In case you missed it;
TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE EARLY YEARS (Part 1)
I’m going to call this first period from 1997 to 2003 “THE EARLY YEARS.” All of these books are marked by a couple of defining characteristics in addition to the identity quest. For the most part, they are youthful and quite exuberant high concept hooks with a lot of subversive elements. Perhaps this marks Wood’s own age and experience as a writer at the time. There was definitely a sense of flagrant irreverence to this early period. I don’t intend it to sound pejorative. It’s that these early books operate with a certain swagger most intensely found in this initial six year period, qualities which then become more neutral and subtle in later works.
Though Wood had achieved critical success essentially from day one, I think it’s generally accepted that DEMO: VOLUME ONE really put him (and Becky Cloonan) “on the map” in the public’s mind. It was then that he garnered one of the first Eisner Award Nominations and honestly the first time I ever saw an LCS get crazy and hype DEMO in a book dump at the register (that was Dan Shahin at Hijinx Comics, by the way). 2003 was a peak productive time for Brian Wood, which included his design work for Warren Ellis’ GLOBAL FREQUENCY, but the culmination of this breaking-in period and era of name establishment clearly seems to be DEMO: VOLUME ONE, marking the end of THE EARLY YEARS. Moving forward, he began to shift slightly away from reliance on high concept hooks and include more character first human drama, so it’s a natural place to full-stop THE EARLY YEARS as an era of creativity.
CHANNEL ZERO (1997, Image Comics & AiT/Planet Lar): Man, it had been over a decade since I’d read CHANNEL ZERO! Brian Wood’s first work in comics is dripping with that swagger and youthful bravado I mentioned. It bristles with an “excited unpredictability,” to steal a line from the book itself. Steven Grant suggested in his introduction that it was an avant-garde piece and that the rest of the industry would be struggling to play catch up. It was a prescient statement that withstands the scrutiny of more than a decade passed. It’s remarkable how well it holds up, how a forward-thinking book from the late 90’s can remain timeless and so relevant in today’s world. The near-dystopian world it presents almost has the same English flair to it that earlier works like V FOR VENDETTA and WATCHMEN had as responses to the political climate across the pond at the time, courtesy of Margaret Thatcher and some radical right policies. CHANNEL ZERO is very overt in its political discourse, frequently commenting on “The Mayor” and “Rudy” (Giuliani) as it charges ahead with subversive paranoia and its daring vision. The setting is a future New York, where an Ultra Right Wing alliance has pushed “The Clean Act” through Congress, which functionally ends Freedom of Speech and sees the rise of content controlled media, with no separation of Church & State. Jennie 2.5 and her pirate TV blurbs are labeled “info-terrorism.” Imagine a future so Orwellian in nature that something like self-published ‘zine production is illegal. The clever paradox is that CHANNEL ZERO, the book itself, could not exist in the fictional world of CHANNEL ZERO.
The strongest thematic element is that sense of the subversive. Wood laces his work with a type of underground street level subliminal messaging that runs rampant for the duration of the book. On nearly every page, one finds messages like “the media is poison”
scrawled around the backgrounds. It immediately called to mind the street artist character Decade Later that we see in select issues of DMZ
. The iconic imagery and general aesthetic in CHANNEL ZERO
play like a brilliant blend of Brian Wood’s own graphic design background and sensibility, coupled with the vibe of contemporary artists like Shepard Fairey, Jenny Holzer
, or particularly the infamous Banksy
The identity thread is subdued compared to latter Brian Wood books, favoring focus on the politicized message of the danger of apathy, yet it is still present. Jennie questions her own motives and, in turn, her identity. She considers whether or not her intentions of un-brainwashing society are completely noble, or if she’s simply fueled by her own ego, fame, and ratings. I particularly liked the interview with “Bad Floppies” (a great meta-commentary name) toward the end of the book, in which we see Jennie struggling with her fame to some degree, almost like an advanced callout to the band interview in issue three of LOCAL. Included is an isolated chapter of the book that spotlights a “cleaner” roaming the city, why the person took on this particular occupation, and what it means in terms of their identity. From a more macro perspective, I’d argue that the entire book questions the identity of the United States and the inherent danger of becoming a crusading theocracy, which puts this brand of identity quest into a position of primary focus.
