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.