DEMO is a collection of 12 separate short stories in graphic novel form. Each story deals with a young adult or teenager confronting a personal issue or suffering through difficult times, which sounds cliché on paper but turns out very well. Almost all the stories have a character who possesses superpowers, but the powers are never the main focus of the story. They are instead the root or solution to the person's problem, and usually are an interesting parallel to the person or conflict. Each story is illustrated in a different style by the talented Becky Cloonan and written skillfully by Brian Wood, with the exception of the story "What You Wish For," which was a collaborative effort in writing by both author and artist.
Every story uses a different style that works well with the plot, like the superpowers do. Cloonan's art is black and white and bold, and sits on the cusp of manga-imitation while retaining distinctly American influences. Some stories are only black and white, others have a gray tone as well, and some even have multiple shades of gray. The line art can be thick and used sparingly, or thin, sketchy and excited. The shadows or tones can range from extremely heavy and prevalent to normal and restrained to unpredictable and out-of-the-lines. There is some overlap between the stories that exhibit Cloonan's usual art style, but her departures are unique and at times, beautiful.
Two teenagers, a boy and a girl named Mike and Marie, leave their respective homes for New York City. Mike is there to accompany his girlfriend Marie who hates her likely-abusive mother. Marie periodically undergoes uncontrollable and powerful telekinetic bursts, and has pills to control her mood which seem to prevent the phenomenon. Neglecting to take her pills makes her sick but she refuses to take them anymore. She desperately needs Mike to trust that she will be able to control herself, and to assure her that they'll make it to New York alive.
A young girl, Emmy, who can force people to do things by command, works at a gas station and suffers sexist prejudices daily. She works to support herself and her mother whom she accidentally put into a vegetative state before learning to control her dangerous power. They live in a trailer and she is very self-conscious about this, but she refuses to speak to anyone in fear that she will force someone to do the wrong thing. When she is harassed by a group of boys, she tells one to "drop dead" and he does. She has to escape the police, leaving her mother helpless and alone.
3. Bad Blood
Samantha, a teenage girl, attends the funeral of her estranged father along with her older cousin Sean. They discuss childhood memories and familial grudges. She is angry at her father for never making the effort to become close to her and now that he is dead, they don't even have a chance. Sean then realizes that she doesn't know about a powerful family secret: that they are immortal, her father is alive, and she has all the time in the world.
4. Stand Strong
Big Jimmy, a young man who works at the same factory as his father and grandfather, is promoted one day to his disappointment. His family ties gave him unfair and unwanted advantages. Jimmy's friends use his incredible physical strength to break into the factory and steal money from the boss's locked desk drawer on the day before payday. He changes his mind at the last minute, and throws the desk down the stairs, attracting the attention of the guards. His friends are all caught because Jimmy sledgehammers their truck, and escapes. He joins his father at the bar for a drink, and finally sees the value of family loyalty.
5. Girl You Want
Kate is a girl whose outward appearance is constantly altering to match the fantasies and desires of whoever is looking at her. They see what they want in her, and she laments it as a curse. She finally meets a girl who works at Starbucks and sees her as she actually is, falls in love, and develops an obsession over her. She forms a false idea of the girl who she has barely talked to, and realizes in a heartbreaking climax that she does not know her at all. She had built her up into what she wanted her to be, like everyone had been unwittingly doing to her.
6. What You Wish For
A young half-Asian boy named Ken grows up in an all-white, racist community and feels alone, save for his puppy and the old local gardener who shares the same ethnicity. When a neighbour kills his dog for trespassing, he summons an army of undead animals from out of the ground. He had not known about this capability before, and would have let them hunt and slaughter his neighbours if the gardener had not warned him that "hate will eat him too." He grows up to be successful and happily married, but wonders if his life would have been the same if he had let himself hate back at the ones who hated him.
7. One Shot, Don't Miss
A young man goes to Iraq to support his new wife and child back in America. He has a skill bordering on supernatural to never miss a shot, but once placed in battle he discovers he simply cannot take another person's life. He has the ideal ability, but does not fit the mold for the ideal soldier. He has to return home to his wife in disgrace, and tries to convince her that they will make ends meet.
Nick wakes up to find his girlfriend Jess is dead. Instead of reacting with any more than an "oh my God," he picks up the mixtape labeled FOR YOU beside her body, and plays it on his walkman. Jess had known him so well that she recorded herself describing what routines he was performing while listening, and what responses he would utter to her comments. So perfect was her understanding of him that the mixtape and Nick were able to carry on a real conversation, with the recording anticipating his answers and reactions. It's funny, sad, and incredibly sweet all at once.
9. Breaking Up
A couple discusses their deteriorating relationship over coffee. Gabe has a flawless memory of the relationship and is at a loss for reasons why it failed. He travels erratically from past to present, like Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five. Even though he thought they were fine, as he thinks about it he realizes that there were a lot of good and bad memories, all mixed together.
A man meets a girl on the street who seems to be some sort of guardian angel. She knows everything about him and tries to help with whatever problems he encounters. The man eventually finds that she is only human. In fact, she lived in the apartment next to his and had been closely stalking him for months, to help him. He overreacts, runs out into the street, and is involved in a fatal car accident.
11. Midnight to Six
Two boys and a girl sit in elementary school detention hall and vow to go through life with the least bit of effort possible. They write up the "Slacker's Pledge" and years later, are tenuously holding night shift jobs at the local grocery store at which they do nothing all night, living in a messy wreck of a house, and one boy wants out of the lifestyle. The other boy follows the code militarily and has become deranged. He does not take the news well. This story is much more comical and lighter than the others.
12. Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi
Story number twelve is a perfect way to end the collection. It's a poem that leads the reader through a young couple's love as they think back through the days they have spent together, and as they enjoy their last one. Brian Wood is perhaps even better suited as a poet than a comic book writer, and Becky Cloonan's style for this particular story is a comfortable median that settles easily between her others.
I came across this book unexpectedly. I was on a forum, and asked a fellow member about the origin of his avatar which was a comic book-style head with a heavily-wired helmet. Somehow the guy (who sadly could not identify the avatar) figured that I was into cyberpunk, and recommended DEMO. None of the stories are actually cyberpunk, but they are dark, have hints of science fiction, and are contemporary enough to be easily relevant. It wasn't hard for him to convince me, so I bought it and loved it. It was chosen Indie of the Year by Wizard magazine. DEMO is worth investigating for any comic fan, and is more than likely worth keeping.