With a solid foothold on the identity theme, amid a backdrop of subversive ideology, there were quite a few other odd enjoyable bits that I noticed about CHANNEL ZERO this time around. It’s a bit anomalous in that Brian Wood writes and illustrates the project. At times, some of the acute similarities with the entire body of work gave me a sense of déjà vu. For example, Jennie talks about initially wanting to be a freelance journalist, and it’s impossible not to view her as some odd precursor, a piece of recombinant fiction, that is part Matthew Roth and part Zee from DMZ. As we’ll come to expect from Wood’s output, New York City plays a large part, and there is frequently talk of still loving the city, its food and its culture, in spite of what the greater United States has become in this future. I completely forgot that we see street contacts Moustafa and Special in this book, who are the main characters of later work in THE COURIERS. There’s even a guy named Heavy, hailing from Vancouver, who bears a resemblance to the main character in POUNDED, Heavy Parker, which takes place in… you guessed it, Vancouver. It’s like you can actually see Wood’s brain percolating these other story concepts along strange little detours in the “Woodverse.”
There isn’t genre subversion in the same manner we see it in later works. It’s bolder. It’s practically full-fledged medium subversion. The medium is not the message. It’s merely a content delivery mechanism, and Wood has something to say. He seems to be co-opting comics as a platform, in order to rail against any corporate or government controlled media sources, Right Wing Holy Wars, and using his own brand of angry “subvertisement” as a positive force for change in the world.
As will recur in the Brian Wood library, there is a humongous sense of generational tension at play in CHANNEL ZERO. Wood even tries to invent his own generation called “Generation Tech,” a moniker for the youth culture with a technology fetish, kids who are socially conditioned to “trust their techno-lust.” Having survived the dot com bubble and burst in the epicenter of Silicon Valley while working for the largest networking company on the planet for over 10 years, hey, I chuckled pretty heartily at how savvy this late 90’s view of the tech future was. It’s very… “Warren Ellis-y,” for lack of a more sophisticated descriptor. Jennie 2.5 wishes to “inspire the next generation of revolutionaries,” and in the end decides to leave her legacy, her own identity, in the hands of the next generation. She seems to resume her pre-revolutionary identity of Jennifer Havel, and says simply that she’ll miss the dim sum; a line which rings truthful with Wood’s appreciation of all things culinary in New York.
Though there’s almost a manic shotgun blast of ideas and varying degrees of prioritization that hit you with rapid succession in CHANNEL ZERO, it is the prototypical creative mold for all that would come. We see a strong hook, identity as a theme, intense subversive elements, New York as a backdrop, well written females, and generational tension that doesn’t let up for a second.
GENERATION X #63-75 (2000, Marvel Comics): I remember buying the first few issues of GENERATION X because I thought Chris Bachalo’s art was interesting. I’d long given up the series by the time Wood was invited to co-write with Warren Ellis and eventually closed it out due to editorial mandate. It’s fascinating to look back at now. Even then, the book was purported to be a response to the “cynicism and complexity of its namesake demographic.” It’s almost as if fate drew Brian Wood to this property, knowing that his natural prowess as a writer was to utilize identity and generational rift as storytelling tools. Though this run is marred by some stereotypical looking “90’s Image house style” art (even from Steve Pugh), the shards of a Brian Wood creative aesthetic can still be discovered underneath the layers of sub-par pencils and really awful coloring (dig the shots of Sean “Banshee” Cassidy in a purple skin tight sweater with piss yellow pants).
