Brian Wood talks "Demo" at Vertigo

Before Brian Wood was earning multiple Eisner Award nominations and countless accolades for such high profile Vertigo books as “DMZ” and “Northlanders,” the writer (and sometimes illustrator) was hard at work in the small press, toiling with a little project you might have heard of called “Demo.” Loved by many yet read by relatively few, “Demo” is set to find itself in the hands of many, many readers courtesy of Vertigo, who reissue the indie hit in a 328-page volume in June, followed later by an all-new limited series titled “Demo, Volume Two.”

Created with artist Becky Cloonan (“American Virgin”), “Demo” was originally produced between 2003 and 2004 as twelve stand-alone black-and-white issues published by AiT/Planet Lar, and depicted the lives of young people with supernatural powers and abilities and how those traits affected their otherwise ordinary lives. Featuring starkly realistic characters, complete stories, innovative artwork that changed styles dynamically to suit each issue, and considerably more street-level humanity and youthful exuberance (not to mention angst) than your average X-Men comic, “Demo” received uncommon acclaim, generating praise from such outlets as The Village Voice, Variety, and Entertainment Weekly.

“’Demo’ is the book that I feel 'made’ me,” Brian Wood told CBR News. “’Channel Zero’ had some importance because it was my first book and it was unique for me because I illustrated it as well as wrote it, but 'Demo’ was a major work creatively, it was well-received, it had an interesting and influential format, and, more important than anything else, it was stories that people could truly relate to. And that's where I learned a really crucial lesson as a writer.”

The book makes its superhuman iconoclasm plain in the first story, “NYC,” about a teenage couple who run away to New York to escape the persecutions of a tyrannical mother who forces superpower-suppressing medications down her daughter’s throat. The opening scene begins very seriously, addressing the hugely "put upon" nature of superpowered young people as typically seen in comics. With great power comes great responsibility -- or something. But then the scene takes a turn for something more real. Of their special situation, the kids say, “Yeah… isn’t it fucking great?”

“In the case of these two kids,” Wood said, “they laugh it off, they've conquered it, they've sorted it all out for themselves. I addressed it and disposed of it in the first three pages of the book.”

Supernatural abilities aside, the dominant theme of “Demo” is undoubtedly relationships, particularly those of the romantic and familial natures. “My family background is... unique, to put it mildly, and I think its given me a lot of raw material to use as a writer,” said Wood. “The relationship thing too. There was a lot going on with me in my life around the time I thought up 'Demo.’ It all went into the book. I don't think I set out to create this theme, deliberately, but it happened anyway. It’s more natural and genuine that way.”

“Demo” stories include “Bad Blood,” about a half-brother and half-sister estranged by divorce and brought back together for the funeral of their father, who turns out to possess the gift of immortality; “Girl You Want,” about a lonely young woman who physically appears to others exactly as they want to perceive her; “One Shot, Don’t Miss,” inspired by Wood's experiences with military recruiters, about a supernaturally accurate marksman who joins the Army to support his family, but refuses to kill people in Iraq; “Emmy,” a heartbreaking tale about a girl who must remain silent for when she speaks, people tend die.

Vignettes such as these were at the time in distinct contrast to Wood’s earlier work like the politically charged “Channel Zero” and the action pieces “The Couriers,” “Fight for Tomorrow” and the writer’s brief run on Marvel’s “Generation X.” “I think I was ready to 'level up,’” Wood said. “I had spent many years previous writing these high-concept action things, perfectly content to produce books that kicked ass, or whatever, but never really went beyond that, never transcended what it was on the surface.

"I was itching to broaden my repertoire, to put into practice some of the ideas and concepts I had in my head, to do something with the inspiration that was flooding into my life at the time. I felt like this moment in my career had arrived, and I had this fantastic artist, Becky Cloonan, standing by and I was firmly convinced she had greatness just bubbling under the surface, and I needed a book idea to match.”

More so than any of “Demo’s” many unique twists on the superhuman, fans and critics point to the book’s frank depiction of family, friendship and love as its most memorable quality. “A lot of this series came out of this horrible relationship I had been in, that was so brief yet so supercharged with drama,” Wood explained. “It was like a relationship in concentrated form, like Kool-Aid before you add water. She was a filmmaker and so I was exposed to all sorts of great movies, like 'Rosetta, like 'A Dreamlife of Angeks,’ and a hundred short films. All that helped inform 'Demo.’ And then also the relationship itself melting down fueled some of the issues, like the obvious "Breaking Up" and also "Girl You Want" (the idea of unfairly projecting your wants onto people), and some of "Mixtape" and the final story. 'Demo is totally authentic in so many ways, which is why the names it gets called, like 'emo’ or 'hipster’ or whatever else just never bothered me. I'm completely secure in 'Demo.’”

Another highlight is “Stand Strong,” the story of a poor industrial town and young man with super strength. His “friends” often take advantage of his abilities, and use him to commit a theft. The title is a phrase Wood often inscribes in old copies of “Demo” that fans ask him to sign at conventions.

“’Girl You Want’ is a favorite of mine as well and easily the one we are most complimented on by readers,” Wood said. “I feel very strongly about the message in that story, and I have some regrets because I don't think at the time I was enough of a writer to execute it the way I wanted to in my head.”

Indeed, “Demo” was designed to be a means of experimentation and growth for Wood, who learned a number of lessons from the project and its ambitious totally-and-completely-done-in-one format. “I learned, through trial and error, how to write a single issue comic that's not just a three-act story compressed down,” said Wood. “I had tried single-issue stories before, during my 'Generation X’ run, and they all failed on one level or another, probably because I was a shitty writer at the time and also because of mandates from editorial. With 'Demo’ I had no mandates, and I knew from watching so many short films how to structure a single-issue story in that way.

“I think the best lesson I learned from 'Demo’ overall was to have faith and confidence in what you're doing, to not try to write to a perceived industry standard or worry about what readers will think. To not fear any reaction. And, and this is important, to not be afraid to write something and abandon it. Every month I created new characters only to let go of them after 24 pages and start over. That was a valuable lesson as a writer, as a creator.”

Comparing the “Demo” writing experience to his more recent work, Wood remarked, “It absolutely prevents boredom or fatigue. With 'Northlanders,’ the first story was eight issues long, and it was a challenge to structure that so you don't feel any drag in the middle. 'DMZ’ is a book I've been writing for almost three years, so as a contrast to those, writing 'Demo’ can almost feel like a cool little exercise; single-use comics writing, where I can create something and just enjoy it in the present, without having to worry about what happens a year, or two years, from now.”

Though their stories end after only twenty pages or so, it doesn’t necessarily mean the characters and themes of “Demo” don’t continue to make themselves known in other ways. Take “Mixtape,” for example. The story follows a young man whose girlfriend commits suicide, leaves him a mixtape, and, for lack of a better word, haunts him while he endeavors to understand why she was so unhappy. In 2004, Wood said, “['Mixtape’] is my favorite comic of mine in the world.” The strange tale still holds a special place in the writer’s heart, and has inspired some subsequent creations.

“I think variations on 'Mixtape’ are popping up in other things, specifically the final issue of 'Local, and perhaps 'DMZ’ #26 as well,” Wood said. “I have a book project on deck, something for next year, that uses that same basic premise but in a very global way, literally and figuratively.”

And of course, there’s Hollywood. “I've been spending some time recently thinking about some of the 'Demo’ stories now that there is film interest in the project again,” Wood confirmed. “[I’m] thinking about how to build out some of the stories. The third story, 'Bad Blood,’ about the immortal and dysfunctional family, has some potential beyond the 24-page story.”

“Demo” opened the door to DC Comics for Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, both of whom went on to produce their most famous works for the publisher, so it is appropriate that Vertigo is expected to release by the end of 2008 an all-new six-issue “Demo” miniseries. “’’Demo’s’ what got me in at Vertigo, and Becky as well (we came in on parallel but separate paths). And I think when we launch the second series, it'll be the biggest launch of my career so far.”

Each issue of Vertigo’s “Demo, Volume Two” will, like the original series, include extra content such as essays by Wood and Cloonan, playlists of music designed for each story, recommended reading, sketches, script excerpts, guest artist pin-ups and other such features that have gone on to become standard offerings in many indie comics. “There was some concern, moving the book to Vertigo, that we might have to compromise on some things, but all will be as it was,” Wood confirmed. “It was cool to see so many indie books follow suit -- not that I claim I invented anything, but it did seem that after 'Demo’ a lot of other books came out using that same format, the black/white single-issue experience with the extras that only appear in the singles, etc.”

It was this extra content that was seen as crucial to “Demo’s” original success, with Wood and original publisher AiT/Planet Lar declaring the single issues to be the preferred format for the project. Those “waiting for the trade” were assured there would never be a collected edition, the belief being a trade would diminish the importance of the jam-packed single issues. Nevertheless, AiT/Planet Lar released a digest-sized trade paperback in 2005 that is now out of print.

