Sticks and stones

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized rules. Oh, and spoilers.)

I know I promised to write this “later in the week” on the Irregular Webcomic post. I’ve been looking for a good time to sit down, with a fairly consistent Internet connection for cross-reference purposes, and make sure I said what I really wanted to say.

Which is this:

The Order of the Stick is the best damn webcomic on the entire Internet, bar none.

Now have a look at the thumbnail to the right, and have a look at the first comic or two. It’s a bunch of stick figures (hence the name – admittedly FAR superior to anything I could produce, even in the first strip) making lame and obscure Dungeons and Dragons jokes. How the hell is this the best webcomic on the Internet? Has Mr. Wick lost his bleeping mind?!?

(Or is he just an incredible geek? We can rule that out, at least in the way you’re thinking, because as I said before, I’m not a D&D player. Stay with me here.)

Well, first, don’t judge it by its first few strips. It Gets Better. I promise.

Well, actually, I’ll give a few details: First, the titular party was given a backstory, and while it may appear terribly generic – the party is adventuring through a dungeon run by a mad lich, on a quest to kill said lich – it actually contains hints several key elements for later strips. (Including the fact that it is not terribly accurate when it says the dungeon was “created” by said lich.)

Then, far from simply treating the lich Xykon as some abstract enemy sketchily described just enough to provide motivation for the Order’s actions, we actually got to see him plot strategy, and have a look at some of his closest minions. Then we got to see him plot again. And again. And we started to see not only Xykon, but also his minions, get a significant amount of character.

Then the Order encountered their own evil counterparts and engaged in a lengthy combined adventure-turned-predictable-betrayal-and-battle with them.

Then the Order defeated Xykon and destroyed his dungeon.

No, really.

Keep in mind, this all occured within the first 120 strips. The panel above is from strip number 572. How on Earth did The Order of the Stick manage to keep going after overturning virtually its entire premise and effectively ending the story?

Well, first, it wasn’t the end. Xykon turned out not to be dead after all (he was, after all, undead to start with), and the act of destroying the dungeon caused the Order to run afoul of a feudal-Japan-cariacture nation – apparently the dungeon housed a gate that was holding back a creature of chaos that would destroy the universe if he was unleashed.

But that only hints at the large, complex story to spin from this inauspicious beginning. I haven’t read any of the book collections or prequels with accompanying commentary, but my impression and my theory is that Rich Burlew never at any point intended to stick with the strip he started with, but was using it as a backdoor to get an audience for the story he really wanted to tell.

You’ll notice I haven’t spoilered anything about any of that description (though there is a spoiler for the rest of this post). That’s because, with the exception of most of the statement about the Japan-cariacture nation, it’s all backstory. There’s a concept in literary criticism of the “inciting moment” (I’ve also seen it called the “trigger event” – that event, either before, during, or after the start of the telling of the story, that sets in motion all the events in the story that follows. If it comes some time into the telling of the story (and it usually does), all that comes before is just exposition. Well, The Order of the Stick‘s inciting moment is Elan’s pressing of the proverbial “do not touch” button – destroying not only the Dungeon of Dorukan (and thus running afoul of said Japan-cariacture nation, from which they learn of – and are tasked to stop – Xykon’s bigger plot), but also virtually the entire concept the comic had followed to that point. The entire first 120 strips – an entire book collection unto itself – is nothing more than backstory for the story that follows, and shares little in common with it to boot. Although OOTS would continue with a funny, joking, independent spirit for some time, it was no longer even approaching a gag-a-day strip, and even then the build to its dramatic shift in focus was well underway for most of it.

That story is a big part of its appeal. In a recent strip, one of the peanut-gallery demon-roaches that litter and make asides in the strips featuring Xykon and his minions (dubbed “Team Evil” by the fans – Xykon and company, not the roaches) makes references to (at least!) nine sides in the ongoing conflict. His partner yells “Ssh! They don’t know about some of those yet!”, which would imply a maximum of seven sides known to whoever he was referring to – but it’s hard to limit the number of known-to-us sides to just seven. I can think of four right off the bat (the OOTS, Team Evil, the aforementioned Linear Guild of evil counterparts that only has three permanent members, and an impending split within Team Evil), and that’s before considering the remnants of the Japan-counterpart nation, or the noble who wants to usurp the throne of said nation, or the people’s resistance to Team Evil’s rule of said nation, or or or… and then you consider that the OOTS itself is split up at the moment, that the resistance consisted of three bickering factions until recently, and the gods have their own agendas, and it’s been hinted that Sabine’s bosses have agendas of their own, and what about whatever surviving members of the OOTS’ predecessor group there might be still floating around out there, and there are individuals that have made a smattering of appearances (or even just been referred to once) that might potentially have their say, and and and…

It all adds up to a rich, complex maze of political intrigue that keeps people waiting with baited breath for each update to find out what wacky turn the strip will take this time. Throw in all sorts of hints, prophecies, potential plot turns, and subplot upon subplot upon subplot and you have a story with as much depth and intrigue as any soap opera. It’s like Lost without the confusing bits and red herrings.

Or the dead seriousness, because as great as all of that is, it could, by itself, be as much of a turn-off as a feature. But despite being laden with mounds of plot and seriousness, The Order of the Stick remains as funny and vibrant as it was in its earliest days; it’s incredibly self-aware and full of metahumor, not only about Dungeons and Dragons but of the very core conventions of story, as everyone knows they’re in what essentially amounts to a D&D campaign (especially Elan, who, being a bard and thus an experienced storyteller, can see all the tropes coming a mile off). References to and jokes about D&D rules abound, not to mention a few running gags, cultural references, and off-color jokes. The parts that aren’t funny work well as well: Burlew’s dialogue isn’t exactly a weak point.

Not to mention, Burlew isn’t afraid to shake up the status quo (skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers): out of 572 strips, 148 (or 25.9%) were spent with Haley unable to speak in anything but cryptograms, 274 (or 48%, nearly half) were spent with Belkar unable to do any killing within a city lest he activate his “mark of justice” (and Belkar lives on killing), 129 (or 22.6%) have been spent with Roy, the ostensible main character, dead, and 104 (or 18.2%) have been spent with the rest of the group split in twain. There hasn’t been a moment with the entire group whole and unrestricted since #245, or 42.8% of the strip’s entire existence – less than half! And nearly half of that was in its original, “dungeon crawling” stage!

And all that just scratches the surface of the strip’s appeal. It’s funny, it’s well-written, the story is compelling, and you never really know what to expect but you sure have enough bones to try. That all plays a part in explaining why Order of the Stick is one of a very small group of webcomics that have become, essentially, their creator’s job – without any advertisements on the site (other than for OOTS books), any newspaper presence (okay, out-of-continuity OOTS strips used to appear in Dragon magazine, but still) or any subscription required.

And isn’t that any artist’s dream?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and find out if there’s a new strip up yet, because the RSS feed is only automatically checked once a day…

One Comment

  1. Hiccup
    Posted July 5, 2008 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I read OOTS too!

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