The Civil War haunts the collective American memory, and we return to it again and again in both fiction and nonfiction stories. With a diverse and polarized electorate, the specter of another civil war occupies real estate in our imagination (and I’m not just talking about the Marvel Comics variety).
In the comic book series “DMZ,” the demilitarized zone of the the title is the island of Manhattan. The heart of the Big Apple is now territory caught between two factions in a second American civil war. The warring factions are the armies of the United States federal government and the Free States armies, a coalition of various secessionist groups. Most of Manhattan’s population has been evacuated. The remaining population consists of the poor (who were abandoned), holdouts refusing to leave and various operatives for both sides of the conflict.
The central character is Matty Roth, a journalist who enters the DMZ five years into the war. It is primarily through his travels, reporting and the relationships he makes that the reader learns what life is like in Manhattan and the nature of the conflict in America. At times the series steps away from Matty and focuses on the lives of other characters, fleshing out the communities in the DMZ and revealing developments in the conflict they are caught between. Over the course of 72 issues (12 collected editions), a rich picture of the DMZ comes together and the fight between the U.S. and the Free States eventually comes to a head. The fate of those in the DMZ depends on the outcome.
Writer Brian Wood has said the original inspiration for the series was the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Seeing the city that he had lived in temporarily turned into a war zone must have made him consider what it would be like if the city was in that state permanently. “DMZ” was also inspired by the United States response to those attacks, such as the invasion of Iraq. One of the motives of the secessionist movements in the comic is the state of “perpetual war” the United States government has entered into.
The fictional work that results from these real-world inspirations is a suspenseful story that explores the effect another American civil war could have on individuals, and the communities that might form under these circumstances. Riccardo Burchielli did the artwork for the entire run, and the gritty, kinetic feel of his work reflects the chaotic circumstances the characters are trapped in. The collected body of work speaks to the fears of a divided country that feels under siege. The United States is a big country. There are a lot of people, hence a lot of potential for friction. Let’s hope we can all manage to get along well enough to avoid a situation like the DMZ.