Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday Book Review (DMZ)

Read Scriptshadow on Sundays for book reviews by contributors Michael Stark and Matt Bird. We won't be able to get one up every Sunday, but hopefully most Sundays. Here's Matt Bird with the graphic novel DMZ!

It started with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Sandman established a certain model for adult-aimed comics epics (especially those published by DC Comics): The creators put out a monthly series, broken up in to 5-7 issues storylines, which get collected into trade paperbacks along the way, and the whole thing builds to a big conclusion around issue 70, meaning that you end up with ten graphic novels on your shelf, comprising the whole saga. And then Hollywood starts trying to adapt it, though they can never decide whether to make it into an HBO miniseries or a movie. And then they enter development hell, never to emerge again.

It happened with Sandman, then James Robinson’s Starman, then Garth Ennis’s Preacher, then Brian K. Vaughn’s Y, The Last Man, and so on and so on. The one example that actually seems to be crossing the finish line is a similarly epic series that wasn’t made by DC (coincidence?), Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, which Frank Darabont has set up as a series at AMC. Will this finally provide a repeatable model for how to port a creator-owned comics epic over to another medium?

Most of the above books were published by DC's creator-owned imprint Vertigo. My favorite ongoing Vertigo book is one that I’ve never heard any rumbling at all about adapting: Brian Wood’s DMZ. Neither the book nor the creator get any mention at IMDB Pro. I did find this quote, from a recent interview with Wired Magazine: “I don’t write comics to see them turned into films since the odds of yours being one of the very, very few that get turned into movies is so small you might as well just play Lotto. But there’s always something going on: options, meetings and treatments being written for some of my books. I’ve learned with bitter tears not to feel like it's something that’s supposed to happen. I think of it as free money.” So it sounds like he’s up for it if he someone can make it work. So what are you waiting for?

The monthlies started coming out in November 2005. Issue 51 comes out this month. The ninth book collection, Hearts and Minds, comes out next month.

Carson has pointed out that there are a dozen variations floating out there of the ultimate “war comes to a big American city” story, and one of them has to get made eventually. I’m convinced that Americans of all political stripes are secretly wracked with guilt about our predilection for turning cities all over the world into war zones. We get angry when the occupied become insurgents, but we also can’t help but wonder: “what would I do if the war came to my town?” That big, fat question needs to be vented onscreen. Various attempts to answer it have come in the form of spec scripts about alien takeovers or invasions by foreign governments. Wood goes for option number three: civil war.

Ironically, when the series started I thought that the set-up was too dated: a militia that starts in Montana quickly wins over all of Middle America, causing the federal government to concentrate in the northeast. When full-scale war breaks out, Manhattan is caught in the middle and becomes the official De-Militarized Zone. When the series started in 2005, America’s actual militia-types had fallen back in love with the federal government and this seemed to me like a very ‘90s idea. Now the militias have come roaring back to life and it all seems downright prescient. Wood mixes up the politics by making the militia into anti-military libertarians and the federal government into pro-corporate sleazebags. Niether side is sympathetic. Instead, our sympathies are with the victims of the war: the hard-scrabble skells left behind on Manhattan, who are dedicated to rebuilding their city every time power shifts and new bombs fall.

The series begins as a New England journalism school graduate named Matty Roth gets the internship assignment of a lifetime: accompany the country’s most famous war reporter on a daytrip into the DMZ. Of course, as soon as they arrive, thing go horribly wrong. Soon, only the intern is left, and he’s horrified to see the under-reported suffering of the civilian population. He cuts a deal with the Fox-News-type organization that sent him in: I’m all you’ve got left, so I’ll be your eyes and ears on the ground from now on if you agree to let me report the truth. Over the course of the fifty issues, he’s had to re-negotiate his power-position many times, as his relationship to the local insurgencies and the two governments keeps shifting, but that’s still the basic set-up.

It’s hard to write about journalists without messing it up. You have the same problems that you have with cop or lawyer movies, but greatly magnified: We all know that a protagonist should be good at their job. We also know that, at some point, as the stakes raise, it has to all become personal. (I talked about this tendency on my blog here and here) But there’s a big problem: for cops, for lawyers, and especially for journalists, this is an inherent contradiction. If you lose your objectivity, you become bad at your job. Journalist movies always build up to that moment where the hero says “Damn your ethics! I’m going to take a side!” That’s terrible journalism.

But DMZ is an ongoing series, and though Matty faces several moral dilemmas and crosses the occasional line, Wood does an amazing job of letting the drama come from Matty’s overall dedication to objectivity. Even when he becomes committed to saving the city, he knows that all of his power derives from his credibility, and that credibility comes from not drinking anybody’s kool-aid. This is a huge real world concern that has been little-dramatized. It’s why DMZ works so well as a comic and it should be the heart of any attempt to turn it into a movie or TV series.

Matt Bird bloviates about movies (and occasionally comics) everyday over at Cockeyed Caravan.