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“I just wish I could let go of this place.”

(Demo is a pretty good comic book by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. After the discussion about issue #6 at David Allen Jones’s blog, I figured it was time to do a closer rereading. Since the pages in Demo #6 aren’t numbered, I’m counting starting at the first page after the inside cover.)

Ken thinks his problem as a kid was small-town American xenophobia. Reminiscing on the day he sent an army of zombie pets after his entire neighborhood, he asks, “Did they deserve it?” (p. 23). Ah, Ken, wrong question… It’s obfuscated by the racism angle, but what poor little Ken seems to suffer is the same suburban ennui and fear of conformity that Lester Burnham felt in American Beauty, a dis-ease which is utterly terrifying to Ken (and Lester) and utterly banal to every other suburbanite who felt it and decided to do something other than whine or act pretentiously nutty. Ken’s real problem is his inability to take action to end his bad life. He thinks his problems are anybody’s fault but his. “Then there was my mom. I know she tried. But she was just as miserable and angry and out of place as I was” (p. 8). “But I know Dad tried too. It just wasn’t enough, I guess” (pp. 9-10). Even Ken’s happiness becomes the responsibility of others: “The only person that looked like me weeded the neighbor’s lawn. I never knew his name or even spoke to him, but he always made me feel better somehow” (pp. 6-7). (Ken’s claim that he never spoke to the gardener turns out to be incorrect [pp. 20-21], which is only the most obvious signal that he’s far from a reliable narrator.)

The ability to raise and control zombie pets is, of course, a great power for a guy like Ken who likes to displace responsibility. Ken wants revenge? Hey, he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty, let the dogs do it. He always had his dog to make him “feel better” (p. 14), but when one of those mean neighbors kills it, the dog becomes an instrument of vengeance. “…as much as my dog once helped me control my anger, he now helped me focus it” (p. 15). Ken is so passive himself, he’s passing the buck for his emotions on to his pet dog. The art focuses on horrific images of ghostly skeletal figures, zombies clawing out of the ground, violent death, but this is more displacement. The real horror is Ken’s passivity and retreat from the world.

But then, while Ken may be displacing his revenge onto the zombie pets, it’s still the most proactive measure he’s ever taken. The massive zombie devestation could be a terrible moment of insight that jolts Ken out of his loser world, but even as the power surges through him he can’t give up his lack of control. His one conversation with the gardener is brief: the gardener admonishes, “You should stop now. Hate will eat you too,” and Ken replies, “OK” (pp. 20-21).

Ken foolishly takes the gardener’s advice as the moral of the story:

I remember that day well enough. The one day I lost control, the one day I got mad. The one day I let those feelings out (p. 23). It’s staring me right in the face [over an image of Ken’s resurrected dog, looking up at Ken]. That gardner [sic] was right, hate will eat you up, if you let it. I stopped in time, and yeah, life is good now. But I will never forget how close I came (p. 25).

Well, is that a cop out or what? Here Ken has just lied to his wife about why his childhood neighborhood is an abandoned wreck. Because the text jumps from the frame story with Ken as an adult to the flashback with Ken as a child, and because it conspicuously refuses to fill in any information about the intervening years, and because Ken is hardly a reliable narrator, there’s not much reason to believe him when he claims “life is good now,” that he narrowly escaped tumbling into the abyss and is now happy and healthy. The narration is flat and simplistic (”I got sad. Mom cried. Dad got super mad. Then I got scared and embarrassed” [p. 11])—has Ken reverted to childlike narration for the flashback, or does he still actually think like that, as an adult? Why doesn’t he grow up and deal with his real problems? Oh, but then he’d have to tell his wife about them… And why does he decide not to do that? To protect her from his dark past? or just to avoid confronting them himself? No, there’s nothing good about Ken’s life now, and his wife is just another responsibility-displacement tool.

(David Fiore has a somewhat similar reading, over at his own blog:

…when you make a person you love cry, it’s not “society’s” fault, it’s yours. I would assume that goes at least double for mass-murder! And man, if you aren’t willing to look your past victims in the eye—just don’t bother looking at all, because the objects back there are much farther away than they seem, unless you have the benefit of another person’s perspective to help you find the range.

He also compares the story to the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.)


  1. David Fiore says:

    It just goes to show–the more people think and write about a work, the more they come up with!

    Your reading of the peculiar fitness (considering the character’s avoidant tendencies) of Ken’s power seems dead-on Steven! Anyway, I’m convinced!

    Now if only people would start writing about Demo #5 (for me, the true gem of the series so far), perhaps it would spur even more interesting critiques!


    — 7 June 2004 at 5:32 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    (Ok, this may well show why our comment system is better than ones that cut you off at 1000 or 3000 characters, so bear with me.)

    Steven touched on one of the aspects of the story that made it fail its intended purpose for me. As far as I’m concerned, my general rule is that if you can’t talk about your trauma in adult language, you’re not over it and you’re not healthy. This is borne out by my own experiences, but also in work I’ve done with survivors of molestation and others who’ve gone through adult sexual assualts. I don’t think it’s an absolute and it certainly doesn’t work in the other direction — there are some people who can intellectually understand what they’ve gone through and speak eloquently about it, yet still be utterly emotionally paralyzed — but it seems to work as a rule of thumb.

