“The Hidden War” is the first full arc to feature rotating artists for self-contained spotlight issues on specific characters. Collecting issues 23 through 28, we’re treated to engrossing portrayals of the many compelling personalities inhabiting the city “you can’t kill.” Artistic collaborators Riccardo Burchielli, Nathan Fox, and Danijel Zezelj give us Decade Later – the DMZ’s resident street artist, Amina – a young woman whose life is co-opted by the war, Wilson – the crime boss of Chinatown, IWN Reporter Kelly Connolly, DJ Random Fire, and Soames – the FSA defector turned “Ghost of Central Park.” As the title suggests, “The Hidden War” teaches us about the individual personal wars created by the conflict in the DMZ. Through these diverse characters, we learn one solemn truth – that intimate moments and meaningful decisions must be found and seized when and where they can, for life is turbulent and often short in the DMZ.
Brian, I’ve been dying to discuss issue 27 with DJ Random Fire and art by Nathan “The Next Paul Pope” Fox. For me, this was a quintessential issue of DMZ that represents how somewhere in the middle of this conflict, there’s a vibrant underground culture happening even as war attempts to derail society and crumbles the city. The issue is like this b-side deep cut about a new culture being forged in fire. It opens with that Jared K. Fletcher free-floating rhyme that just pounds like bass against your chest. I’m losing it here; I can’t even come up with a question. Tell us about this issue and DJ Random Fire.
Well, I should start by talking about the arc as a whole, or rather, this run of single-issue stories. It’s not an arc at all – it only got “The Hidden War” tag when we needed a name to put on the trade. As I recall, Riccardo was running a little behind schedule and, like I’ve said in the past, he was only contracted for something like 10 issues out of every 12. So, he was due his break and this gave us a chance to have a little fun with some guest artists and some one-shots.
A constant struggle I had with DMZ – and I suppose continue to have since I am writing the script for #71 at the same time as I answer these questions – is how to fit all the story into the container. In the end, it proved impossible, but the function of these periodic one-shots is to give Matty a break and talk about what ELSE is happening in the DMZ. Typically, to a hell of a lot of angry and frustrated comments from readers who don’t see these one-shots as stories, or as part of DMZ, but as obstacles in the way of them knowing what’s going on with Matty. But now I’m really getting away from the question.
The DJ story came out of a single image in #12, something I’ve tapped a few times for these characters I sorta’ made and forgot about. The whole city in the DMZ is the underground, but I wanted to do something with a more traditional, cultural underground, the classic underground club, and a kid who just wants to rock out, basically. I also like hitting a note of exploitation, the outsider DJ who wants to capitalize on the “realness” of the war zone to hype his record. I wish I had done more with that, actually.
Nathan’s great. He and I go back a ways, in terms of wanting to work together, or almost working together. For a brief moment, he was up for the LOCAL gig, believe it or not. But now, I dunno’, he’s too big for me and doesn’t take my job offers. Haha!
Music is also one of your deep interests it seems, so it’s interesting to hear that even in a title like DMZ, it founds its way into some small corner of the story. Is ANTHEM going to really scratch this itch to do more with the intersection of music and comics?
ANTHEM will allow me to talk about music with comics, yeah. To what extent the form of music and the form of comics will intersect, I don’t really know. I’ve talked about skeptics of the idea saying that music can’t work in comics, and while I don’t agree with such a blanket statement as that, I can see what they’re saying… which is music SO RARELY works in comics, but I think I’m taking the right approach. It’s not about a change in form or approach, it’s just about writing a terrific story. A comic about music as opposed to a “music comic,” if that makes any sense.
I think that DMZ story was some kind of subconscious dry run at the idea.
This arc began something of a pattern for subsequent arcs with the format flipping back and forth between the main Matthew Roth narrative and then arcs full of one-shots, flashbacks, or small little spin-off stories. Was this structure a deviation from the original plan? It felt like the characters started writing themselves.
After that first backlash to these one-shots, I kinda’ decided to keep doing them every so often, if only out of spite. That and I really enjoy writing one-shots.
The Decade Later tag is really iconic; was that your design or one of the artists?
It’s mine. I consciously wanted something that wasn’t so “graffiti” in style, since I don’t feel I can claim enough authenticity to pull it off, and it’s also just not me. Poor Jared Fletcher mistook something in the script and created a really complex bit of graffiti and dropped it into the art, and I had to ask him to take it out. I felt horrible.
So, Decade’s art looks like my art, which may sound egotistical but it was really the only thing I felt I could pull off and “own.”
What part of the city or culture does Decade Later represent?
Old school 70’s, basically. He’s a mixture of the old class of NYC street artists and Ramones-era rockers from the outer boroughs. It’s me kind of making something up by combining two things I think are cool, from an era I wish I lived in.
I remember catching hell from my editor for making him look too much like Henry Rollins on the cover, and I had to change that. I wonder if I have the Rollins one still?
For me, what I like about Decade Later is that he’s the one guy creating, on a mass scale at times, while all of this destruction is happening around him. His very existence seems anathema to the war.
