Demo: The Twelve Original Scripts
The cover art of the collected Demo does it no immediate favors. It’s essentially the same image that graced the cover of issue #1, only slightly cropped, and the coloring appears to be somewhat different. As you can no doubt see, we have a duo of instantly-recognizable alternative youth types wading through a sea of near-identical pale people, “like corporate drones,” as writer Brian Wood suggests in his script for issue #1. The symbolism seems obvious: there’s special youths out there, folks who think and live more vibrantly (through their ‘alternative’ branding, it seems) than those nasty old corporate folk, who presumably do not possess much in the way of color or individuality, since they are, after all, corporate folk and not alternative youth types. I cannot say it was a very appealing cover to me, at first - my mind was instantly taken back to Tom Spurgeon’s analysis of issue #3 of this series, back in The Comics Journal #262: “It will resonate with those who wish to be told or reminded that they are beautiful and young and the rules don’t mean anything if they don’t want them to. It will likely bore everyone else.”
I looked closer; I stared intently at that cover art, and I was suddenly taken with something. The alternative-type girl to the right, you’ll notice, is gently grinning - she is quietly satisfied with what’s going on. The young man to her left, though: something is wrong with him. He wears the right costume, he’s doused in apt colors, but his face is virtually indistinguishable from the corporate drone to his left, or the one above him, or those below him. Is he satisfied with his dress? With his lot? I don’t think so - he is joined with those whom his exterior seeks to separate him from. Demo was a twelve-issue pamphlet-format series from AiT/Planet-Lar, each book its own story - the premise was that a character had a paranormal power in each story, though there wouldn’t be any superheroing. It was a canny set-up, one toe left in the aesthetic pool of the Big Two, an easy ‘in’ for the more conservative comics reader - the reviewer might be sorely tempted to extract a metaphor, then, from that cover art, the decoration of 'alternative' comics unable to mask the joining of the new to the old, the gray-faced X-Men. Perhaps it’s an inadvertent admission on the part of the creative team.
But I don’t think so. Becky Cloonan is the artist for every one of these twelve stories, and I am convinced that little here is an accident. Indeed, if there’s any immediate utility to having Demo sitting around in a thick, halfway-to-digest-sized brick (for $19.95), stripped of the copious bonus materials that accompanied the pamphlets, it’s to mash all of Cloonan’s art together, her seemingly unlimited aptitude for leaping back and forth between manga-informed styles: IKKI-ready scratchy modernism here, superdeformed antics there, thin-lined classicism next, thick outlines and mood after that. And none of them appear artificial; if we were to classify this style (fairly, as far as classifications go) as ‘OEL manga,’ than Cloonan has to be near the top of the current heap, as she’s almost impossibly inventive with her chameleonic, encyclopedic understanding of manga iconography and visual trope. This is my first exposure to Cloonan’s work (she’s done Channel Zero: Jennie One with Wood for AiT, as well as some work in Flight Vol. 2 for Image and various issues of Meathaus - she’ll be doing art for Vertigo’s American Virgin in March, and her solo Tokyopop book East Coast Rising is due in April of 2006), and I cannot imagine a better first impression being made.
And thus, I read yet more into that cover. I think we’re dealing with a very intentional conflict in the young man’s face. I think he realizes that he cannot fully escape being like the people around him - they are joined in a common strata of human concern. It is but the artist’s lighting and the masquerade that separate them all. Wood writes in his introduction to the collection, “My first ideas weren’t too far removed from comic book stereotypes, but as I sat down and began the to write the scripts, the concept evolved.” There is more evolution than that at work; as a whole, as comics created from the joining of writing and art, Demo is not an unqualified success. Some of it is actually rather bad. But another utility of having this all clumped together is that you can see Wood’s storytelling evolve even as scripts are completed, as the months wear on, casting aside the blunt metaphors of prior material and grasping something more interesting, more complex.
