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Comic Book / DMZ

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An Alternate Universe dystopic comic book series created by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli

The comic takes place in Manhattan in the midst of a civil war between the United States government and the Free States of America, a grassroots insurrection. Manhattan is now a demilitarized zone (or DMZ) between the two factions vying for control of the country. Isolated from the rest of America and caught between rival armies, the 400,000 remaining residents of the DMZ are struggling to stay alive in what writer Brian Wood describes as "equal parts Escape from New York, Fallujah, and New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina."

Into this quagmire arrives Matty Roth, a fresh college grad and aspiring photojournalist who is stunned when he gets picked by Liberty News to join the very first field report into the DMZ. The trip immediately turns into a disaster, and Matty becomes stranded in the DMZ alone. With the help of a friendly local, Zee Hernandez, Matty soon manages to establish himself as the only journalist to begin reporting on life in the DMZ. Matty must navigate warring DMZ factions and protect his journalistic integrity as outside agents attempt to control his message. Along the way, he gains a new perspective on the civil war as well as an opportunity to shape its future.

The series started in January, 2006 and completed on February, 2012 after 72 issues.

An In Name Only TV adaptation was produced by HBO Max as a miniseries starring Rosario Dawson, released on March 17, 2022.

Tropes used in this comic series

  • Aborted Arc: Random Fire's first appearance has him narrowly survive an attempt on his life by Trustwell and be on the verge of exposing more about them, but he never reappears.
  • Action Survivor: Matty, and many other Manhattan residents.
  • Adapted Out: The HBO adaptation notably removes many important characters from the story, including the main character Matty.
  • Alternate History: The War on Terror is no less than six conflicts, and the strain on the government's approval by the public is far worse for it.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Zee's appearance varies a bit based on the artist, but she's usually got narrow eyes, black hair (when it's seen undyed) and a freckled skin tone. As such, she's apparently of some mixed extraction, though her surname Hernandez implies some Hispanic or Latino ancestry.
  • Animal Wrongs Group: The Central Park Ghosts, From a Certain Point of View. They're actually outright heroic relative to many of the other factions, but the fact remains that they still kill people to protect trees.
  • Armies Are Evil: Although there are plenty of decent ex-military characters, the active-duty soldiers depicted are almost uniformly complete and utter bastards, no matter which flag they serve under.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Wilson and a few of his grandsons speak this way. They're the only people in the series to speak with an accent.
  • AstroTurf: After a fashion. It's strongly suggested that the Free States spent years, if not longer, gathering a fighting force, planning, and then seizing the opportunity to strike. In particular, the soldier involved in Day 204 talks about young men of fighting age being steered away from the US military at home and towards anonymous militias, and how he was assaulted and berated by one of the militia organizers when he did join the Army regardless, including a line that more or less went "You want to fight? You come see us, soon enough you'd have gotten your fight!" In short, it's made clear that despite their propaganda the Free Staters were not a spontaneous uprising, but a long planned power grab.
  • Ax-Crazy: "Street crazies" who seem to attack anyone they encounter. Even the sane residents of the DMZ can come off this way because they are willing to shoot at anyone in their territory that they don't recognize. (This is because the remaining residents are by necessity split into different communities and/or gangs for protection, and many of these groups are violently opposed to each other or squabbling over resources to survive.) As for outsiders, people in the DMZ blame them (and especially their militaries), for the miserable conditions they live under, and as such they're not exactly kindly disposed towards them.
  • Balkanize Me: Actually averted - although the U.S is caught in a civil war it has not actually split into separate countries per se. The FSA makes no claims to being an independent state, styling itself as a revolutionary movement instead, and even the DMZ itself is still technically United States territory. The operative word there, however, is 'technically' - the USA has firm control of the relatively tiny (compared to the rest of the country) region of New England, but it's hinted that most of the rest of the country is in a permanent state of asymmetrical warfare.
