Because someone claimed Part V of “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” didn’t count as February’s OOTS post. Also, mega MEGA spoilers.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized four words… or maybe three. An epic strip deserves an epic post linked to from the OOTS forum, so look for a traffic influx.)

A lot can happen when you’re on a deserted island where the only other people to step foot on it are an imp, a pissed-off dragon, and three fiends.

If you’ve been reading The Order of the Stick at all in the current book (at least when it wasn’t focused on Haley, Celia, and Belkar), or even if you’ve been reading my OOTS posts, you know that Vaarsuvius has been undergoing a slow descent into madness out of his/her desperation to reunite the group and get Roy resurrected.

V has not slept tranced in a long time, with accompanying decline of his/her mental faculties, and quite a bit of physical deterioration as well, with his/her hair and clothes becoming dissheveled and (strangely purple) veins showing. He/she’s tried virtually everything to get something, anything through to her good friend Haley – homemade scrying spell, messenger birds, the works – but despite taking part in as many battles as he/she can to collect as much XP as he/she can, nothing’s cracked the Cloister she doesn’t even know exists (well, except the birds, but that didn’t end well). In the meantime his/her singleminded devotion to contacting Haley has led to becoming rather estranged from Durkon and Elan, and rather unwilling to tolerate any sort of distraction. This came to a head late in the 500s, the last time we checked in on that half of the Order, when Daimyo Kubota, chief villain for nearly a hundred strips, plotter to overthrow Hinjo, fresh from poisoning his ex-assassin Therkla to death, freshly surrendered to Elan’s custody, suddenly gets taken out by a single Disintegrate from Vaarsuvius, who asks, “Can we PLEASE resume saving the world?”

Kubota may have been a red herring all along, but his disposal is itself important as part of V’s ongoing descent. (And Elan’s character development, but that’s a story for another day.) Elan’s argument with V on the rightness of the move leads to V dismissing Therkla as a “bundle of experience points”, insinuating Elan had an affair with her when he categorically didn’t, and ultimately threatening to take out Elan himself. At this point, V becomes convinced (s)he could no longer continue his/her studies on the boat – not out of fear for retribution, but because of the constant distractions of having to deal with this quest or that one, and even more so, the lack of any help from Durkon or Elan (who (s)he doesn’t even guarantee (s)he’ll contact back should (s)he find Haley). Elan sends him/her off and covers for him/her despite having said he wouldn’t, and the real villain here, Qarr, takes off after him/her.

At this point – and this greatly added to the anticipation for #600 and the impact when it turned out to be a switch back to Roy and an anticlimax – it looked for all the world as though V’s infamous “four words” were imminent.

As OOTS has developed a rather complex plot, one of the guiding principles of forum speculation has been the prophecies given to the group by the Oracle of Sunken Valley. So far, two have already come to pass: Haley‘s, and Belkar’s. All in all, three prophecies were cryptic (Haley, Belkar, and V), while the other three were relatively straightforward (Roy (if unhelpful), Durkon, and Elan… although Elan’s leans more towards the cryptic side, and indeed is almost as cryptic as Belkar’s, it’s also not as conducive to speculation because people don’t like to think about the end of the strip). With two of the cryptic prophecies out of the way, that leaves V’s prophecy as one of the most talked-about single panels in the history of the strip (though Belkar’s prophecy got plenty of play back in the day).

Vaarsuvius asks “how (he/she) will attain ultimate arcane power”, and the Oracle responds that it will come “by saying the right four words to the right being at the right time for all the wrong reasons”.

For three hundred strips, nearly half the strip’s entire existence, that sentence has touched off almost as much debate as the question of V’s gender or the exact nature of that thing in the dark – and as V’s descent has progressed, forum speculators have taken to looking for any four-word string to come out of his mouth to, ultimately, turn out to be the four words that trigger “ultimate arcane power”, often completely ignoring the rest of the sentence. (To show how ridiculous it can get, one theory that was actually rather popular was that when V disintegrated Kubota, she actually said the four words as “Disintegrate. Gust of Wind”, the latter scattering Kubota’s ashes into the sea.) V’s descent into madness seemed to be a perfect moment of weakness, especially as #599 ended. Anyone could see what would happen next: Qarr would tempt V with the promise of ultimate arcane power, and V would say the right four words to agree to the deal.