The first Brian Wood trait you notice in this work is a generational conflict and it comes in the form of a character named Warden Coffin of The House of Correction. His very existence is an adversarial establishmentarian; a dogmatic persona who aggressively attacks the Gen X squad to “educate them properly” since “America is afraid of its children.” At one point, Coffin states that his supposed crimes against humanity are dependent on a generational point of view.
It’s interesting to tease out which bits of the plot are Warren Ellis influences and which bits of the dialogue are indications of Brian Wood’s involvement. There are plenty of futurist and tech-centric “Ellis-isms;” we see trademark internet banter, hacking attempts, and devices like the modified Enfield Enforcer (it’s a gun). However, Wood’s presence is felt even this early in the relatively well written banter between females like Emma Frost, Paige Guthrie, and Monet St. Croix.
In a larger narrative sense, these arcs have the GENERATION X’ers asking themselves “who are we?” and “what do we represent?” Their search is one of identity, in which they capitulate that they don’t want to be X-Men, don’t want to be on X-Force (which was once hip), and so their plan at this particular point in the Marvel U is to simply help disenfranchised kids their own age. They’re not even interested in the standard mutant paradigm of surviving “in a world that hates and fears us” as previous generations of X-Men have always adhered to. In fact, they openly mock that line, so they too are having their genre subverted courtesy of Brian Wood. There are crucial scenes that continue to ratchet up the generational tension as the team defends their generation’s right to like whatever music, video games, or internet haunts they want. They continually push back on society’s youth paranoia in the wake of Columbine. Jubilee defiantly tells Sean Cassidy simply “you’re wrong” about various social issues. Jono “Chamber” Starsmore accuses Cassidy of “old thinking” and “old attitudes.”
In the final appraisal, despite some honestly awful artwork (the nice Art Adams covers notwithstanding), and even with an early company owned property, Wood has proven that his voice is recognizable and distinct, that he can write strong females, subvert genres, highlight generational conflict, and send his characters off on an identity quest.
COUSCOUS EXPRESS (2001, AiT/Planet Lar): COUSCOUS EXPRESS is firmly entrenched in THE COURIERS universe, but shifts focus slightly to a well-written female named Olive Yassin. She’s Moustafa’s girlfriend; though we already met him in CHANNEL ZERO, he doesn’t get fully fleshed out until the subsequent three volumes of THE COURIERS. Olive’s presence in Brian Wood’s New York is like a window to the culture, infused with young kids hooked on food and scooters, who don’t seem to be phased by crime. Olive knows fully what Moustafa does for a living and accepts him lovingly and completely.
Olive’s parents own an award-winning restaurant and are being extorted by the Turkish Mafia. While Moustafa initially intervenes to protect his girlfriend and her family, it’s Olive and Moustafa’s female partner Special who really become the stars of the show. In the rousing conclusion, it’s Olive who confronts her family’s tormentor and Special who delivers the kill shot. The girls run this town. Brian Wood also continues his dalliance with New York City, placing Olive’s birth in Queens, having her grow up in Long Island City with Moustafa, and frequently mentioning local geographic detail like Mott Street in the heart of Little Italy.
Despite the wealth of secondary writing traits that Wood weaves together in this heartening tale of hummus, Olive’s identity and the arc of her character comprise the core theme. Olive seems to be consciously fighting the FOB immigrant stereotype of being a “pathetic submissive mannered housewife.” She’s an outcast for not holding up this stereotypical path and the derision creates much of the generational tension that fuels her personality. While outsiders see her as “the poor immigrant girl” helping out in her parent’s restaurant, she’s caught between that and her parents’ generation seeing her as lazy, spoiled, and selfish, which is something even her close friends acknowledge. Her outlook is that of a child and the events of COUSCOUS EXPRESS force her to grow up a little, so that we witness her identity mature and change, her petulant sense of entitlement softening. From the great acts that Special and Moustafa are willing to carry out and endure to protect what they consider their extended family, Olive learns to appreciate her actual blood relatives. She learns that her background is not something to be ashamed of, but something that she can value as a part of her identity.