“Yeah, that was all very unfortunate, those statements about the trade,” Wood confessed. “I was rarely comfortable with it at the time and I wish no one ever said that, because even if early on with the series the notion of a collection was up in the air, by the time we were halfway through the sales were holding up well enough that a collection was absolutely going to happen.

“I DO think that the singles are the preferred format,” Wood added. “But now with Vertigo and the chance to reach an entire new audience with the book, all the rules change. The singles are no longer an option, being so long out of print, and this new audience has no chance to read the book in any other format THAN the trade, so I've had to shift that over in my mind. Which is why, out of fairness to all the readers, some of the single-issue extras found in [the original single issues of] 'Demo’ will be included in the Vertigo edition.”

Those extras include Becky Cloonan’s twelve original covers and character designs as well as artwork that appeared in the out of print “Demo” scriptbook. Not included in the Vertigo collected edition are Wood and Cloonan’s original essays, playlists, guest pin-ups, nor a special backup story written by Cloonan and illustrated by Wood. “I think it’s a good compromise, a good middle ground,” said the writer, who agreed the original “Demo” issues have gone on to become the sorts of things his own characters would covet, like foreign imports of a great album. “I'm really flattered when people bring full sets of the single issues to conventions for me to sign. They really are these great little artifacts from the past.”

There is one special “Demo” bonus that is thus far exclusive to CBR News, and that is a commentary on the final chapter of Volume One, titled “Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi,” for which Wood and Cloonan never wrote essays. Featuring Wood’s own song lyrics instead of narration or dialogue, the story follows a day in the lives of two people in love and was, Wood says, “Super controversial at the time. I think despite everything the series was, a lot of readers expected something to happen in the final issue that tied everything together. Like they all meet up and fight crime or something -- don't laugh, I heard that from several people!

“I always assumed that the final issue would be just like any other one, a single issue that could just as easily be first, last, fourth, or ninth in the series. But as that deadline loomed, I decided to really just put it all out there and do something so contrary to expectations and to episodic comics in general. I wrote song lyrics and told Becky to draw a music video for it. Good lord, people LOATHED it at the time, including the publisher. Although the amount of times I've found the lyrics posted to people's Livejournals and MySpace pages the way actual song lyrics get posted makes me think its working better than I expected it to.”

As evidenced by “Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi” and “Midnight To Six,” the uniquely light-hearted chapter about a trio of unrepentant slackers who sign a pledge to remain as such for the rest of their lives, the superhuman aspects of “Demo” are downplayed in the second half of “Volume One,” eventually disappearing completely.

“The series just took on a life of its own as we went and I let it,” said Wood of the diversion. “I want to have the option of making ultra-last minute changes if I want to. At some point with 'Demo.’ I started to look beyond that superpower premise into broader topics of control and power, in the general sense of those terms. It felt right at the time and I went with it.”

Ultra-last-minute changes notwithstanding, Wood does not anticipate such deviations in Vertigo’s forthcoming “Demo, Volume Two.” “I have the Volume 2 stories all in mind, and its only six of them, and they are all grounded in the superpower/supernatural world in one way or another.

“Cannibalism, waterbreathing, OCD, self-detonation, energy-sourcing, time travel, techopathy, astral projection... these are all the concepts I currently plan on exploring, and I've already started to write the cannibalism one. Which I think will surprise a few people. My editor Will had some concern that parts of it might be a little too nasty for Vertigo, if you can imagine that! It's got a low gore quotient, but its pretty disturbing psychologically. My love letter to all the haters who thought the book was too 'emo!’”

Wood and Cloonan had no plans to return to “Demo,” but the move to Vertigo made the choice obvious. “At that point I felt that a whole new life for 'Demo’ was possible,” said Wood. “The chance to reach new readers, to take the book worldwide, to really have it reach what I felt was its untapped potential as something that could appeal not only to a larger chunk of the direct market, but also to the general public via the bookstore market. And so I felt that if there ever was a time to make some new 'Demo’ books, this was it. I emailed Becky to see what she thought, and she immediately said yes.

“'Demo's’ an incredibly important book to Becky and I, both as a personal creative work and also as a milestone in our careers. We both want more people to read it, to see what its all about, to see what we're all about. Doing a new series is a great way to reinforce the existing volume and well as to 'level up' the series, to come back to it after so many years of combined experience and perspective and see what we can do with the concept now.”

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