For example, the debut story, NYC, is not particularly profound. As Wood helpfully notes in his script, “The first issue is sort of a stab at the Marvel notion of ‘mutants,’ a leaving home/making it on your own thing, about young love and devotion, and a drug control/detox story.” Unfortunately, the tale ultimately doesn’t venture all that far away from something one would see in a one-off saga starring Marvel’s Mightiest Mutants. There’s a girl who’s got a destructive power; her gross, bathrobe-clad, stringy-haired, yowling mom literally stuffs medication down her throat as she prepares to leave town with her boyfriend (“She wants a normal daughter, I guess. Or no daughter at all. So she gets no daughter.”). The two speak plaintively and ominously about the costs of love, about how ‘it won’t be easy,’ and then the drugs wear off and the boyfriend cradles the girl as she lets out her destructive blast, an apparent symbol for miscellaneous teenage torment. And then, having released her pain. Everything is ok. The boyfriend even helpfully says “You’re free now, Marie.” And the two are seen romping through NYC, all in love (albeit in a prelude sequence). The end!
It’s not an impressive start. It certainly reminds me of Marvel-type mutants, but it frankly does nothing that some mutant book in the past hasn’t, and probably with the benefit of however many issues of history behind the characters. As a one-off story with one-off characters, it simply seems shallow in its metaphor, far too pat, too easy. Things don’t get immediately better: chapter 3, Bad Blood (the sourse of the Spurgeon quote above) is the project’s nadir, packed with clanging monologues (“Sun. Manicured lawns. Golf courses. Luxury automobiles. White people. Home. Where the rich assholes roam, and where even the fucking convenience stores are pretentious. I wish I could say I was never from here.”) and endless reams of dialogue as characters explain their histories, explain the emotions, explain their problems, deliver stirring speeches (“I never expected perfection, Sean. I wouldn’t want that. I don‘t need the house or the station wagor or the picket fence and rides to soccer practice. That sort of suburban robot shit, no thanks.”), and finally descend into supernatural wish-fulfillment, their inherent abilities gloriously rising to escort them away from the plane of the (ugh!) normal. Perhaps it’s no worse a fantasy than having claws and stabbing evil in the chest, but it feels remarkably artificial, as if characters are simply being propped up to spout out the story on the drive to the contrived ending.
And yet. The very next story, Stand Strong, is disarmingly smooth and wizened. A blue-collar worker in a rotting town has enormous physical strength, and he’s done time in jail for some activities carried out with his friends. These same friends are now tempting him to aid with a big heist, a flip of the bird to the working world and their low station in life. And yet, our protagonist can sense the artificiality behind such rebellion, the greed and the clinging neediness. He’s being used; he doesn’t want to be a career worker like his dad (and grandpa), but he’s becoming aware that excitement of rebellion is growing sour, or maybe it always was and he’s just picking up the taste now. So he unleashes his strength, but for a cause. He doesn’t wait for his powers to explode and conveniently ‘free’ him, or mark him as someone innately special, he does something for himself. And perhaps he’s not in any better a position at the end than he is at the beginning, but at least he’s no longer beholden to exploitation masquerading as rebellion. It’s a strikingly wary story, almost a further delving into the surface elements of earlier chapters, seeking to find deeper revelations from the same destructive force.
By chapter 7, the Eisner-nominated One Shot, Don’t Miss, even the book’s less immediately satisfying stories have become more assured. This is ‘the Iraq War chapter,’ Cloonan’s ever-shifting style plunging heavily into thick, high-contrast shadow and white, lodged somewhere between Frank Miller and Jae Lee. The tale follows an uncertain soldier, who’s gifted with the ability to never miss a shot. He arrives in Baghdad (courtesy of a plane loaded with downcast eyes and whispered prayers) to encounter other soldiers; all of them are their having expected money for college and/or less grievous duties than they’ve gotten - nobody we hear from is there because, say, they want to be. But don’t roll those eyes just yet, reader; Wood quite carefully characterizes his lead character as difficult to a fault - he refuses to kill, even when a vehicle blows past a checkpoint. Is he a hero? Nobody in the story thinks so, from his fellow men right down to his wife - and frankly, I’m not convinced Wood is certain either. He sets up a seemingly stacked deck, all ready for scoring easy points, and then pulls back, dribbling genuine doubt as to the intelligence (even the morals) of his protagonist’s actions. In the end, absolutely nobody except the lead character is convinced that a good thing has been done, least of all me, the reader. It’s very much a companion piece to Stand Strong, yet awash in even more ambiguity (and probably a bit more disjointed - I’m not privy to military procedure, but the resolution of the protagonist’s tour of duty seems awfully abrupt), certainly more than there initially appears to be.
