Channel Zero: The Complete Collection

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With how big Brian Wood’s name has only recently blown up, it’s almost surprising to look at his back catalogue of work and see how absolutely enormous it is. I first heard of him when DMZ first came out, but he had still been around for almost a decade, his name generating a lot of buzz in the indie comic world for titles like Local, Demo, and something called Channel Zero.

Channel Zero was the book that Brian Wood made his mark with. Originally released in 1997, it bounced around publishers a bit before Dark Horse recently bought up the rights to all of it. The result is Channel Zero: The Complete Collection, which contains the original Channel Zero, the prequel graphic novel Channel Zero: Jennie One, and Public Domain: A Channel Zero Design Book.

Channel Zero, written and drawn by Wood, is the story of Jennie 2.5, a hacker and political activist in a near-future America. This America has been turned into a police state by the Christian Right, who rose to power through media manipulation and oppression. The follow-up story, Channel Zero: Jennie One, is a prequel, telling how Jennie went from being a naive art student to the icon she is in the original and features the first collaboration with frequent artist Becky Cloonan. Public Domain: A Channel Zero Design book is—well, it’s exactly that.

Simply put, this is a phenomenal collection. Guaranteed to piss off more right-leaning readers, Channel Zero feels like a post-modern V for Vendetta. The America Wood paints a picture of is a dark and scary place, with the media providing a constant stream of propaganda to a society of people that will happily be complacent so they can avoid anything inconvenient. Despite being a reaction to Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as New York City’s mayor, it seems almost eerily prophetic based on how much it resembles the current political climate. In Channel Zero, we see this world during the lead-up, execution, and aftermath of Jennie 2.5’s most ambitious act of protest. Jennie One is more focused, telling an earlier story of Jennie while showing us America in the time building up to the Clean Act, the law that began the oppression. Both story arcs while stylistically different are incredibly well told.

The art that accompanies the stories defies description. I mean that in the good sense, but also that it’s straight-up hard to describe. Drawn in black and white, it’s both stark and simple yet wildly unpredictable, particularly Wood’s work. The art often doesn’t follow the story directly, opting to instead flesh out the world while the story is told through conversations and inner monologues. We get glimpses of daily life. Some pages are just images of propaganda used in
America. Almost every page has subliminal messages like “Bomb the System” and “The Truth is a Concept” hidden on them. The real meat of the story is in the details, and every single one of them enhances the experience. There are large portions of Channel Zero where we don’t even see much of Jennie, seeing the rest of the world while we hear her in phone calls and interviews, giving an almost mythic air to the character.

Brian Wood’s greatest strength has always been characterization, particularly young female leads. Jennie 2.5 is capable, resourceful, and determined, but is still flawed. At first she’s a larger than life figure who seems infallible, but later in interviews she praises Mao and downplays human rights violations in Tibet, showing she’s still young and headstrong and can’t possibly know all that she thinks she does. At one point she says that it’s wrong to force opinions on someone else, literally right before she hypocritically states her opinion is “the correct opinion.” These moments, however, don’t make Jennie any less likable but make for a compellingly human protagonist.  Jennie One capitalizes on that further, showing Jennie’s genesis during the protests of the Clean Act.

Even Public Domain was captivating. While it may just be a book about the development of Channel Zero, it’s incredibly detailed and surprisingly interesting, featuring unused stories, early art, and a lot of prose explaining every last point in the book’s creation.

The seeds for much of Wood’s future work are sewn here. Channel Zero’s universe became the setting for his graphic novels Couscous Express and The Couriers, which apparently star two characters who make a small appearance here. The New York Four, The New York Five, and Local were also stories about youth culture with young female leads. The anti-authoritarian themes present here are central to DMZ, and I’m pretty sure all of them have a coming of age theme. Haven’t read The Couriers yet, but you can bet it just jumped onto my read list.

Perhaps the best part about Channel Zero: The Complete Collection is that it’s an incredible value at $19.99. High quality work that is beautifully collected for an affordable price is great, and this seems to be common for Wood’s work. A few years ago, Oni Press released a stunning hardcover collection of Local for only $29.99, where similar volumes of other books run upwards of $70. These books belong on the shelf of any fan of creator-owned, indie, political, or alternative comics.

There has been a lot of difficulty in making a Channel Zero movie. I understand, it’d be a tough one. Only David Fincher could really pull it off. So yeah, someone get him on that.