Demo is a collection of eighteen coming-of-age short stories about young people. It’s a giant collection of close to five hundred pages. Usually, but not always, one of the characters has a “super power,” but none of the stories is a superhero story. None of these characters tries to be “super” in any way — characters do not run — or fly — around saving others from villains, nor are there any global threats that need attending. In most instances, these stories deal with everyday issues, even if those issues seem a little more dramatic because of a power. In keeping with the everyday nature of the book, the art by Becky Cloonan is in black-and-white. The lack of colors aids in preventing this book from looking like a superhero comic. In looks and in feel, the stories of Demo are very much “indie” comics.
To give a few examples, in one story a character is super strong, but again, he’s no superhero; instead, he’s a working-class guy who, along with his father and grandfather, works in a factory. He hangs out with friends who like to party and cause trouble; when they get the idea of robbing the factory of its payroll, they know they’ll need James’s strength to pull off the heist. Torn between loyalty to friends or loyalty to family and the company, James has a difficult choice to make. In another story, a character has the ability to shoot without ever missing a target. When he joins the army and is put in situations where he has to shoot at people, he, too, must make a difficult decision. He knows without a doubt that he will kill every person at whom he aims his gun. Is it worth being in the army when he knows he will regularly be taking a lives, even in what would normally be non-combat situations? The army knows he is such a good shot that when he misses, they also know that it was an intentional miss. Either way — hit or miss — he will pay the consequences.
Other stories are a little stranger in that the characters have more unusual powers: One girl changes appearance based on the desires of each person who looks at her. She becomes a punk-rock chick when a punk-rock guy gazes at her; she turns into a sexy librarian when a student at a party looks at her. And so it goes with each character that looks at her, until she meets the one person for whom she does not change. Struck by the fact that this is the first person to see her “real” self, she instantly falls in love, in effect turning this other person into her ideal lover. In another story, a girl is afraid to talk because no matter what she says, a person has to do as told. Anything from “drop dead” to “you are dumb” becomes a declaration that comes true for the person.
There are several stories without super powers: In one, a group of three friends works jobs at night in a grocery story because when they were little kids they signed a “Slackers’ Pledge” that they have decided they will follow for the rest of their lives, and they hold each other accountable: None of them lets the others achieve anything in life, much less even aim at anything resembling achievement. Even in their job, they do as little as possible and steal food and anything else they want from the store. One of them gets very angry when he finds out one friend wants to apply to college and the other friend is secretly writing novels. In yet another story, a young woman sees her therapist about her OCD, in particular to put up post-it notes everywhere — not just in her home, but outside, all along the route to work. These two issues seems like more typical coming-of-age stories, but really they are all of this kind. The super power in most of the stories simply adds a twist.
All the stories are thought-provoking, and to keep this review brief, I will not give an overview of every story, but I will mention a few others: One young woman must fly to a different country to save another person, a potential suicide, of whom she keeps dreaming. In another story, a young man is constantly bullied until he discovers he can breathe under water. In the final story, we watch a couple age together, even though throughout most their lives they are like two magnets repelling each other, making it hard for them to be in the same room together. Perhaps not every story is of the same caliber, but as a whole, it is a stunning collection. I have read and taught this book for a number of years, and based on my feelings upon multiple readings and upon the reactions of students, I can give this giant tome of a comic book no less than five stars.