  • Batman Gambit: Trustwell pulls off a sweet one. They create and supply a group of terrorists for hire from within their own ranks of overworked, underpaid construction crews. They then set these cells to making numerous attacks on Trustwell, and when the UN tries to step in, a single attack that assassinates the UN Secretary General. Due to safety concerns the UN removes its presence from the DMZ entirely, just as Trustwell expected them to do, and Trustwell suddenly has nothing to stop them from sinking its claws into Manhattan and doing whatever it wants in the name of security.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: The only executive of Trustwell we see is fat and ugly.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Matty has to live with the mistakes he's made in a federal prison for the rest of his life. He even lets the government pin some of their crimes on him, like killing Viktor. However, the war finally ends and in the epilogue that takes place fifteen years afterward, Manhattan has been successfully rebuilt.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: And a lot of the time the gray is pretty dark.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: The 'street crazies', a nebulous mass of disorganized armed lunatics who have a tendency to appear out of nowhere and indiscriminately attack pretty much everyone. Every faction in the city treats them as more of a natural hazard than an organized military force, since that's pretty much what they are in practice.
  • Brooklyn Rage: It practically oozes off many characters, including Marty, in spite of the fact that they're not technically in Brooklyn.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Wilson keeps his grandsons out of several encounters by just saying it's not their fight, and focuses on consolidating China Town.
  • Cavalry Betrayal: Happens multiple times, all the way back to the first issue when Matty tries to radio for extraction and instead a gunship bombs the area.
  • Child Soldiers: At one point Matty interviews a Thompkins Square Militia soldier who also happens to be an 11-year-old girl.
  • Crapsack World: A nation divided in civil war, and a city constantly beset by atrocities.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Part of Matty’s initial trust and desire for Kelly Connolly comes from how much her past stories would irritate his father.
  • Death from Above: The USA resorts to this very, very frequently, courtesy of their effectively total air supremacy, one of the few military advantages they have left.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: Of dystopian wars, and modern insurgency/revolution. In reality these things are not pleasant or pretty, and DMZ makes no bones about it.
  • Defector from Decadence: Many of the Central Park Ghosts are former soldiers from one side or the other who became disgruntled about their side and/or the war in general and deserted. Being one of the few DMZ factions that has actual military training and equipment automatically makes them one of the most formidable groups on the island.
  • Depending on the Artist:
    • Kristian Donaldson's guest renditions of the main characters look very different and are more conventionally attractive, with smoother complexions, larger eyes and more angular features. Zee is also more Ambiguously Brown.
    • Kristian Donaldson does not draw Matty with his trademark nose bandage. After she filled in for Burchielli on issue 20, Burchielli apparently did homage to her choice by not drawing it on Matty's face for issue 21. In issue 22, however, it inexplicably returns.
  • Deus ex Nukina: The USA neutralizes the Delgado Nation's nuclear device by dropping another nuke on its hiding spot.
  • Divided States of America: The United States in this universe is for all intents and purposes a failed state. The legitimate government only maintains solid, definite control over parts of New England, with the entire rest of the country actively disputed between the government, the Free States, and other, smaller militia groups.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Matty's forces mistakenly attacking what turns out to be a wedding reception obviously evokes the Mukaradeeb wedding party massacre in Iraq.
  • The Don: It takes awhile to dawn on Matty that his elderly friend and protector Wilson is this. Their relationship starts to change after that happens.
  • Doomed Hometown: One of the soldiers escorting Matty and Victor into the DMZ is from Manhattan, and contemptuously views it as this in its current state.
  • Drunk with Power: Matty increasingly became this before it seriously bites him in the ass. Parco may well have been there, but it's hard to say exactly, because we have relatively little insight to him.
  • Due to the Dead: Matty's dead girlfriend gets an improvised Viking Funeral using an inflatable raft and a Flare Gun. Surprisingly, it actually goes off without a hitch; bribes were paid where necessary to keep violence off it, and the respect Matty had at the time probably helped.
  • Eagleland: Type 2. What remains of the US government is corrupt and repressive, their troops have very lax rules of engagement, and their leaders have no qualms about killing American citizens by the thousands for relatively little strategic gain. If the New York we see in the epilogue is a fair estimate of how the entire country is post-war, it gets better.
  • Election Day Episode: The power of an election is shown when Trustwell's massive voter intimidation campaign fails to stop Parco Delgado from being elected, and then it's subverted when it turns out electing Parco was the worst thing the population of the DMZ could've done for themselves; their elected representative pushes the government too far.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Matty feels some of this with the reveal that Eve isn’t quite as loyal of an ally as he’d thought.
  • Every Helicopter Is a Huey: A Huey being purchased is a plot point.
