Demo, Vol. 1: What if Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan Had Superpowers?

Demo

Demo, Vol. 1
Written by Brian Wood, Illustrated by Becky Cloonan
AiT/Planet Lar; Vertigo Comics; Dark Horse Comics

Demo is a twelve-issue limited series written by Brian Wood and illustrated by Becky Cloonan. Originally published in single issue form from 2003–2004 by AiT/Planet Lar, it was later collected in digest size. When the rights reverted to the creators Wood was writing for Vertigo, so they published a full-sized collection (with reproductions of the covers and sketch material from Cloonan). A second six-issue series for Vertigo was designated Volume 2, so the original series is now often referred to as Volume 1. An Omnibus containing both series is scheduled for November, 2015 from Dark Horse Comics.

In his introduction Wood describes the genesis of the series this way: “I had spent a few years before writing teen superheroes for Marvel Comics, and I wanted to take a stab at something similar, but something I would have more control over, to interpret the concept of ‘young people with power’ the way I wanted to.” So the thumbnail description would be “teenagers with superpowers in the real world.” But the stories quickly went far beyond that. The superpowers changed to more general ideas about power and control, and the characters went from rebellious teenagers to people in their twenties and thirties. At the time of the Vertigo edition Wood did a comprehensive interview with Comic Book Resources: BRIAN WOOD TALKS “DEMO” AT VERTIGO.

Unlike the later limited series Local these stories are all completely self-contained. There are a wide variety of approaches taken within these broad parameters, and Cloonan responds with a variety of stylistic treatments in her visuals.

 

#1 – NYC

The first issue opens with a young couple getting off a subway train in New York City, talking about “this weird feeling that you’re different somehow.” Which looks like Wood is setting up some serious teenage angst, until you turn the page, and the guy says “Yeah, isn’t it fucking great?” Then the story flashes back to “the suburbs, one year earlier.” Marie’s mother is forcing her to take her medication, which she spits out when she gets into the car with Mike. They’re running away to the city, and Marie has resolved to get off her meds en route. She explains that they’re powerful mood stabilizers, and without them her brain goes into overload, strong enough to move furniture around. When her withdrawal symptoms get so bad that they stop in a parking lot, she says she’s got enough control to avoid hurting herself, and just lets go. The resulting energy shock wave destroys their car and radiates far out into the lot. The couple resumes their trip by bus, and the story ends as they arrive in New York.

A quiet moment for the couple on the run

A quiet moment for the couple on the run

It’s a bold beginning to the series, starting right out with a happy ending and a flashback. The story does deliver perhaps the most dramatic “powers” in the whole series. But it’s really about trust: Marie achieves control with Mike’s love and support.

#2 – Emmy

Emmy is a lonely outcast working at a gas station. The opening pages are silent. She explains that she’s going to be writing down her story for us to read, because she prefers not to talk at all. Since the people in town are afraid of her, not talking comes pretty easy. When she used to talk people “always did what I said, no matter what.” Her mother is in some sort of semi-catatonic state because of something Emmy said to her (we never find out exactly what). But she’s not exaggerating about her power. When a customer angers her she tells him to drop dead, and he does. She says goodbye to her mom, and is last seen running across a field to escape the police.

Emmy's empty life, mirrored by the empty landscape

Emmy’s empty life, mirrored by the empty landscape

So they’re not all happy endings. Emmy’s power has brought her nothing but pain, and there is no hint of anything positive that could come out of it if she learned to control her tongue. Cloonan’s art undergoes a dramatic stylistic shift here, adopting a Manga influence.

#3 – Bad Blood

This issue opens with a funeral. Samantha Hurley (we don’t learn her name until several pages in) is with her half-brother Sean, ruminating on how awful her family is, and how neglected she was growing up. Sean starts defending their father, then grins and asks if she wants to see him. Next thing you know, he’s driving down a hillside and crashing into a tree. Samantha comes to impaled by a branch and wondering why she’s still alive. Sean explains that Hurleys don’t die: he had to show her, or she wouldn’t have believed it.

Immortality: that’s a power I wasn’t expecting. Once again the bulk of the story is about the family dynamics, though. Wood sketches out a rich portrait of a seemingly dysfunctional family in just a few pages before the surprise reveal.

#4 – Stand Strong

James is offered a promotion to shift manager at the factory he and his family have worked at for generations. His father wants him to settle down and accept the blue collar life. James turns down an offer to join his father and grandfather for a beer and meets his friends instead. They pressure him to join them to break in to the factory and steal the payroll. Soon it’s clear why they want him along: he has what can only be described as super-strength, effortlessly smashing through a brick wall with a sledge hammer, then picking up a heavy safe and throwing it down a stairwell. James dumps his girlfriend and his friends, and goes to join his family at the bar.

A demonstration of super-strength

A demonstration of super-strength

Nice double meaning in the title. James is physically strong, but he also has to decide how he wants to live his life, and stand by his decision. The story is really about life decisions, and James does not take the path you would expect from a typical “troubled teen” story.

