“Collective Punishment” collects issues 55 through 59 and offers a plethora of diverse stories with rotating artist contributions by some of the most interesting artists working in comics today. For many of the characters, the stories bookend earlier spotlight issues and close down their story threads, securing many of the last remaining “loose ends” for posterity, prior to the resolution of the entire saga. Andrea Mutti depicts an undercover special operative in issue 55, Nathan Fox returns to tell the last Wilson story in issue 56, Cliff Chiang joins the roster of DMZ talent for Amina’s story in issue 57, Danijel Zezelj chronicles Decade Later’s story in issue 58, and David Lapham joins the urban fray with issue 59.
Brian, how does the tone of the writing change in this arc?
Does it? I wasn’t setting out to change my tone, but this is an arc filled with goodbyes and the wrapping up of minor storylines, in anticipation of the series coming to an end. Certainly by now I knew what issue was going to be the final one, so I knew how much space I had left to work with. It was odd to start to kill off characters and write conclusions to others more than a year away from the series’ conclusion, but this was the last chance I felt I had.
That’s what I meant by “tone.” I think the audience could feel your intent, starting to close up shop, and it was a little bittersweet being on the receiving end of that. It must have been satisfying to bring the series home to its planned conclusion (unlike, say, the cancellation of NORTHLANDERS), but at the same time it must have been a little sad too?
I was only ever sad to end Wilson, in the sense that I felt I wasn’t done with him. Everything else ranges from satisfying to feelings of relief. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was thrilled to end DMZ, to finish it and have it stop being a daily presence in my life. 7 years of writing (including development work) is a long time, man. It was time to move on.
For issue 55, Andrea Mutti’s pencils have bits of Jim Lee, Sean Philips, and even some Dave Gibbons influence. What was the intent of the Cal Foster story?
It was a few things. It was set-up for the bombing campaign that was about to start, it was a way to include Zee in this arc, and to get some nice gray-area morality into the mix, and to put a combatant in the same room with a bunch of civilians and see what happens. For all my intentions of making DMZ a book about the “civilian perspective on war,” the Matty storyline could really veer us away from that. So I was always looking for chances to balance it out, if possible. Andrea’s an underrated artist and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in comics. His Zee was unlike anyone else’s, a really warm face with great eyes. Typically Zee is angry and squinting much of the time.
Issue 56 is essentially the last Wilson story, was that a difficult task to wrap your brain around? I could always tell that you enjoyed writing this guy.
I did, but I sorta’ knew there was no other ending for the guy. Earlier in the series I had him predicting for himself that he would run the city when all was said and done, and he’s not the type to give up. So I knew he’d have to die trying. And as weird as it might sound, it was a fun issue to write. I was happy to get him out of the situation, out of the DMZ and the war, and in such a way that no one could ever say he compromised, even if compromise ended up being the smartest thing one could do. He stuck to his guns. All of those flashbacks just make me want to write a Wilson series. Which I can never do, I don’t think. I don’t see Vertigo approving that project.
Nathan Fox changes his style pretty dramatically, showcasing a younger Wilson with his designer furniture, and wild celebrations on Mott Street. Jeromy Cox laid down this kind of watercolor effect that washed out the scenes and suitably dated them. Was this sense of aesthetic nostalgia your suggestion or Nathan’s own contribution?
It was Nathan, I think. In the scripts, I always put in some line about flashbacks being colored in a different palette, and typically that’s all that’s done. But in this case it was Nathan that did the watercolor wash.
Is it me or does that negotiator who comes to talk to Wilson look like Willem Dafoe?
Yeah, I thought so too. There was no specific direction in the script, so that’s all Nathan. You could assemble a pretty interesting support cast out of these lookalikes. Dafoe, Sen Dog for Parco, etc. I think Riccardo based his Zee off of a Korean actress he saw way back when. There’s more, I’m sure.
I’ve loved Cliff Chiang’s art since his work on DOCTOR 13: ARCHITECTURE & MORTALITY with Brian Azzarello, can you discuss the Amina collaboration with him on issue 57?