  • Evil vs. Evil: It's hard not to feel that the conflict between the United States and the Free States is a case of this. The USA is depicted as increasingly authoritarian, brutal, and delusional to the point of believing their own propaganda, and their claims that they can beat back the FSA and reconquer the country any minute now is an unrealistic and sometimes pathetic fantasy. The FSA meanwhile is essentially a Right-Wing Militia Fanatic group writ large, complete with a rampage through the country that was implied (and sometimes shown) to be full of Rape, Pillage, and Burn, and every single prominent figure from the FSA who is ever shown is an unrepentant jerkass. Even what initially seem to be the more sensible faction leaders quickly reveal a much, much uglier side, such as Parco Delgado, champion of New York's minorities, who becomes a Castro-esque Pay Evil unto Evil dictator once he actually acquires political power, and the environmentalist Soames, who sells a nuke to the aforementioned Delgado.
  • Fallen Hero: Matty, as of the end of the eighth volume Hearts And Minds. His response to an American soldier asking how they can possibly trust that his intel isn't going to lead them into an ambush set up by his 'DMZ buddies is simply, "I don't have friends here anymore."
    • The Fur Hat military are also this, being former emergency personal Maddened Into Misanthropy who now exist just to lash out at everyone else.
  • False Flag Operation: The Trustwell Corporation hires terrorists to attack themselves in order to justify a violent crackdown on the civilians of the DMZ.
  • Famed In-Story: Viktor Ferguson, the war correspondent leading the trip into the DMZ that got Matty into this mess in the first place. Although Viktor is more or less presented as a sellout who's become a company man for Liberty News.
  • Fictional Counterpart:
    • There's the super shady and murderous company Trustwell, an obvious joining together of Haliburton and Blackwater.
    • Liberty News stands in for any of the other 24-hour news networks, although it seems to take greatest influence from Fox News.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Wilson went from a mediocre Tong street thug to the uncrowned emperor of Chinatown virtually overnight.
  • Ghost Town: Less than 400,000 people remain in Manhattan, which had a population of slightly over 1.6 million in 2012.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: The USA is a failing angry government of corruption and aggressive bureaucracy while the FSA is a vague but seemingly Right-Wing Militia Fanatic group. Take your pick.
  • Hanging Judge: Matty faces a tribunal of these in the penultimate issue, sitting there as they throw a mixture of true and false charges at him with stony, self-righteous language and expressions.
  • Hero of Another Story: Soames, the protector of Central Park, Intrepid Reporter Kelly Connolly, and Random Fire stand out as notable examples, although both get A Day in the Limelight or two.
  • Hollywood Healing: A notable inversion. Matty spends most of his six years in the DMZ with a Pointless Band-Aid over the bridge of his nose, for some reason.
  • Hopeless War: For everyone. The USA doesn't have the manpower to retake their old territory, the FSA's numerical superiority is countered by the superior US firepower and defensive position, and the Manhattan militias are too busy killing each other to fight back against either side in any meaningful way. It's a bloody stalemate with absolutely no end in sight. The FSA commander comments that his objective is not to achieve victory but simply not lose.
  • Human-Interest Story: The initial reason Matty, Victor and crew go to the DMZ is to find these.
  • Idiot Ball: On a day in which American soldiers are rampaging through the DMZ, Matty gives an order to kill "bad guys" in a specified area. His security team, led by the veteran officer Angel, interpret that order as slaughtering a group of civilians at a wedding party. Angel, who knows Matty well, never thinks to question his understanding of the order.
  • In Name Only: The miniseries keeps the basic concept (American civil war renders New York City a demilitarized zone) and a handful of characters, and jettions practically everything else, focusing on a new story about a mother searching for her lost son in the DMZ. Further, even the characters who are still used have their appearances and motivations changed so much they barely resemble their comic equivalents.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Matty becomes this. And abandons it in favor of becoming Parco Delgado's Press Secretary, then a revolutionary working under Parco.
    • Kelly Connolly, who ventures into the DMZ after Matty gets shot down and is willing to come back afterwards.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The US government; they never have to answer for killing Viktor, framing Parco for setting off his nuke when they just dropped their own on it, and they lay all the blame on Matty in addition to the things he's actually guilty of. In the final arc, Matty is literally handed the perfect opportunity to nail them to the wall for all of the above... and he decides not to take it, as the war is almost over by then and doing the expose would revive it even worse than before. However, they end up negotiating with the Free States instead of decisively defeating them to put things back exactly as they were before the war.
    • Matty specifically seeks to avert this for himself, partly because he doesn't want to avoid the consequences of his actions, and party because accepting amnesty which would save him from both his own crimes and the ones the government pins on him would kill the legitimacy of anything he reports on afterwards.
