When I am King by Demian5, reviewed by Andrew Bonia

When you talk about infinite canvas, you’re walking a fine line between cliché and getting publicly attacked as an artsy-fartsy idealist. Still, while the majority of webcomic artists stick to tried and true printed page formats, a few have emerged to really try to grasp the narrative possibility of digital space without descending into pretension or inaccessibility. In the case of Demian5’s When I am King, the creator manages this in addition to plenty of dick jokes.

When I am King is the twisted story of a cartoony Egyptian-style ruler, and the troubles he encounters when an amorous camel eats his clothing. The story itself is not for the prudish or young, essentially revolving around the very naked king and his tormentors, be they name-calling children or sex-starved royal guards. Though there is no ‘actual’ sex (and keep in mind as well these are characters who are formed of little more than polygons) there is plenty of suggestion and cartoony nudity abounds, but it is still rather timid by most standards.

The comic is in the vein of a classic, bawdy sex-farce, combining high-art technique with low brow humor. What sets it apart from its modern equivalents is the execution. It is without words (the closest it ever comes is the numbers written on currency) instead relying entirely on art and icon to get the story across. The simple visuals belie the reasonably complex plot and separate character arcs. But the story is presented in such a clear, simple way it makes reading feel like breathing: easy and unconsciously natural.

This is due in no small part to the style of the art. Demian5, an admitted disciple of Scott McCloud, uses simple shapes and colour schemes to achieve his iconic look. The characters are little more than 2D circles with stick limbs, but so much emotion is portrayed through mannerism and action one hardly misses the traditional language at all.

Indeed, Demian5 plays with McCloud’s theories of representation and icon in all aspects of this work, not only creating recognizable characters and emotions from simple shapes, but actually creating an entirely new visual lexicon; an original iconography which is still universal enough as to be understood by the new reader! Kirby’s motion lines are replaced with full blown arrows in the air, pointing out the direction of motion and increasing in size as the velocity increases. More impressive still is the vocabulary created just for this comic. While a lightbulb coming on over a characters head is a clandestine but well recognized North American symbol for having an idea, the characters of When I am King express similar feelings with the opening of a third eye in the middle of their foreheads. Yet as far from the norm as he deviates, Demian5 still manages to get the point across with his new symbols. It is this willingness to re-examine traditional representations of things like language, emotion, and energy that sets When I am King apart from similar attempts at silent comics.

Along a similar line of thought, the comic craft of the story makes it stand out as taking full advantage of the natural universality of comics as a medium. The story is told entirely with sequential pictures, relying entirely on the form to convey the message.

Demian5 succeeds in another area that has given comic creators trouble in the digital age as well: what to do with the full capabilities of a computer. While comics are, at the heart, static images placed next to each other, on a computer a creator can do much more with their work, often with disastrous results. Early attempts by the big two to put comics on computer included pop-up style panels, voice-overs and sound effects, making the comic appear as a cheap substitute cartoon.

While we’ve come a long way since then, one must keep in mind that When I am King ended in 2001. Demian5 occasionally drops an animation into the middle of a panel sequence to add emphasis to an emotion or action; never as an excuse for the limitations of the medium but rather to enhance the image itself. While the use of animations has improved significantly since that time, Demian5 was among the first to figure it out.

Again, McCloud’s "infinite canvas" is always present in the execution of When I am King. The panel sequences are mainly arranged in a long string left to right, with the occasional solitary panel for emphasis, but every now and then the orientation changes, plunging down as a character falls or flies downwards and then across again somewhere at the bottom. The web browser interface allows for this, and changes according to the context of the story, scrolling up or down, or again not at all to add emphasis.

Each page of the story ends in a traditional ‘next’ button, which generally brings up the next page in the same frame, but Demian5 uses even the frames of the reader's browser as a narrative device. At certain parts of the story, the next button opens up a second frame, below the original, to follow a diverging subplot or two characters at once. The navigation then bounces back and forth between the two panels, refreshing first one, then the other, until the subplot is resolved and the lower frame removes itself. This adds to the sense of concurrent plot and location, while still being easy to navigate.

The whole comic is accessed through a pop-up window from Demian5’s main site. This window displays the story frame at the top and a navigation frame at the bottom, displaying chapter and page information in four languages. It is easy to navigate and easy to get back to where you left off if need be.

While When I am King is among the most experimental of webcomics, creating its own style visual language and progression essentially from scratch, overall the work leaves the lasting impression of accessibility. It is designed so that people all over the world, entrenched in various cultures and linguistic/narrative rules, will be able to read and enjoy the story. You don’t need to be familiar with the traditions of western comics, or manga, or the ins and outs of gaming culture to become involved in what happens. In this sense, Demian5 has given the digital world, a world with no borders, a work that can communicate with anyone who wants to read.

Andrew Bonia lives in a box in your basement. His one joy in life is writing and illustrating Chaos Chronicles, a cartoon science fiction epic.