As it turned out (and we would have to wait for an interlude with Haley’s group before finding this out), that’s not quite how it would happen… and it seems ridiculous in retrospect that the whole deal could be completed in a single strip. And we would have been a lot poorer if that was how it happened.

You see, Vaarsuvius may be sleep trance-deprived, but he/she’s not stupid. He/she can see what’s coming just as well as anyone else could. So when Qarr tempts him, not even with the catch being any sort of damnation (or hidden entirely), but merely helping him with “a certain project of my own”, V goes almost directly to the Disintegration finger. V wasn’t about to sell his soul over this minor setback; he’s going to solve his problem on his own, without any infernal assistance.

Funny how fast circumstances can change.

Right at that moment, an ancient black dragon shows up and proceeds to own V’s ass. She explains that she’s the mother of a dragon V killed nearly 450 strips earlier (nearly three fourths of the strip has passed in the interim), waiting and watching for V to first leave the boat and then use up all his spells fighting Qarr. But for her vengeance, she won’t kill V; that would be too easy. Instead, she’ll make V suffer the same pain she feels by eating V’s own children, bind their souls to herself to frustrate any attempt at simply reviving them, and leaving the material plane for good so V can’t locate her ever again.

The dragon pops out, and just like that V’s relationship with Qarr is drastically changed. Unable to come up with any way to save his/her kids even using Qarr, V is left practically begging him to arrange some sort of Faustian deal. Qarr warns him/her that the chances of success are low, the response time is long, and so will the process of filling out the paperwork even if it does happen, but almost instantly an envelope appears from the “IFCC”, and out pops three fiends in hoods and robes.

The fiends – representing the “Inter-Fiend Cooperation Commission”, out to broker a truce between the respective Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic Evil fiendish populations, who see V as a test case to prove their point – look pretty much exactly like the fiends Sabine was seen reporting to upon learning of the gates, to the extent that the forums are basically taking the idea that they’re the same as given. They offer to perform a “once-in-a-century” “Soul Splice”, grafting the souls of three powerful conjurers to V’s own, giving V power that would “dwarf that wielded by any ar[c]ane spellcaster who has ever lived” (since it’s double the power of just one fiend performing the Splice), which V would have complete control over for as long as V holds on to it. V won’t even get eternal damnation, only time with each fiend equal to the amount of time (s)he holds on to the splice.

Would you take the deal? To save your children’s lives, and their souls?

With regard to the Seven Deadly Sins, it’s easy to associate Faustian deals with Avarice or Envy. Someone wants some goal – youth, money, power – and is willing to sell his soul to the Devil to get it. Occasionally it’s Wrath, such as wanting revenge against some particular person or group. It’s far from unheard of for someone to sell their soul for rather benign, understandable ends, such as reversing a spell of bad luck (The Devil and Daniel Webster), where usually the problem (if there’s presented as being one) is having too much of a concern for earthly things rather than the glories of Heaven, or even (theoretically) for noble purposes, such as to give up your own soul for that of another or for a greater good. At first glance, this deal might appear to fall into this last category, where Vaarsuvius is sacrificing his/her own soul for not one, but two or three others, and the chief objection to these being the “four words” on the forums was that saving his/her family was hardly the “wrong reasons”. Personally, I felt it was sufficiently wrong given the larger context and the other priorities, especially if you read V’s motivation in the context of revenge, but that’s just heartless old me. But even if it was, that wouldn’t be nearly as rich of a motivation, or nearly as tragic a fall. This is an odd case of a Faustian deal being made primarily out of pride.

