I have a confession to make. Demo was one of those books that completely slipped under my radar. I think I remember people saying how it was really good and that I should really give it a try, but I somehow managed to completely miss it. In fact I managed to completely misunderstand it as well. Because when i cracked open the collection I thought I’d be reading some cool little indie comic with tales of teen angst and misery. Instead I got a book that starts off completely different and halfway through sort of changes it’s mind about what it wants to be and eventually settles down to become the book I actually thought I was getting.
Now perhaps I should have been paying more attention to the Interthingy because if I’d have seen the original proposal by Brian Wood I may have had a much better understanding of it:
Starting as a 12-issue run of (mostly) single-issue stories, DEMO will track and examine the experiences of a group of “mutant” youths, teens and twenty-somethings, albeit in decidedly non-superhero settings and styles. DEMO is a working title (I am open to suggestions for new title ideas you may have after reading this), meant to describe a sort of transition, a starting point, the period in the lives of my characters where they come to grips with themselves, their “powers” and how it affects their jobs, lives, loves, and families. Much like any young person, their lives are literally demos, rough working versions of what they will eventually turn into.
For at least the initial seven chapters out of the twelve here, this is pretty much Generation X-Men. Wood takes the idea of teenagers going through major life changes and applies a little superpowered tweak to it. It’s still got all of the angst, all the anger, misery, joy and wonder of those teenage years, but it also has a little extra. And that extra is superpowers. But not the day-glo powers we see in normally, this is a what if you were suddenly a teenager going through those horrible years with powers you might not be able to control, powers that were dangerous and difficult and something you could really do without. For the first couple of episodes it was absolutely perfect. Everything worked, all the right buttons pressed. Wood made me care right from the start about the super-powered teen and her boyfriend heading to New York with her terrified of what she’ll do as she stops taking the meds that have restrained her powers all her life.
(From Demo issue 1. A perfect look at how superpowers would really make you feel; confused, frightened, dangerous.)
In story two Wood tells what to me is the highlight of the book: Emmy’s story. It’s the heartbreakingly sad tale of a young girl who dares not even speak for fear of the damage she could do:
“I used to talk all the time, I liked making people do what I said. They always did what I said, no matter what. I was much younger then, so it was fun. Until I got mad and I said something to my mom that I didn’t mean and I couldn’t take it back after I said it.”
And then we see Mom, comatose and incapable after Emmy said what she said and we know how much pain this little girl is in, how scared she is every day of her young life that she might get it wrong again, how guilty she is for the time she let it out did this to her mom. It’s powerful writing indeed.
But after these two stand out stories the problem with Demo presents itself. Knowing that each story is a one off riffing on the theme of real life superpowers and having grasped the concept, each story becomes a game of spot the power. And after a few of these it starts to get a little wearing. Luckily for us even Wood seemed to realise the limitations of the book at an early stage and from around the halfway point we’re not only looking at older people and more adult themes but the whole idea of superpowers is jettisoned for far more important ideas and the whole thing is revealed as an inventive look at the changes that young people have to go through. After the fire and imagination of the first few episodes, we get some rather mediocre tales, far too obvious and far too simplistic. It’s only towards the end that Wood seems to get some energy back to finish the whole thing off. In fact, the best description of what happened comes from Wood himself in the afterword:
“My first ideas weren’t too far removed from standard comic book stereotypes, but as I sat down and began to write the scripts the concept evolved. My definition of superpowers eechanged to more universal ideas about power and control, the characters grew up from rebellious teenagers to complex people in their twenties and thirties.”
That he acknowledges the problem and works around it halfway through means what could have become a frustrating and slightly disappointing book is rescued by the end. Maybe all 12 chapters aren’t as strong as the first two, but by the end, with a beautiful, thoughtful and simple tale of growing up and moving on Wood turns frustration into wonder. It’s a great save.
However, the one aspect of Demo that is consistently great throughout is Becky Cloonan’s artwork. She plays with the idea of each chapter being a different story by adjusting her art style each time. The range of her styles is quite amazing. There’s loose scratchy, manga, heavy blocked and much more. Her work in her previous books was good but this is just so much better in every way.
Brian Wood has a website, flickr page and my space for your perusal. Becky Cloonan, not to be outdone by Brian, has a website, blog and DeviantArt site. There was an announcement back in February that Vertigo would be bringng out a second, six issue volume of Demo later in 2008.