Demo Volume 2. Brian Wood (writer). Becky Cloonan (artist). Vertigo. 160 pages. Black & White, softcover. $17.99.
When Demo Volume 2 was coming out in single issues I wanted to write about every issue that came out, but something always got in the way, and eventually I had to resolve myself to just talking about the collected volume when it was finally released. And here we are! Finally!
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's Demo Volume 2, a smart, beautiful, six-issue follow up to their 2003/2004 12-issue Demo Volume 1 series, is everything that was wonderful about Volume 1, plus the added time and experience that makes creators of Wood and Cloonan's caliber even better. Wood and Cloonan's work on this series is an excellent example of artistic evolution at work. Demo Volume 1 is a fantastic book, one that stands on its own as well today as it did when originally released, but it feels like the beautiful breakthrough freshman work, and Volume 2 feels like the more seasoned, thoughtful sophomore effort on both the writing and the art side.
I've seen other critics say that Demo is what the X-men would be if created today, and I love that sentiment, although I'm not sure I can entirely agree. Maybe it would be what an indie X-Men would be if created today. For those unfamiliar with either series, Wood spins six individual tales (12 in the first series) of a very personal and intimate nature, that explore characters experiencing a "power" of sorts. Wood never defines it, or calls it out, and certainly none of his characters take to the streets in a homemade costume to fight crime, instead these are people just trying to live their lives and dealing with their own realities, whether that be being able to see the future, like the woman in "The Waking Life of Angels" or being able to breathe underwater as in "Waterbreather", or traveling through time as in "Stranded".
For me, Wood's concept for Demo is a very specific kind of story I like. The idea of a completely normal world as we all know it, but with one tiny tweak - like that someone somewhere can breathe underwater. These kind of stories are surprisingly rare in comics, but they're some of my favorite kinds as they take the epic and make it wholly intimate, which is a particular strength of Wood's. Even his DV8: Gods & Monsters mini-series that I raved about over the past year managed to do this - take the epic and the fantastical and make it personal and familiar. Perhaps Wood's ability to deliver such fresh stories with slight superhero bents comes from Wood's feeling that he's "superhero illiterate" - which means he's got a fresh perspective that we haven't seen re-hashed a million times before. Whatever it is, it's working like a dream here.
The biggest thing that struck me about reading Demo Vol. 2 as a trade in one sitting, as opposed to in single issues, is that I had a drastically different reaction to the material, though equally positive. When reading Demo Vol. 2 as single monthly issues, I was struck by how masterfully Wood could tell an emotionally resonant and compelling story in one shot. I learned everything I needed to know about the characters and walked away completely satisfied, which is something very few comics writers have mastered in my opinion. I found something of significance in each issue I read, and was blown away every month by Cloonan's art. However, it was only on reading the series as a whole in one sitting that I started to see some of the themes link up so powerfully.
My favorite theme that runs through the Demo series, is what Wood does - and it should be said Cloonan effortlessly executes - with the idea of isolation. In our modern world of social media and telecommuting and everything else having nothing to do with actual connection, but instead with solation from real human contact not to mention a fair bit of narcissism, feels incredibly relevant to me. Each of our characters in Demo are so desperately stranded and alone - even when they attempt to connect. And perhaps most brilliantly, two of the most isolated characters in the entire series, are the two that are joined together in "Sad and Beautiful World" - literally they cannot leave the others presence without physically injuring themselves, nor can they get too close without physically injuring themselves. It's a skillful denouement to the series as a whole, and when read together like this, it's somehow both obvious and sublimely subtle in how it draws everything together. Demo was easily one of my favorite mini-series of the past year, but reading it together as one cohesive piece, I have to admit that it shoots up the list even higher.
An excerpt from Demo Volume 2, Issue #3 "Volume One Love Story":
I picked Issue #3 of Demo, "Volume One Love Story" as my "best single issue" of 2010, and I stand by that after reading it again now. It's a stunning piece of work from beginning to end. The way that Cloonan makes, arguably one of the least intense stories in the collection - the one that is the most slice of life and least aggressive, still the most visually interesting, is true talent indeed. Cloonan's work on Demo Volume 2 is spectacular, there's just no other word for it. She continues to grow as an artist in every project I see her take on, and never is she more at home then here, working in perfect synch with Wood, her gorgeous storytelling just exploding across the page and delivering Wood's story in pitch perfect pieces that synch up into an even stronger whole when strung together like this.
There's a wonderful connection between all of the stories here in that they are all obviously in the same style and have the same energy and expressive quality, in both the writing and the art, so that it's clear that they all belong together, but they also feel unique to themselves. "The Waking Life of Angels" feels fevered and dreamlike; "Pangs" has an ominous feel, stark in its rooms and character; "Volume One Love Story" feels optimistic and bright with pops of tension; "Waterbreather" feels loose and fluid but with a menacing undercurrent; "Stranded" feels driven and dark; and "Sad and Beautiful World" feels desperate and determined. And it all combines into one incredibly cohesive volume that feels like a perfect album full of stunning songs that complement and inform one another to make the whole even greater than its parts.
You can buy Demo Volume 2 at comic stores and bookstores everywhere, as well as online. Demo Volume 1 is also available as a collected 12-issue volume.
***FYI – She Has No Head! is actively accepting review copies of “female positive comics and graphic novels” for future columns. Please get in touch via email (using the CSBG “contact us” button above) to discuss.***