Live From The DMZ - by Justin Giampaoli

Justin Giampaoli has written and self-published several mini-comics, including The Mercy Killing, Silicon Valley Blues, and Blood Orange, but is primarily known as a critic. He’s written for Hijinx Comics, Savant Magazine, and The East County Californian Newspaper. He’s currently the Senior Reviewer at Poopsheet Foundation and blogs frequently about more mainstream offerings at his own 13 Minutes. Live From The DMZ is dedicated to Brian Wood’s contemporary classic through its final year of publication and beyond.

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VOLUME 07: “WAR POWERS” INTERVIEW

Collecting issues 35 through 41, Volume 07 is comprised of two smaller arcs and a special issue focusing on the character of Zee. The first story in this volume witnesses the return of artist Kristian Donaldson for a two-issue tale in issues 35 and 36 called “The Island.” The short divergent arc follows Matthew Roth to Staten Island, the forgotten borough with a peculiarly high concentration of US Army soldiers. It offers a brief respite as Matty returns to pitching and reporting stories for Liberty News as the entire world awaits the outcome of the recent election. Riccardo Burchielli provides art for the “War Powers” arc proper, spanning issues 37 to 40, and addressing the action immediately following Parco Delgado’s rise to power. “War Powers” witnesses The Delgado Nation boldly attempt to position Manhattan as a fledgling sovereign state. In a startling move, Parco orders out all FSA, USA, and UN troops, while attempting to consolidate the power base of the new administration with the local factions. The last issue of the arc, 41, is a special spotlight issue on Zee, with art by Nikki Cook.

Brian, issue 35 marks the first cover designed by John Paul Leon, who first caught my attention on a WildStorm book called THE WINTER MEN. We talked previously about the reasons behind the transition, but let’s discuss artist selection. Were any others considered and how was JP finalized?

No one else was considered, he was my first choice and I’m lucky it worked out. I’d actually been a fan of his for so long, I can remember being in art school and taking some prestige format Logan book… I think it was called “Path Of The Warlord…” just taking it apart at the seams to figure out how he drew like that, and how I could draw like that too. I still feel that way, actually.

What was the thought process in pairing Kristian’s artistic tone with the happenings in “The Island?”

I don’t know to what extent it came across in the end, and I take full responsibility if it didn’t, but I was going for a slightly crazy, sorta’ darkly humorous, just-on-the-edge-of-chaos vibe with that story. I think he’s a good fit for that, his style in nice contrast to some of the nastier parts of the story.

Oh, I think that vibe comes across fine. You ever see that documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” about Francis Ford Coppola and the making of APOCALYPSE  NOW? They make the point about Duvall’s portrayal of Lt. Colonel Kilgore and his unit, that the more they brought in the BBQs and the booze and the music and the surfing, the more they tried to make it like home, the more removed and surreal it actually became. The juxtaposition of Vietnam and those creature comforts actually made it more foreign and less like home, totally backfired. Anyway, it reminded me of the guys on “The Island.”

I keep going back to this, but the FSA is everywhere; they’ve penetrated Trustwell, the US Forces, and they’re active in the DMZ. Why do you think you’re so drawn to this theme of asymmetrical warfare where nobody knows who’s who?

Thank Donald Rumsfeld for popularizing that term, “asymmetrical warfare,” by the way. And remember when he used it to define all those suicides that were happening in Guantanamo amongst the detainee population? I miss that guy, like I miss anal fissures.

But yeah, the FSA. It’s a concept, not a standing army, and it is everywhere. That’s a terrifying concept if it’s something you feel threatened by. Or are told to feel threatened by it, as in the case of our current “War On An Overly Broad Term,” aka: “The War On Terror.” The idea of an invisible enemy that can take any form, it’s a compelling one.

What was the intention behind showing these soldiers from both sides of the conflict building an unofficial cease fire agreement?

It’s one of those logical assumptions, really. In a civil war with politicians and ideologies driving the conflict, why should we assume that all soldiers will perform to specifications? They have, literally, everything in common with each other and are, under the uniforms, human beings. Totally logical. I wish I had done more with that, actually.

In “War Powers” proper, you mention that Matty has been in the DMZ three years at this point, which is about as long as the series had been running. Was a deliberate effort made to tell the story in sync with the passage of real time?

Not super accurately, but as a rough guide, yeah. You’ll really see that on display in the final issue, where the events are marked as “Year Two,” etc., in capitalized words, so it’s a formalized indicator of Matty’s time spent there. Looking back, I sorta’ wish I had indicated the passage of time better with things like seasons, weather, holidays… There’s not enough of that in comics. There’s not enough weather. Will Dennis and I have talked about that on more than one occasion, but when writing, it can really easily slip the mind.

We talked a bit at San Diego Comic-Con one year regarding DMZ being an endurance test for you as a writer. At this point in the series, you’re about half way through, so did you have contingency plans in mind if it went longer than planned or was cancelled mid-stream?

This may sound a little too pleased with myself, but after the first year or so there was no real worry of cancellation. The trades for DMZ sell extraordinarily well. I always worried a little about the sales on the single issues, but who doesn’t? Somewhere around the halfway mark I did make a plan for the rest of the series, specifically, to nail down a final issue number. We still ran a little long… I think my plan was to end at #66. Shelly Bond, another editor of mine at Vertigo, said I should go to #75 or so, just to beat SANDMAN. But honestly, in this last year with the new regime at DC and the drastically changed standards for success and failure, I’m not sure DMZ wouldn’t have been cancelled if it wasn’t already ending.

