it also gives a sense of how this sort of constant news reporting would have become ubiquitous to the citizens of the DMZ and thus so much background noise.

"Zee, DMZ" feels a lot like the six one-shots that make up the recently released DMZ: The Hidden War trade paperback. Stories like these are the best of what DMZ has to offer because the politics are there simply to provide the occasion and the real focus is on the people who are just trying to somehow continue to live their lives despite the daunting obstacles they face. Zee has been with the series since the very beginning and is one of the few characters in the city that one senses has not been at all tainted by the war. The same certainly cannot be said for Matty Roth and this is why as the narrative opens Zee is seen leaving the area of the DMZ controlled by the recently elected Delgado administration for the relative wilds of the north.

As we follow Zee on her lonely, disappointed quest, we are filled in with the details of Delgado administration's decision to cancel all city contracts with the shady Trustwell organization--a stand-in for the heavily maligned Blackwater Inc. Just when you think Wood is going to use the issue to make some kind of morally absolute statement about the use of mercenary armies in conflicts, the focus shifts and instead you are presented with a scenario which drives home the point that even these mercenary armies are made of people, most of whom are probably not monsters and are simply doing a job they took because the pay was great without really considering the muddy moral territory into which they would be wading.

The panel in which her mercenary buddies lay the gruesomely wounded Martel on the bed as she balls her fists like a baby, convinced she is dying, pretty much sums up what's great about this issue. Not the least part of which are the illustrations done by guest artist Nikki Cook.

Even if her name wasn't plastered on the cover, it would be pretty clear that this illustration was done by a woman. This is no doubt at least in part because female illustrators and writers are still basically an anomaly in mainstream comics. Cook draws women who look a lot like women you probably know, except that they bear some signs of wear and tear from living in a conflict zone. They are attractive, but flawed--not idealized or unduly sexualized in any way. The illustration of Martel lying on the bed embodies this perfectly. Granted she does have a gaping wound in her leg, but she has been stripped to her panties and it is not too unreasonable to assume that many male illustrators would have been unable to resist sexualizing the character even in these circumstances. Cook's choices, on the other hand--from Martel's basic white panties to her baby fat and balled up fists--emphasize the character's childlike vulnerability. You can more imagine her as the next door neighbor girl who was involved in an unfortunate accident than a member of an armed private mercenary cadre.

As Zee hears Martel's screams coming from the apartment above, she is recounting in her head the tally of damage that Trustwell has done to her city and thus the temptation is to allow these corporate soldiers to fend for themselves. Zee is also a doctor and ultimately her professional instincts get the better of her and the blackened panel which portrays the moment she enters the upstairs apartment and takes over the care of the girl perfectly evokes the sort of blind confusion one would expect from such a scene. The sequences which follow in which Zee assumes control of Martel's care and an uncomfortable truce is established between this uninvited outsider and the Trustwell operatives convey a perfect sense of the crisis of trust created by war. Cook's compositions in these panels artfully convey a sense of the uneasy balance of power established between Zee and the Trustwell people.

Zee is the sort of high moralist that can often come off as more irritating than anything. Compared with her rigid incorruptibility, Matty Roth's squishy compromises seem more familiar and comfortable. Wood's decision, however, to have Zee assume responsibility for Martel, despite the fact that she is a Trustwell operative, saving her from a certain death at the hands of the local militia who are out for Trustwell blood shows that he has a firm grasp of the real moral complexity inherent in war. Comics are essentially a conservative medium in which the good guys are generally easily distinguishable from the bad. Wood's DMZ, on the other hand, accurately reflects the lack of such a Manichean delineation between good and evil in the real world and this has helped to keep the book relevant despite changes in the American political climate.

A friend who recently read the Body of a Journalist trade just pointed out an interesting sequence to me. Matty is having a conversation with Kelly Connolly, a journalist from a rival cable news channel, in a makeshift restaurant situated in a bombed-out building. Matty, after reflecting on how when he first arrived in the DMZ he thought the city was full of lunatics, says to Connolly that "from here . . . everyone's just normal. That's what I want to show people. This is a war of extremes pushing against each other. But the stories lie in the middle. Here, in the city. That's the interesting stuff." Well said.


Nikki Cook said...

Hey, thanks for all the kind words and thanks for reading!


david e. ford, jr said...


Hey, thanks a lot for reading and for your comment. Between your appearance in DMZ and Marian Churchland's brief run in Elephantmen, the first issue of which came out today, there seems to be a trend of talented women stepping in to draw some of our favorite comics and this is definitely a good thing. It's especially interesting when series like DMZ and Elephantmen, which have pretty well established illustration style, feature different illustrators, particularly women, and seeing how the choices they make alter the feel of the book. Don't get me wrong, Riccardo Burchielli is no Rob Liefeld, but again, it comes down to choices, often subtle ones. To give you an example, in this review of the "Hidden War" trade:


the reviewer wrote:

"Plus he draws really sexy women"

Of course there is nothing wrong with drawing sexy women, but I think one of the implications of women still being a relative rarity in mainstream comics is that it effects the way comics are read and readers are not given enough exposure to the different sorts of choices that might be made by female creators as opposed to their male counterparts.

Anyway, thanks again for reading and kudos on a great comic.


Vee (Scratch) said...

David, it is interesting that you can tell the illustration was done by a woman. It is interesting that some people argue that all manga looks the same when the majority of american comics (read: super hero genre - DC, Marvel, Image) draw the same female anatomy, proportion and often the same female breast size and shape. Disney has used the same stylized template for the female figure and face that has influence many of female animated characters and how-to-draw books. The only noticeable difference was the character design for Lilo & Stitch.

Yeah, I'm not judging any artist for drawing sexy female characters. I understand why the figures are stylized but how about a little diversity. Artists like Ross Campbell's work is stylized and I think it works for his stories and subject matter.

R.I.P. Minx = American comics industry loses big time.

------- Oh yeah,
For the most part I think DMZ has consistently produced some of the best comic book covers. I'm going to pick up this issue and check it out.

david e. ford, jr said...


an exercise we did in one of my classes yesterday drove home the folly in making claims such as i did. we were discussing woolf's a room of one's own and read two passages from different authors, one male and the other female, and we were to guess which was which--the entire class got it wrong. even so, the larger point is still valid, i think. i am not even really making a claim about idealization/objectification of women in comics--although, as you point out, this is a major effect of male domination of mainstream american comics--but more about the different choices different illustrators will make to tell the same story. it's the old thing about if women aren't in the workforce, we are losing half of our talent pool, or something like that. i don't really know enough about the industry to make any valid claims, but it seems like a lot of women who write and draw comics tend toward the indie/literary side of the business, which is fine, i guess, but i think that their breaking into more mainstream stuff could only have a positive effect on the industry as a whole.


Vee (Scratch) said...

"it's the old thing about if women aren't in the workforce, we are losing half of our talent pool, or something like that.

...could only have a positive effect on the industry as a whole.
So true.

Fortunately there's a great female presence in graphic design, advertising and illustration, you can really learn from the variety of expressions that's out there.