      Matty Roth: "I can't be the guy that busted Trustwell, or the guy that broke Stevens' story, or the guy who helped end the war without also being the guy that sold Parco that nuke, or caused the deaths of those innocent civilians. The two go hand in hand."
  • Kick the Dog: Many, many instances. The biggest are probably 'Day 204' (an incident several years before the comic began in which US soldiers gunned down 200 unarmed peace protestors) and the much later saturation bombing of Manhattan, including incinerating Central Park with napalm and leveling Chinatown. The most personal for Matty is when his own orders get civilians killed.
  • La Résistance: What both the Free States Army and the Manhattan militias originally were. The FSA has since become an N.G.O. Superpower, while the militias are increasingly starting to resemble native tribes.
  • The Last DJ: Wilson urges Matty to become this, telling him something along the lines of: "Be afraid of death Matty, but never be afraid of your bosses, your contract, whatever. The second you fear your bosses or your contract more than death, you become irrelevant."
    • Random Fire provides a literal example, playing music for the cities remaining clubs and pushpin a message of idealism.
  • Land of One City: Inverted - Manhattan Island may technically only be one city, but it's divided into literally hundreds of tribal enclaves, petty dictatorships, communes, republics, zones of control, gang territories and the like.
  • Legally Dead: Soames was listed as KIA in the initial conflicts and has taken advantage of this to remain beneath notice while protecting Central Park.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Matty is at the center of every major event that occurs in the DMZ for the entire six years of his presence. Matty is the sole reporter giving first insight into the DMZ to the rest of the world. The presence of the UN and Trustwell in the DMZ hinge on his actions. Then he helps elect the new leader of the DMZ and becomes his right-hand man. Then he acquires the nuke. Then he becomes single-handedly responsible for ending the war and brokering a peace deal with all of the factions of the DMZ.
  • Manipulative Bastard: The Free State commander. Parco Delgado as well; it's hard to peg his motives and whether or not he's Drunk with Power, but he's unquestionably charismatic and able to convince people to join his cause with very little effort, Matty included. When Matty calls him on this, Parco doesn't deny it but also tells Matty right back that he wasn't mind-controlled and on some level, Matty still had to choose to follow Parco.
  • The Medic: Zee, to everyone, regardless of what their side or faction is. As a result Zee is about as close as you can get to being untouchable in the DMZ. (Which isn't all that close, really).
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Matty after his squad accidentally kills fourteen people at a wedding party. He even suffers a Heroic BSoD after, for a given value of 'heroic' anyway.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Matty is a huge case at the start. Even after years of living in the DMZ, he was far too naive about Parco Delgado, a charismatic man from the DMZ elected to be its new governor.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: The old Meat Packing district is now the territory of an entire several-thousand-strong nation of them, the 'Independent Artists Collective Protectorate'. They're packing guns. Lots of guns.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: The degree to which the Free States Army is actually a 'government' is debatable, but they've spent years fighting the most powerful military in the world to an absolute standstill, are formally recognized as an independent power by the UN, are absolutely filthy rich in secret, and despite being an insurgent movement are able to field multiple divisions of troops for military campaigns when necessary.
  • No Name Given: The Free States commander at Lincoln Tunnel. He's not even given an official rank or job description. He's just referred to as the FSA commander.
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: After years of being treated as the enemy, most Manhattan citizens see the USA and FSA as invading foreign occupiers.
  • Offstage Villainy: The Free States are usually labeled as being just as bad if not worse than the US, but we have almost no concrete examples of that that aren't provided by the Commander, whereas we see the US being bastards constantly.
  • Only Sane Woman: Zee is the moral core of the story, virtually the only character who never does anything violent or otherwise morally sketchy, and makes a point of not associating with any faction due to assuming, for the most part correctly, that none of them are good for the innocent civilians of New York.
  • Pointless Band-Aid: Matty sports a bandage over the bridge of his nose for almost the entire story, which spans several years. It inexplicably shows up in issue 3 (though disappears in a few panels), and sticks around for the rest of the series, barring a few issues drawn by another artist.
  • Private Military Contractors: Trustwell's private army is amoral, brutal, and very dangerous. It's all the worst stories about Blackwater times ten.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Happens often. Trustwell actually had cells in the city whose sole orders were to do this as much as possible, some of the more violent militia groups do it regularly, and it's standard procedure whenever the US military makes a move in the city. Soames says that the Free State Army getting cocky and engaging in purposeless, petty destruction and pillaging was what slowed them down in approaching New York and gave the US time to regroup, the FSA Commander's frustration at the missed opportunity seems to be corroborating evidence. As always for the FSA though, precious little of their villainy is shown.