I remember being really intimidated. I know Cliff, I have for years, and he lives just a couple miles away from me. But when it came time to write him something, this script, I felt a ton of pressure and this overwhelming feeling of just not being good enough. It happens sometimes… with Marian Churchland on NORTHLANDERS, probably the first time with Zezelj as well. I still think I gave Cliff a shitty script. I’m dying for another shot at working with Marian, to give her something meatier and just… better, for all her talents. So yeah, not the answer one would expect, but I felt like I fumbled the entire way through this issue of DMZ. Cliff did a great job, of course.
Looking at the series holistically, I found it interesting that you really tell her story in split fashion over a few sporadic special issues. Was that always the plan or was she a character you simply felt compelled to return to?
She’s just another one of those DMZ characters that I invented on the fly, liked more than I thought I would, and then kept trying to find ways to use her. Wilson is one of these and a successful one. Amina, I always wanted to do more with her but never felt like I had the space.
It seems like I say this regularly, but issue 58 is another favorite issue. Danijel Zezelj helps you depict Decade Later’s entire life via one impromptu art exhibit. How did this issue come about?
This arc, which was pretty loose in its conception (it came into being to give Riccardo the time off to do his run on NORTHLANDERS), was really a goodbye arc for a few of the higher profile side characters, a chance to wrap up their stories before I headed into the final year of the series. In a way, I suppose the first part of the “Free States Rising” story belongs to “Collective Punishment,” in how I deal with the Commander. So Wilson, Amina, and Decade Later get their last encores. Decade, he’s a guy I love, and I wanted to do something special for him. I knew I wanted Zezelj for this, and I gave him all the freedom he wanted to define Decade’s art style. This is one of my favorite issues.
Issue 58 seems like one of those very rare times where a script is perfect, the artist is perfect, and the collaboration reaches a high that’s way more than the sum of its parts. I know you’ve determined that Zee is the physical manifestation of NYC, but sometimes I feel like Decade Later is NYC and the entire series could be thematically extrapolated from this issue and his life. Or, maybe all the people are. Maybe New York isn’t a place or a state of mind, it’s the people. Wilson is NYC, Decade Later is NYC, DJ Random Fire is NYC, and the city will always survive if the people are present. Maybe it’s why some hang on so fervently despite the war. The buildings might die, but New York can’t die if there’s till New Yorkers. I’m just trying to work this out in my head, what do you think?
I play pretty fast and loose with Decade and stretch his life out over quite a few eras of New York’s recent past. It’s not immediately apparent in the comic since some of this cultural reference was lost on Riccardo, but when we see Decade in the flashbacks (in his first solo issue), he’s basically a 70’s-era kid from Queens ala The Ramones. And he’s part of the street art scene of that time, which would put him in the same company as the pioneers of street art. From then, probably in the 80’s, he would have done what many did and move into galleries, and so on and so forth. By the time the war hits, he’s kind of irrelevant, more of a legend than an active player. I’m sure that says something important about my gut thoughts regarding the city but I think I’m too close to see it clearly. Despite the fact that DMZ is not dated, Decade would be much older than he probably looks, and I appreciated Danijel making him look older. Or, rather, timeless?
Almost every issue of this arc opens or closes with big full page shots of the city being carpet bombed systematically, why keep punctuating this idea?
It’s all the same bombing campaign. It’s the last ditch nighttime bombing before the US troops invade the DMZ for the last time. I established that right off the bat with that soldier Cal Foster, who was sent in early to ID targets and stay the hell out of the way once the bombs started falling. It’s these same bombs that take out Wilson, that Amina braves to save that baby, that preceded Decade’s freedom, and what Matty wakes up to at the end of his issue. It’s loose, but in that way all these issues are connected and form the arc.
In an interview we did a couple years ago (time flies!), you’d mentioned wanting to work with David Lapham, who was on art duty for issue 59. Did this scratch that itch, or was it more of a writing collaboration that interested you? What do you think his art brought to DMZ?
I love David’s work and I chatted with him ages ago about maybe co-writing… this was when Wildstorm was still a thing and I had been asked to create a universe-wide unifying story for the imprint. That never went anywhere, but I think this issue here preceded that. David and I were part of that Standard Attrition forum together (along with Cliff) and so he was an easy guy to ask. Who doesn’t love his artwork? I have a few originals from this issue. He brought a sort of honesty to Matty, an openness to his face that I felt we never really got. In some panels, he was so real he was almost ugly. That’s a compliment! I felt like I knew the guy, like it was a drawing of a real kid I used to know. It was quite a revelation, five years after creating the character.