Grotesque Anatomy
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
  Bulk Reviews: Demo #1-5
Intro:  As part of AiT/Planet Lar's 5-Year Anniversary Celebration slash Blogger Outreach Program, Larry Young was kind enough to send me a package of comics to review, including the first four issues of Demo.  (If you'd like to review AiT/Planet Lar's comics on your blog/site, see the March 28th entry on the AiT blog.)  Expect additional AiT/Planet Lar reviews sometime in the future, but for now let's focus on Demo.  (Warning:  Possible SPOILERS ahoy.)

DEMO #1#1:  "NYC" [SEP03 1995]

First of all, that cover is great.  It's eye-catching and it immediately establishes the story's theme of feeling different from everyone else.  (It also reminds me of this cover, but that probably says more about my skewed associations than anything else.)  In a period where many covers from the Big Two comic publishers are generic and unrelated to the story, having a striking, distinctive cover is a welcome change.

The story itself is extremely simple:  Two teenagers run away from home, hoping to find in the big city the freedom they lacked in their restrictive suburban environment.  But within that simple structure, writer Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan manage to craft compelling characters that we care about.  Marie and Mike are believable, as is their relationship together.  In fact, even the most unrealistic element of the story is believable, and not just because the characters aren't wearing spandex.

The high-concept of Demo, in case you haven't heard it before, is regular people with superpowers rather than superheroes.  (Sounds a lot like DC's recent "Focus" line, but AiT beat DC out of the gate by a couple months.)  The superpower in issue #1 is Marie's telekinesis.  Marie doesn't have her powers under control at all (no Professor X to teach her how to use her powers here), so she's kept heavily medicated by her mother and doctors, who have no idea what's wrong with her.  Marie, however, doesn't like feeling like "some semi-wanted drugged-up loser psycho freak," so she's been working on controlling her telekinesis without the meds.  Her goal is to live free, without the haze of drugs clouding her experience.

An obvious parallel for Marie's situation is the ever-increasing tendency nowadays to treat children who deviate from some desired norm pharmaceutically.  But aside from this specific social commentary, I also saw a broader application of Marie's tale:  The scene where Marie begged Mike to trust her even when she lost her mind made me think of the trust involved in any intimate relationship.  When we let our guard down and get close to someone, there's always that fear that we'll scare the other person away by getting a little crazy, by losing control of our carefully constructed persona.  Will the other person be willing to stick it out through the rough spots, or will he or she lose interest if things start to require a little work? 

The only weak point of the story is the beginning, which, because of the story's structure, is really the ending.  We see Marie and Mike in New York for three pages while the rest of the book takes place a year earlier.  During this flashback, we witness the full extent of Marie's powers, as does Mike.  So it doesn't ring true in the opening scene when Marie asks Mike, "Hey, you ever get that weird feeling that you're different somehow?"  Uh, Marie, Mike has seen you use your powers.  He already knows that you have "an ability or physical trait of some kind that sets you apart" so it's a little odd for you to address him like you're on a first date or something.

#2: "Emmy" [OCT03 2016]

The superpower in this issue will be familiar to readers of Preacher.  Emmy is a young woman with the ability to make others do whatever she commands.  These days, however, Emmy doesn't say much of anything out of fear that something bad will happen.  Years ago Emmy said something she didn't mean and now her mom is a vegetable.  (What could Emmy accidentally blurt out that would reduce her mom to a vegetable?  It's a small point, but it nagged at me throughout the story.)  So now Emmy works at a local gas station and cares for her mother, all in silence.  That silence is broken, however, when a stranger upsets Emmy one day.

God, I'm such a comic book geek.  At one point while I was reading this, my brain actually said, "Hey, this Emmy is kind of like Black Bolt!  Both characters have voices which contain such power they must remain eternally vigilant, lest they say something at the wrong moment and wreck untold havoc upon humanity!"  Apparently my brain didn't notice the many differences between Emmy and Black Bolt, chief among them the fact that Emmy is a sympathetic, well-developed character and Black Bolt is just a cool costume designed by Jack Kirby.

Geek moment aside, I did like the way the story expressed the idea that Words Have Power:  Not only Emmy's words, but also the words of the young man who verbally harasses Emmy.  His words hurt Emmy and cause her long-buried anger to come exploding out.  Could even Black Bolt withstand such anger?  I think not.


#3: "Bad Blood" [NOV03 1967]

I can't mention this issue's superpower because doing so would spoil the story's ending.  That doesn't leave me with too much to discuss, since this whole issue is essentially one long conversation between two characters in a car.  To their credit, though, Wood and Cloonan make the conversation engaging despite the static setting.  Also, Wood and Cloonan get major points for actually surprising me with the ending, and for doing so while still playing fair with the reader.

