I don’t know if there’s a less likable protagonist in comics than Matty Roth. Before we get there, let’s back up a bit. DMZ basically follows the story of “what if the tactics of the Gulf War were being used on American soil during a new civil war?” As is prone to occur in real war, the story’s been going on so long that I don’t even remember why they’re fighting. I know there’s the Free States militia, and the US is still intact, but I don’t even remember if the country’s gone to shit outside the borders of the 5 boroughs. The story focuses on Manhattan, and how its citizens have learned to cope during wartime. When the fighting first broke out, many were evacuated, but there are still about 400,000 people left in NYC. In the meantime, there’s Trustwell – a Haliburton-esque group that’s profiting off of every aspect of the war. At the beginning of the series, clean cut Matty Roth is accompanying reporters into the DMZ when they’re shot down. After a string of horrific events, Matty finds himself thrust into the role of documenting the struggle of the city’s survivors. At first, he was just a wet-behind-the-ears child of privilege. Both of his parents had some political clout, which is how he landed such a high profile gig. As yuppie kids are wont to do, he decides to lash out at his parents and strike out on his own path…in the middle of a battle zone. So, the series is really about impetuous Matty finding himself being thrown from one clusterfuck to the next.
The role of the press is odd here. Matty’s press badge seems to gain him access and connections that I didn’t know existed. I’m left to wonder if the Power of the Press is truly that strong, or if it’s exacerbated for the sake of the story. I feel like, in another time, the press might have been afforded certain access. Here, however, it’s almost incredible the sort of protection that Matty’s press badge gets him. He’s in a virtually lawless society, yet everyone seems to understand that a member of the “press” is untouchable. Any war report pretty much invalidates the claim that the “press” has any sort of immunity on the battlefield. At first, Matty was that preppy kid that none of the survivors trusted. He really wanted them to accept him, but they couldn’t because he was clearly just a “tourist”. Over the course of the next four years, he makes a few important friends, and even finds himself as a part of the political machine. The US allowed NYC to hold election, however they plan to rig the results by authorizing mercenaries to attack people at the polls. Matty aligns himself with Parco Delgado, who’s a bit of an Al Sharpton character – he’s liked by the common man, but seen as a thug by those already in power. Matty tags along with the campaign because he thinks it’ll be “fun”. He eventually becomes Parco’s right hand man, not realizing what that will mean when everything eventually goes to shit. A nuke is set off in Connecticut, Parco disappears, and Matty becomes the fall guy. Now, he’s skulking around NYC looking like a hipster Serpico.
The series is best when it focuses on characters other than Matty. From Wilson, the quiet, elder boss of Chinatown, to Zee, the former nursing student turned tour guide to the DMZ. The situation just seems like a game to Matty, while everyone else is just trying to survive. While he had been in dangerous situations, and his parents have each made public shows of cutting him off, you never really believe that Matty’s in any trouble. When the shit hits the fan, his parents will be there to bail him out, which is exactly what happens at the end of Volume 9. Matty strikes a deal with the US government, that his political crimes/associations will be expunged if he agrees to become a mouthpiece for the right-wing media. Instead of reporting the truth, Matty’s now being paid to spin the story for the international press, to drum up the support that America needs in order to finally win the war. He makes a big show saying that he’ll take the job, but he still wants a trial following his assignment because he wants a chance to tell his story on the stand. That’s all well and good, but nobody gives a shit about his “faux nobility”.That doesn’t mean anything to the citizens of NYC, and if there’s any justice, Matty won’t survive the end of the war anyway. He’s like that emo kid who doesn’t know how good he’s got it. Now he’s all wrapped up in self pity, going on about how he doesn’t deserve to live, while it’s obvious that he’s not a man who’s prepared to die. This is not a hero’s journey. This is some spoiled asshole who got in over his head, hurt a LOT of people, and will probably make things worse before they get better. A YEAR AND A HALF LATER… Yeah, it took me that long to get back to this post. I started it on 9/16/11, and here it is June of 2013. A recent trip to NYC inspired me to finish the series – especially since I had the two remaining volumes on my shelf, collecting dust. Where to begin, where to begin? Matty returns to the DMZ, now as an “impartial observer” meant to sway public opinion on the campaign in NYC. The final battle is on the horizon, and history needs to be assured that the surge was a necessary action. The US Government devises “The Battle for Manhattan”, as US troops are finally prepared to take back the city – even if that means destroying it in the process. Parco is found, and we find that he was working for another group the entire time. He was meant to be a puppet, but he had been determined to run New York in the interest of the people. Anyway, he’s captured in a Saddam Hussein-like hole in the ground, and put on trial. Let’s just say that the Parco story ends in an interesting way…
Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to how the war began in the first place. Imagine if Occupy Wall Street had actually accomplished anything. That’s what essentially starts the second American Civil War. Disgruntled members of the 99% decide that they’ve had it with the way things are going, and they gradually form the Free States of America. As the country continues to fall apart, police and other first responders are defunded, with their ranks joining up with the FSA. The FSA starts in the Midwest, but moves east towards NYC, looting and raiding military bases and weapons stockpiles along the way. Manhattan is the symbolic beachhead of the war, yet neither the FSA nor the government have secured it, hence its status as a demilitarized zone. It’s powerful to see that this 6-year civil war was borne out of the very same events that we’ve experienced in the real world. It really makes the reader think about what might have been. Back in the present, the surge is swift, the treaty is signed, and the war ends. Matty takes one final tour of NYC, looking up familiar friends and allies, while trying to process all that he’s gone through. It’s at this point that we learn Matty has cut some sort of deal with the US Government, brokered by his father. We don’t know what the deal entails, but we know that Matty has 2 weeks in which to get his affairs in order. After two weeks have passed, Matty is taken into custody, and put on trial for crimes against humanity. He ends up pleading guilty to all counts, including some charges that were untrue. I won’t spoil the nature of his sentencing, but let’s just say that it comes as no surprise. Around the midpoint of the series, Matty became determined to be a martyr, in whatever form that might take. After being bamboozled by Parco, he’s never able to forgive himself for the actions that ensued. That said, his wish for martyrdom seemed just as insincere as everything else he had done while in the DMZ. For a character who seriously needed his comeuppance, I can’t say that I was satisfied with the ending. While he seemingly loses everything, it almost feels like he didn’t lose enough. He goes out on his own terms rather than have his fate governed by external forces. In that light, it’s less like a man taking responsibility for his actions, but rather a man who pity parties himself into his situation. Before his trial, he found out enough information that could’ve have saved him during his trial, but he decided not to use it. He decided that ending the war was more important than the truth. Again, it’s that foolhardy martyrdom, devoid of clear thinking. In the end, I think Matty got what he wanted, even if the reader didn’t.