What did you want to trigger in readers by making Parco’s campaign poster resemble Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster for the Obama Campaign?

Nothing more than a pop-cultural association. Although I think I wrote it more as a Che poster than an Obama one, though. I was deeply sensitive about making overt connections between Obama and Parco.

There’s this mangy emaciated dog running around from page 75 to page 79 of the trade that really caught my eye; is this symbolism for Matty having lost his way?

There’s this running list in my head of images I see when I think of DMZ, little bits of scenes or elements I remind myself to include. Che-style posters are one, the plight of household pets in the war zone that is DMZ is another. There’s not much more to it than that, just trying to answer a few of those millions of questions: “what would *blank* be like in a war zone?” 

Sometimes I don’t think you give yourself enough credit as a writer. Maybe these things are happening subconsciously but I don’t feel like everything is there to be taken at just face value. Looking back, that dog serves as a nice bit of foreshadowing for the M.I.A. arc; I mean, Matty becomes that dog in M.I.A., wandering around aimlessly uptown. He even drinks some ramen noodles out of a dog’s water bowl at some point.

Wilson’s Chinatown Gold! Where did the idea for this mythic urban legend come from?

I dunno’, probably that film “Three Kings,” mixed with a little bit of that “Die Hard” film set in New York. I’m half serious, there. The gold IS there, in this city, and Wilson’s the sort of guy who could have made a play for it. And the urban legend nature of it all just reinforces Wilson’s mythical status. What’s better than a ghost protector of Chinatown than one hoarding a massive treasure?

Ah, “Thee Kings” is a slick little movie!

There’s a moment in “War Powers” that really struck me in terms of how far Matty’s come. He’s not reporting stories, he’s fully armed with his own crew, he’s rolling in an FSA humvee with millions in Wilson’s gold, and he buys a tactical nuke for Parco Delgado from The Ghosts of Central Park! Where did this new person come from? Is power corrupting him?

This is precisely why I cannot stress Parco’s importance to the overall story: it’s because of him.  Parco buffed his ego, he propped him up, he was his pal, and he enabled him to be this guy. Have you ever had such a charming and charismatic friend that you found yourself doing or acting differently while around him? Matty and Parco is an extreme example, but the DMZ is an extreme place. 

Deep down, Matty has always just wanted to belong, to matter, to have a place in the city, to not be the outsider. Parco handed him all of that on a silver platter.

Parco is definitely the “be careful what you wish for” guy, and therefore possibly the most dangerous person in the DMZ to Matty, yet he sidles up to him as a friend. He’s a brilliant character foil. For me, it becomes really clear around this time in the series that Matty is just tired of being played for his media voice or for his connections and manipulated for another person’s agenda. Parco won’t divulge the end game to him, he’s trying to be his own man and find out who he is, but he’s lost his way. It’s the classic Brian Wood identity struggle. He’s Megan in LOCAL, he’s Pella Suzuki, he’s Sven, he’s the DV8 kids, he fucks it up a lot before he has any concept of who he is and what his core beliefs are. The boy is becoming a man.

Can you discuss the collaboration with Nikki Cook for issue 41? What was the goal of this Zee story?

It was a struggle, from the start of this series to the end, to give everything the time and attention it needed. Zee is a good example of that, but she’s so important that I felt it was good to, every once in a while, spend an issue solely on her. Nikki’s a friend, and we’d been trying to work together on something else (to no avail), so this seemed like a good thing.

This story in particular, I wanted to take away some of the “goodness” of Zee, show the more fucked-up side of her as opposed to her as some kind of constant force for good. I mean, she’s not super fucked up in this issue, but she’s pretty dysfunctional. As well she would be.

I can see the dysfunction you’re referring to, but I liked how it demonstrated that these little opportunities for humanitarianism still exist in the DMZ and can transcend sides in the conflict. “New York For New Yorkers,” as you once said.

Do you think Matty would make a good citizen of NYC today, in a modern post-9/11, post-DMZ world?

Hard to answer this 100% truthfully without spoilers on the last issue, but I think Matty, as a normal guy coming to a normal New York, would not find his place.  He was lucky, if you can call it luck, to come in under such extraordinary circumstances, and with so many things going for him that made him something of a powerful guy.  All that coming of age stuff, figuring himself out, would not make him unique, or cause anyone like Zee to help him out.  He’d probably last 6 months before becoming so discouraged that he gets on the train back to Long Island.

 The difference between Matty in the DMZ and in the real world is interesting to me. You’re a very politically minded writer, and as time went on part of me felt like you were building this archetype of an idealized citizen, some sort of (and I hate using this over-used word) “aspirational” archetype. This sort of post-9/11, post-Obama, post-United States, resident of the DMZ. Flawed as he is, Matty learns an ability to cross political boundaries and warring factions, to ignore imposed demographic and artificial geographic boundaries, to consider the multi-faceted positions of any given issue.

If I may, perhaps your greatest contribution as a writer is suggesting that people consider all sides of an argument, that the modern labels being thrown around by the media and the government are too easy, too fast, and too clean. You have to get a little dirty to fully comprehend complex issues. That’s Matthew Roth; we get dirty vicariously through him.

Notes

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