Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's Demo #1 "The Waking Life of Angels"

Brian Wood has a lot to feel good about. His 50-issue run on DMZ continues to be one of the most successful and challenging responses to the post-Terrible Tuesday world that comics have yet to offer while Northlanders proves that you can write an historically accurate, morally probing comic about Vikings that still offers everything that is FUN about Vikings. As if that were not enough, Wood is now revisiting his reputation-making collaboration with Becky Cloonan, herself one of the most talented and interesting artists of her generation, with a new series of Demo stories.

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been an admirer of Wood's work for pretty much as long as I've been reading comics. More than probably any other writer of his generation, Wood has figured out the magic formula for crafting stories that allow the images to drive the narrative. Hold up an issue of DMZ next to, say, Watchmen and the first thing you'll notice is that the former is made up of images with an occasional smattering of text to provide detail, while the latter is a grandiloquent architecture of words spruced up with a few drawings like so much window dressing. Of course I'm being a bit glib here, but the point is that Brian Wood doesn't so much write comics as facilitate visual storytelling. He's sort of the perfect wing man for any penciller worth her nibs.

But where Wood really shines is in the short form comic; he is a master of the one-shot or mini-series that reads like a six-issue trade. In the little "History of Demo" printed at the back of the first issue, Wood explains that an apparently toxic ex-girlfriend introduced him to short films, which in turned spurred his exploration of this style of storytelling in comics. As Wood writes of the original series, "each story presents a turning point in a character's life where what they do, what action (or lack thereof) they take will forever change their life." Anyone who has ever taken an introductory level literature class knows that this is what separates capital-L Literature from pulp--that turning point, the moment a character makes a choice that will change her life and change who she is. Of course comics are not novels and attempts to develop character in a novelistic way will generally fall flat, or at least run out of pages. Thus, what Wood's stories, like "The Waking Life of Angels," do is represent a sort of perfect compromise between the drama of human development and suffering of Literature and whiz-bang fun of pulp.

"The Waking Life of Angels" gives us the story of Joan, a young, attractive San Francisco professional who is plagued by a preternaturally vivid dream in which a girl falls from inside the cupola of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The dream so troubles Joan that she quits her job and spends the last of her money on a one-way ticket to London, ostensibly to rescue the falling girl. So, she makes her way to London, heads straight for St. Paul's and charges up the cupola stairs without buying a ticket only to find--SPOILER ALERT--that the falling girl is herself.

It is telling that Wood cites the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta as a major inspiration for Demo. In that film, as in the "The Waking Life of Angels"--this cinematic portmanteau of a title is perhaps a bit too precious--what is interesting is everything that is left out. Rosetta's story is heartbreaking and powerful and yet maddening because of the title character's reticence. Ultimately, viewers learn next to nothing about what goes on in Rosetta's mind, what keeps her going despite the soul-crushing awfulness of her hand-to-mouth existence.

One could almost say the same thing about Joan: we know that she's had this dream and we know that it's kept her from sleeping, but really, what drives someone to drop everything and spend her last dime on plane ticket to London in order to see if a dream will come true? Of course we'll never know and that's sorta the point. Finding out what happens in the end is always less titillating, less fulfilling than the anticipation. Ultimately it doesn't matter what Joan's job was, who her friends are, why she lives alone, but all of those questions swirl in the reader's mind as it dashes from panel to panel.

And let's talk about those panels for a moment. As Cloonan indicates in her own additions to the "History of Demo," she has "always been experimental with [her] comics." In "The Waking Life of Angels" she seems to be invoking Guido Crepax, complete with dynamic panel designs. The effect these retro-elegant lines and schizophrenic layouts is to convey to the reader something of the combination of madness and sang-froid that Joan seems to radiate. It's also a perfect way to express in visual terms the story's version of a New World invasion of the Old, in which Joan becomes a sort of 21st century version of a James heroine, with the looks, but without the money and filled with all the neuroses of our time.

So yeah, perhaps even more than Wood, readers have a lot to feel good about with this second volume of Demo. Wood is reunited with one of the maybe half-dozen most exciting American artists working in the medium, creating the sort of stories he was born to create. Beats shoveling snow, anyway.


Anonymous said...

Watchmen [...] is a grandiloquent architecture of words spruced up with a few drawings like so much window dressing.

Keep chipping away at Moore's reputation and perhaps someday his cathedral will fall.

david e. ford, jr said...

clearly i have no illusion that anything i could say might effect alan moore's reputation one iota, but i do think it is a perfectly apt comparison of two wildly divergent, say, philosophies of comics narrative. in moore's books--particularly in Watchmen, perhaps less so in From Hell--it becomes clear that the text provides the structure of the narrative and illustrations are subservient to it. this is why you'll have a page of nine panels, the drawings in which vary very little. in Wood's comics, by and large--and "The Waking LIfe of Angels" is no exception--the images are dominant to the point that you'll often go three or more pages without reading a single word. yet there is no diminution in narrative movement. there is at least as much going on in a good Brian Wood one-shot as most issues of an Alan Moore story, but in the former, the illustrations provide the structure of the narrative and the text is there to support it.