The theme of ordinary people suddenly discovering that they have superhuman powers runs throughout much of our pop culture these days (see the television show “Heroes” for one of the popular current examples). It’s also the genesis for DEMO, from writer Brian Wood (author of the excellent DMZ) and artist Becky Cloonan. Wood’s inspiration for the series came long before “Heroes,” though, and owes more to his work writing about teenage superheroes for Marvel Comics. Those young heroes took to their powers like fish to water, for the most part. But what if there were young people who didn’t want to be special? Or who simply didn’t know what to do with weird and wild abilities?
The cleverly titled DEMO plays on various motifs. Is it DEMO as in a demonstration? A demo tape? Demolition? Truthfully, it works in many ways. Twelve individual stories make up the book, all of them separate yet connected in a strange, subtextual way. In each, a young character living in the “normal” world must deal with possessing odd powers while trying to overcome those daunting issues of modern life. One young girl refuses to ever speak because she long ago discovered that people did everything she told them to. “Drop dead!” becomes a deathblow. “Go away” is an undeniable command. The age-old proverb of being careful what you wish for bears out here.
Other characters grapple with their strange powers in bizarre, sometimes unexpected ways. There’s a seriousness that hangs over DEMO like a dark cloud (don’t expect to see joyous flying heroes or happy-go-lucky protagonists in here), and all the characters can feel it. The comics medium may have long been the place where kids who dream of having special powers turn to for pure escapism, but here they won’t find any solace. This time, it’s all deadly serious stuff.
There’s nothing superheroic in DEMO. The youngsters don’t join a supergroup to fight crime or seek to solve the world’s problems. The joy of flying is completely lost on them, mainly because they have bigger issues to face. They cope with the regular trials and tribulations most young people face, like feelings of isolation and angst based on dealing with overbearing parents, but also deeper, more disturbing realities. Sometimes deliberately frightening, DEMO treats its subject matter with pathos but still manages to avoid slipping into overblown hysterics or melodrama.
The book originally unfolded as 12 separate comics, but the collected edition works better, allowing the full realization of what these kids are going through to sink in on a deeper level. Each story within the book is subtle, deliberately paced, and understated --- so it’s all the more surprising when you realize, just after finishing one of them, how much its impact has hammered home. This is what makes DEMO work so well, giving it a resonating emotionalism that makes it relatable on a human (as opposed to superhuman) scale. There’s hardly a wrong note hit throughout.
Reviewed by John Hogan on July 8, 2008