#4: "Stand Strong" [DEC03 2041]

You can probably guess this issue's superpower from the title.  I suppose it's only inevitable that everyone in comics is fascinated with the idea of super-strength.  Whether that's a result of some intrinsic aspect of human psychology or just a historical accident stemming from the fact that Superman is the granddaddy of all comic book superheroes I really can't say.  But I do know that when you're playing superpowers, everyone has to try their hand at super-strength.

To be honest, this issue is the one that grabbed me the least.  It's not a bad story by any means, but it feels very familiar.  It reads a great deal like something Garth Ennis would write (especially given the prominence of bars in the story).  Still, there's always a certain amount of satisfaction in reading a story where a character stands up for himself, so the story succeeds on that level at least.


Anecdotal Interlude:  After finishing the first four issues, I wanted more Demo.  As luck would have it, the fifth issue came out just two weeks ago.  I went to a shop near work on "New Comics Day" but they were already out of #5.  The only Demo they had in the store were a couple issues of #2.  Over the weekend, I went to a second comic shop and managed to grab the last copy of #5.  (Again, there were still a couple copies of #2 on the shelves.  I was wondering why this was until Google reminded me that Demo #2 was overshipped by half.)  Meanwhile, over in the Marvel section there were stacks and stacks of the first four issues of Ultimate Fantastic Four.  Insert standard rant about the problems of the Direct Market here.

#5: "Girl You Want" [JAN04 2043]

This is probably my favorite issue of Demo so far, even though it's the one I had the most problems with.  The main character Kate's powers are a bit odd:  Her physical appearance changes based on how the person viewing her perceives her.  So, for example, when Kate bumps into a guy who only knows her as someone who works in the library stacks, Kate's outward appearance is transformed into an appropriately "nerdy library girl."  It's a neat idea (it reminds me of a series of self-portraits I did in high school depicting how I thought others saw me) but the mechanics of the power are a bit wonky.  In the opening scene, Kate is at a crowded party.  There's a hilarious four-panel sequence where her appearance changes as she crosses the room.  But if you think about the concept too much, it doesn't hold up:  What happens when Kate is viewed simultaneously by different people with conflicting interpretations of who she is?  Does she turn into Ultra the Multi-Alien?  And even if a transformation that grotesque never occurred, wouldn't people be unnerved by a woman whose appearance kept fluctuating from one moment to the next?

Ignoring these literal-minded quibbles with Kate's powers, I really enjoyed the way Wood applied the concept in service of the story.  Everyone can probably sympathize with the experience of being judged based on one small aspect of one's character, so Kate is an immediately identifiable character.  Interestingly, though, Wood doesn't simply stick with the one-note characterization of Kate as a victim of others' prejudices.  When Kate meets someone who sees her for herself, Kate immediately assumes that person is perfect for her.  Rather than withholding judgment until she gets to know the individual better, Kate projects her wishes and desires onto this stranger.

At the end of the story, Kate learns something about the object of her infatuation that crushes her dreams.  I won't give away what that revelation is (I'm not even sure why the particular revelation was so devastating to Kate, but, then again, I don't exactly have a firsthand familiarity with stalker psychology), but it causes Kate's illusions to come crashing down, perhaps only because fantasy is finally confronted with reality.  In a brilliant touch, Kate is surrounded by people staring at her when her fantasy is shattered.  Picking up her pocket mirror, Kate looks into it and, seeing her normal appearance, says:  "Good job, Kate.  You blew it, stupid.  Everyone thinks so."  I don't think I've ever seen the concept of self-loathing depicted so effectively, and it wouldn't have been possible without the device of the superpower.  (This scene also made me think of a possible "No-Prize" explanation for Kate's powers:  Perhaps it's not other people's perceptions that alter Kate's appearance, but Kate's beliefs about how others perceive her.  At that low moment, Kate believes that everyone sees what a failure she really is, so she maintains her true features.  It doesn't explain everything, but I like this interpretation of her powers.)

The Art:  I've put off commenting on Becky Cloonan's art til now mainly because I worried that simply saying "Wow!  Great art!" over and over again would grow old fast.  Cloonan's art is a wonderful fit for Demo:  Not only is she adept at drawing characters--their expressions, their body language, their personalities--but she's also able to adapt her style subtly for different stories.  For example, in issue #4, Cloonan uses a thicker, heavier line to reinforce the concept of strength.

