Tying in to yesterday’s post about Four Lions, I thought this is a good time to write about something that I also care about a lot but haven’t mentioned yet, which is comics. In fact, since I started again trying to watch every movie ever produced, my comic reading has been strongly reduced. Anyway, I recently read another volume of DMZ, the post-9/11 analogy by Brian Wood and I liked it a lot and thought it was worth writing about.
DMZ is a comic series published by Vertigo from 2005 to 2012 and is the story of a civil war in the U.S. that leads to Manhattan becoming a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that secedes from the U.S. Writer Brian Wood uses this story mainly to talk about everything that happened after 9/11, including the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, NGOs using the war for profit, the propaganda role of the media and terrorism. Issues #42-44, in an arc called “No Future” (wonderfully drawn by Ryan Kelly), specifically deal with suicide bombers which obviously fit to yesterday’s movie.
The first issue shows how our main character Tony tells a traumatic story of losing his family during the early days of the civil war. He speaks to a group of people, like a self-help organization and they give him support and comfort him. Soon it becomes clear that they are paramilitary group that goes through the DMZ killing people without a clear indication of a goal. Eventually, Tony finds himself in a street full of people with explosives tied to his body. He has become a suicide bomber.
The story both tries to show how he got there (unlike Four Lions) and how he feels about it. The group is his new ‘family’ after he has lost everything, so that Tony feels safe there, making it easier for him to follow their orders. On top of that, he was a firefighter in his former life, so orders are something he understands. But in general, this seems to be the case for the people there and it’s easy to see why. In a world that has collapsed, people of our culture have an easy time following new authority figures since we haven’t learned how to live without them. Tony falls into that pattern, even as he questions the things he is doing. But that doesn’t stop him from doing them because you do what you’re told.
It helps to use weapons, ‘the tools and the sense of power.’ They go through the city after being kept inside their warehouse for fourteen, looking for supplies and killing anything that seems civilized or happy: ‘This was our war of controlled chaos. […] We felt like gods. […] Spread our pain around. If we couldn’t sleep peacefully, no one could.’ You can see a sense of the power reversal here clearly. Now they are in charge, they show everyone what they’re capable of. But with ‘no time to weigh consequences.’ Therefore, the idea of killing everything that’s ‘civilized’ is contradictory because they do exactly as they have been brought up culturally. Use your power, don’t think about consequences, go the way you’re told because there is no other.
But Tony works as Wood’s voice because he does question what he has to do. He feels ‘used’ but can’t follow that instinct because of ‘The rules. The mandate. The mission. Orders. Twitch, react.’ He becomes angry and the group’s leader uses that anger skilfully to make Tony into more than just a street soldier. This basically is ‘How to Become a Suicide Bomber’. First the leader speaks to Tony about his pain, but instead of trying to reduce it, he increases it because it makes Tony more numb and willing to follow. Then he gives him false information about people who are responsible for his family’s death so that he can kill them, making him more inclined to murder in general. He makes Tony see himself more in the role of ‘The Bogeyman’ instead of a mourning father and husband, because the Bogeyman is strong and powerful, while the mourner is weak and sad. The leader then tells him about the power of vengeance and at the same time gives him more privileges, like a nicer room, so that again he doesn’t think about consequences so much but just enjoys what others don’t have. So his anger increases, he is more fed up with what he’s been doing up to now and wants more. Eventually he gets his final mission as a suicide bomber.
Throughout this process, Tony questions himself but it doesn’t stop him because the urge to follow orders is just too strong. As I repeatedly said here already, this can be seen in our culture everywhere and all the time. Wood shows that the trick to make Tony a suicide bomber was to give him the feeling that he is in control, that all of it is his decision. Again, after being controlled most of your life, nothing feels better than having control yourself. Even the illusion of control is better than not being in control (see Power Reversal and Power Reversal (II) for seeing that in real life). There lies the danger of authority ruling our lives.
In the end, just like in Four Lions, Tony realizes this is not the right way but it is basically too late. He makes a decision that is very similar to what Omar is doing at the end of Four Lions. It’s not completely satisfying as an ending but it gives you some hope that people can wake up eventually and shake off their submissive behaviour.
Some very strong ideas as in many other issues of DMZ, which overall doesn’t always make me happy but is best when doing those real world-analogies to political and cultural problems we face. This arc has been one of my favorites up to now, after I had been disappointed by a row of issues. But ‘No Future’ is great in every way and Wood’s writing has rarely been better in making you think about your world while reading about a fictional world.
Crosses and nazi halos
They follow, they follow
– The Thermals, I Might Need You to Kill (2006)