Demo: The Collected Edition

[13 February 2006]

By Ryan Day

Comic Books Are For Losers

It’s an inescapable conclusion. Ignore, for a moment, Comic Book Guy and his real-life counterparts, and those extensive internet discussions on whether Batman could beat up Spider-Man (including a preliminary debate on how much time Batman gets to prepare for the rumble). One needs only look at the characters themselves, and by extension the intended audience, to see who these books are for: Nerds, losers, and freaks.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when the men (and occasional woman) behind the masks were millionaire playboys, daring explorers, brilliant scientists and gritty private dicks. But then Stan Lee had to come along and populate the medium with weenies: Super-cool Spider-Man was ultra-nerd Peter Parker. The Hulk? Also a nerd. Even the Mighty Thor’s alter-ego was a nerd. The X-Men and the Fantastic Four both had their share of nerds, and the rest of them spent half their time whining about being freaks. Iron Man got to be a millionaire playboy (an arms dealer, even, which is about as manly as you can get without being a cowboy), but had to hang out with the Avengers, who were mostly nerds.

Chris Claremont perfected the formula in the 1970s with the X-Men, who bore the cross of having to protect a world that hated and feared them. They at least got to be cool, led by the follows-no-rules-but-his-own Wolverine, but the book was still the ultimate in adolescent male wish fulfilment: maybe now I have bad acne, poor fashion sense, and the dancing ability of a drunken rhesus monkey, but someday I’m going to be so much cooler than you, and you’ll have to beg me to save you from the evil mutant reptile bent on taking over the world, but I won’t make you beg because I’ll be a hero, physically and morally superior to you.

Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan’s Demo continues the trend of speaking to the losers and outcasts of the world. But instead of Stan Lee’s nerds and wallflowers, Wood and Cloonan tell the stories of punk and emo kids, people living on the fringes of society and who aren’t terribly worried about being let in. It’s a darker, more realistic world than the one of superheroes, one in which misunderstood youngsters with unusual abilities are offered neither the kind hand of Professor X nor the seductive temptations of Magneto.

Demo is actually 12 stories; in its prior incarnation as a monthly series it was presented as 12 standalone tales, and in one volume it works quite well as a collection of short stories, linked thematically if not by characters or plot. They follow Stan Lee’s time-tested formula of using superpowers as substitutes for problems we regular folk might face: A boy tries to help his girlfriend come off her medication and the life in which it imprisons her; a girl ruins her life by speaking without thinking; a girl finds the family connection she’s always been looking for.

It is, like bad emo music, a bit obvious. Wood is too earnest, too eager to show his emotions and his connections with the outcast lovers and losers. There’s just a bit too much of “us against the world” and “we don’t need the world” pinned to the characters’ sleeves.

Black and White fade away into Gray by the time the fourth story rolls around. “Stand Strong” turns things around, with a protagonist already living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Though he’s doing well in the family business, Jimmy doesn’t seem to fit there. But he doesn’t entirely fit with his slacker friends, either, who mostly seem to want to take advantage of his unnatural strength. Is it possible to be a rebel by not being a rebel?

This uncertainty of Jimmy’s world is echoed in “One Shot, Don’t Miss”, in which a soldier with perfect aim realizes he doesn’t like the idea of aiming his weapon at a human being. The only thing preventing him from making a firm moral decision is the fact that if not for the army, he’d be unemployed and unable to provide for his wife and newborn child. While he balances his career options against his child’s soul, the main character of “The Girl You Want” searches for the one person who will see past her unusual ability to appear as others want her to: one person sees a cute librarian chick, another sees a pierced punk. This is another character who could, very easily, have a perfectly successful life. All she has to do is forget who she really is.

If there’s one thing Demo‘s protagonists share, it is a refusal to be defined either by their place in the world or their rejection of it. Wood doesn’t offer any simple choices for his characters: “Fuck The Man” is just as scarce as “Be Cool, Stay in School.” Some characters reject society, some reject their friends, some reject failure and mediocrity. Some reject rejecting things, such as the characters in “Midnight To Six”. Three friends who signed “The Slacker Pledge” in public school revel in their lack of accomplishments 10 years later, when they share the midnight shift at a grocery store—at least until one of them starts eyeing ads for the local college.

Some stories don’t even involve “the world” at all, opting instead to focus on the dynamics of a relatively simple relationship. Both “Mixtape” and “Breaking Up” explore relationships that didn’t go quite as planned, the former through a last conversation and the latter with scattered scenes showing the good, the bad, and the ugly that creep into all relationships. Both stories end with a sense of resigned acceptance that things don’t go as planned, and that happy endings are few and far between. “Breaking Up”, with its fractured reminiscences of love and hate (which will remind many of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) doesn’t even really have an ending—merely acceptance of what was probably inevitable.

Ultimately, Demo is about the choices that everyone has to make in one form or another. Friends or family? Money or happiness? Individual or one of the crowd? That these choices are made by those on the fringes of society, often out of desperation, makes them, if not the actual scenarios, feel familiar to the reader who wonders what it is they’re doing with their life.

Demo, then, is not a book for people who are immensely popular, ridiculously happy and have a great sense of personal fulfilment. It’s not for the people who live by motivational speaker cliches, who know what they want and go after it. Instead it’s for those who don’t know who they are, don’t know what they want, and wouldn’t know how to get it even if they did. It’s for people who crave the impossibly distant affections of a beautiful stranger, or seek to escape the big steel door threatening to slam shut on their future.

Demo is yet another book about losers, for losers. Unlike its predecessors, though, it offers no morals about power and responsibility, or the virtues of being true to yourself. It offers only this: the world is an unforgiving place, and if you don’t deal with it yourself, no one’s going to do it for you.

Peter Parker had it easy. He only had to face men dressed up in animal costumes.

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