Teach This: Brian Wood’s DMZ
“… Today marks the fifth anniversary of the initial outbreak of hostilities between the United States of America and the so-called ‘Free States.’ It is also the third day of a tentative ceasefire, and despite all predictions, it appears to be holding.” … “For the few remaining residents of the beleaguered island of Manhattan, a formal ceasefire is of little consolation when faced with the realities of the war zone they live in: looters, roving gangs of neighborhood militia, insurgents, car bombers, contract killers … this is daily life in the city.” … “Tune in for what will be, we’re sure, unforgettable television.”
So begins Brian Wood’s DMZ with “Every day is 9/11!” scrawled on a wall. A second American Civil War is in full swing and Wood gives readers an indictment of the role of media in active combat areas, criticism on our inability to talk to each other in this country, and the everyday lives of non-combatants.
Wood hits all the right universal questions: When is it appropriate to rebel against a government? What is the proper role of the media in a war zone? What is the appropriate role of government during a civil war? When it is (in)appropriate to use deadly force, or suicide bombing? And perhaps most importantly: what does it mean to be a non-combatant in the middle of a combat zone?
DMZ is highly usable in an American Government class, or current issues course, and it could probably be used near the end of a U.S. History course.
Modern Civil War:
The obvious topic here is whether or not the United States will have a second Civil War, but this is not necessary a unique topic. Orson Scott Card explores this in his Empire series very effectively and a quick search will find plenty more examples.
The concept, as explored by Wood, is that a second civil war would not divide by North/South, or East/West, or even by specific states. Wood’s second civil war would divide along ideological lines that do not nicely correspond to geographic lines – a topic that feels more plausible now than when it was first published in 2006. Wood’s divide is red and blue. Urban and rural. The vast majority of the story focuses on the island of Manhattan as a demilitarized zone microcosm of the greater war.
DMZ is about far more than a second civil war though, the piece lives through it’s characters and their experiences as non-combatants within the context of war.
Morgan Spurlock captures this in his introduction to the 8th volume Hearts and Minds:
Insurgencies. Suicide bombers. Nuclear Armed States. These are all scary scenarios that could be ripped each day from the world’s top stories, but in the hands of Brian Wood and [artist] Riccardo Burchielli, they create something much more frightening. …They open our eyes and our ears to events that, while fictional in the frame of this groundbreaking creation, are links in the chain of our global existence. Each story, each character and each page is undeniably tied to the whorl in which we live, and for me – that is DMZ’s greatest triumph.”
And that’s just it. DMZ resonates. DMZ reads like truth in a way that can only be achieved in fiction and is reinforced by the combination of words and images that can only be found in comics. Brian Wood makes sense from the first page through to the last panel of issue 72.
At its core, DMZ is about telling the war story of the non-combatants. The people who have to live in a war zone they never asked for. The people who are trying to survive despite everything working against them. This story goes untold all too frequently.
There are plenty of war stories about soldiers, and politicians, and reporters. Since World War One, and again after Vietnam, our narrative about war shifted in a strong way away from honor and glory, and into the realm of horror and brutality. For soldiers. We’re still missing stories of civilians.
Wood gives us regular people. He gives us war on Main Street. He shows us the doctors, the teachers, the lawyers, and the small business owners. These are the people who live under nightmare circumstances and can’t put a spin on it. They exist amidst constant terror and their behavior reflects that desperation. And from a 2017 perspective, they are the kind of people fleeing violence in Syria and coming to use for refuge. DMZ is the everyday reality that a war zone creates for the non-combatants.
The beauty of using fiction to discuss political issues is that it forces students to get beyond our sound bites, spin, and the 24-hour news cycle. You don’t have to discuss Republicans, or Democrats, or specific – highly polarizing – political policies. You can discuss Matty Roth, Parco Delgado, and the Free States of America. The hope would be that these fictitious symbols for very real ideas can free students to discuss the ideas in a civil manner, investigating ideas and making reasoned judgments. The concept works in English class when we use Of Mice and Men to examine race and class. It can work in social studies too.
DMZ spans a total of 72 individual comic books, collected in 12 trade paperbacks. Unless you’re running an entire class on the current political climate as depicted in comics (which sounds fantastic) it’s unrealistic to use the whole run. So what do you use?
The piece that sticks strongest in my mind is the “Day 204 Massacre” collected in the Friendly Fire volume. The volume explores justifiable use of force alongside issues of perspective. The story centers around whether or not soldiers should have fired into a (potentially) peaceful protest. This is the same question as who shot first on Lexington Green, but Wood’s setting and storytelling are exactly right for the current time. He is brutal without being excessive. He is honest without losing nuance. Wood speaks the language of the millennial generation – students who are uninterested in sticking to pre-defined categories. Unpacking the perspectives in the “Day 204 Massacre” align directly with how social studies asks students to understand multiple causation and the reliability (or not) of eyewitness accounts.
There’s strong language and plenty of violence throughout so a high school teacher will have to take care when using DMZ. I argue that there is enough thoughtfulness and commentary to justify the violence. There’s no more violence here than in All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Things They Carried – DMZ just has pictures.