When I Am King, the online comic by Swiss artist Demian5, follows a sexually deviant camel and the recently de-pantsed king of Egypt on a quest to find love and trousers. The story is told entirely through pictures and symbols — without a word of text. It’s a wild ride through a desert that includes weird sex, hallucinogenic drugs and dangerous bees.
“About ninety-five percent of [When I am King] I made up as I went along,” Demian5 says. “Some scenes, like the one where the ‘camel’ smokes the cigarette, were in my head before I even started drawing WIAK.”
WIAK reads like a textbook example from Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics. The whole comic was created and published electronically — Demian didn’t take any notes or do any sketches on paper. He used mostly Adobe programs Photoshop, Illustrator and ImageReady to draw the comic and create animation. He freed himself of the restrictions imposed by printed page dimensions and used the web’s “infinite canvas” to convey a sense of space. The reader mostly scrolls left to right, following the characters activity along the landscape, but in a few scenes the reader scrolls down, following falling characters. Animation is used to highlight emotions and convey a sense of motion rather than as a storytelling tool. In fact, WIAK deals more with emotions and experimentation than plot. The story in WIAK is only background — what’s really important is what the characters are feeling and how it’s expressed to the audience.
Demian’s new project, Square Stories, is published weekly in the print version of Zurich Express and will also be published online in America. Demian says he finds Square Stories confining “mostly because of its small, weekly-one-gag form. I’m still trying to find the perfect way to do them. Contrary to WIAK it will also contain words sooner or later, and as it is published in a very widespread official newspaper it is aimed at a larger, more average audience. It is also forbidden for me to offend real people and to offend religious feelings.” He adds, “I wonder if I will ever have trouble with that.”
Although the strips look much like Demian’s other work, hiring Demian to work for a mainstream newspaper is like hiring David Lynch to take over Peanuts. WIAK features a camel performing sexual favors for humans. But Demian, a self-described “poorly disciplined vegetarian” defends his work saying “I don’t want anyone to do anything with animals, just be friends with them. There is also a symbolic aspect to the sodomy parts of WIAK. It is not sodomy because the creatures in WIAK are neither really human nor are they real animals — they all have about the same amount of intelligence, and they don’t really exist. They’re just symbols. Glyphs.” (“I wasn’t planning to do so much symbolism when I started WIAK,” he admits.) He adds, “It’s not about animal rights, though I think we should care about them.”
When Demian5 began serializing the comic on his site in 2000 it was an immediate hit, even without much advertising. “I submitted my link to some search engines and I contacted a few other comic creators like Scott McCloud to find out what they think about my work,” he says. By the time the series reached its conclusion Demian was being mentioned alongside comics legends like Jim Woodring and Chris Ware, and has since been favorably reviewed in Wired and Spin. According to Demian’s “complicated system of counters” nearly 50,000 people have read his comic so far.
Despite the popularity and critical success of his comic, Demian is still not able to live off it. PayPal donations and merchandise sales help him out, but they’re not paying his rent yet. Demian admits he would be content working a day job and continuing to post his comics online if he had a job he enjoyed. “Somehow I like the spirit of free online comics, because money is always a threat for artistic freedom and for diversity. But then, I want to earn a living with something I like to do. Like everyone. So I wouldn’t say no to a virtual dollar. Or to a virtual euro.”
In the meantime Demian continues to freelance in the advertising business and receives part of his income from Square Stories. He describes himself as a normal and boring person who spends his time thinking deep thoughts. Amongst other things he has been enjoying the online comics Pay Your Reality Tax and Nichtlustig. Demian’s influences for his surreal comics range from artists Woodring and Ware to the Great Gianna Sisters and Wipe Out 2097 videogames to the music of Radiohead (WIAK is named after a line in the Radiohead song “Paranoid Android”) to anime to his training as a graphic designer.
Demian is currently working on a new online comic, as time permits, which contains “no dialogue, nice creatures, big emotions.” He says “The style will be a bit more organic and the perspective a bit deeper than in WIAK, but it will be less colorful than Square Stories. It will also contain another form of storytelling, still without words, but… You’ll see.”
(Originally published at Shift Online September, 2002)