Wood uses a type of MacGuffin here that he’ll repeat in future adventures, in that it’s a cultural “artifact” to some degree that propels the plot forward. The tension exerted by the Turks is over stolen recipes(!); in this world, the insular community and cultural integrity of the generation’s identity must be preserved at all costs.
THE COURIERS (2003, AiT/Planet Lar): THE COURIERS runs the subversive gamut hard, but the notion of identity can still be detected. Those two characteristics are joined by a strong affinity for New York City and an exceptionally well written female in the mercenary courier named Special.
Brian Wood sends an early message that he’s not playing around. Within the first couple of pages we see Special and her partner Moustafa execute a Russian mobster in the middle of the street in broad daylight with a very cinematic flair, thanks to artist Rob G. In this intense blend of fast crime, hard environment, and rich food, her prowess as a crime figure is immediately noticeable as she subverts the traditionally male dominated role. Special is the leader. She decides which jobs to take. She’s the one who can crack the modified ASL. She issues stern directives to Moustafa. She is absolutely the “alpha dog” in the pack. Not only does Wood subvert the gender roles we’d typically see in a story like this, but he even subverts the crime elements a step further. Special isn’t interested in the standard female crime role, and at times she doesn’t even seem to be that interested in the crime itself, the profit, or any notoriety (like the offer of a Maxim Magazine spread), but is more concerned with her next meal of congee and steamed taro buns.
As will become almost de rigueur for Brian Wood, New York City plays a large role in the story. It’s interesting to note that two of the only double page spreads in the book are a large wide shot of the city, and then an impressive spread of Chinese food. Wood is letting us know that in his universe, the city and its cuisine are of utmost importance to the culture. We see a litany of New York landmarks too, from JFK Airport, to Gramercy Park, to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
In terms of the primary theme, since this is an early work, Wood hasn’t quite yet transitioned to a protagonist focused identity quest, but the identity of the world is still a primary concern. As the first in what would become a trilogy of THE COURIERS adventures, there’s significant time spent fleshing out the identity of this world and the culture of the generation inhabiting it. The youth culture of this new generation has abandoned the social mores of the prior generation and freely accepts criminal enterprise as a viable way of life, while blending in their fascination with food, tech, and pop culture. It’s a robust mélange that delivers throwaway lines about “Turkish Mafia Scooter Enthusiasts” and references to everything from Star Wars (“I have a bad feeling about this”) to LOTR (“Mr. Underhill”), to a moto that is dressed with the same stickers as Kaneda’s ride in AKIRA. In this reality, a typical job for the couriers is literally riding shotgun and “escorting a limo through the Friday night riots.” And of course, of equal concern is when the next order of couscous will be delivered to Hot Sauce(!). Wood and Rob G have fun littering their scenes with Easter eggs as this universe is established. Wood collaborator Becky Cloonan makes a cameo, as do James Sime (proprietor of Isotope Comics in San Francisco) and AiT/Planet Lar Publisher Larry Young, with Isotope t-shirts amok in many of the crowd shots. We see Jennie 2.5 from the CHANNEL ZERO books make a nice cameo, and it’s clear that women do indeed run this town. Special runs the clans, Jennie 2.5 disrupts the media, and even the MacGuffin that this story revolves around is a young woman.
It would be relatively easy to get lost in the widescreen action sequences, in the conflicts with an ex-Red Army General and the local Triads, but preservation of the identity of Special and Moustafa’s culture is the core principle. Moustafa has a rousing speech where he prompts their crew to defend their neighborhood from outsiders. Ultimately, it’s interesting to note that this criminal conflict is not over drugs or money or slain colleagues, but over another cultural artifact. In this fragile future, the preservation of a society’s cultural identity trumps all.