Rude Chapbooks 12.30.11 | EXTRA: Farewell to “Five Nations”

In a meditative mood as this year concludes and the next commences, our crotchety columnist bids adieu to one of the mainstream’s finest offerings of the past decade, reflecting on Wednesday’s shipment of writer Brian Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli’s DMZ #72.

And so ends DMZ from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli.
The preceding verb, ends, in context, prompts a guffaw that all too easily could blossom into a titter. Certainly, DMZ #72, which hit comics shops nationally this week, closes the near-future and, on especially glum days, all-too-believable dystopia from Wood and Burchielli, the Vertigo series’ writer and main artist. In the aesthetic ghetto of mainstream comics, though, few things ever really end; all putative climaxes ring with a sincerity worthy of a Saigon brothel at the low height of the so-called Viet Nam conflict. The fanboys demand their false comforts, after all. If Bruce Wayne “dies,” replacing him as the Dark Knight will be one erstwhile Robin or another or Bat-Mite or maybe Ace the Bat-Hound; if some slightly less corporatized character strays into theoretically verboten territory, forever recapitalizing that character’s value will be a too-clever-by-half lad like Grant Morrison, whether in the short term (the Sandmannish Daniel in JLA) or the long (Rorschach or the Rorschach simulacrum in the forthcoming Multiversity).
Inasmuch as Wood and Burchielli retain copyright to DMZ, of course, a naïf might pooh-pooh the possibility of the series’ focus, photojournalist Matthew “Matty” Roth, returning in DMZ: The Next Generation, both without their permission or input and with a wisecracking, unitard-clad sidekick. Such a naïf would be overlooking, almost willfully, not only devilish colophon boilerplate—“All characters featured in this issue, the distinctive likenesses thereof and related elements are trademarks of DC Comics”—but also the probability of corporate fiat in a landscape so lately dominated politically and otherwise by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
To certain readers, of course, shanghaiing that infamous January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling into a rumination on the provenance of a comic book will stink of hyperbole. So indeed would it seem…in the context of this increasingly stunted industry. In a larger context, however, in a context transcending dimwit Newsarama “10 lists” and all the other daft appurtenances of what passes for analysis in comics, the finale of DMZ, by rights, should more nearly inspire not the aforesaid guffaw but a cackle of utmost madness, precisely to the extent that the moral salubrity of Wood and Burchielli’s work could redeem, at least in part, the burgeoning spiritual dubiety of the moment. That is, with a “hello, I must be going” sense of timing that borders on the diabolical, DMZ as fiction may be concluding concurrent with its commencement as fact.
Wood, to be sure, would in all likelihood demur. Rarely does anyone beyond a crackpot or a crook play the Nostradamus card, and in countless interviews, DMZ’s writer has always conducted himself with decorum. In addition, he himself would perhaps cite the influence not only of the post-9/11 sociopolitical climate, but also of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, an earlier “crusading future newsie as truepenny” Helix/Vertigo romp, albeit sans Transmet’s gonzo brio. (In passing, one can’t help speculating how the late Hunter S. Thompson, the inspiration for Ellis and Robertson’s Spider Jerusalem, would have viewed today’s so-called citizen journalists—CNN’s iReporters and so forth.) Supposedly, Wood also plans to revisit various preoccupations and predilections from DMZ in The Massive, his upcoming collaboration with artist Kristian Donaldson, scheduled for a tripartite preview starting in Dark Horse Presents #8 in January before becoming a full ongoing in June.
Be that as it may, a frisson of prescience still greets the abrupt and violent stranding of poor Matty in the titular terra incognita: a New York City metamorphosed into a no man’s land between the U.S. proper and the “Free States of America” in a five-year-old second American civil war, with the Big Apple’s five boroughs operating as pseudo-nations. (Wood and Burchielli’s “Ugly Duckling” protagonist, who almost always sports a Band-Aid across the bridge of his nose, believes he’s just beginning a news agency’s photo tech internship. Talk about taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque!) So stranded, Matty, in a blend of vocational spunk and sheer and utter stupidity, embarks on a weird, wired tour of his new beat, seeking truth on the street—only to realize, slowly but surely, that ancient Diogenes may have launched a congruent quest through disgust at the face peering from the mirror.
Five years later in “real time,” whatever that means anymore, an unusually large number of civil wars and other incivilities simmer and seethe across the globe, the population of dictators and despots has in no wise declined, and, most queasily, the specter of nuclear conflict once more haunts the world. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street protest has gone viral nationwide, with both elected and nonelected suits from coast to coast scrambling for figurative antibiotics, and a U.S. Congress half of whose members are millionaires purports to speak and act for the American middle class, a collective entity staggering in the tracks of the dodo. Sooner rather than later, in short, the front page may transform Wood and Burchielli’s funnybook into kiddie bedtime reading, there in the cardboard box or beneath the bridge abutment.
Yet DMZ’s conclusion prompts no tears because anything less than a proper conclusion would have betrayed the series’ resounding artistry. Last month witnessed its fearless denouement, with a military tribunal sentencing Matty to life in prison without the possibility of parole; true to form, Wood and Burchielli’s protagonist appears nowhere in this valedictory issue’s epilogue, set 15 years later. Nonetheless, DMZ finishes on a multiply triumphal note, with a verbal salute to integrity and responsibility and other atavistic virtues, as well as a vision of Manhattan become once more a shining city rather than a wasteland of rubble, shrapnel, and spilled blood.
Dime-store cynics, of whom we never suffer a shortage, will likely hoot that such prima facie optimism, however hard-won, smacks of romanticism, and admittedly, facing the vista vast and grim nowadays masquerading as our “sea to shining sea” ideal demands psychological reserves parlously close to the Pollyannaish. The American dream, more and more, seems hazed by nightmare. Moreover, the bleak jape of the series’ title lingers. In this, our “sixth” nation at the moment, that is, socially, economically, and politically, none of us—not a man, woman, or child—enjoys the comfort of a truly demilitarized zone.
As we enter 2012, however, let us savor whatever ceasefires come our way. | Bryan A. Hollerbach

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