Brian Wood’s Progressive Comics
By Andy Frisk
June 19, 2012 - 23:30
It’s no secret to any readers of my stuff here at ComicBookBin that I really like Brian Wood’s work. Wood, along with Joshua Dysart and Jason Aaron, are my favorite current mainstream comic book writers. All three of these writers’ work shares a certain progressive thematic quality. Aaron’s is based in his, sometimes scathing but spot on, humor. Dysart’s is discerned through his dark, but illuminating stories. Wood’s progressivism though is often blatant and often times quite “in your face.” He isn’t shy about his politics, and even though they are blatantly on display in his stories they never come off as preachy, vitriolic, or trite because the man is a master storyteller whose first and foremost talent is for developing characters. Recently freed from his contractual commitments to DC Comics, where he wrote two of his best and longest running series (Northlanders and DMZ), it seems like Wood is currently popping up everywhere around the sequential art world, and the sequential art world is better for it.
Perhaps his most high profile new writing gigs are his current stints on Ultimate X-Men and X-Men for Marvel Comics. Wood is no stranger to the world of Marvel’s Mutants. His first major writing gig in comics was on Generation X over a decade ago, and the storyline currently running through Ultimate X-Men is right up Wood’s alley, so to speak. The mutants of the Ultimate U are genetically created products of government experiments and are currently hunted in the extreme. Detention camps, genocide, and ethnic cleansing are the terms applicable here, and anyone who’s read anything by Wood before knows that he can weave a masterful and metaphorically packed tale with these subjects. Over in the regular Marvel U’s X-Men, Wood appears to be working a little more subtly by developing and weaving a tapestry comprised of personality and character conflicts set against the larger backdrop of the human/mutant conflict. I had my reservations about Wood taking over X-Men from Victor Gischler, mostly because I really loved how Gischler kept the X-Men, as heroes, plugged into the greater Marvel U through a series of very well written crossovers with other Marvel heroes. Wood is a very different type of writer (as he’s stated himself) from Gischler, and even though the great days of Gischler penned X-tales is now sadly behind us, Wood’s first issue on the title as writer (#30) was the kind of opening salvo in a run that I’ve come to expect from Wood. I’m now looking forward to what he does with his group of X-characters. His introduction of new supporting characters and organizations like the “Mutantes San Frontieres,” the potentially brewing and complicated conflict between Storm and Cyclops, and the introduction of an older genetic species of mutants are all going to combine to make his first arc a brilliant one on the series.
Wood isn’t just working for Marvel Comics though. He’s currently writing the new Conan the Barbarian series over at Dark Horse Comics. Delving into semi-familiar territory (Vikings and Cimmerians aren’t that different a breed of men thematically); Wood has added more depth to Conan as a character in just 5 issues than any other writer has in decades. His Conan is younger, a little more brash, and a little more naive than we’re used to seeing him. He’s feeling his way into adulthood while learning about the difference between the haves and the have nots. Wood manages to slip some relevant social commentary about the fictional kingdom of Messantia, Conan and his lover Belit’s current stomping ground, into issue #5. Subtle commentary on the unfair accumulation of wealth, the injustices it breeds, and the desperate actions of those outside the chain of capital luxury all are shaping up to be (again) subtle lessons that Conan might just end up taking to heart. Only Wood could slip such progressive themes into a story starring a character that often times has been idolized as a character that attracts those of a more conservative bent to his tales.
Wood’s other major work for Dark Horse Comics comes to us in the form of another post-apocalyptic type of tale. This time the apocalyptic event isn’t a military conflict like a Second American Civil War, but rather one of an environmental type. The Massive stars the crew of a “Direct-Action Conservationist” ship named The Kapital. Described as existing in a “post-everything” world where “ideologies are meaningless” the crew of The Kapital are struggling to find their way in a world where being an environmentalist is almost a moot point. Not only are they trying to put the pieces back together, they’re searching for their missing sister ship The Massive. Unlike in X-Men and Conan the Barbarian, there’s nothing subtle about Wood’s progressive message here. The Massive has the potential to grow into the type of masterpiece that DMZ ended up being. Wood and Dark Horse Comics make for excellent collaborators. Not only did Dark Horse Comics hand him the reigns to one of their most important properties when they made him the writer of Conan the Barbarian AND allow him to create and write his first post Vertigo creator owned series with The Massive, they recently collected and re-published (re-mastered if you will) Wood’s earliest work (and first collaboration with the brilliant Becky Cloonan) Channel Zero.
Channel Zero is Wood's oddly prescient tale of a guerrilla broadcaster and proponent of free media in a United States dominated politically by the fascistic Christian Right. Conceived as an artistic reaction to Rudy Giuliani’s pre-911 stint as Mayor of New York, it would serve as the fertile soil in which Wood’s progressive and, at times, leftist story ideas would germinate. Not as fully developed as his later works DMZ and The Massive, Channel Zero was nonetheless a very forward thinking work that foreshadowed the dangers inherent in movements similar to the Christian Right’s current attempt to dominate the political discourse in the US and acts like The Patriot Act. For many, and for myself personally, Channel Zero was the work that brought us back into the comics reading fold with its message, energy, and flat out ballsiness. Not only was it a socially conscious work that reflected what would become the backlash against the invasive strictures of the Bush/Cheney regime, it foreshadowed Image Comics’ transformation from a company comprised of lots of pretty art and no good stories to a company that now sits at the forefront of the industry as far as intelligently written and drawn stories go. (Channel Zero was originally published by Image Comics in 1997.)
So, while Wood has a substantial body of intelligent and compelling work behind him at this point, and his body of work includes much more than I’ve managed to poorly illuminate here, it’s evident that he still has a great deal of brilliant work ahead of him. Comics and sequential art are a pretty progressive media overall, but few comics and sequential art works are as progressive and intelligent as Wood’s work is.
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