Already frustrated by his/her inability to find Haley and Co., Vaarsuvius is out to prove that arcane magic can solve his/her problems, and that leaving his/her home to study it wasn’t a complete waste of time that only cost her his family. There may well be several ways to save the day at less cost, and if there aren’t it’s probably better for V to just cut his/her losses rather than do something that could have far worse consequences. (Nothing says the fiends have to have his/her soul after (s)he dies.) But V is stubborn and arrogant, as we already knew, and it is proving to be his/her fatal flaw. He/she is not going to admit defeat – not for finding Haley (hence his/her problems with Durkon and Elan), not for saving his/her children, and in a broader sense, not for his/her devotion to magic. Even saving his family is secondary to proving herself right. It’s like the old saying goes, “pride cometh before a fall”, and V is falling, hard.

Rich drives the point home in the current strip (titled, in a deliberate callback to the Oracle’s prophecy and possible reference to the forumites’ problems, “The Wrong Reasons”), when the fiends present V with the alternative: kill herself, have Qarr teleport the head to Durkon and Co., be resurrected, and describe his mentor to Durkon so he can get a message through to him and get him to intervene. (Oddly, despite having a hairstyle similar to that that made me think V was female, Aarindarius seems pretty clearly male to me.) “But,” the fiends warn, “but then you would have to admit that your magic had failed you yet again. That a cleric and a monster had to run and tell Master to come clean up your mess. Hell, you couldn’t even claim to have come up with the idea, since we just gave it to you!” And the fiends know V would never do that – and the ultimate “four words” pound the message home further. This isn’t just a standard plot twist, or even a standard re-use of the Faustian deal. This is Christian morality meeting Greek tragedy, the journey into the belly of the whale (I considered making the line at the top “click for full-sized mouth of the whale”), a desperate hero’s hubris doing him/her in and leading to what will likely be a rather dear cost paid.

In Part IV of “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”, I claimed that webcomics were not doing enough to break out of its routines, to become great literature rather than just entertain the masses (something all of comics are arguably guilty of), and that not even The Order of the Stick was “much more than a neat story for the masses, with plenty of plot upon subplot but not much in the way of subtext or meaning,” not really enough of that intangible timeless quality that would allow it to stand the test of time.

O great and powerful Rich Burlew, I hast forsaken thee, for I was wanting faith, and I was a fool to do so, and I humbly bow down before thee and beg thee for thy forgiveness. For thy story is truly great and worthy to take its place in the annals of great literature, and ist indeed in the upper eschelon of the great fantasy tales, and thy name shalt be spoken of in the same sentence with Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Pratchett. And certainly its spot in the Greatest Webcomics once the medium matures certainly seems secure now. Burlew has already presented a sort of classic tragic redemption tale with Miko, but that was fairly standard material by comparison. This is the sort of resonant, classic tragedy that’s actually rather rare in fantasy (off the top of my admittedly-not-immersed head, only Tolkien even comes close! Not coincidentially he’s the only surefire author I could think of for the above list, and the only one people could easily agree on), and it shows just how surprising that should be, how well-fit the trappings of fantasy really are for this sort of thing.

Cleverly, Rich has left some room for error as to whether or not these are really the “four words”, because two of them are really a stutter, they seem shoehorned in at the last minute and not really relevant or causal, and the fiends’ alternative is hopelessly convoluted, not guaranteed to work, and even assuming the fiends are telling the truth about the circumstances would take comparatively too long. It’s plausible – V says the four words, to him/herself, right as time is running out on the offer and time resumes, and for very, very wrong reasons – but the debate is allowed to go on as we wonder whether there’s even more ultimate arcane power awaiting him, the current debacle only sending V spiraling down the path of despair as he gets a taste of true power, leading to even more wrong reasons and even wronger reasons.

Who says comics can’t be art?

One Comment

  1. Anonymous
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I feel special. 😛

    Excellent post, I really enjoyed reading that.

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