This isn't to say that Cloonan's art is perfect.  There are a couple times where Cloonan's loose art obscures an important story point, such as in #2:  A man throws a crumpled wad at Emmy and she picks it up.  It wasn't until I read the script samples at the back of the book that I realized the wad was supposed to be a twenty dollar bill.  When I first read the sequence, I thought perhaps the men were throwing trash on the ground, knowing that Emmy would be responsible for cleaning it up.  (Even knowing what the wad is, I still can't make out anything that distinguishes it as a twenty.)  And I can't look at the cover of issue #5 without wishing that Cloonan had used a straight edge to draw the medicine cabinet.

Still, despite some rough spots, Cloonan's art is a huge part of Demo's appeal.  I've already mentioned her ability with facial expressions, but this is really one of the strongest aspects of her art in my opinion.  Cloonan is able to convey a great deal of narrative information through deceptively simple expressions.  In this panel from issue #1, for example, I can really feel Mike's sadness mixed with concern for Marie:


Not many artists could pull off rendering that expression in such a stripped-down, essential fashion without losing some of the impact of the scene, but Cloonan nails it.  I'm sure there are some readers who would be put off by what they consider "cartoony" art, but I find it all the more impressive that Cloonan can convey all the information she does in such a streamlined style.  In this respect, Cloonan's art reminds me of manga:  Both focus on telling the story as efficiently as possible without getting bogged down in distracting, over-rendered details.  (The manga influence in Cloonan's art is especially pronounced in issue #2, right down to the grey tones). 

The Format:  For many comic fans, Demo may be best known as "that AiT/Planet Lar comic that isn't an OGN."  Yes, Demo is being published as a monthly comic in the single pamphlet format.  Yes, AiT/Planet Lar is primarily known for publishing original graphic novels.  Yes, Larry Young and Brian Wood have said that Demo may not be collected as a TPB, much to the chagrin of those who prefer to wait for the trade.  (As far as I know, however, neither Wood nor Young has ever said that Demo will never be collected in a trade; they've only said that there's no guarantee it will be collected.)

Speaking as someone who frequently waits for the trade, I think this is one of those rare series where the monthly issues are more than just a compromise along the way to an inevitable collection.  First, these stories are truly standalone, so there's really no need to see them collected between two covers.  Wood and Cloonan are not constructing a Demo-verse for their characters to play in.  You're not going to see Marie and Emmy fight and/or team up in the final issue.  (In his Demo review, Graeme McMillan suggested that if Demo is ever collected, the stories should be printed in a different order to emphasize their independence from one another, an idea I really like.)

Second, in a nice reversal of the usual singles vs. collection relationship, the individual issues are where the extras are:  Script samples, sketches, thumbnails, letters pages -- a lot of the stuff you'd usually expect to find in the TPB is included in the singles.  As Wood put it in his notes for issue #1:
I am inverting the normal "extras in the trade paperback" method, to give the people to strive to get these monthly issues a little bonus.  If there is a collected edition of Demo, it won't include these extras.
I think this is a good way to encourage customers to buy individual issues:  Make the singles worthwhile in their own right.  It's especially nice when the publisher is upfront with consumers about information that could influence their purchasing decisions like this.

Finally, the singles are solid, sturdy objects.  As someone who had taken to using the term 'floppies' to describe monthly comics, I really appreciate the sheer durability of these comics.  That may sound like an odd thing to praise a comic for, but one of the things that had really started to bother me about "regular" comics was how flimsy most of them are.  Demo, on the other hand, is printed on a nice, heavy paper stock.  As a result, I can treat issues of Demo like normal reading material.  You have no idea how liberating it is for me to toss around a comic without worrying about ruining it.

The Future:  As of this writing, there are still seven more issues of Demo to come out.  Based on the strength of the first five issues, I've added Demo to my pull list as of #7.  I originally missed ordering #6 ("What You Wish For" [FEB04 2047]) when it was solicited in the February Previews, but AiT makes it easy to order any back issue of the series:  Just give your retailer the order code for the issue you're interested in.  If you have a good retailer, it should be just that simple.  (I've listed the order codes for each issue in brackets next to the title.)

The Payoff:  Finally, if you've made it this far and you're interested in sampling Demo, I have an extra copy to send one lucky reader.  Last week Larry Young sent me a copy of Demo #5, but I'd already managed to find a copy on my own.  So I figured, Why not share the Demo love?  I'll mail out a copy of Demo #5 to the first person to post in the comments thread below.  (Generous offer good for U.S. residents only.  Sorry.)
Like Unto A Thing Of Irony!

Iron Fist

by John Jakala

Main Blog

CG Cancels American Power
Now More Than Ever
Boy, That Was Hellish
Good Comics Cheap
Bullpen Soapbox
Making An Aardvark Of Oneself
Bright Light
And So It Begins
The Ethics Of The Literature Of Ethics
In Defense Of A Movie I Haven't Even Seen