Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fighting Northlanders in the DMZ...or The Incredibly Talented Mr. Brian Wood

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“As artists, as any kind of creative person, you progress. You adapt. Your art grows up with you, and to me there’s nothing sadder than musicians who’re still cranking out the same stuff 20 years later.”

Brian Wood sits at a table in Voxpop, a corner coffeeshop in his Prospect Park neighborhood, typing away on his iPhone. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, the unassuming Wood has become an exceedingly prolific comics writer, eschewing superhero comics for everything from comics about war-torn future Manhattans to Vikings of over a thousand years ago.
“I don’t think living in Vermont really helped that at all, at least not early on, and I think everything came from New York. I don’t think I thought about anything until I moved to New York,” Brian admits. “Living in Vermont I skateboarded, snowboarded, saw bands play, drank a lot, and didn’t really do anything else. It wasn’t until I was in New York that I really thought about the world around me or made any significant plans for my future. I mean, when I moved I had less than $1000, a couple backpacks of clothing, and a one-way Greyhound ticket. I wasn’t really thinking much beyond the short term. In a way, I didn’t feel like I was a person until I came here.”

Initially crashing at his brother’s NYC apartment in ‘92, Wood accustomed himself to New York the old fashioned way: by getting a shoddy place and exploring the subway.

“I crashed with my brother for a few months until I found a really small, dingy place to live in the East Village,” he laughs. “I didn’t work for the first couple of months and would get off at random subway stops and walk in one direction until I thought I’d get lost, head back to the subway and then go in a different direction.”

“So I started college at Parsons School of Design and supported myself as a bike messenger, such as it was,” Brian says. “I wasn’t very good at it, so I wasn’t making that much money and was living way below the poverty line. But being a messenger was cool... you might think you know the city, but when you bike through it all day every day you notice things you may not have ever seen otherwise. I did that for a year and a half. I also worked at a skateboard shop, at the legendary shoe store 99X, and as an office assistant on campus.”

The bike messenger stint taught him the unknown nooks and crannies of New York’s streets and intersections, while going to school pre-9/11 informed Wood’s then-embryonic political beliefs and views. His education at Parsons honed his illustrative chops, as he packaged his senior project as a comic book. Channel Zero, heavily inspired by Frank Miller’s Sin City (before Miller’s name became a mass media buzz word), followed Jennie 2.5, a pirate TV broadcaster who lived in an authoritarian New York City brought about by the mayor’s right-wing and fundamentalist “Clean Act”.

Channel Zero was also created during the Giuliani years, and the worst of it with the ‘Quality of Life’ initiative,” Wood reveals about his first project. “It would be the mid-90s when he ‘cleaned up’ New York. Now, you look back and say, well in a lot of ways, I guess it’s a better place because there’s less crime now. But, in a lot of other ways, and specifically to a lot of other people he cracked down street artists, the homeless, food vendors, and public gatherings on all sorts…a lot of things like that. It was very much an all or nothing attempt at cleaning up the city, total zero tolerance. If you weren’t tourist or a real estate developer, chances are he didn’t do that much for you.

“He was really unpopular at the time. I remember back when I was a bike messenger and riding past City Hall, the level of physical security they had in place was astounding. The building was literally ringed with fencing and razor wire, concrete barricades, and dozens of cops in riot wagons on standby. This is the extent that people in the city were unhappy with him, especially around the time of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. That might not seem extraordinary now, but this was well before 9/11. City Hall felt like a bunker.

“All of this effected me profoundly, and went right into Channel Zero. Giuliani was named personally, twice, in the book.”

Channel Zero is a cross between Sin City and Pump Up the Volume, told with an in-your-face idealism as it embraces the then-uprising technological revolution and cyberpunk genre. Zero’s strengths lay in Wood’s piss and vinegar; he would revisit similar themes with his 2006 series DMZ for Vertigo Comics, but with a different intent.

DMZ is definitely meant to entertain more than inform, or rather, to use the tools of action-adventure entertainment to communicate its message,” Wood reveals. “I’m very aware who is publishing it – Vertigo/DC Comics, Time Warner, etc – and with that comes certain market expectations and I am not trying to fly in the face of that. I want DMZ to be a book with mass appeal, and I truly feel that if someone is reading the book for the action and is choosing to ignore the allegory, that’s totally fine with me.”

The protagonist of DMZ, photo intern Matthew Roth, is stuck in the middle of America’s second Civil War in the demilitarized zone that Manhattan has become. Left for dead by his network, Roth quickly learns the media and government’s ulterior motives in selectively revealing and often misreporting the news. Roth quickly gains a purpose as the only journalist willing to report the truth behind the war.

