Doing the DEMO, Part 4 - Reflecting with Brian Wood

Doing the DEMO, Part 4

This summer, Vertigo Comics' reprinted the original hit independent series DEMO by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. With both of the creators becoming Vertigo mainstays since the book's original publication in 2004, DEMO became a hallmark for their successes. As the original thirteen stories get re-printed and a new limited series on the horizon, Newsarama has been talking with writer Brian Wood about the issues of the original run.

Now in the fourth and final installment of "Doing The DEMO", we cover issues nine through twelve. Click here for part one, part two, and part three.

Newsarama: Following the theme of sour relationships in the last issue, issue #9's "Breaking Up" shows a couple breaking up and recounting the reasons why, from one perspective to the other. With their similarities, was it a conscious thing for this to follow-up #8, or just the way the stories came to you?

Brian Wood: I probably just had more to say on the subject and it carried over. I went with it. But it wasn't a deliberate follow-up. I was trying to avoid that sort of thing, really keeping a pure done-in-one experience.

NRAMA: This story acts as a play-by-play of the lifespan of a relationship, from the bright beginnings to a final conclusion: Angie being the one initiating the break-up, and Gabe having to come to terms with her decision. What were the thoughts coming to you as you worked this from an idea into a final script?

BW: I had, sort of recently, been broken up with by a girl in this exact same way, which at the time I had found so intensely irritating. Granted, it was a bad relationship and if I had two brain cells I wouldn't have even pursued it in the first place, but she brought me to a coffee place and did it in public, presumably so I wouldn't "freak out", just like I wrote in this story. It was so calculated and so weirdly immature that I remember being more annoyed at that than the actual breakup.

It seemed like an interesting dynamic to start this story off with. Here's a couple, so dysfunctional and mismatched at their very core that one cannot trust the other to act like an adult. And the fact that they come to some kind of balance at the end, where neither is really that upset by breaking up speaks volumes about them as a couple. My personal feeling, which I didn't communicate in the script and don't really talk about so much, is at the end when they trade "I love you"'s, both of them are lying. Or deluding themselves. When you spend time with someone so very wrong for you, and it ends and you're forced to think back at the period of time that feels wasted, in a way, you might need to cling to something positive to add some value to it, to give it some meaning.

NRAMA: In the Q&A for the last issue I asked if this had come from a personal story, and this issue leaves that in no doubt. The dialogue here seems so personal it had to be true, but is it?

BW: I actually used real lines I either used or had used against me, for this story. Not going to say which ones, though. I need a certain degree of anonymity.

NRAMA: Gabe's power here is in some ways an afterthought on first-read through, but the more I think about it the more it has a longer lifespan and brings another layer to the story. I mean, the thought of a vivid all encompassing memory of every high and every low in your life – just as strong as what you're experiencing now – that's pretty haunting. Is this something where the story came first and the superpower came later?

BW: This is another one of those cases where, as I wrote this, I was concerning myself far, far less with the idea of a superpower and just trying to tell a story. But at the same time I knew there was enough there for someone to 'see' a superpower and I didn't get in the way of that. Becky saw it, and I think she called it "the golden memory", and recalled a friend of hers who had an unerring ability to scour up someone's words from the past to use it in the present. I found that pretty funny.

But what you talk about in your question, the notion of someone remembering the worst they've experienced in life, whether they want to or not, is a pretty great DEMO concept and I kinda wish I had thought of it first!

NRAMA: In issue #10's "Damaged" story, it shows a man living the corporate suit life with all it's perks who found by a wisened homeless girl that adds something to his life he didn't know he was missing. If you had to pick one, which do you find yourself more in common with? What is your personal stake in this story?

BW: I'm not sure I have one, to be perfectly honest. I don't see myself in either character, and that's really okay. It wouldn't be the first DEMO story like that. I feel like I had a few ideas about success vs. happiness that probably came from my time working a day job, and some notions of manipulation and a couple scenes in my head, and built a story around that. It doesn't set off any emotional triggers for me.

NRAMA: Tommy seems like a very protective person, but the homeless girl possesses the exact combination to get past his walls – a wisdom beyond her years and a innocence that coaxes Tommy into a protective role over her. How would you describe how their initial relationship works for both of them?

