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 12: “THE FIVE NATIONS OF NEW YORK” INTERVIEW

The final volume in Brian Wood’s contemporary classic collects issues 67 to 72. With the beginning of the healing process and reconstruction burgeoning on the Isle of Manhattan as the backdrop, the arc focuses primarily on the final fate of series protagonist Matthew Roth. We tour the titular new “Five Nations of New York” as Matty seems to finally accept the city as it is, avoiding the temptation to label, itself a form of control. When he finally sees New York for New York, it’s as if he’s finally accepted as one of the city’s own. Matty finally comes to terms with his role in events, acknowledges the need for accountability, and seemingly identifies the one way out that allows him to salvage some sense of integrity. If he entered the DMZ as an insecure boy, he’s now determined to exit as a man, no matter what the personal cost. “The Five Nations of New York” is an emotionally satisfying conclusion to a resilient urban culture and an epic series that engages the reader and reveals as many personal truths as it does political realities.

Brian, for “The Five Nations,” we have Lower Manhattan, Chinatown, Parktown, Midtown West, and Midtown East. Is the idea behind redistricting a way to try and avoid labels and marginalization?

I figured it was natural, as reconciliation takes place and power shifts and consolidates, this seemed to be a likely breakdown. Based on how I’d treated the city over the course of the series, of course. But all that happens off-panel, so you gotta’ just take my word for it. Truth is, I had that title, “The Five Nations Of New York,” in my head for YEARS. I knew it had to be the final story, so I made sure I could use it.

If you change the hair color, “The First Nation” guy that Matty and Zee visit in Lower Manhattan looks like artist Riccardo Burchielli, no?

He’s done that many times… in some cases, it’s obviously him (he’ll draw his tattoos on the character or have the guy holding a pencil), but in some cases it has to be an accident. The same way with Erik in his NORTHLANDERS story. Traits of him, physically, keep appearing. I hope he’s not embarrassed to read this!

Matty is mourning privately and coming to terms with his final actions, but the arc opens joyous and hopeful with the war over. I’m curious about any alternate endings you may have considered? [Senior Editor] Will Dennis was joking with me that Matty and Zee are probably not going to get married, move upstate, and start a family. On the other end of the spectrum, half of those charges were trumped up, but even if you accept them at face value, Matty got off light with a life sentence. You could have rightfully executed him, no? Was his ultimate fate a sort of difficult compromise between two extremes?

I wasn’t prepared to see Matty die in any circumstance. But that’s less about my affection for the guy, because I think that’s actually the lighter sentence. Both for him as a person, and in terms of impact for the reader. Much more complex and evocative is the image of him sitting alone in a prison cell, chewing all this over in his head. At least I think so. And hey, here’s an exclusive for you: some notes written by me, for me, in early 2010 regarding the end of DMZ… as I saw it then. This is heavily edited, but only to take out irrelevant bits:

60-64  “Diplomacy Alone” or “The Free States Of America” or “Free States Rising”  (will be collected as volume 11)

Following the political events of the last arc, this war in America goes hot again, truly hot, with a wholesale military invasion of NYC from both sides, with suggestions that the same is happening all over the country… I want to stress that this is total war, like nothing we’ve seen in the book. The civilian population is driven underground, probably literally, there are tanks and armies in the streets, air strikes, you name it. It’s like everyone involved has finally given up on any notion of preserving the Union or minimizing collateral damage, and just want to accelerate whatever has to happen for the war to end.The major events in the arc are… Parco being found and killed, most likely by soldiers, for ‘crimes against humanity’ (the nuke blast), a la Saddam.

 65-72  “The Five Nations Of New York City”  (will be collected as volume 12)

Major points: a failed attempt at an insurgency forces Wilson to negotiate to keep Chinatown intact.  A return of the Delgado Nation, named in honor of Parco, but dedicated to peaceful means… a true people’s revolution.These two, plus the U.S. enclave, the Free States enclave, and the Community, a self-run section where Matty and Zee reside.

And going back a year before that, an even rougher take on the end of the series. This was written around the same time I was writing “The Island,” issues 35 and 36.

This next arc, probably #35-40, called (maybe) SEEKING TO ACQUIRE or ACTIVE MEASURES, will show a post-election DMZ fracturing dangerously and Parco attempting to heal it through force. The acquisition of the bomb is made in utter secret - Matty and like three or four other people know about it. It’s buried in the Park.

 DIPLOMACY ALONE (#41-45), the following arc, is about all the other players (FSA, USA, Trustwell) coming to terms with the Delgado Nation as a major, major threat. They all want Parco gone, they want the bomb, they want the city and they want to keep the peace, which is going to be a tricky thing. They need to undermine Parco’s popular support without giving him a reason to either use the bomb or even MENTION the bomb. And that means going through Matty.

 TOTAL WAR (#46-60), a trilogy of arcs that deal with final battle for the city. Matty hits the lowest low and struggles to redeem himself during this all-out battle for the city. This needs some serious thought and outlining, obviously, but one thing I definitely wanted to show was Matty completely fucking up and subsequently having a total breakdown. His personal redemption being tied to the fate of the city.  

 end/epilogue (61-65):  THE FIVE NATIONS  (suggesting the five boroughs) - The lines are drawn, the treaties ratified, and finally a lasting peace:  the DMZ is now Chinatown, the Delgado Nation, the US enclave, the Free States enclave, and the Community, a protected anarchist-type section of the city where Matty and Zee reside.

 

There’s also a lot of notes in my book on a story I called “The Battle Of Broadway,” meant to be a BLACK HAWK DOWN-style account of a single DMZ battle. Matty wasn’t meant to be in it, it was pure military. I wanted it to be a side mini-series, never came to pass.

I like the balance shown in the way the city starts to heal, with Jamal, Lau, and everyone grieving differently and trying to figure out what’s next. I thought the denouement of Soames was sad as hell, here’s a guy who tried do something good and basically ends up a raving loon. Does this scare affect Matty’s ultimate decision any or has he already decided by that point, is it fait accompli?

I never really explained how Matty felt about Soames, other than what you could glean by looking at his face. The Ghosts were Matty’s first story in the DMZ, and as proud as he must have been about that, the association was tainted by having to go and buy a fucking nuclear bomb from them on behalf of Parco. I think, that as far-gone as Soames was at the end, Matty could feel little more than personal shame when looking at him. Shame for what he, Matty, did.

Ok, this is probably the most important question I’ll ever ask, but what’s the deal with the tape on the bridge of Matty’s nose? Does it just never heal right? Is it just an aesthetic? My brother-in-law pointed out to me that it just shows up one day with no explanation (at the end of issue 2 there’s no bandage, then it appears in issue 3). It comes and goes in different arcs all the way to the end of the series.

I think it only went away once. At some point, Will Dennis suggested we retire it. I wasn’t so comfortable with that, since at that point I considered it part of his “uniform,” like Spider Jerusalem’s glasses [TRANSMETROPOLITAN] or Jesse Custer’s white jeans and collar [PREACHER]. But we did it and it just felt wrong. We got LETTERS about it. No one liked no-bandage Matty, so we brought it back and all was right in the world.

In reality, Blackwater rebranded as Xe; in DMZ, Trustwell has a subsidiary company named XET that you show during the reconstruction period. Is this comparison suggesting that some degree of corruption is unavoidable, or that these insidious things are cyclical, like the more things change, the more they stay the same?

All of what you said is true and I agree with it. In the case of XET, it was a personal joke I made for myself. I couldn’t believe that Blackwater would do something so lame as to change their name, and I doubly couldn’t believe it that what they changed it to, Xe, is pronounced “Zee.”  So, yeah, I wanted to mirror that in the book. There’s a lot of things in DMZ I love dearly, truly miss, and Trustwell is one of them. I’ve created a similar type of thing in THE MASSIVE with Blackbell PMC, but it’s just not the same, somehow. Although “Blackbell” is a much better name than “Trustwell.” 

President Obama officially ended the war in Iraq in December 2011, the same month you ended the war in DMZ and the final issue shipped. Is that a weird synchronicity or what?

I’m cynical about all of that, and perhaps it’s also telling that I didn’t make that connection until you pointed it out. Or maybe I’m still coming to grips with the fact that I helped elect a President even more hawkish than the last one.

I remember in early February, the US closed the embassy in Syria. You mentioned that in the DMZ world, Syria was one of the conflicts the US gets involved in. How you do you feel about this “prescient” label that people throw at you and your writing?

There’s this thing that has stuck in my head since 2003. It was right after the shock and awe campaign, and the subsequent invasion, and what they called the liberation of Baghdad. In some media circles, there was a feeling of “what’s next?” Meaning, Afghanistan and Iraq down, who can we topple next?  This was a serious discussion for some, and Syria was often cited as evil enough, I guess, to be next in line. A co-worker, I remember, changed his AIM chat icon to a read “Syria Next.”  So that’s where the Syria thing came from. I get the prescient thing, I did way back with CHANNEL ZERO, and now. I’m really not trying to be that, and I think when I come up with these near-future scenarios the only “trick” is simply looking at what’s going on now and applying some generic common sense to figure out worst case scenarios. When enough of those come to pass, you look prescient. It’s a far more depressing thing more than any point of pride, believe me. 

Is the identity of the girl in the final issue important or is she just an average POV character to see New York City through the eyes of? I’m tempted by the thought that maybe she was a reincarnated Zee, after Zee just kind of disappears and fades away. Maybe it was her, the soul of the city, now living on in this new manifestation.

I get this question a lot and I decided to always decline to answer it so I don’t change anyone’s perfectly valid interpretation.

At 72 issues, DMZ is your longest series to date, and quite an accomplishment for any series these days. First, just… congratulations, man. Thank you for such an important book. Second, how does it feel? Did you survive the marathon? What did you learn?

I could write a book about what I’ve learned. Christ, where to start. This was my first ongoing book, and my first story over six issues in length. I really learned as I went. First off, I now know not to write another 72-issue series. It’s cool that I did it, a book of that length, and it’s great on the resume, but I don’t think it suits me or makes for a good story. At least part of the reason I kept it going – and this is how every writer feels, even if they say they don’t – is fear of losing the steady income. That’s no way to do things, even as understandable as that is. It feels good, I feel proud, humble, all those things. I feel tired when I even think about DMZ, I feel pretty burned out on the subject matter. I couldn’t even bring myself to participate in anything Occupy because of that. The way things ended with me and DC colors it a bit. That’s most of the negative stuff. The positive is pretty indescribable. DMZ took me around the world (well, at least halfway a couple times – had I agreed to that Singapore Con, it would have), made me friends all over the world, fed my kids, built my career, got me a full page in THE NEW YORK TIMES… I could write an endless list.

I remember something Warren Ellis said, around the time TRANSMET ended. The exact phrasing I don’t recall, but it was something like “Finish a big multi-year project like TRANSMET and you find you can do anything afterwards.” His implication wasn’t personal, but commercial. Meaning that doors will open up for you. Took me getting out from under DC to see it myself, but that was one of the things that kept me at my desk writing DMZ even when I didn’t want to. So, everything I’m working on now was because of DMZ. Had I stayed at DC, I’d have started some Vertigo book that would have launched low, and been kicked around to a few of the D-list New 52 titles, if I was lucky. In retrospect, things worked out great.

When DMZ #1 came out, I was still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, was working a different job, didn’t have kids yet, and I remember Will Dennis saying you were in a similar state, still living in SF, not married yet, no kids, etc. I guess my question is how does your real life inform your writing? I definitely saw maturation in the tone of DMZ and even NORTHLANDERS. For example, I don’t think a writer who wasn’t a father could turn in a story like the one with Hilda and Karen in NORTHLANDERS.

I became a better writer as I went, for sure, but DMZ was always detached a bit from my personal life or my personal thoughts. I don’t mean that in a negative way; what I mean is that I didn’t pour myself into it in the way I did with NORTHLANDERS, heart and soul. DMZ was intellectual, while NORTHLANDERS was emotional. NORTHLANDERS became so connected to my identity, more than anyone else will ever know. Losing that book was hard, and I know at some point I’ll write another series just like it.

