J.G. Keely's Reviews > DMZ, Vol. 3: Public Works

DMZ, Vol. 3 by Brian Wood
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's review
Jul 07, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: comics, reviewed
Read on July 07, 2012

Starting a story is almost always the same: I take ideas for characters, stories, themes, and moments, and I write them down. I describe what the characters are thinking, how the unfolding plot affects them. I mark down a sequence of events, moving from one to the next, making sure each one is important, and that they all lead somewhere. I write up themes and philosophies, how they operate, and how the story relies on them.

Then I sit back and sigh, because after all that work, I still haven't written a story. An outline for a plot is not a story. A series of character sketches is not a story. A thematic exploration is not a story. So I sit and I ask myself: how can I demonstrate these characters, this plot, these ideas, in scenes which are vivid, demonstrative, and effective?

Therein lies the art of the writer. It is in those carefully-constructed scenes that a good story is made, because without them, all you have is an outline.

It's hard not to let it break through, not to just narrate and tell the reader about all the cool ides, especially because they make you feel so excited--you want so badly to share them. And there are many, many authors who do give in to the urge, some purposefully, some incidentally.

Yet it always frustrates me, as a reader, to see it. I don't want the author to tell me that two characters are close and care for each other, I want those characters to act like it--I want it to be so clear that I don't have to be told. If the relationship isn't fully realized before shit goes down, there's no fixing it retroactively.

If I wanted to demonstrate a character slowly growing to think of himself as a 'native' in a strange environment, as our main character does in the titular 'DMZ', it would never cross my mind to have the character simply tell us that he feels this way, because that doesn't actually tell me anything about the character or his experience--it's just a gloss.

What makes a character is not what he goes through, nor the decisions he makes, nor the moods and justifications upon which he acts, but the particular, idiomatic way in which he approaches these things. To say a character in a war betrays his commander because of jealousy is merely an outline which an author might realize on the page in a thousand very different ways. The Three Musketeers all share similar backgrounds, philosophies, goals, dress, and daily actions, yet they are very distinct characters.

But it can be very hard for the author to step back from the outline and create single moments, because as authors, we already know how things turn out, and we have control over the page. It can be very difficult to step back from this all-knowing position and create a character who has only one small, limited view.

I found the characters in DMZ to be too expansive, too self-aware, and too aware of their situation. They never seemed to be in conflict over misunderstandings, or due to their personal flaws, but because they were thrown against one another by events. It is a common symptom in an author who cannot get out of his own head that all the characters will be aware of their own motivations and will describe them in rational, detached terms.

Not only does it give all the characters a similar cast, it causes them to sound the same, as they express the author's cool ideas and stories in the same ways, using the same rhythm and tone. And it's very frustrating because there are good ideas here, and a good plot, and good character sketches, but they are all just outlines. It is a script read aloud in one voice instead of being played upon the stage.

Once more, I find myself missing in these modern Vertigo titles the strength of earlier writers, like Gaiman, Moore, Ellis, and Milligan, who could paint such a vivid scene, revealing their characters, ideas, and story to you without ever having to come out and say it. But that is the hard-won skill which sets the master author above the rest.

It's clear that modern comic writers have gleaned a notion of what a 'sophisticated comic' should look like, from all the examples given to us by groundbreaking authors, and yet, actually making that comic requires something more. If the comic book 'Dark Age' of absurdly gritty comics and anti-heroes has taught us anything, it's that maturity is all in the presentation, not the content.

Millar's Wanted and Willingham's Fables both demonstrate the disappointing outcome of an incompetent writer trying to ape better stylists, and while I find DMZ much more savvy than either of those ill-conceived titles, I'm still waiting to see a presentation worthy of the concept.

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