    And so why does Ken do what I’d called “narrate” his flashback when I was writing in the comments thread? He’s talking to himself and maybe the mere fact that he’s on the site where this all happened is making him regress to a childhood state, but that’s not convincing to me. Instead he reminds me of a guy I knew in college who’d been teased for being a geek all through school. Now, that’s not unusual, I know, and I’ll bet most people here in comics blogworld could share their own experiences, but that’s not what I’m asking for. And I know that what traumatizes a person doesn’t need to have any objective depth. He was still really upset about all this, and it wouldn’t have helped for me to tell him, “Look, I’ve gone through MUCH worse things than that and I’ve forgiven people and moved on because it’s the only way I can live,” and it happened to help me keep perspective to think about people who’ve suffered far, far more than I have, but that didn’t make me feel better about my own personal suffering. Anyway, this guy could talk about health and objectivity all he wanted, but he still talked about wanting to punch the guys who called him a fag back in third grade. My assumption generally is that those bullies have all grown up too and all we can do is hope they’re no longer doing things like that and that they’ll get help one way or another if that’s still what they’re up to. But it didn’t matter to me how often he proclaimed that he was just and justified in his hatred and anger; it seemed immature and I thought he needed to get over it.

    That’s how I feel about Ken. I’m still not sure how much he suffered as a kid. Yes, it’s really tough to be biracial in a small, racist town, but even if he’d been all-white, they would have teased him for being too dog-obsessed or something else. Kids are mean, and I’m not trying to say that what happens to kids like Ken isn’t sad, but it’s not unusual or shocking either. Well, and it bothered me that, at least as I recall, Ken narrated that rather than showing us his distinct (and still subjective) memories of being mocked and oppressed. So the death of his dog comes out of nowhere, as the first sign that there’s something seriously wrong in the neighborhood and that the adults are somehow in on the conspiracy, and I don’t know how that fits in. So I didn’t know if that was part of the magic of the story when I was first reading it, whether it would prove to be real. And I don’t know if it matters whether it was real. What matters is that Ken was really upset by what was said and done to him and even more upset that his parents didn’t do anything to stop it. He’s still upset by this, because this is now-Ken talking simplistically about his parents’ anger and passivity. And what he did next to avenge himself, to get over feeling like a victim is the part I also don’t buy.

    I know Brian Wood says everything in the story is absolutely true (at least within the world of the story) but that story doesn’t make any sense to me. If Ken is a psychopath who can destroy a neighborhood and retain no scars (except his hatred for the people who drove him to it) and be a healthy person, this is interesting I guess, but not especially plausible. I suggested in the Johnny Bacardi comments thread Steven references that maybe Ken didn’t do all those things but merely wanted to. Maybe he did something else, killed someone else’s dog and then attached a story to that guilt in his memory. Maybe he just wanted to destroy everyone. I’d be much more interested in a character who carries guilt for a metaphor he’s made for himself than in the repressed killer. To me it seems a lot more poignant my way, but I knew even while reading it that my way couldn’t be right because Demo is about people who get special powers, and so magical zombie killing had to be real within the story, but it makes everything else unreal if it is. The intervening years don’t exist or matter. Ken is healthy and happy. That’s the fantasy. Maybe his real power is that he can warp reality to make it what he wants it to be, whatever makes him happy and comfortable, except that then he’s have wanted to bring his parents back and perfect them, so that doesn’t work either.

    Anyway, I feel a bit of guilt myself that I’ve gotten so involved in pointing out what doesn’t work for me in this story, as it really doesn’t matter whether I liked it or not. The art was interesting and really excellent in places, but I just really don’t see how the story works as is and I don’t think anyone has explained it yet, so I’m happy to say I just don’t get it and will keep looking. I know Sean Collins thinks it’s absolutely brilliant, so maybe he or someone else will come through, but for now I’m ok with myself and my reading of it. And like Steven, I’ll probably come up with more when I do get to reread.

    — 7 June 2004 at 12:04 pm (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    Ok, never mind what I just said up there. I was basically just repeating what Steven said anyway, and not in a helpful way. I don’t want to start an argument about authorial intent and I shouldn’t have just repeated what I’ve already said without rereading the work first.

    It was a fine book that I found annoying and unsatisfying, but that’s because it pushed certain buttons with me that don’t have anything to do with the book itself. I realize a lot of better-equipped people like it better than I do, and they probably should.

    And I probably shouldn’t post first thing in the morning before I’ve started thinking or gotten caffeine.

    — 7 June 2004 at 12:51 pm (Permalink)

  4. Steven says:

    I think you make some good extensions to my argument, but I hope you write more about why you find the story unsatisfying. We seem to have pretty much the same reading, and yet pretty different responses to that reading. Or maybe you’ll have a different response if you reread the story, which is what I did.

    — 7 June 2004 at 1:51 pm (Permalink)

  5. Steven says:

    Rose and I have only #6 so far, but we may pick up others if we find them. I’ll keep an eye out for #5.

    — 7 June 2004 at 1:58 pm (Permalink)