This is good - the book gets consistently better as it goes along, though not on a perfectly straight line - there’s some good and some bad, but the good gets increasingly better, and the bad becomes more ambitious as things move along. Seeing this package all grouped under one cover allows for recurring motifs to be picked up - there’s a lot of stories about destructive power (it’s maybe the most immediately workable of youth emotions in creating gently fantastic stories), and even complimentary tales of young people losing control and causing much mayhem - chapter 2’s Emmy and chapter 6’s What you Wish For (which, oddly, the script book claims is co-written by Cloonan, though the collection omits any such credit EDIT: 12/12/05 6:33 PM - at least, up in front. As Wood himself has pointed out to me in the comments below, Cloonan's co-writer credit is present via the in-chapter credits mid-story, as it appeared in pamphlet form as well). The former is notable for some of Cloonan’s most lovely designs, the latter for its giddy (if thematically questionable) evocation of violent psychic kid manga epics like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu. But the best chapters of this books deal in quieter abilities, less grounded concerns than dirt and grass flying.
Mixtape, chapter 8, is probably the best thing in this book, Cloonan’s character designs adopting a voluptuous Paul Pope-type curved line. A melancholic man possesses a cassette tape containing the soul (let’s call it) of his girlfriend, who has recently killed herself. He wanders around in a haze with her spirit drifting by him - he doesn’t go to work much anymore, and he only wants to spend a nice day with her, maybe a day that can make up for whatever he did to hurt her (ah, but are even such thoughts evidence of misunderstanding?), but he keeps falling into the same old bookstores, bars, etc., and she keeps asking him if this is how he wants to spend their day. The visuals break up into dot-shading at certain points, as if such situations can never be quite solidified. He certainly can’t grasp her, and ultimately - as it goes with many of these stories - he has to do something for himself (interestingly, Wood’s script is a good deal more ambiguous about the finale of this story - the final work is far more concrete in its denouement, and frankly it suffers a bit for it, stripping off a layer of depth to afford us some sort of resolution, though this is hardly a killing blow).
It succeeds through both suggestion and carefully-apportioned revelations. As these later stories (and issue #1 of Local, for that matter) suggest, Wood is talented with setting out designs for storytelling, and dictating intuitive structures. My other favorite story here, chapter 9’s Breaking Up, follows a man with flawless total recall, who’s breaking up with his girlfriend over dinner. He (involuntarily?) flashes back to assorted moments in their relationship as the conversation goes forward. At first, captions guide us through the chronal stream, but they eventually begin to disappear. At first the flashbacks are divided by page, but they become more fragmented as the conversation grows more emotional, matching the tenor of the talk. Dialogue becomes sparse, then vanishes, and we’re left with only careening images, until our protagonist is finally overpowered. The style here becomes substance, the rhythm of the images far more important than any ‘point’ to be made from the plot. And it’s a success, quite unqualified.
And there’s much more. You get a lot of stuff for your money here. For an extra $12.95, you can get the script book I’ve been referencing, also from AiT - it’s simply Wood’s scripts, with introductory drawings by Cloonan. Obviously, it’s best read in tandem with the actual comics - Cloonan is vital to the strength of the project as a whole, but it’s good to see Wood explain some of his thinking, and develop increasingly tricky scripts. By chapter 10, Damaged, the book is feeling clever enough to play around with its own running themes, yanking the carpet out from under paranormal-expecting readers’ expectations (shame about the maudlin ending, though). And with the concluding chapter 12, Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi (My Last Night With You), the project finally erupts into an unashamed attempt at comics poetry, Cloonan’s visuals transforming into all-out shoujo manga luxury, twinkling eyes and all. Are Wood’s caption-based ‘lyrics’ emotional and sensitive to the hilt? Yep. Is it all easy to snark at? Oh yeah, but that’s just another fortunate thing about this book’s collected form: after seeing the development, the different shapes that have been taken, you’re more than willing to accept such things. It just suddenly seems right.
Demo, Demo. Look at the title. It doesn’t suggest a perfect work, nor a necessarily coherent one. You have to expect flaws (whether you want to shell out twenty bucks for them is up to you, my dear friend). But what is evident from this project is that Cloonan is a visual talent to be reckoned with, ready to fill most any shape, and take any form it must to best tell its stories. And as for Wood, he is quite clearly in a stronger place at the end of this project than he was at the beginning. And isn’t that we release demos in the first place? To make our endeavors stronger, by trying and trying again?