BW: I think the guy is probably just intrigued by this weird girl who is talking to him for some reason, and he probably has a mixture of curiosities about her, probably mostly 'will she sleep with me and what would that be like?' Fairly typical stuff. But that's not the dynamic once they start talking and he's off his guard and allows himself to be pulled in as a result.

For her, she's a scam artist, pure and simple and for most of the story it never goes beyond that for her.

NRAMA: The girl's knack for knowing Tommy inside-and-out is later revealed to not be some wisdom beyond her years, but by down-to-earth spying on his life. This betrayal leads Tommy to question the good things that he was prompted to do, coming from this now less-than-holy source. This deception, the turn, and the story itself. – how did it come to fruition?

BW: It's a timeless situation, a classic sort of story. He was duped, and the chain of events leading from that ends up costing him his life, albeit accidentally. It's tragic for him because the girl was actually helping him see a few things, and scam or not, in time he would have likely benefitted from her insights.

NRAMA: Regardless of her source or her ultimate intentions, the girl does put Tommy on the course to a more fulfilling life. And while being ultimately less-than-forthright, she wasn't all bad – she didn't spend the money Tommy had given her. Ultimately going away from a black-and-white good vs. evil type situation. Did you have any urge to push her into a more negative and profiteering person?

BW: I think she was that person, but it ended prematurely for her. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that she was building up to really fleece Tommy good; it took his death to kind of snap her out of it. I think a lot of small time scam artists, in order to do what they do, convince themselves that there is never really any serious fallout to what they do, and likely spend a lot of time making sure they stay blissfully ignorant. The girl in this story chooses to let herself really see this fallout, as a sort of penance for her sins.

NRAMA: Issue 11 brings a more light-hearted tone while still covering big issues. "Midnight To Six" covers three friends who revisit their slacker promise years later and find themselves each going in different directions. This is a story about growing up, and how people change from teenage years to adulthood. Despite the hard choices in this story, it also has some of the most light-hearted and fun elements of all the DEMO issues. How'd this story come about?

BW: We were almost at the end of the series, and most of DEMO was downbeat in a lot of ways, very serious and at times dark. I merely wanted to try something lighter, something that Becky could have a lot of fun drawing. That's really all it was. This issue one of our favorites of the series.

NRAMA: Speaking to your own experiences, how would you compare the teenage Brian to the current state, and what do you think the younger version of yourself would say to someone like you are now?

BW: The teenage me would not recognize the current me. I feel like, in many ways, that was a different life. We're talking twenty years. I feel like five years ago I would not be recognizable to who I am now.

NRAMA: Going from the intangibles to tangibles, a majority of this takes place in a closed supermarket. I know I for one would have enjoyed this abandon at that age, supermarket, mall or something else. What do you think draws people to enjoy that sort of thing?

BW: Right after I left high school, I worked for some friends who had their own cleaning business. This was an interesting thing.. very common amongst the circle of people I ran with... where they banded together and did work that kind of kept them off the beaten path. I hesitate to use obvious labels, but my friends at the time were the skaters, a couple bonafide punk rockers, burnouts, weird metalheads, assorted losers, you name it. Whoever didn't easily fit into the jock and redneck populations that filled the schools. Anyway, one of the jobs we did was clean the floors of the local Kmart after hours. Exactly how you see in this story - we'd get locked in for a few hours and then let out, and how we spent that time was up to us, as long as we did a good enough job to not get fired. It really was a lot of fun.

NRAMA: "The Slacker Pledge" – is it something you created from this story, or perhaps something taken from an earlier part of your life?

BW: I just made it up. I feel like I've seen things like that in films or TV, a bunch of dorks figuring out how to coast through life with as little effort as possible. Hasn't that been a subplot in every Judd Apatow film to date?

NRAMA: This isn't your first turn to a story about growing up and leaving the people and things of adolescence behind. While it's something that all of us experience at some point, putting that back at you – what would you say to the fact that it's a frequent topic in some of your stories?