Is there some issue, some moment, some “thing” that you’re most proud of? Are there any particular high or low points related to this series for you?

High points for me are “Friendly Fire,” which was nuanced the way I wanted it to be, and offered no clear answers, the way I like. It was tragic as hell. Parco was a fun creation and I’m proud of how that all unfolded with him and Matty’s fates tied together. Wilson, for sure. 

You mentioned about half a dozen times in these interviews “I wish I had more time with…” x character or x idea. Would, say, 100 issues have gotten it all out of you, or do you think story ideas could have kept popping up indefinitely?

I can’t even imagine. 100 issues… I probably would have imploded long before that. But in theory, yeah, I can see ideas being generated for at least that long. Ideally, I would have used another dozen to address things I missed that I felt actually mattered. But all that’s hindsight. I think being a better writer would have done the job properly, not some extra issues.

Where does the property stand in terms of adaptation to other media? With the DC/Warner Brothers relationship, the film rights are automatically optioned, right? I’ve seen toy mash-ups online, trailers for faux TV shows, and you actually wrote a TV series treatment, right? Is there anything in the works that’s likely to be realized?

Yeah, there’s a bunch of misconceptions out there about the nature of DC/Vertigo’s media… there’s also a lot of truth. But as simply as possible, DMZ is owned by Riccardo and I. DC doesn’t own it, or even “own” it (quotes intentional). There could never be a “BEFORE DMZ” series. But what DC has, or rather what Warner has, is an option on the media and merchandise rights for as long as they want it. Some people, including creator friends of mine, consider that as good as ownership, but I can see the distinction. All that said, it does mean that a DMZ film or TV show is at the discretion of WB, and under their stewardship so far, we’ve missed out on an AMC television series, an Oliver Stone film offer, and another shot at a film that was just recently passed on. God knows what else. So, yeah, not great news. That won’t happen with THE MASSIVE.

Let’s have some fun and dream-cast the DMZ movie. I think you once mentioned Zoe Saldana as Zee? Who else? I have a few ideas, but let me hear your thoughts first.

Yeah, I try not to get too deep into stuff like that, but in the past I’ve said Saldana. Also Nick Stahl as Matty. 

Ok, I had Paula Patton as Zee, Giancarlo Esposito as Parco, Jennifer Morrison as Kelly Connolly, Jim Caviezel doing a cameo as Decade Later, with Alfonso Cuaron or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directing. For Matty, I found it difficult to find someone who could look age appropriate that could also put on the right swagger. I settled on Patrick Wilson.

I asked Will Dennis this question, so I’ll ask if of you as well. How do you want DMZ to be remembered?

As something serious and respected. It’s grim material, but that’s not what I mean by serious. I want it to stand the test of time and be taken seriously, not to become dated and trite over time.

I know you’re already like 6 months into the next major phase of your career, and might not give DMZ much active thought, but when was/is it “over” over in your mind? When the final trade shipped in June?

For me, it was over some time in the mid-#60s, when I knew 100% how I would execute the ending. It was over for me when I committed to ending it. When I handed in the script, I wanted that to be the definitive ending, I wanted to burn backup CDs and call it a day. But there’s a million tiny things to do after that – approve pencils, proofread the lettering, do the variant cover, do the trade cover, write the back of trade copy, make a handful of little decisions about this or that. Do interviews. All that kind of robs you of the hard ending, when you can feel 100% done. I’m not there yet, I may never be there.

You’ve mentioned before that your DMZ audience can easily follow you to THE MASSIVE. Why is that? What’s the loose connection there?

It’s tonal, really. A socially-aware story in the skin of an action comic. Nothing beyond that, no narrative connections.

Brian, now that we’re at the end of this series, it seems only fitting that we start at the beginning. Would you be willing to share the original pitch document with us?

Here you go, from October 13, 2004. May it live in infamy.

End Transmission

Notes

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