Review: Briggs Land #1

Briggs Land is a familiar kind of Brian Wood story, one that he’s told a few different ways in the past. It’s about regionalism in the United States, and divisions, and the highly contested definition of what it means to be an American. That doesn’t mean this story is any less interesting, however, and it reads as an interesting companion piece to Rebels and DMZ. Indeed, this is almost a take on DMZ from the side of the would-be secessionists, while showing just how fractious their side can be. There’s crime, betrayal, and the prospect of an out-and-out war. Briggs Land has been a nominally independent territory since 1980, after the head of the Briggs family declared independence from the United States. However, the head of that clan, Jim, has been imprisoned for several decades after a failed assassination attempt on the president, and has been running the family business from prison. Jim put the family in bed with some of the worst aspects survivalist groups: white power fanatics, drug runners, and terrorists. His wife Grace is an unknown quantity, and she’s making a move to shut out Jim and seize control of the family for herself. This touches off a little war in the community, one that splits her family down the middle.

Briggs Land #1DMZ kept its secessionists as unknowns for much of the series, with similarly nebulous goals. Were they ignorant rednecks? Nativists and white supremacists? People seeking freedom from an oppressive government? There was never an easy answer to that question, probably because that easy answer does not exist. That’s all played out here, but with all of the divisions fully on display in the Briggs family. Hardcore neo-nazis, extreme outdoor types, and outlaws are coexisting alongside each other, but only just barely, and the shake-up in the family’s politics threatens to throw all of it into chaos. At the end of the day, when the thing that aligns your group is a desire to separate from something else, you don’t really have much to hold what you create together. Jefferson Davis found this out the hard way during the Civil War, and I suspect Grace Briggs is in store for a touch of that as well.

The war that Grace has touched off has a problem she hasn’t yet foreseen, and that is the unraveling of the community Jim managed to build. There’s a scene between Grace and her eldest son Caleb which really shows just how fraught this particular system is. Plenty of them are going to refuse to accept any direction from a woman, and Grace doesn’t seem to share many of their agendas either: Caleb’s white supremacy and Noah’s banditry don’t seem to be her at all. But if she risks splitting everything up, then the whole enterprise will fall apart, and if the violence gets out of hand, the feds will come rolling in. Is she going to have to compromise some of her ideals, or worse yet, her family? Is this going to make her a new Jim?

The decision to set this in upstate New York is also an interesting choice on Wood’s part, and not just because it puts the story in the part of the country he returns to over and over again. Rather, it defies the conventional wisdom we all hold about secessionists and survivalists. Ruby Ridge was Idaho and Waco was in Texas, both of which are referenced in this book. Implicitly, we’re either talking about the South or the mountain states, both of which have that “ignorant hillbilly” connotation. In truth, upstate NY probably has more in common with those parts of the country than NYC, as does a great many other parts of the country. At the end of the day, it gives the story a universal kind of character.

Lastly, Grace’s character deserves some comment. There will be plenty of tension over her taking over her husband’s role and being a woman, which poses some interesting ideas about sexism and how she can assert a right to rule. However, even her characterization has a wonderfully naturalistic quality to it. She’s strong, but not impossibly so: when her grandchildren are threatened, she breaks down and experiences doubt. She seems capable of ruthlessness, but she’s not bloodthirsty either, especially if it involves her children. She wants something better for Briggs Land than to be some haven for the worst of the worst, but she’s not the pure mother archetype either.

Overall, this is my comic of the week. I’m already partial to Wood’s meditations on the United States and how it’s a much more contested country than we usually like to imagine. Combining those with an intra-clan feud should make for good reading.

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Briggs Land #1 Writer: Brian Wood Artist: Mack Chater Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.99 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital