Well, with Phonogram over and done with, I suppose I’m in need of another series of standalone vignettes each focusing on a different (yet not entirely unconnected) facet of a central high concept, doing so in a way that emphasizes the single issue format, and which is generally worthy of a deeper and more nuanced investigation than many of its peers in the field. Unlike The Internet’s Biggest Brian Wood Fan James Hunt, I’ve never read volume one – but therein lies another common trait with Phonogram, the irrelevance of such prior context a point I was always keen to press when reviewing that book. That said, having read #1 of this second volume, I think I actually enjoyed it more than m’learned colleague – perhaps because I didn’t actually see the twist coming (this despite it being, when it happened, pure Tales of the Unexpected).
So to issue #2, then, and a clear indication that the hook that holds the series together is a looser one than previously appeared. It was my understanding that each issue dealt with a different individual in possession of supernatural powers of some kind – and while it’s just about true of this one, it’s not really what you’d call a “power”. If anything, it’s the opposite of a “superpower” – it’s a superdeficit. Or a “subpower”. However you want to linguistically flip it. But the thing is, you could take away any hint of supernaturality from the story, and it would be exactly the same – the literal reading of it is that it’s a physical characteristic, but it could just as easily (and this is, perhaps, the scary part) be a psychological one instead.
Either way (and since the latter view changes the overall interpretation somewhat, I’m choosing to look at the issue from the more supernatural perspective implied by the series as a whole), while the topic in question is hardly untouched in fiction (heck, there’s another comic out there – Chew – covering broadly similar territory, albeit in a wildly different fashion), Wood brings to the table an examination that’s thoughtful at the same time as shocking. This is a stark, bleak little comic – and yet it’s hard to truly argue with the way it sympathises with its lead character. This isn’t about a twisted desire, it’s about something more unstoppable: a hunger that the (unnamed) protagonist can’t, for whatever reason, otherwise sate. In other words, it’s taking to an extreme – yet logical – conclusion an aspect of living that we all experience; it’s just that in this case, pushing this particular biological impulse past society’s usual boundaries makes it immediately grotesque to us. And while we and he know his murders to be reprehensible, there’s a punishment – of sorts – in the alternative action he later forces himself to take. You’re left never really knowing whether this is someone truly sinister, or a victim that we could in some way be empathising with.
This ambiguity is only enhanced by the work of Becky Cloonan – someone I’ve never fully clicked with, but reading this shows me that her true strength lies in stark black-and-whites rather than the coloured work I’ve seen in things like American Virgin. She makes the protagonist a terrifyingly thin and haunted figure – thus immediately casting him as an obvious-looking “villain” – yet something about him softens towards the end, even as he’s making himself frailer and thinner. She also somehow manages to emphasise the pure body horror of the story even when working in two colours and heavy shadow, and almost entirely with implication – indeed, you suspect it’d be rather less creepy if we were seeing everything in full-colour splat-o-vision.
I’m not sure, though, that Demo – in this second volume, at least, as I can’t comment on the first – quite takes on the role of being the deep and surprising examination of the human psyche I might have expected. This is certainly interesting – and really quite well-crafted in the way it makes one shiver to read it – but much like the earlier Wood work with which I’m familiar (Local) it intrigues rather than full-on captivates. Not that that intrigue isn’t enough to keep me interested in trying the next issue, or indeed catching up on the much-lauded first volume – but it’s not made it to New Favourite Comic status just yet.