We are all familiar with comic books. Love them, loathe them, or just plain don’t have any regard for them at all, no one can deny the impact the diverse characters which have leapt from the colourful pages of so many different graphic booklets have had on western pop culture over the past century. Arguably the most recognisable, of course, is Superman, who very quickly became an American icon after his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938 and has since been the subject of countless serials, TV Series, and novels as well as the sometimes-infamous Christopher Reeve movies. Even today, cinema is witnessing an explosion of comic-to-movie adaptations with Hollywood (who are ever-fresh out of original ideas anyway) seemingly overcome with the desire to churn out as many superhero flicks as is humanly possible. These can be anywhere from plain bad (Hulk), mildly entertaining (Bullet-Proof Monk), to the downright epitome of awesomeness (Spider-Man 2). In any case, however, comic books, whether we even read them or not (and just in case anybody gets any wrong ideas, I belong firmly in the latter camp), continue to shape our concepts, ideas, perhaps even our ideals.
Then comes the more obscure form – the webcomic. As the name suggests, this refers to any comic which can be read exclusively through the medium of the World Wide Web. While some webcomics require subscription payments, many of them are drawn entirely for free. The only (understandable) drawback from the free ones is that because they are written by artists purely for the purposes of expression without standing to make any profit for their time and trouble, any fans will have to wait a length of time for pages to be drawn and added. The danger is that the artist may become busy with other prospects and severely delay the updates, or perhaps they might lose incentive from the obviously-limited fan base that any webcomic might draw. In more extreme circumstances, an idea which had the potential to become something great is simply left unfinished, with the readers craving more yet never receiving closure.
Demonology 101 is something which stands out above the crowd in every possible sense. On top of being a 100% free read, it is, at the time of this write-up, the largest fully-completed webcomic, having been drawn over the period of 1999-2004 and clocking in at over 700 pages across five different episodes. Its creator, a talented young Canadian woman by the name of Faith Erin Hicks, began drawing the comic during her first year as an English student at the age of 19. Regarding how she conceived what would become her ultimate masterpiece, Faith says on the FAQ section of the site:
“It all happened one fine day while I was rotting in class, doodling contentedly. The class I was currently afflicted with was called 'Religion 101', and despite the fact that Religion has been a force that has constantly shaped the history of mankind, I was bored to tears. I found this terribly ironic: shouldn't a subject as potentially fascinating as Religion be absolute dynamite to study? Obviously this was not the case.
So, while bored in Religion 101, I doodled a picture of a black haired girl with pointed ears, and underneath the drawing, out of respect for the class I was currently slacking off in, I wrote the words "Demonology 101." The comic you read now kind of stumbled its way out of that class and doodle. And, like most things, the name just seemed to stick.”
So just what is it all about, you may ask? Well, this “black haired girl with pointed ears,” known as Raven, is the chief character around which Demonology 101 (abbreviated by the fans to D101) revolves. Do not be deceived by that one sweeping statement, however. The intricate universe which Ms. Hicks has weaved from her wondrous imagination is one containing many diverse and complex characters, all involved in an important extent to a story which, in the five years that has transpired in order for it to come full circle, has met many twists and turns along the way.
This is a basic summary of D101’s story, which is no easy task to write as it is far from simple, but here goes nothing:
Raven would have been an ordinary 16-year-old girl, with worries and burdens amounting to nothing more than high-school, boys, and what kind of lip gloss to wear on any particular day. This kind of semi-normal existence is one which unfortunately eludes our heroine (insomuch as it is possible to call her that), for she also happens to be a demon.
Yes, you heard correctly. A demon. It seems that the world is crawling with them, but they go about doing pretty much the same things and activities we humans get up to. Not only this, but they are able to do so without our race noticing them to any great extent because they also happen to inhabit a human-like, corporeal form. Their other-worldliness is given away only by markedly-pointed ears, and, in extreme cases, horns protruding from the head. Raven is lucky enough only to have the former, and so is able to carry out her teenage business relatively unnoticed by our kind. She is even able to attend high-school, and, on her first day, befriends a pair of other mischievous teens: Mal, pretty much just your average dude, and Mac, an extraordinarily hyper teenage girl who Faith says is modelled mainly after her but seems to have a personality more akin to Buffy on crack. These two become her best friends throughout the comic, and the only ones she is able to confide in about her nature.
Then, of course, there is Gabriel, referred to affectionately by the other characters as “Gabe.” A relatively youngish fellow, he is Raven’s guardian and basic all-round nice guy. He has raised Raven ever since she was placed in his care as a toddler and is pretty much the only father she has ever known. Raven, meanwhile, has been left to wonder how she ever came to be abandoned by her real parents. Getting any answers from Gabe himself was never an easy task, either, as he has been reluctant even to reveal what little he does know. Being secretive is something that comes fairly naturally to him, however, as he was working for a mysterious organisation known only as Network at the time he came to adopt Raven. This self-funded society was one whose history stretched back to Biblical times, and whose main purpose was to combat the affairs of a small nuclear family named the Jenners. The Jenners, while seeming like a harmless bunch of individuals, are actually the descendants of a family that handed over its souls and servitude to the Powers of Evil on the same night Jesus Christ was crucified. This pact has survived the bloodline ever since, turning the Jenners into a bunch of satanic minions who carry out hidden forms of evil on earth behind the sidelines, and ultimately passing on to the evil Isaac Jenner, a glorified spoiled brat in his mid-twenties who is the last remaining member of his family.
Well, kind of.
You see, it is found out early on in the first episode that Gabriel is in fact Isaac’s brother, and the eldest son to whom all control of the Jenner estate must fall. Gabe, however, being the nice chap that he is, didn’t want any part of the deal, and ran away from home at an early age to join the side of Network, who were none the wiser to his identity. This caused much grief to their father, who one day called his firstborn back, urging him to rejoin the family. When Gabe refused, the old man committed suicide, leaving a heartbroken Isaac to vow revenge. Filled with bloodlust against his prodigal brother, he summoned every demon minion at his disposal and launched an all-out ambush on Network, killing almost every member.
Unfortunately for Isaac, Gabe had bolted his employers just before it happened and took Raven with him. He only learned of Network’s obliteration a year later when two of his former colleagues and good friends, John and Poe, turned up at his doorstep and spilled the beans. The failure by no means disillusioned Isaac, who now not only wants to finish off his brother, but has also developed a fascination for the demon-girl Raven, for whom he has his own nefarious plans. From then on, they must all work together to combat Isaac and all the hordes of hell from getting the blood they want. Which isn’t as simple as it might sound for various reasons, not least because Isaac’s mentor and henchman, Daniel Sachs, works as the principal at Raven’s school. What develops over the five episodes is not just another variation on the epic battle of Good versus Evil, but mostly on the things people do for their friends, family, and loved ones, and on the moral differences between choosing to fight for what is true and giving in to corruption. Being a comic concerning heaven, hell, and demons, there are also extensive treatments of Free Will, which Faith says is the main moral behind the entire story if even one exists. On the whole, it’s pretty much just a fun read, it just also helps if you’re intelligent enough to get what the author is saying in some instances :)
Raven – As mentioned, our 16-year-old heroine who also happens to be a demon. In spite of being evil incarnate, she has managed to grow up with a fairly good sense of morals. She leads a reasonably normal life, going to high-school, having two best friends… if only she didn’t have a divine war at her doorstep to worry about.
Gabriel – Raven’s guardian and former agent of Network. Gabe was the eldest son in this generation of the Jenner Family, and was thus destined to inherit the family fortune as well as the responsibilities of being a satanic lackey. Being somewhat different from the rest of his family, however, Gabe had some slight insight into how evil can eat your soul for breakfast, and so ran away from everything he’d grown up with to join the side of good.
Isaac– Gabe’s younger brother, and, by default alone, inheritor of the Jenner estate. Isaac isn’t a classical villain, being more of an overgrown teenager who just wants to be left alone. This means that although he is supposed to answer to the Powers That Be (the high-ranking devils in charge of the demon hierarchy), he often goes completely in his own direction, rebelling against good and evil alike. The main driving force in his life these days seems to be the goal of eliminating his brother, although along the way of this endeavour he has tried manipulating Raven to suit his own schemes as well.
Poe – A former female agent of Network, she and Gabe seem to have an on-off relationship, mostly due to the fact that she had a hard time adjusting to her boyfriend descending from a bloodline of evil, ruthless, murderous, devil-worshipping maniacs. She and their other friend, John (and Gabe of course) were the only survivors when Isaac burned Network. She lost her sister and stepfather in the incident, and is consequently fuelled with a vengeful rage which means she can be a bitch even in the best of times.
