Monday, May 01, 2006

Travels With Larry


by Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan

The cover for the collected edition of Demo (also the cover for the first issue of the twelve-issue limited series which the book compiles) is probably as accurate and representative a depiction of the series' thematic preoccupations as could be expected. It tells a story in and of itself, totally separate from any knowledge of the book's interior: two people, a boy and a girl, clad in the counter-cultural mufti of our time -- jeans and t-shirts -- with distinctive haircuts and jewelry, set against a backdrop of expressionless, almost-identical drones in colorless corporate attire. The boy and the girl -- is there any doubt that they are lovers? -- spring out from the gray and black background by virtue of their colorful individuality. They are interesting and vibrant and alive, and the people around them are demonstrably not.

To be young is to perceive oneself as special and unique. Demo is, above all else, a paean to the idea of youth, to the notion that being young and opinionated and vibrant makes one important, and that being emotionally aware and expressive and articulate is the casus belli that justifies any degree of self-indulgence. Although that description might sound contentious, perhaps even reductive, it is also correct, albeit from the perspective of an outsider. With a book like Demo, you're either "in" or you're "out", you either get it or you don't -- and despite everything I've said in the preceding two paragraphs, this is hardly a bad thing.

I've been putting off reviewing Demo as whole entity for a while now. The book has been bouncing around my head since I had the opportunity to read it in entirety, a strange and diffuse piece of storytelling that, despite a number of individual flaws, somehow manages to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It is an intimidating piece of work not because of any specific virtues, but because it seems to focus a number of disparate ideas that have percolated across comics (and the greater media) for many years. Demo is credited to Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, but it carries the imprimatur of an entire generation of young comics creators. It is important less for what it is than for what it represents. Those of us who don't "get" it in the same visceral manner can appreciate the series, but we can't inhabit it in the same way as the intended audience.

It first began to dawn on me that something distinctive and different was happening in the world of comics when a copy of Rick Spears & Rob G.'s Teenagers From Mars crossed my desk. It struck me at the time as an ineffably alien artifact, the product of a wondrously strange and inescapably modern mixture of confidence and vulnerability. As I said in my review of the book for the Poopsheet:
... [This] is perhaps the most intensely juvenile book I've read in ages. I don't mean that in a pejorative way - not necessarily - but this book captures the rhythms and preoccupations of teenage life so unnerringly that the pages practically sweat surplus testosterone. If there is an emotion worth feeling, it's worth feeling to incredible extremes. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing as violently as possible. Reading this book made me realize how completely I have become an adult, with all the stodgy quietude that implies. I realize we're supposed to root for young punks out to buck "the system" and get one over on "the man", but seriously, this is so incredibly over-the-top that you can't help but occasionally roll your eyes.

Now, Demo is a much more quiet book than Teenagers From Mars, but the same level of emotional urgency is common throughout both works. There are any number of books on the stands right now that seem to benefit from a similar degree of emotional authority. Although it's a word that has fallen into disrepair, I daresay Demo definitely qualifies as "emo" (just subtract the "D") - that is, overwhelmingly emotional, sometimes to the detriment of the art itself, aimed squarely at creating an emotional bond between art and audience that supersedes the kind of critical discernment that might create a natural sense of distance.

The authors' intentions in this matter are easy to discern. Although "emo" is considered by most to be a pejorative - and yeah, I would definitely group the word with a host of negative associations - it's also, like any label, occasionally useful in a general sense. In her brief introduction to the Demo collection, Cloonan states that:
It's so surreal, when I look back on each story I can remember where I was and what I was feeling when I drew each page. I hope this collection brings back memories for everyone; the store that you bought a particular issue at, where you were when you read it, the people you lent your copies to and never got back . . . [Emphasis mine]

And so without even reading a single story the tone is set. These are the kind of emotional artifacts that the reader is supposed to appreciate not on any kind of passive, critical level but on a fully immersive and completely interactive manner. You should identify so fully with the characters and situations on display that any gap between the creator and audience is essentially nullified. Just like the most plaintive pop music, Demo (which is itself a musical term) should be accepted on purely visceral terms or not at all.

I'm not even that much older than the creators in this particular instance here, but it strikes me that there is a peculiar lack of humility in this kind of presentation. An emotion does not become automatically interesting merely by virtue of the fact that it is strongly felt. This notion has, obviously, fell out of favor in pop culture in recent years, due to a number of reasons. The gap between artifice and authentic emotion has never been wider. Society has created a kind of fevered, unstable pseudo-authenticity to dominate the same corners of the public sphere where restraint and modesty used to hold sway. Is it any wonder that those artists and musicians who profess to feel real, unabashed and uncontrollable emotion have become the objects of such incredible devotion? Everything is either put forward with a built-in ironic detachment or unimpeachable, hyper-real sincerity. To merely accept the pretense of being an entertainer or an artist or a writer is to be hopelessly old-fashioned: you have to bleed for your art.

So to ask whether or not I like Demo is rather besides the point. Those who love Demo will really love it, to distraction and beyond any rational sense of perspective. That's OK. In fact, that's more than OK - that's great. Non-"mainstream" comics have been accused of pandering to bargain-basement intellectuals for long enough, it's about time the "New Mainstream" lived up to its promise and produced something equally as passionate as the most heartfelt and pulse-pounding contemporary examples of genre work. I have a strong feeling that Demo is going to be around for a long time, and given the positive word of mouth that books like these thrive upon it could become a mainstay of comic shops and trendy bookstores across the country. Five and ten and twenty years from now there's a good chance Demo will be one of those books that future creators cite as a touchstone, the kind of "Wow" moment that makes a person want to be a cartoonist, in much the same way as creators now talk about Love & Rockets or Watchmen or (if they're older) Cerebus or Howard the Duck of Zap.

Although it would be, perhaps, futile to try and grade Wood and Cloonan against each other, I think it's plain that Cloonan made the stronger showing. Although Wood definitely has an eye for a certain type of character, he flounders at some important points. In the context of a single-issue story, it's hard to build all the requisite elements - mood, tone, setting - all while establishing your characters and letting the plot grow naturally from their interactions and conflicts. Writing a short story is one of the most difficult things for any writer to master. So if a few of the stories rely more on the reader's presumed familiarity with a character type than on the honest-to-goodness business of building a distinctive character, that's probably to be expected. But it hurts the work in the eyes of those who don't necessarily recognize themselves in the guise of the modern hipster, or who don't necessarily see a distinctive band T-shirt as appropriate short-hand characterization. Character is not fashion, and while the way characters dress and what they do with their hair may imply a certain character type, it is no substitute for the hard, brick & mortar work of building a compelling character. This is a problem that Adrian Tomine occasionally flounders with as well.

Cloonan's art steals the show. It's no real surprise that, immediately following the completion of Demo, Cloonan found herself with high-profile assignments from DC / Vertigo, Tokyopop and even the Graphic Novel Classics interpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. She's got the chops, and the kind of questing, elastic style that usually bodes well for an artist's long term growth and presence. If anything, having all twelve issues of Demo between two covers draws attention to how far Cloonan still has to go in terms of exploring her style. I remember, reading each issue individually, how different they seemed, and how apt some of Cloonan's artistic choices seemed for the different stories on display. But when seen together, the similarities stick out as well.

Seeing a generation of American creators come up with manga as a dominant influence on their storytelling draws attention, in an odd way, to unique facets of American comics. Although Cloonan displays a remarkable facility for changing her style to suit her subject, she still uses the kind of subjective dramatic style common for manga - keeping an intense focus on telling a story through emotional perspective as opposed to a more European or American distance, the more "objective" separation of audience and subject that you would find in a Tin Tin novel, a Chester Brown story or a 60s Marvel comic, where the characters are constrained by the panel and their visual relationship to the reader is far more circumscribed. If Cloonan ever steps away from the manga modes and puts as much attention to the underlying storytelling modes of her books as the surface style, she could yet become even more of an essential talent than she already is.

I am notoriously skeptical of passion. Passion has been responsible for so much bad art, so much misguided exertion on the behalf of well-meaning expression, that it's almost impossible for me to take it seriously anymore - give me good old-fashioned curmudgeonly professionalism any day of the week. The current state of hyperbole-saturated dialogue on the medium is simply too much at times - reading through many blogs, even those written by intelligent people whose opinions I may respect, the level of exaggeration and hyperbole is positively noxious. I realize I've been occasionally guilty of this as well, but lately I've been trying to put some distance between this kind of casually ironic hype and myself. Usually, if you notice, I try to modify any pronouncements I make - not because I'm necessary a mealy-mouthed wish-washy type, but because I strive for an accurate representation of my thoughts - no, "Kicksplode! That's all you need!!!" or "Best. Comic. Evar." These kind of pronouncements used to be fun in an ironic way but now that almost everyone talks like this as a matter of course it's almost impossible to gain any perspective. So, as you can imagine, I've become almost systematically disinclined towards those books which have become the mainstays of our blogosphere -- no Scott Pilgrim, thanks, and I'll pass on Seven Soldiers. But I confess to having enjoyed Demo far more than perhaps I should admit - despite the fact that I'm very obviously not the target audience, there is an energy and an enthusiasm that is almost impossible to resist. Whatever individual criticisms the book may elicit, it is apparent that Wood and Cloonan have succeeded in creating something that, moreso than merely presenting the appearance of importance, is actually important. Anyone in the future who wants to understand what was going on in comics at this particular point in time will look back at Demo, because it says a lot in an extremely succinct manner. It's flaws are, in many respects, the flaws of youth and passion - and right now we've got a lot of people in comics going through these exact same growing pains. Eventually, given time, these flaws will be tempered by age and experience - and that's as it should be. No one, except for Chris Ware, is born old, most of us have to work for it.

So I'd like to lay down a particular challenge for Wood, Cloonan and publisher Larry Young. Whatever happens in the intervening decades, in twenty years you should come back and give us a sequel - Demo 2.0, or whatever you want to call it. Give us another twelve issues of different characters and individual stories, but give us the benefit of another two decade's living. That would be something worth getting excited about.

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