DMZ: Body of a Journalist

By Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. Vertigo/DC Comics, 166 pp, $15.99, hardcover

The first volume of Vertigo's Second Civil War series set the scene last summer. In DMZ: On the Ground , America is split between a hair-trigger authoritarian government and the secessionist Free States Army, with the island of Manhattan the no man's land of the title. Everyone's armed to the tits and hysteria's running rampant, especially along the fault line of the Hudson River. Neither side is rational and no one's meting out mercy. A policeman described the FSA: "Whatever you wanna call 'em: traitors, red-neckers, Osamas, jingoes, timmie-macs, flyovers, or even just 'those Jersey mother-fuckers'”¦it don't matter”¦ They're just the pieces of shit responsible for turning this country into a reamed-out asshole in the dirt. Keep that in mind, man." He was shot in the head six panels later.

If anything, the follow-up is even darker in tone and imagery. DMZ: Body of a Journalist continues the story of Matty Roth, the last reporter in the DMZ. Matty's there by accident, but making the best of it: broadcasting for the American side but evenhanded in his coverage of a Manhattan gone Third World. Both sides play him as they negotiate over a kidnapping victim, and given the cynical tone, it comes as no surprise when the victim is wasted by his own side to escalate the conflict.

The rural/poor/redneck FSA is perhaps given kinder treatment in Body of a Journalist than the cigar-chomping U.S. of A., but the only real heroes here are the punked-out civilians trying just to get by–and, surprisingly, Matty himself, who cares about humanity more than ideology. Comics like this are often fiercely libertarian (and paranoid); DMZ makes a persuasive, blood-spattered case for why the government–any government–should not be given free rein. Writer Brian Wood seems to argue that the fourth estate will always have a role to play in keeping truth free, even when New York City is a gutted wreck. "Stay scared of dying, but not of your bosses," Matty is told, "and you'll be fine. Keep doing your job on your terms. People see that and respect you, man."

For all the bombs and bravado, the ultragraphic violence and apocalyptic set design, the DMZ is not so far removed from our world, where the Dixie Chicks are traitors and embedded journalists lie for profit. Volume 1 introduced one story line (ninja special ops holed up in the Central Park zoo) not developed here; will the Central Park Ghosts somehow win the war in the final volume (out in September), or is a made-in-America nuclear winter inevitable? Stay tuned”¦