#5 – Girl You Want

The protagonist here is Kate, a woman who we see at a crowded college party in the opening scenes. She’s complaining about how fixated everyone is on appearances: they just see what they want to see. But in her case men literally see what they want to see, as she is pictured completely differently from panel to panel. So when a Starbucks server actually sees her as she is–she double-checks by looking in a mirror–she thinks she may be in love. Her attempts to befriend the other woman fail miserably, so she follows her home on the bus (the first of the stalker plot lines in the series). When she sees the server pay a babysitter and greet her young daughter, Kate realizes that she doesn’t know her at all.

Like the Emmy story this is another case of powers having a negative effect on the holder’s life. Kate has become so accustomed to being seen as someone other than herself that she doesn’t even know her true self, and she’s desperately lonely, unable to trust anyone.

#6 – What You Wish For

A young newlywed man stops by his old neighborhood with his new wife. He recalls his childhood as the only Asian kid, feeling miserable, angry, and out of place. Things came to a head when a neighbor killed his dog. His anger boiled up: the dog came back to life and began attacking the neighbors like the spirit of vengeance. Finally the boy calmed down, setting the anger and hate aside, and the mayhem stopped. Back in the present, the young man is grateful that he stopped the hate before it ate him up.

Demo #6 Cover

Demo #6 Cover

Hard to pin down precisely what the powers are here. But they are nearly as explosive as the telekinetic powers in the first story. And living a normal life again requires that the powers be controlled.

#7 – One Shot, Don’t Miss

This chapter opens with PFC John Hatfield on his way to Baghdad International Airport. During rifle training he’s a dead shot: he hits the bulls-eye every time, never misses. On patrol that very accuracy is his undoing as a soldier. He knows that if he aims at someone he’ll kill them, and he realizes that he can’t do that. He gets sent home, and the early discharge throws his family life into crisis. His wife has just gave birth to their first child, and he had joined the Army for the health insurance and an income to support them. His homecoming is not a joyful event. The story closes with him holding his child and promising his wife he’ll figure something out.

As a DC guy, I think of this as a Green Arrow power. But John isn’t fighting crime, he’s just trying to get by. Since he’s unwilling to use his power to kill, it again seems to hurt him more than help him.

#8 – Mixtape

A truly haunting episode, and the first one with no obvious connection to “powers.” Nick wakes up to find his girlfriend Jess dead. Before committing suicide she made him a tape: he spends the day listening to the tape and having the conversation with her about their relationship that they never had while she was alive. One of the most powerful things about the story is that she never explains why she killed herself. She tells Nick that maybe he never really knew her, and tells him to move on. In the end her ghost tells him that he has to throw the tape away, to let it go.

Demo #8 Cover

Demo #8 Cover

There’s a supernatural element here that has not been present in the previous stories. But the writing is so strong that I never questioned the reality of Nick conversing with his dead girlfriend via a tape. In the final scene the tape has stopped, so there’s not even that excuse to suspend disbelief.

#9 – Breaking Up

The title pretty much says it all. Angie invites Gabe to a coffee shop to break up with him. As they talk the scene shifts to earlier times in the relationship, from the happy early days to increasing friction. In the end they both acknowledge that they still love each other, so the ending is bittersweet.

This chapter is a pure slice of life story, much like the later Local miniseries. This makes two breakup stories in a row, in a way. It’s interesting that Wood chose to tell both from the woman’s perspective.

#10 – Damaged

Successful young businessman Tommy meets a mysterious young homeless woman. She knows all about his life, claiming that just knowing things about people is a “gift” she has. She’s easy to talk to, so he keeps meeting her, offering her money each time to help her get by. One day he returns to his apartment at an unexpected time and finds her squatting in the empty apartment next door, which is full of surveillance equipment. He angrily runs after her outside in the rain, where he is hit and killed by a car. At the funeral the stalker (we never get her name) meets Tommy’s mother. She offers condolences and an envelope of money, saying she was Tommy’s therapist.

Wood plays with the idea of powers here by portraying someone with fake powers. We’re led to believe that the title refers to Tommy and his life problems, but clearly it also describes the young female stalker. In a way she actually did function like a therapist for Tommy, so it’s a weird mixed message. Cloonan draws the stalker in an exaggerated Manga style that contrasts with the rest of the art, perhaps to emphasize that she’s not “normal.”

#11 – Midnight to Six

During 8th grade detention three friends sign “The Slacker Pledge,” promising to be slackers forever. Ten years later they show up for night shift doing maintenance at a supermarket. The slacker life has grown stale for two of them: Brad is applying to technical college, and Jill has written three novels on the sly. Jace can’t let go. As the story closes he greets two new additions to the night shift.

Demo #11 cover image

Demo #11 cover image

Another story with no powers. A coming of age for two of the friends.

#12 – Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi (My Last Night With You)

An experimental final chapter, a love story written in verse. It’s a beautiful story, right up to the shock ending, as the couple commits suicide by jumping off a roof together.

Again no powers. The narrator says “my last night with you” towards the end, but the French title actually translates as “my last day with you.” Wood & Cloonan maintain the surprise by not giving the title until the final page.

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