Doing the DEMO III - Brian Wood Looks Back
Brian Wood on DEMO, III
DEMO didn't change the world.
But the independent series DEMO did break new ground in the exploration of superpowers in fiction. It also took creators Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan to new heights, allowing them to move forward with later works such as DMZ, Northlanders and East Coast Rising.
With the re-release of the inaugural volume and the upcoming second volume on the horizon, Newsarama has talked with writer Brian Wood to discuss every issue of the original series one-by-one. We now continue our discussion, looking at the controversial issue #7 as well as #8 and #9.
Newsarama: #7 ("One Shot, Don't Miss") was the issue that garnered significant attention for its military theme in these politically charged times, and also garnered you an Eisner nomination for "Best Single Issue". As its writer, what do you think about the attention paid to this issue?
Brian Wood: I think if you had asked me privately which story best deserved recognition like that, I don't think I would have picked this one. I know it sounds like I'm dissing the story, but I'm not because I like it a lot and the artwork is stellar. It's just not my personal favorite I guess. But it is a topical story, and that always gets attention, and like I said the artwork is really amazing in this one.
Most of the attention seemed to focus on this soldier and his skill with the rifle, but the point of it for me was the ending, where he was sent home to his family, and the financial trouble he brings with him, being suddenly unemployed and with no other prospects. That was the meat of the story for me. I think it gets overlooked.
NRAMA: How did the idea for this story come about?
BW: The subject of how our military recruits its soldiers is of interest to me. Always has been since I saw several friends of mine leave high school for the military. I think, as kindly as I can phrase this, the military targets low income people and offers them as rosy a scenario as possible while glossing over important realities. Or, to be blunter, they mislead them into it. It's easy... especially in poor areas there aren't a lot of options for people after they leave school, career-wise. I always felt it was an impossible rock-and-a- hard-place situation to be in, especially during a war.
NRAMA: John Hatfield originally joined the military as an investment, but he's unprepared mentally when the war in Iraq puts him on the battlefield. This goes square into a very political topic – what are your thoughts on going into this head-on like you did?
BW: I honestly wasn't trying to make a political statement, at least not anything beyond what I just explained about recruitment tactics. I left the details vague, the situation with the checkpoint morally neutral. The point of the story me was the conversation he would later have with his wife. I guess that shows how stories can take on significance other than intended, and have a life of their own, in a way.
NRAMA: Can you imagine what would you do in John's situation?
BW: I couldn't even begin to imagine, no.
NRAMA: This was one of those issues where at the end I wanted more. More pages, more story – a deeper look at this. Was it hard fitting all these stories into a single issue, and did you consider expanding any of them?
BW: I think I made up my mind early on that the option of expanding or writing more beyond these 24 or 26 pages was completely off the table. I think I needed to do that to properly write within the single issue format. As far as I was concerned, at the end of the scripting process the material was used up, and I mentally trashed them. It ended up being a fantastic creative exercise, a discipline, learning to not be so precious about anything, to trust that more ideas will come, to learn how to let go. Too many young writers I know see their ideas as 800-page epics with casts of dozens with spinoff ideas and sequel concepts. There's something to be said for narrowing the focus.
NRAMA: Did I say #4's 'Stand Strong' was my favorite? #8's 'Mixtape' is a close second. A mixtape as a suicide note left to a surprised boyfriend. How did this idea come about?
BW: The kernel came from another film I really like, Morvern Callar. Just the scene of the guy coming back to find his girlfriend committed suicide (in the film it was the other way round). That's where the inspiration ends, though. This is a common thing for me, especially with DEMO... usually inspiration is triggered by something brief and vague, like a single song lyric or half a scene from a film, and that's all that's required to get my own thought process working.
It's kind of cool... DEMO feels linked this way to a moment in my life where I was into certain songs and certain films. The nostalgia is high on several levels.
NRAMA: As the story unfolds we see a very brutal, honest and emotional tour of Nick and Jess' life and what led to Jess' dissappointment. Although told here in a supernatural way, it reflects an all-too-human story that everyone has experienced in one way or another. Not to get too personal… okay, I take that back, lets get a little personal. Were any of the moments in this issue drawn from your own life?
BW: In a very general sense. Being in relationships but being emotionally immature and selfish. Everyone's been there. The idea that, when pressed, Nick can't actually figure out what Jess likes to do. He knows what he likes and just assumes she's cool with whatever. And she, for her part, doesn't assert herself until its all over.
NRAMA: This issue features a mixtape, which is a popular cultural phenomenon – a hand-chosen selection of songs given to someone and generally with some meaning behind it. I admit it – I've even given out more than a few in my time. For you, what does a mixtape mean?
BW: It's a relationship thing. Or more specifically, the start of a relationship thing. You make them for people you think you like, to help them like you back. I also think they are inherently selfish gifts, as generally people put songs on that they like, that they want, or expect, the other person to like too. Fits in very well with this DEMO story.
NRAMA: Of all the issues, I thought that Becky's artwork seemed the most relaxed and confident here. What do you think of her progression through each issue artistically and the versatility she shows?
BW: At the time, I never asked her for a particular style of art and she never gave me any sneak peaks, so it was always a surprise for me when the art would arrive. I never really knew what to expect, but you're right - the art for this one is really a step above.
NRAMA: 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?
BW: Just the way they came to me. I probably still had relationships on the mind and wasn't through talking about them, but "Breaking Up" was not a response in any way to "Mixtape". I actually find the two stories so vastly different in almost every way that I don't think I could find any way to link them other than just under the "relationship" tag.
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: Embarrassing as it is to say this, this really was me getting rid of some poison. Ghosts of relationships long past, mostly. People say the worst things to each other, and troubles in a relationship happen with both people, and very rarely is only one to blame. I know that on a rational level, and wanted that balance to come through in the story even as the characters were acting irrationally.
I remember following some message board discussions at the time this issue originally hit, and one guy was just disgusted with how one of the characters in this story was acting, thought it was so unfair and mean and uncalled for. When I stepped in and pointed out what the other character was doing back, this reader honestly claimed to have not seen any of that. I found it fascinating how a reader can form a bias and favor one injured party over another, even against the facts, which is what we do in real life when people break up.
NRAMA: I asked this for the last issue, but I'm asking again here because the dialogue seems so natural. Were any of the moments in this issue drawn from your own life, and did you have any reservation about getting so personal?
BW: Several lines of dialogue are taken from my own life, word for word, and I have no reservations because I won't say which ones. They're pretty ugly, though.
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: Is it going to ruin it for you if I said that I didn't consciously write a superpower into this story?
Check back early next week at Newsarama.com for the fourth and final installment reviewing the issues of the inaugural volume of DEMO -- issues #10-12.