In the fall of 2003, Brian Wood ditched a cushy design gig at Rockstar Games and moved to San Francisco, a town where he had only a handful of close friends. Like any good artist, Wood equated geographic relocation with creative reinvigoration, exile with productivity—anything, at any rate, to break him out of the noisy reverie of post-collegiate, cog-in-the-machine New York City living.
A few months earlier, Wood, a comic-book writer, had managed to place an original graphic series, Demo, with the Californian publisher AiT/Planet Lar. He had high hopes for the project, and since his Rockstar duties were starting to bring him down, he packed all his shit into a few bags and arranged for his girlfriend—now his wife—to meet him in San Francisco after things had been settled.
“On the first day, I said, ‘This is absolutely not cool.’ ” Wood laughs, splayed across a bench at a quiet Soho bookstore. “Everybody says it’s culturally similar to New York, which is a fucking lie.” Among the litany of sins: “Public transportation is a joke. The food is bad.” Also: “The weather is messed up. You never knew what the fuck was going to happen. I actually developed rosacea. A year later, when I retreated to New York, that went away. Instantly.”
In the bio pages of his comics, Wood often sports old tattoos, a white wife-beater, a pair of worn black jeans, or a hoodie slung low over his head. But in person, he more closely resembles the average thirtysomething Park Slope dad (a designation he unabashedly embraces): medium height, thinning hair trimmed close to the scalp, mildly cynical, mostly content.
New York has shaped Brian Wood, much in the way that Brian Wood—after a decade in the city, part of it spent as a bike messenger, an art student, and then a dot-com designer—has begun to shape New York. Consider: Wood’s bestselling series, DMZ, which envisions a Manhattan caught in the midst of a second American civil war, is one of the bestselling titles at Vertigo, itself the premier name in alternative comic books. (The fifth DMZ trade paperback will be released on August 12.)
Local, a long-running drama created with the artist Ryan Kelly, has been a critical smash; Oni Press is publishing a hardcover collection in September. Demo, Wood’s first real hit, was collected in a paperback last month by Vertigo, which is owned by DC. The New York Four, a story that follows a group of college students on their initial forays across Manhattan and Brooklyn—the book is being marketed as an insider’s guide to the city—hits shelves this week.
And Wood, who has long shied away from superhero books, preferring instead to foster an oeuvre of creator-owned work, will likely soon see his characters translated to the big screen. The Couriers, his tale of a group of drug-smuggling NYC bike messengers, is reportedly close to production; he’s written a treatment of DMZ for film, and says he regularly fields calls from a handful of Hollywood companies. There’s also been considerable interest in New York Four as a TV show, although Wood declines to get into details.
“Brian’s capturing New York better than any other comic-book writer out there,” says Brian K. Vaughn, a writer for television’s Lost and the author of the comic series Y: The Last Man. “The biggest cliché in writing is, ‘This is a love letter to the city.’ But there’s nothing worse than reading a love letter. Brian’s writing is much bigger and scarier than that.”
The first time I met Brian Wood, at the annual festival thrown by the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art, he was locked in an awkward embrace with a sweaty, porcine fan who was angling for some sort of group portrait. The day was hot, and for a moment, the two men’s cheeks stuck together like wet Gummy Bears. “I’m going to take a picture, OK?” the fan said, without waiting for Wood’s response. “I love you.”
Comic-book fame is a funny thing: Even as Hollywood pushes the medium further into the mainstream, a sense of geek solidarity remains. Writers and artists feel compelled to stay in touch with their fans; the fans, in turn, continue to treat creators like best friends. “I’m hesitant to compare him to an emo band, but I feel like Brian has that sort of connection to the audience,” says James Lucas Jones, an editor at Oni Press who worked with Wood on Local. “People feel emotionally invested in him.”
Wood’s own fame was cemented in the late ’90s, after the publication of the William Gibson–esque Channel Zero. He now calls it something of “an art student’s rant”—a ” ‘zine where everybody talks about what pisses them off.” But Zero led to a writing stint at Marvel’s Generation X and paved the way for the series Couriers, Couscous Express, and Pounded, about a rock band in New York. Eventually, Wood transitioned from occasionally drawing into writing full-time, mostly because he “had so many ideas, and not enough time to put them to paper.”
On a warm afternoon this spring, Wood agreed to do a tour around lower Manhattan, stopping, briefly, at the areas featured in his books. Here was the Little Italy street where a DMZ suicide bomber took a dozen lives. There’s the sushi joint frequented by Riley, the protagonist of New York Four. Wandering through the East Village, Wood points up at a rooftop and remembers a few December 31sts, shivering in the cold, waiting for the New Year to roll in.
“I guess I absorb a lot of my own history into these books,” he says. “They’re very retro, in that way.”
Four, also illustrated by Kelly, “is an extremely personal book,” a mirror of Wood’s time at Parsons, when he was still feeling out New York. As each character encounters a new landmark, the lens pulls back and offers some historical perspective. (“If anyone here tries to sell you something,” Wood writes, for example, of Washington Square Park, “trust me, they’re shady and you don’t want what they got.”)
“It’s easy for someone to hit the major sign posts—the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building,” says Lost‘s Vaughn. “What Brian does is find those little pieces of the city. He’s not a tourist. He’s a New Yorker having a conversation with and about New York.”