“Honestly, there’s a maturity there with DMZ that I hadn’t quite managed with Channel Zero,” Wood says. “In a lot of ways I was doing the same book again, but this time with an objective viewpoint. A decade separated the two projects, and its not just that I had progressed as a writer and an artist, but my outlook had become nuanced. I was seeing things in shades of gray rather than pure black and white as when I was a student.

“From day one, my editor and I didn’t want DMZ to be preachy like Channel Zero. I didn’t want to present anything as 100% right or wrong or who’s on the right or wrong side of the conflict in the story. I didn’t want to favor any one side, but really highlight the fact that both sides do horrible things in war, and here it is, and leave the judgment up to the reader. I think there are times that I slipped a bit, but overall, I think I’ve kept a steady hand on that one all the way through.”

Socially speaking, Channel Zero was a response to the Guiliani regime, while DMZ came out after two commercial airliners downed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, sparking the “War on Terrorism” and affecting the sociological and physical landscape of New York City.

“When DMZ actually came out, in a lot of ways, 9/11 had kind of passed out of the public awareness in terms of it being an open wound,” Brian says. “I would get asked all the time if DMZ got me hate mail, or if anyone said it was too sensitive a topic to write a comic about, but in all honestly I got not a single one. By the time the book hit the stands, which was at the very end of 2005, it seemed like most people had processed 9/11 and were already thinking of the Iraq War as something to be critical about. In large part, DMZ was speaking to the converted, as it were.

“One of my favorite stories to tell people, related to this, is during the development of the book, the year-and-a-half or so when I was pitching and refining the proposal, my editor and I had some concerns that by the time the book finally came out, the war would be over and be 'old news'. Which is kind of laughable to think now, but at the time it was still early days and there was nothing to indicate that the war would be any different than the first Gulf War, which was over and done with, in large part, in a matter of weeks.

“And as much as current events have changed during the few years that DMZ has been running, the book itself has changed. I’ve tried to keep up, to so speak, with new stories, new angles, new allegories, which is why the book is more of a political book now than it was in its first year.”

If Channel Zero was Wood’s first steps as a newborn cartoonist, Demo was his breaking into a full run as a writer. After stints writing X-Men comics for Marvel, Brian was ready to do something different with the “super-powered” set. With artist Becky Cloonan, Wood’s 2003 anthology Demo is where his potential was unleashed in a flurry of twelve self-contained issues.

Demo was when I was doing indie comics and not making any money at all,” Wood reminisces. “I knew that I wanted comics to be my job, my only job. Demo was born out of a marketing idea; I really wanted to remove all excuses I could think of for someone to not read the book. I’m talking format, here. With single issue stories, ones that are completely unconnected to the ones preceding or following it, a reader can 'jump in' at any point. Number the comics becomes almost an obstacle... Demo #6 is meaningless as a title, since it just means it’s the sixth story I wrote, not that its part 6 of a larger story.

“I wanted the books to be as high-end as possible, the paper to feel expensive. I wanted to incentivize it as much as I could with pages and pages of extras put into each one. These are all tricks that have become the norm for indie comics in recent years, but Demo was one of the first, if not the first.”

Each issue of Demo follows a different person with an odd ability. Starting out as a super-powered teenager book, Demo soon followed non-super-powered characters in a blend of everything from horror to humor to human interest. The wide range of stories told by Wood were enhanced by the equally diverse stylistic palette of artist Cloonan.

“I had no idea what I was doing at the time,” Wood admits. “It was definitely a complete shot in the dark, and I was learning as I went. It was very much a trial by fire.”

Demo was really where I punched above my weight,” he states. “I think that in terms of my craft, and the risks taken, it’s where it really paid off; I think that was where my career really changed and advanced in a big way.”

The pressure of having to say everything about a character in one issue may have forced Wood to utilize every trick in his writer’s arsenal. Despite the success of the series, Wood refuses to break his self-contained rule for each character:

“I feel like once I start revisiting [characters]… I feel like it’s never going to be as good as it was the first time. You can never live up to the expectations.”

Demo is gearing up for a return, but as a new series of self-contained stories in the tradition of the first series. Demo II features more art by Cloonan, and is due out from Vertigo Comics.

“It’s going slowly, because I think we’re both taking our time with it in the best way possible,” he elaborates. “I think part of the reason we work so well together is because we don’t second guess one another: I write it and she just draws it. We stay out of each other’s way, and it helps us both to bring our best effort to the table.
“The stories themselves are a little darker, with the notable exception of one. The inside joke is that I call that one the ‘Series One Love Story’, because it’s me trying to riff off some of the earlier Demos, the ones a lot of naysayers like to deride as 'emo'. Which is a term I’ve come to embrace with the book. I guess I’m old enough to remember when emo was a good thing!

