Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, December 18, 2005
      ( 12/18/2005 08:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WHEN I LOSE MY MIND . . .WILL YOU TRUST ME THEN?" – Re-reading Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan's twelve issue mini-series, Demo (AiT/Planet Lar), in its handy-dandy trade pb collected form, it occurred to me that I preferred the series in this collected format than its original individual comic booklet releases. Wood & Cloonan's individual series of stand-alone stories may share a common theme (young kidult with extraordinary powers finds him/herself at a major moment in their life), but if you'd started the series with some of these individual stories ("Midnight to Six," say), you'd be hard pressed to even see where the "extraordinary powers" part of the story is imbedded. As with any collection, some entries are gonna be less effective than others: reading a weaker entry as a single comic book issue, a new reader might rightly wonder what the fuss was all about. Taking Wood's character studies cumulatively, however, you get a stronger sense of what he's working to accomplish – and how effective he is at achieving it.

Wood's basic idea is not that different from the limited Marvel mini-series Muties, in that both titles focused on individuals who attempt to adapt in their respective worlds, utilizing their powers in a crisis. In the Marvel books, the story crises were consistently more melodramatic, of course, but several of the Demo tales have their sensationalistic moments, too. "Stand Strong," for instance, contains a burglary that could've come out of Paul Schrader's Blue Collar, while the much-discussed (in the blogosphere, at least) "What You Wished For" takes from horror comics conventions in its flashback of a young boy's revenge on the neighborhood. Yet another tale, "Emmy," appears to be a reworking of the classic Jerome Bixby fantasy horror short story, "It's A Good Life," only told from the PoV of a more guilt-ridden super-child.

At his best, Wood's strongest stories balance strongly depicted characters with a single strong sci-fantasy element; the lesser entries often read like some of the 70's works of s-f writers like Barry Malzberg or Robert Silverberg (Book of Skulls, say) – genre writers who occasionally downplayed the fantastic elements of their stories in favor of depresso characterization so much that they browbeat the reader with their seriousness. The less fantastic entries (like "One Shot, Don't Miss," where the hero's abilities aren't any more fantastic than your average ace gunslinger in a movie western) work better in the trade format, however, since the more high-flying stories add a greater touch of possibility to 'em. Are the two characters in the book's last story jumping off a building to their deaths or flying away? We hope it's the latter, but considering all that's gone before us, there's no guarantee.

Cloonan's art is suitably expressive throughout. When I first came across it, I wasn't entirely sure about her appropriations of manga visual conventions. In one story, for instance, when the artist utilizes line shading on a female character's cheeks, it's inadvertently comic when the character tells us she has small scars on her face. (Is that what those thin pen scratches were?) But over the course of the series she won me over. She expressively modulates her art to suit the tone of each story – when she does a childhood flashback to a class of would-be slackers, for instance, she makes the scene Kodocha cartoonish, while her art on the grimmer Iraq War story "One Shot" effectively places heavy ominous blacks in a way war-comics artist Harvey Kurtzman would recognize. By the end of the collection, I decided that Wood is damn lucky to've had her on this series. Cloonan's b-&-w art is not hampered in any way by its appearance in a smaller 6x9” paperback format, incidentally; if anything, the mildly reduced size works to tighten up the images.

Taken as a whole Wood & Cloonan's Demo collection is an evocative and occasionally touching work that in time, I wager, will be seen as one of the most enduring works to emerge from the New Mainstream. (Is that critical catchphrase still being used?) If you didn't catch it in its single-issue form, then go for the trade. It's a better bargain and, like I say, a stronger format for this set of character-driven tales. AiT is offering the series in both forms, of course, so if you still want to sample it on a single issue basis, I'd recommend starting with issue #2 ("Emmy"), #5 ("Girl You Want") or #8 ("Mixtape") – then buying the trade . . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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