Synopsis: A blistering take on media control in a repressive future America! DMZ and The Massive creator Brian Wood launched an all-out assault on the comics medium in 1997 with Channel Zero, an influential, forward-thinking series that combined art, politics, and graphic design in a unique way. Touching on themes of freedom of expression, hacking, cutting-edge media manipulation, and police†surveillance, it remains as relevant today as it did back then.
The Channel Zero collection contains the original series, the prequel graphic novel Jennie One (illustrated†by Becky Cloonan), the best of the two Public Domain design books, and almost fifteen years of extras, rarities, short stories, and unused art. Also featuring the now-classic Warren Ellis introduction and an all-new cover by Wood, this is the must-have edition. See where it all began!
Channel Zero, by Brian Wood with Becky Cloonan 7.5
“Your mind is a weapon, use it.”
‘Channel Zero’ is a subversive comic that was first published in 1997 as a serial and later collected in 2000. It takes place in a dystopian United States that has been over-run by Christian fundamentalists, where the media has been taken over by government and is tightly controlled.
In this reality, the United Nations and even the Vatican denounce the political and rhetorical conflagration coming from this “New Christian America”, while the rest of the world is destabilized and the old Soviet Union is rising from its ashes. It’s not a pretty place.
Its key protagonist is Jennie 2.5, a “radical” who hijacks the airwaves to broadcast her socio-political messages, securing the wrath of the US government. With the help of friends, she manages to elude the authorities for many months, always managing to get on air for the short time needed.
But she can only succeed for so long.
‘Channel Zero’ is unusual in many respects. Not only does it convey strong political ideals, but it doesn’t cater in false heroics: Jennie is only one person and can’t sustain her activities forever. She doesn’t become a superhero (or super vigilante) like in most comic books.
In lieu of that, ‘Channel Zero’ explores Jennie 2.5’s previous life, as Jennie 1.0, and the origins of her current self, what revelations led her to become this revolutionary. It explores her background in an effort to justify her foreground, perhaps even to inspire the reader in some fashion.
Brian Wood also inserted subversive messages and taglines all over the page (on the sides, in the art, …etc.), which I thought was a fascinating statement on propaganda, branding, and the media age. He also included all sorts of photocopiable posters and stickers for readers to reproduce.
Unlike books of its ilk, such as ‘V for Vendetta’, it doesn’t necessarily rouse the reader. In fact, its intention is unclear. While ‘Channel Zero’ makes provocative statements, it also cynically dismisses all efforts on Jennie 2.5’s part in various ways, suggesting that the point is moot.
In this sense, the book’s tagline of “subversion perversion” may prove all too true.
Personally, despite its ambiguous intentions and impact, I thought that it was a rather engrossing read. It has its flaws, such as when it introduces all sorts of new characters yet doesn’t go anywhere with them, but it also has many strengths, the least of which is fostering discussion.
One sequence that I rather liked was when we follow a cleaner (a shadowy municipal law enforcer) and discover that the more he does the work the more his mindset changes – to the point that he considers working the system from the inside. But Jennie kills him as an enemy of the people.
This alone brings up the subjects of justice and vigilantism. When one thinks that the system is broken, one is more likely to work outside of it. However, in so doing, one can never really know if one is truly doing the right thing: not everything is entirely black and white – no matter how pure one’s beliefs.
Here Jennie held true to her vision, but in the process, by judging people on a categorical level, she has erased a potential ally from existence. So not only has she possibly committed an error, she has made her work more difficult in the long run. Justice is really not so cut and dry.
For all its flaws (Wood himself admits that this first work of his is imperfect), I’d recommend ‘Channel Zero’ – at the very least because it predicted significant aspects of the world that we live in now. Given that our society is “lost in generica”, it’s always nice to see someone make a statement.
‘Channel Zero’ is “recommended by four out of five”.
Post scriptum: this edition, released by Dark Horse Comics in May 2012, includes all sorts of outtakes, artwork, as well as commentary by Brian Wood. It also reproduces the original ‘Channel Zero’ comic that Wood wrote and drew for his graduation project at Parsons School of Design in 1997. It’s well worth picking up.