  • Redemption Equals Death:
    • Almost; Matty is initially sentenced to death by the military tribunal. For his help ending the war faster, it's taken down to life in prison.
    • One of the Fur Hats finds a certain amount of redemption in his death. He was going to die anyway as a suicide bomber, but warned the surrounding people and waited for them to run clear first.
  • Relative Button: The Free States commander does this to Matty, by taking a cheap shot about Matty's dead reporter girlfriend.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: While Wood is careful to avoid specific political issues and keep details vague, the FSA are clearly modeled on them and are their inheritors.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying:
    • The US Garrison on Staten Island has a permanent version of the World War I Christmas Truce with their Free States counterparts, and both sides cover it up to their superiors. That is, until the US Commander's souvenir vial of Ricin goes missing. The Commander quickly turns to torture and murder in looking for it. Things don't improve even though the Free Staters, moved by a plea from one of the US soldiers, finally help the US Soldiers find it.
    • And there's also the fact that people in the DMZ still relieve stress by hitting the clubs, or throwing a war party when they survive a bombing, and so on and so forth.
  • Second American Civil War: The Midwest is fighting against both coasts, to the point where New Jersey and New York are on opposite sides and the title location (the Demilitarized Zone) is Manhattan Island, where an uneasy cease-fire has formed. DMZ says the free state movement was more of an idea than a territorial location, making it more in line with modern 4th generation warfare.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Liberal journalist Kelly Connolly, who arrives and offers to help in the aftermath of some dangerous and politically-charged machinations is initially viewed with suspicion by Zee but ultimately helps Matty get the news of what happened to Victor out.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Subverted with the Central Park Ghosts. They claim to be just a bunch of tree hugger taking advantage of the legends that their elite deserters from both armies but they are in fact deserters, hoping to stay under the radar.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: An unnamed thief who stole Matty's press jacket leads him on a chase that brings him to his first face to face encounter with FSA soldiers, who invite him to hear their side of the story at a very inopportune time.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: A whole lot of them. The mistreatment and eventual fate of a soldier who essentially rebels against this is downright horrifying.
  • Strawman News Media: Liberty News is a government-run propaganda network. It's also apparently the only news organization in America.
  • Strawman Political: The FSA is characterized as a bunch of rednecks, gun-nuts and racists from America's heartland, while America is characterized as a corrupt and brutal dictatorship from Washington. These are extreme versions of the "big government vs. small government" debate. In the process, neither side is presented as correct.
  • The Triads and the Tongs: Wilson and his army of "grandsons"
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: There are no pure heroes in this series, so this is to be expected.
  • Took a Level in Cynic: Kelly worries that she’s getting numb to the violence in the DMZ by issue 26.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Victor survives the crash and being taken captive by the Free States, only to escape and be killed by the US so they'll have an excuse to go on the offensive again.
  • Unsound Effect: When the residents of Chinatown all kowtow to Wilson, it's accompanied by the massive sound effect, "KOWTOW!" over their heads.
  • Vestigial Empire: The United States still has one of the largest and most powerful armies on the planet and a fully functioning government structure, but they also have solid control over less than ten percent of their claimed territory and actually administrate even less than that - in practice much of the country is either governed solely at the local level or just not governed at all. The government would certainly love to retake all the old territory, but from what we've seen it's obvious that they simply can't - they're having trouble maintaining control of what little territory they still have.
  • Voice of the Resistance: Matty begins as one, and when he abandons this role to take part in Parco Delgado's government, he sets up a replacement in volume 8.
  • Voice with an Internet Connection: Marty’s old acquaintance Eve London briefly serves as one to him on behalf of the military.
  • War Is Hell: The comic could be renamed to 'War Is Hell: The Comic' and you wouldn't have to change anything.
  • With Us or Against Us: Both the US and Free States use this logic. The people in the DMZ tell them both to go to Hell, but the New Yorkers sometimes do this too, just usually on a more local level.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Both major factions and most of the minor ones. The only people seen thus far who don't qualify for this label in at least some way are Trustwell and the Fur Hats.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: As far as the news, Army, and US is concerned, everyone on Manhattan who just wants to be left alone is an insurgent. Also, the Free States Commander discusses the trope when talking about the two sides of the war.