The first volume of Demo was an impulse buy for me. I knew nothing about it, although the cover image of a red and pink punk rock couple lost in a sea of dour, grey men and women in black suits, did seem vaguely familiar to me. Maybe because I’d seen the image before or maybe because I live inside that image every time I walked to work from Bryant Park to Times Square along Sixth Avenue. But Demo was written by Brian Wood and drawn by Becky Cloonan, two people whose work I had really enjoyed on the new Conan the Barbarian series, and Midtown Comics was already promoting the book’s second volume, so I thought I’d give it a shot and maybe I’d discover in it a new little indie book for me to follow.
What I didn’t know going into it, and what actually turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for me with the book, was it’s format. The idea behind Demo is that it’s an anthology series, a bunch of one-act plays or done-in-one issues or undeveloped pilots that give the reader a brief glimpse into the lives of these weird, misfit characters, many of whom are in that sort of limbo between 20 and 30 where they aren’t sure of what to do or who to be or who to be with. So right there I had a lot to relate to. A lot of the stories also take place in New York, which gave me something else that I could relate to.
But then Demo goes a step further and adds another layer to each vignette, a layer that in the comic book medium actually makes things feel more believable, in that almost each story is secretly about a person with latent superpowers. Now, at first the superpower aspect is saved for the end of the story as sort of a Shyamalanian twist. I’d read the early stories and the suspense would be in waiting to see what the superpower was, which would then unlock the mystery of the story.
I started to think the title Demo was kind of a reference to the format, maybe saying that these short stories are just demonstrations of what could be done with a more indie approach to the superhero genre. Like saying all twelve of the comics could be pitches for their own books, but instead of doing that let’s just keep on shuffling the deck and seeing what else might come out. The only complaint I have about that is that there were a few times when we’d leave behind some pretty interesting characters with some pretty compelling stories and powers in favor of characters and stories that were, for me, less compelling. Hell, this happened after the very first issue.
But as the series moves on, the characters themselves and the tiny little slices of life that they serve up begin to replace the superpower aspect as the story’s fulcrum. Wood begins to introduce the characters’ powers earlier on in the stories, using it as part of the setup rather than as part of the wrap-up. The shapechanger who no one can see for who she really is. The soldier who has never missed a shot but can’t bring himself to take a life. We see that the superpowers here start to become a larger-than-life analogy for common insecurities and foibles.
It’s at this point that the stories start to take on a more depressing tone. People in dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships, dead-end lives, who are given extraordinary powers almost as part of some cruel joke. Like those powers are just one more thing for other people to ignore or to hold against them or to use for their own personal gain. These are exactly the kinds of comics that I was looking for ten years ago, as a depressed teenager spending his high school years in gloomy ass Groton, Connecticut. The stories become about being dumped, or finding your girlfriend dead in the hallway, or resolving to be a slacker for the rest of your life. Eventually the superpower aspect starts to fade away completely. And I started to seriously wonder if maybe Demo was meant to be a reference to “emo” and I just didn’t catch it.
However, by the time I got to the last story, which was a poem set to images of a couple walking around Brooklyn all day and then jumping off of the roof of their building later that night, I came to really enjoy this comic for what it was. It’s definitely heavy. There’s stuff in here that makes me uncomfortable, not because it’s gory or gross or whatever, but because it reminds me too much of things I’ve had to deal with or see people around me deal with. But there’s a lot here that’s interesting and compelling. And most importantly, just about every story here is trying something new. The result is kind of hit or miss, as would be expected, but there are a lot of ideas here that were genuinely interesting and I’m glad someone tried them out.
At the end of the day, though, for me this book begins and ends with Becky Cloonan. When I peaked inside of it at the comic store and took a look at her pages and what she was doing here, that’s what sold me on this comic. That’s what made me want to buy it. And throughout the book her stuff is what kept me going, even if the stories were too heavy. I didn’t just read the pages, I soaked in every panel.
I loved the heavy brush strokes and fingerprints and smudges and fat black ink drops that adorn each page, letting you know that the last thing to touch the page was the artist’s hand. I was tickled by the way she implied backgrounds and scenery with a few simple brush strokes rather than trying to render the whole thing. I thought that the stark contrast of the black and white in each scene perfectly accentuated the wintry, depressing, northern feel of the book, and that combined with the cartoonishness of the characters reminded me of my slacker teenage days reading Kevin Smith and Jim Mahfood’s Clerks comics.
With each issue she changes up her style to fit the tone of the story, or to counterbalance it in some cases, and it almost made me wonder if perhaps Demo just meant Becky Cloonan showing all the various ways in which she kicks ass. From the bottomless chiaroscuro shadows of issue 7 to the all-out manga style of issue 10 to the Scott Pilgrim-ish goofiness of issue 11, Demo is a visual feast. A world tour. Something every comic book artist and writer should have in their collection.
Demo totally caught me by surprise. For a second I had my doubts about how much I was going to like it, about whether or not my impulse buy had paid off, but once I had finished it I was thankful that I’d bought it. It’s a very personal comic book, and everybody will probably find something personal in it. You don’t get that a lot in comics. For me, it reminded me of my teenage years and how far I’d come since then. Who knows if that was the creators’ intention. Probably not, but that’s what it did for me. It gave me a chance to go back ten years and smile at what life used to be like. Or maybe thank my lucky stars that it’s not still that way. But at the same time it moved me forward in my perception of what a comic book series could be, even one dealing with superpowers, and what different options there were for the use of art in a comic. It was inspirational in its creativity while at the same time poignant and sobering in its content.
Now on to volume two.