My favourite issues of Demo‘s first volume were the slightly more down-to-earth, more relationship-focussed ones. Not that I didn’t love reading about a boy who commands demonic pets, and a pair of immortal siblings – but compared to the likes of “Mixtape” and “Breaking up”, it was no contest about which I preferred. And so it follows that as much as I enjoyed the dreamlike fatalism of #1 and the raw viscerality of #2, I can’t help but be won over by this issue.
The story follows Marlo, a woman living in Los Angeles who leaves post-it notes for herself. Everywhere. They’re the first thing she sees when she wakes up, and the last thing she sees at night, directing her thoughts and behaviour at home, at work, and even on public transport. With the help of her psychiatrist, she’s getting over this form of obsessive-compulsive disorder – until she starts finding notes from someone else. Someone who has noticed what she does, and wants to find out more. And it’s not a spoiler to say that what results is an upbeat story about two people beginning a relationship without ever having met.
Although the story was originally conceived for the 2004 volme of Demo, the idea of falling in love with someone entirely through the medium of messages stuck on a wall gains interesting new relevance in the social-networking era. Online romances aren’t an especially new concept, but in 2004, the analogy wasn’t as direct, as perfectly formed as it is today. By externalising – or even, broadcasting – her thoughts and actions, Marlo finds herself connecting emotionally with someone around her, without even realising at first. It’s a modern romance in all but the characters’ choice of medium, and it’s interesting that although Demo isn’t afraid to be dark when it wants to be, this story isn’t the cautionary tale it could have been – it’s one of seredipity. A love story.
Reading Demo, it’s impossible not to be struck by the talent and techniques of Becky Cloonan’s artwork – though as a critic, it is a little frustrating to reach the end of the issue to find that all the points you wanted to make (about Cloonan’s emphasis on the lead’s body language; the way the panel layouts reflect Marlo’s state of mind; and the detail and wit of the post-it notes) have already been made by the creators in the backmatter! On the other hand, that does force us to analyse things a little deeper.
We can, for example, consider the sheer amount of light in the issue. Not only does Cloonan shy away from shadows and shading whenever possible, evoking a summery, optimistic tone to every page – she even goes so far as to directly render the light. In the first panel, a reflection dazzles us on the porch. An establishing shot of LA has the sun blazing between two skyscrapers. Towards the end, light streams in through the bedroom window. The absence of darkness means that the tone never becomes uncertain or threatening, which is is particularly important when you consider that we never learn the identity of Marlo’s admirer. For all we know, it’s the guy from “Pangs”! Only, it clearly isn’t, because the visuals are entirely devoid of negativity – there’s no question that it’s going to end well for her.
There’s also a secondary effect that the “dazzling” achieves, which is that the issue takes on a more movie-esque quality than ever before. Most issues of Demo are structured like a short film, with a lot of visual elements and twist ending, and this one is no different – but it’s rare for us to see visual artifacts being inserted into the artwork which subconsciously evoke a “camera” rather than the usual, fourth-wall omnivision. Combined with the Andi Watson-esque ligne frêle style that Cloonan has adopted for this issue, all curls and blank linework, and – of course – the fact that it’s black and white, you can’t help feeling like it’s only a few subtitles and a jazz soundtrack away from being a Cannes entry.
If there’s any fundamental flaw with the story, it’s that Marlo, as a character, lacks any kind of burden to snap her into life. As a mood piece, it’s perfectly pitched, but as a story it comes over as one-dimensional. There’s no conflict, only a brief moment of panic that never becomes threatening or uncomfortable. The mystery is simplistic, and there’s only a small amount of dialogue with substance. Were it any lighter, it could happily be an advert or music video.
That said, it’s exactly these qualities which make this issue feel like a fresh read. Such a story rarely happens in comics, and even more rarely in a comic from Vertigo. It’s unusual, it’s interesting, and it’s brilliantly executed – and that’s typical of Demo. If you’re not reading this series, you’ve only got yourself to blame.