BW: I am attracted to the notion of a definitive point in time, where what happens in the next few moments, what your decision is can change the course of your life. I use this a lot, for sure, but mostly in Demo. I think its rife with story possibilities and its not like I'm the only one working that angle. I like putting my characters in difficult spots, stacking the deck against them a little bit, and thinking about how they'd cope. Figuring out how they'd fuck it up. Or not. How they're brains work. I like complicated people in messy situations.

I get criticized a lot from some people for writing what they call an "unlikeable" character. Which, by their definition, is what I would consider a "human" character. Meaning an imperfect one who might not make a decision that the reader agrees with. In other words, a person like any of us. It's funny how, only in comics, the existence of a flawed character be considered a mistake on the writer's part.

NRAMA: Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi (My Last Day with You) With the finality of it all, was writing the last issue different for you than writing any of the other issues? Did you feel like you had to make a specific coda or ending?

BW: I think readers were expecting some kind of a definitive ending, rather than just another stand alone story, which is what I was saying at the time I would do. I know my publisher and their Hollywood rep were hoping something happened that would "normalize" the series, like they all meet up and band together or something, a la the X-Men. I absolutely was not going that route, but there was some thing nagging at me from the back of my head to do something, to mark the ending in some way.

I'm not sure what it was that made me decide to do the "music video" route, but it felt fitting. Like music playing over end credits, or something. I just decided to throw all caution to the wind and go with it. That philosophy had served me well throughout the series. Taking a risk is always better than not taking a risk. I stand by it 100%.

NRAMA: A song set to comics – that's the best way I can describe "Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi". Instead of dialogue, it's more a music video with the lyrics only relating tangentally to Becky's artwork. In the credits you're listed not as writer, but as 'lyricist'. As a writer, you leave a lot of trust to Becky to take your sparse direction and turn it into a fully-formed comic. Can you tell us how you feel about that?

BW: I think I credited myself as writing "lyrics" only to signal to the reader the context they should take this story in, that's is a music video in spirit. The script for this story was lean, extremely lean, often just a sentence or two per page, and I told Becky to treat it like a video, to have fun with it. This was the end, and therefor our last chance to let it all hang out, so to speak.

NRAMA: This comic contained two stories – the latter being a sequel to the story from #1, with you drawing and Becky writing it. What led to you doing this, and choosing to write continuation of #1 over any of the other stories?

BW: That was Becky's decision. She suggested the notion of switching creative roles, and doing a little Marie and Mike story was what she wanted to do. I personally never considered it to be a "13th Demo story" or a sequel... its very much an extra, which is why it wasn't included in either of the collected editions. I had fun with it, but honestly, my art doesn't even begin to stand up to the quality of Becky's art.

NRAMA: DEMO is primarily about teenagers and twenty-somethings. As you grow older, could you ever see yourself doing an older DEMO-graphic equivalents?

BW: Not as a gimmick. Demo, this first volume, runs the range from 17 year-olds to, presumably, people in their early thirties. The new DEMO stories I am writing, which will eventually be "volume 2", aren't deliberately older but I think the majority of them will be. I'm older now, Becky's older now. If it ends up being so, it'll have been a natural evolution.

NRAMA: At the end of DEMO, did you do anything special to celebrate its end?

BW: Not that I recall. It's a little funny, the way a comic is made, it doesn't really have an "end" in the way you mean. I just went through this with LOCAL. When I turn in the script for the final issue, I am technically done, but its still a month or so before the art comes in, and that's another milestone, because the artist is done. Then the lettered pages come in and maybe I have to go back and tweak something. Then the wait for the book itself to come out, and by the time that happens I could have already moved on to the next project. It's anticlimactic, but doesn't make me feel any less proud and happy to have completed the project.

NRAMA: With us talking about the final issue of DEMO, an obvious question would be 'are you going to do a sequel?' But since we already know that answer, can you tell us what this original volume of DEMO means to you personally and professionally?

BW: I think it was the first time, speaking solely for myself and not for any of my collaborators, that I really brought my "A" game to a project, and it shows, and keeps on showing. It's a milestone for me, and represents a big chunk of my professional output and serves as a reminder of important times in my personal life. To say I'm proud of the book doesn't do it justice.

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