“Like I said, other stories are a little bit darker, more supernatural than superhero. They’re obviously a lot better written, and I’m taking a lot of time on them. It’s interesting to me, just watching us evolve. After writing hundred and hundreds – maybe even thousands – of pages of comics since the first Demo, we’re coming back to the same concept with greater skill and understanding of craft.”

“When Local came out,” Brian says. “I got so many letters from women who were either named Megan like its main character and saw themselves in that book, or women who weren’t named that but still felt like Megan was them. I can’t say there will never be more of Local, but that book was such a vital book, and the reaction that it got from readers was truly, truly amazing in so many ways.”
Local is a twelve-issue series told in connecting single issues, chronicling the coming of age of Megan McKeenan from teenager to early thirty-something. Starting in Portland, Oregon, Local follows her cross-country, each issue set in each city she lands in. Megan’s perfection as a believable character lie in her character flaws, told with an honesty by Wood and artist Ryan Kelly.

“She’s definitely a more complex and fleshed out character that I’ve ever done before,” Brian says. “I’ve gotten mail before, but not hundreds of letters like that. I’m still thinking about it, still trying to answer that question.”

Each issue of Local is painstakingly researched and referenced. Beyond Kelly’s accuracies as an artist, Wood captures the vibe of a place uncannily. A prime example for this writer is of the Richmond, Virginia issue, a reading experience that made me homesick for my hometown through its sheer authenticity.

At the end, Local brings closure to Megan’s journey into adulthood, a trip that Wood is hesitant to ever revisit.

“I kind of want to revisit it,” Brian confesses. “I feel like I accidentally struck a chord with that book and made a bit of magic. And so yeah, I’m terrified to mess with it.

“I feel like the way the book ends, there’s definitely an ending to it, a finality, and I don’t want to revisit that after years of the readers thinking about it on their own. I don’t want to step in with my own take on what happens next and in doing so invalidate what the readers might have been thinking.”

Sixteen year-old Pella Suzuki in Wood and artist Kristian Donaldson’s Supermarket combines the idealism of Channel Zero’s Jennie 2.5 with the insight of Megan, all in a more admittedly naïve vein that taps into Wood’s own maturity as a writer. The scion of two rival crime families, Pella survives the consumer-driven “supermarket” of a future city with electronic messages from beyond the grave, left by her assassinated parents.

A combination satire and action-adventure thrill ride, Supermarket has two Wood staples: a strong female protagonist and a heavy use of technology in an urban environment.

“I just don’t try too hard,” Wood says of writing female leads. “It’s hard to say this without insulting somebody, but I do read a lot of comics that clearly fall back on stereotype, or are completely clueless about everything. It’s especially true in superhero comics, where boys all skateboard or girls always shop. It’s very one-note... I mean, girls might like to shop, sure, but that’s not what they’re all about.

“I’m very wary of those types of shortcuts. I don’t try to write a teenage girl or woman ‘like a teenage girl or woman’. I feel that, on a fundamental level, almost everybody is going to react the same way in a situation, on a very basic level. I try to write with that in mind to figure what the person’s going to do in this situation. The gender specific stuff, if it applies, gets added in later as detail. Another thing, relating to this, is that so many of my characters are female and always have been. That was really just tactical at the beginning; when I started writing comics I realized that there weren’t a lot of women characters. It was an attention-getting thing for my first book, but it helped me to understand the value of contributing female characters to the world of comics as a whole.

“Also, my mother and my sister raised me. I live with my wife and daughter now. There’s never not been a prominent female in my life past a young age, and I’m sure that’s part of it in some way. With my daughter in mind especially, I can really see a dearth of positive female characters in all forms of media.”

“New York City – It awes me into silence sometimes. And it makes me want to shout out at the top of my lungs. Is there any place better?”
--New York Four

Shortly after New York Four came out in 2008, DC Comics’ girl aimed Minx line was stopped. New York Four was Wood and Ryan Kelly’s guide to New York City through the eyes of college freshman Riley Wilder; it combines the soap opera-esque storyline with snippets about the city. Aside from an engaging story, Four celebrates the Big Apple through the idealism of youth.

“My editor, Shelly Bond, is a huge New Yorker and very much a child of Manhattan I’ve lived here for a while, but I’m definitely more of a Brooklyn person now, so she and I would have these friendly arguments. Our New York experiences are pretty different, but at the very beginning, she wanted it to be this “guide to New York”, where we have location tags and everything. You know how you’d see movies as a younger kid, like After Hours or Sidewalks of New York or Smithereens, and it made New York seem like it was from Mars, this intense, strange, impossibly cool place? We wanted to evoke that sort of feeling for a Minx reader that had never been to the city before.

