Tuesday, December 20, 2005

DMZ #2

When it comes to reviewing philosophies, I think the most important one I subscribe to is also the most basic: Don't judge a comic based on what you want it to be, but rather on what it wants to be. It's such a no-brainer to me that I'm having a difficult time working out how to expand on it.

Augie sums up my thoughts perfectly in his latest Pipeline. It's important to try and maintain objectivity in reviewing, and be able to appreciate an achievement that you may not necessarily like. Obviously, there are times when the two come together, and that's the book that sets your house on fire. There are other times, though, when you can appreciate that something's being done well in a genre that you simply don't like. Of course, when trying to apply this kind of impartiality, it's important to ask that genre is.

Which is all an extended segue into talking about DMZ, from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. The more I think about the series, especially the second issue, the more I think DMZ is very good agitprop. To expect the subtlety and ambiguity that's found in Wood's other works like Demo and Local is a mistake, because that's not the agenda here. Agitprop does not want you to make up your own mind about the unfolding events, it wants you to accept the party line. It's about communicating message over character and plot. It is, to a certain extent, about preaching to the choir. DMZ handles all these things well - there's little doubt about its message of the cruelty of war, and the plight of those caught in the middle. Burchielli is an excellent storyteller, conveying the burned-out husks of New York (both human and architectural) and Wood's impressive visual style lends it all the feel of iconography.

That is all reviewing philosophy. Buying philosophy is another thing entirely.

The thing is ... I don't like agitprop. I don't like being preached to. I don't like complex situations being presented as iconography. I don't like being told what to think. I don't like simplistic storytelling that drives its point home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Though DMZ is achieving what it set out to do, I think this is my last issue of the book. There's one sequence - almost one page - that encapsulates why I'll keep following Local and look forward to Supermarket, but will leave DMZ behind.

In this issue, wet-behind-the-ears Matty gets taken on a tour of the Manhattan war zone, which has been ripped apart as the central ground in a battle between the Unites States and The Free States. It's a classic story of the innocent exposed to the true horrors of war, and succumbs to all the bulletpoints of agitprop that I find appalling:

  • A Simplistic Message. "War is bad. Children get hurt." Perhaps there are readers of DMZ to whom this is a revelation, but to me it feels like pinning a crucial scene on someone realizing the sky is blue. This is a truism, not analysis. Children died freeing the Jews, and children are now dying in an oil grab. That is the complexity of war, and that complexity is what makes good art.

  • A Paper-Thin Allegory. There's utterly no question that Wood is writing about America, 2005: media cover-ups of the horrors of war, a red/blue divide, a war that is so pointless that it's cause has yet to be mentioned. DMZ doesn't feel like it can expand past that strict analogy into a meditation on war itself, because it's too busy being tied to this war.

  • A Straw Man Argument. There's no escape here, no wiggle room. This is about mutilated children. Wood sets up a situation where you can't disagree without being indifferent to mutilated children. Especially in a fictional work, this seems like dirty pool.

  • Instant Editorializing. If mutilated children didn't back you into a corner enough, Wood instantly tells you how you should react: "How do you get used to this?" Not only do I not like being told how to react, it seems like a poor use of a good setup. Matty is no Spider Jerusalem, whose prose indignation is as vibrant and action-packed as a Kirby punch. He's a photography intern, not a writer. When I see an Alfred Eisenstadt, there's no attendant caption explaining his opinion. A good photojournalist tells his story through images, and I wish Wood would let Matty do the same.

There are choirs that enjoy being preached to, and DMZ is one hell of a sermon.

I'm just not in that choir.


Spencer Carnage said...

Let me welcome you into the "DMZ Es No Bueno" club. Its kind of lonely here, but we have lemon squares and punch.

markus said...

Not so lonely, I'm seeing people reconsidering its merits everywhere.
I agree #2 wasn't very enjoyable, but I'm not yet sold on the notion it's agitprop. If anything, I think "incoherent mess" is more fitting.
Still while the mutilated children bit was very ham-handed, I still see some potential in DMZ. IMHO it might yet turn into a description of what civil war in today's America would be like. As yet, I'm not really seeing the specific characteristics of today's America spike through the general war horror, but the hipster bits hold the promise that Wood may yet provide an interesting tale about civil war in highly industrialised western cities.

Then again, I read Fax from Sarajevo the other day, compared to which DMZ seems like a joke.

Mark Fossen said...

IMHO it might yet turn into a description of what civil war in today's America would be like.

It might, and I would be interested to see that. I would be back on board in a heartbeat. A comic with this kind of look and design is hard for me to say "no" to.

However, to do that, it needs to stop commenting on this war and really begin to investigate that war.