He’s not a protest artist, though. It’s very personal for him and he’s never seeking an audience (the gallery scene in #12 doesn’t apply). I’ve been labeled, or have had DMZ labeled, a piece of anti-war “protest,” and while that’s flattering on one level, I’ve found that categorization always more about the person using that label than the work itself. Which is fine, but the artist – me, in the case of DMZ – can hold a different viewpoint.
What was your intention with the scene where Decade Later signs some chick’s chest?
He’s famous, a legend in the city. That scene is probably sexier looking than it needed to be. But I like the idea of a persistent culture in the city that exists despite the war. Like with the DJ story, the “pre-war” style is still out there and matters to people.
Does the ubiquitous FSA Commander have a name? I’m jumping ahead a bit, but is this the same man we meet dozens of issues later in the “Free States Rising” arc?
Yeah. I never gave him a name, even in the scripts, other than “Commander.” He’s in a lot of arcs, from #5, to “Body of a Journalist,” and onwards right up until the “Free States,” which is an origin of sorts.
Obviously DMZ (the book) is a post-9/11 piece of art, but you start to suggest that DMZ (the place) is also truly post-racial. What do you mean by that?
I think I mean that, in a place that’s shot to shit, perhaps race is the last thing on people’s minds. Or, that regardless of past events, dark times in New York’s history, we (residents) have been known to pull it together in moments of crisis… like 9/11, like the most recent blackout, etc. And perhaps that would be amplified in the DMZ. “Us against the world,” that sort of thing. We gotta’ stick together as New Yorkers.
Danijel Zezelj is also a remarkable talent. What do you think he brought to this rendition of Wilson?
I think he defined Wilson as more than the kooky neighbor I had, up until this point, written him as. Once I decided I wanted to write his origin, I needed to get serious and detailed about just who/what he is. Danijel really brought what I wrote to life, to use a corny phrase. But it’s true – he took the more “out there” look that Riccardo gave him and scaled it back in time to when Wilson was “normal” and made it make sense. His heavy art was perfect for the mood, and he can draw the hell out of the city. I’ve been a huge fan of his for forever. It’s an honor any time I get to write something for him.
This is kind of an aside, but I’m a big fan of his too. Did you ever get a chance to read his original graphic novel REX that Optimum Wound put out a couple years ago? It’s more of a West Coast post-apocalyptic LA urban decay sort of thing, but I think it’s amazing. I’ll recommend you check it out if you haven’t!
I think I blurbed that book, actually. I don’t know what the first book of his I read was… maybe AIR MEXICO, but the first time I saw his work was in old Vertigo comics… CONGO BILL, and this anthology title I forget the name of.
There’s something really charming about how Wilson tries to keep Chinatown so insular. What drives that approach for him?
I think just as simple a thing as identity, as “home.” It’s where he lives, he wants to protect it. And locking the doors seems like the most logical way to go about that, and for almost the entire war it works really well. It’s a bit racist, and a bit xenophobic, but as you say, it’s also charming.
Yeah, there’s something very retro about him that’s appealing. He’s the cool grandpa, which is maybe why he has so many “grandsons!” Wilson strikes me as an old-school crime boss, like a Corleone. He’s got this complex network of favors that flourishes, for people who won’t go to the cops for justice. That, and he just has the audacity to do what the next guy won’t. The FSA is essentially seceding from the Union, but it’s like Wilson wants to secede from New York, temporarily at least, and just hope the war will pass him by. The tragedy of Wilson is that he mistakes his ability to do just that.
He wants to secede for the purposes of protection, yeah. I remember writing a line of dialogue for Wilson that I kinda’ had to live down, something about how when the war was over he would own the city. That was a line I couldn’t really ignore, I had to reconcile that somehow.
Is Kelly Connolly the female Matthew Roth?
I think what Kelly is, is the female Matty Roth that Matty Roth wishes he could be. Perhaps to others, she’s the Matty Roth that doesn’t fuck up?
Kelly’s “Viking Funeral” was a huge wake-up call. It had a real sense of consequence about it, that you were willing to kill off key characters.
I think Viktor was the first, but yeah, no one’s really safe in the series. A lot of people I know are expecting to see Matty die.
I really enjoyed the Soames issue, particularly the defection leaflets. It’s a very serene scene. The imagery of the deer toward the end is more symbolic than a usual DMZ script from Brian Wood. It almost plays more like “Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi,” a very ethereal issue of Demo: Volume 01 that you did with Becky Cloonan. How did the Soames issue come about?
I realize in retrospect that I was pushing it with that issue, writing something that would have been more appropriate in a NORTHLANDERS one-shot (like “The Hunt”), and I think most readers didn’t care for it. I wanted to explain Soames’ motivation, but in a really roundabout and subtle way, that perhaps he is not so clear on his own motivation, that maybe it’s partially in his head? The visions – the deer, the field of bones, etc. definitely suggest an outdoorsman troubled by the destruction happening around him, but how sound is he, mentally?
On the face of it, it’s a story I wanted to try again, and to a degree I did with parts of MIA – the one man navigating the city. Soames remains one of the characters I wish I had more time with.