“It worked out really, really well. It sounds funny to say this, but it came out better than we thought it would. Because of the way it was scheduled and our work loads, I would get fifteen to twenty pages of script at a time to Ryan. I think we were all really worried that these chunks of story would feel disjointed, but it flowed really well.”

With the cessation of the Minx line, New York Four is continuing as the first Vertigo book not meant for mature readers.

“There was a plan to do a second Minx book back when we did the first one, and we even signed contracts to do it,” Wood reveals. “And even after the dissolution of Minx, DC Comics were still interested in the book.

“Because Minx is no longer around, we’re not tied to the format of Minx, so we had a big meeting with the editor, Shelly Bond, about how we could take advantage of the new freedom-of-format. We came up with making it a Vertigo mini-series, even though it won’t be strictly for mature readers. Even though I no longer have to write for a twelve year-old audience, I don’t plan on changing the book that much. I’ll probably aim for the same crowd I wrote my Demo and Local series’ for.

“I felt like Minx was always written younger than they were possibly being marketed to.”

Throw away your expectations of Wood’s work: forget about the cute teenage girl protagonist, cell phones, PDAs, iPhones, cyberpunk attitude and contemporary social satire. Forget about the usual trappings of his work, and you get his current Vertigo series, Northlanders, which trades cute girls for hairy Vikings, cellphones for battleaxes, and cars for longboats.

“It was definitely my editor at Vertigo, Will Dennis, said ‘I want you to pitch me another monthly, but put it outside of your comfort zone.’ Which was something no one had ever said to me before,"Wood states. “My office is a space sectioned off from my bedroom, with walls made out of bookshelves, so I literally have walls of books surrounding me. I remember turning around in my chair and looking at hundreds of book spimes, thinking about what to pitch him. I put a few things together, based off what was on my shelf: there was a book about Vikings, which I always thought was cool. I also had these DVDs of Japanese gangster films, The Yakuza Papers. I simply, and literally, put the two things together. The first line of my proposal document read: “Northlanders is a nihilistic crime saga set during the Viking Age”. It’s one of those obvious fits, crime and Vikings.

“And I cheated a bit because it’s not really that far out of my comfort zone. It’s about this rapidly changing point in time, with cultures and religions clashing in conflict, through war and occupation. Very DMZ in a lot of ways.

“So much of everything from Local to DMZ to New York Four has so much work put into making things accurate with the buildings and that point in time. With Northlanders, I obviously do research as well, but I get to make up quite a bit of it simply because there are large gaps in the historical records. So writing it feels like a vacation. No one’s going to call me on it if I put in a building that doesn’t exist, like in DMZ,” Brian laughs.

With a historical basis, Northlanders is an anthology title set in the tumultuous and changing world of the Vikings. The first story arc follows a Viking exile’s return home, while the most recent, a two-parter, is about three Danish women barricaded in a castle.

“’The Shield Maidens’,” Brian elaborates on Northlanders #18 and #19. “Is a real high point for the book and for me as a writer. I’ve found Northlanders to be an incredible series for me to write; a constant challenge and I’ve felt my skills improve from month to month on that one.”

Much like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was with creative teams, Northlanders features different art teams from arc to arc, and hops around in time. The one self-contained issue, #17, titled “The Viking Art of Single Combat”, features two warriors fighting to the death. The full issue of combat’s narration gives color to the lifestyle of brutal fighters in Northern Europe and serves as an entry point for new readers.

Brian Wood remains one of the most prolific writers in comics: He’s now juggling two ongoing series, with three limited series in development. One of the first creatives to embrace the trade paperback format (Demo featured extra material, with an eye for collections, from the get-go), it’s curious to see his feelings towards comics possibly going online:

“I think, like most people, that single issues will become things you read digitally for the most part, but will still be collected into print volumes. Which is fine with me, great even. I love single issues, though, and its my hope that singles still exist in the same way vinyl still exists now as a niche item, a limited edition special format.

“But that’s me speaking as a consumer. I have a lot of worries as a creator in regards to monthlies disappearing, mostly about paying my bills. In a place like Vertigo, the monthlies, even when they sell slowly, are such a crucial part of generating short-term revenue through ads and sales, not to mention the more long-term benefit of raising awareness, of keeping the book visible and in the front of people’s minds for when the eventual collection appears. Can a publisher forego that early income and awareness and still keep everyone paid and the project viable? I don’t know.”

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