John – Life was tough pretty much from the outset for John, having been apparently orphaned at a young age and bouncing around between places. As a spy for Network, he was given the particularly risky task of befriending Isaac and thus obtaining valuable secrets about the operations of the Jenners. This proved to be a serious downfall for both John and his employers, however, but for reasons which I won’t spoil here. He has something of a beef with Gabe, which is chiefly because he happens to be in love with Poe. Ah, no story would be complete without some kind of love-triangle, would it? And the fact that they share an apartment can’t be easy on him, either.
Sachs – Isaac’s henchman, Daniel Sachs has served as a kind of mentor for the Jenner family over the years, training up the eldest son and preparing them for the responsibilities they must face. In fact, he has been doing this for a few hundred years now, considering that he’s immortal. The Jenners snatched him up pretty quickly all those centuries ago, and as a reward for his services to them, he was given a demon heart, which makes him almost invincible. Isaac assigned him as the principal of Raven’s school to keep a watch on her. The most interesting thing about Sachs is that although he’s not a “good guy,” he’s not 100% evil either, and in fact has sometimes offered his help to Raven and the gang out of begrudging respect for their endavours.
Malcolm and Mackenzie – Better known as Mal and Mac. They are Raven’s two best friends at high school. Not much else can be written about them, other than that they are Raven’s only confidantes her own age, with whom she can share her nature and the weird goings-on that happen in their neighbourhood.
Lethe - A mysterious demon working directly for the Powers, he shows up frequently in the comic as a second antagonist to the good guys. He fits the classical villain profile much better than Isaac, and at some points displays a genuinely sadistic and terrifying evil.
Network - Although opposed to a bunch of demonically-empowered lackeys, Network was a secular, perhaps even atheistic organisation which was more focused on combating the material side of the Jenners’ evil acts, stuff like drugs, embezzlement, etc. When the baby demon Raven showed up before being placed under the guard of Gabriel, the mysterious society was forced to revise their motives and realised that they were caught up in a battle that has more spiritual implications than they’d conceived.
The Powers That Be - D101’s answer to Satan, these are the unseen, non-corporeal entities responsible for overseeing and governing all of demon kind. These guys manifested themselves to the Jenner family on the night of the Crucifixion and obtained their souls and servitude in exchange for great wealth and power.
The Two Witnesses - Two human beings named Aaron and Banai, these are the prophets referenced in The Book of Revelation who carry with them the power of God Himself, ready to unleash it as judgement in the earth’s last days. Their involvement in the story hints that Raven might not be just the simple demon she thought she was.
Although comparisons have been drawn to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the mythology of D101 is based firmly on a Judeo-Christian perspective, with Faith’s own little “twist.” For example, the devil figure of Satan is replaced by a collective group of unseen “Powers That Be,” who supervise the affairs of all demons in much the same way. The demons themselves, although the product of some divine rebellion that took place in the beginning of time, seem very much physical entities who are able to eat, drink, and reproduce in the same way humans do. This is never fully explained in the course of the comic, but in some ways that is a good thing, leaving the readers to ponder such philosophical conundrums and come to their own conclusions rather than having every black-and-white explanation handed to them on a silver platter. Ms. Hicks is surely a tantalising author. Being a member of the Christian faith herself, she is able to throw in some pretty neat Biblical ideas while at the same time never coming off as preachy within the material. This means that D101 can be enjoyed by pagans and atheists, while disciples like myself can appreciate the underlying subtleties present in some of the comic’s aspects. The fan base itself is both large and diverse, a fact reflected by the regular usage of the website’s forum.
Regarding the actual artwork, Faith certainly has a great talent. Her work may not be up to par with professionally-drawn comics, but she has a unique, sharp style of her own which has evolved steadily with the progression of D101's storyline. The artwork in Episode 2 is just a little sketchy, but this was when Faith had only just started out. When her skills underwent tremendous improvement in recent years, she completely re-drew the first episode and replaced the original one. This is only further testament to the high dedication she has shown to her fans over the last five years. Nearly all the art is in black and white but this doesn't harm the comic in the least, and in fact reinforces the atmosphere of the plot in other places. Besides, I'd like to see you try and make a 700-page comic in your spare time with both drawing and colouring completed.
Anyway, I think I’m done talking about this wonderful work, because there’s really so much more I could say about it except for the fact that Ms. Hick’s efforts pretty much speak for themselves, together with whatever else she has to say about them on her website. So what are you waiting for? Go check it out: