Comics are a strange and almost mercurial medium, mixing together elements from those more traditional and truly defined forms of art in ratio’s of their creator’s choosing. The superhero comics of the big two tend towards the cinematic, their panels playing out like storyboards of an action sequence we have to animate in our mind; some eschew sentence and story near altogether, allowing their ambiguous but suggestive art to awe us, akin to a gallery held in one hand; others, like those of Alan Moore, lean towards the literary, long layered stories that earn the title ‘graphic novel’. What Becky Cloonan has done with Demeter – what she began back with Wolves, her first self-published short in this sequence of sorts – is twist the comic form in another, new direction: poetry, particularly that of the Romantic period.
Demeter tells a rather simple story so I could easily offer a synopsis, but I fear that even a summary description would spoil the engrossing experience of reading this sinister and romantic short about the undoing of a cursed seaside couple for yourself. Though the tale is not necessarily a new one what makes it work so very well here is the way in which Cloonan constructs it. The opening salvo of introductions alone set a stronger tone than most whole books do: you cut from the detail of the compelling colored cover to the sparse expanse of the title page, to the eerie image of two bare legs floating in a pitch black, veiny sea of the credits page before heading back to blank white where three timid lines potent poetry sit. The combination stirring in your mind a whole mess of menace and magic before you’ve even seen the first scene.
That introductory sequence serves well as a primer for what the rest of the book delivers, both in terms of colour palette and plot content. Driven more by dueling streams of poetic personal narration – one in black boxes, the other in white – than dialogue Cloonan’s script sweeps you across a vast expanse of story in a way that would, if told in any other way, feel rushed or segmented; the whole book feels like a montage of only the most evocative moments in the haunted, seaside life of this loving couple. Cloonan mentioned during an interview – with NonCanonical, check it out – that with these works she was attempting to ape the structure of a story-driven song and that really shines through; the book a series of swift verses and a recurring chorus whose meaning is never quite clear until the conclusion, clearer still after a second listen when new clues start to emerge from what earlier seemed innocuous moments.
That she tells the story in this sweeping style is vital to its success, because broken down into individual elements the book mightn’t have worked at all. There is an image in Demeter of near literal bodice-ripping, the romantic side of the story occasionally swaying into that Mills & Boon territory, which mixed with the wrought-iron, baroque nature of the narration might, if seen out of context, serve to scare off some readers ( namely, Men). Thankfully then the book’s constant creepy tone and scenes of terror serve to temper this side of things; the two sides of the story clashing but never undercutting one another proving why this is now a classic combination of genre’s.
It’s no coincidence that Cloonan’s name appears alongside Bram Stoker’s on the cover of some new editions of Dracula; this story proves that she would have sat well alongside him and Shelley as contemporaries. Cloonan obviously didn’t co-write Dracula though, she simply illustrated a version of it and similarly it is her artwork that she is best known for, so I would be remiss not to mention it here. She has clearly come a long way since the Manga-days of Demo – though her art there is terrific – and this is arguably her most mature work yet; both stylistically and literally. The characters of Demeter are adult in the true sense, though still distinctly her in every way they are fully defined figures which is important because their faces have a lot to convey during the more dramatic scenes of the story.
It is her work on the settings that most struck me however; from the forced perspective work with the cottage’s fences and furniture, through the layered way that Cloonan constructs images inside the windows through to the constant chaos of the grand, greyscale sea that sweeps across every page. My favorite touch though was the way that she fades the stark black and white art to grey during flashbacks, it’s a subtle technique that dramatically changes how the story reads and one that lead to some great revelations during my second read through. It is one of those things that can only occur when the writer and artist of a book are one and another bit of evidence that those people who refuse to read Black and White comics because ‘the form is limited’ are only limiting themselves; a great artist like Cloonan can convey anything without colour.
So although by virtue of its form Demeter will likely not be for everyone – the number of people who are both willing to read comics and wanting to read some with serious, literary content is far too small – it will without a doubt have dramatic effect on those bold enough to buy it. Becky Cloonan’s comics are unlike anything else out there – small-scale, short-form stories with style and emotional strength far larger than they have any right to bear – and Demeter is their pinnacle… thus far. It makes one wonder what amount of blood Becky must have sacrificed, and to whom?