Please don’t tell me the only point of Roy remembering everything about his trip to the Oracle was to fill a plot hole in Panel 2 of 698.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized coordination.)

Back in September, I stopped following OOTS and instead started on an archive binge from beginning to end.

Last month, I finished it.

Now, part of the reason for the binge taking so long was because of a side project I was working on at the same time, related to the binge but in retrospect distracting from its intended main goal. Once that side project caused the binge to slow to a crawl, I elected to postpone it until I had more time to work on it. Which, thanks to various other miscellaneous distractions, turned out to be this February, and in retrospect I should have postponed it even longer, because the related effects may turn out to be far more far-reaching (more on that later). But there’s a part of me that wonders if the length of the binge may have been a subconscious response on my part to the sub-par quality of the strip as of late.

In retrospect, I may have just barely missed one of the greatest single stretches in the history of webcomics, the stretch collected in the War and XPs book collection. If, as people have suggested, OOTS’s Cerebus Syndrome can be dated to the trial sequence at the end of the previous book (an increasingly dodgy proposition, as I’ll get to in a moment), and OOTS’s Cerebus Syndrome is a defining feature of what makes the comic great (as opposed to a series of D&D in-jokes), then the Golden Age of OOTS can be fairly exactly pinned down to that one book. A case could be made that you could pin it down to that stretch anyway – everything from about comic #380 to the end of the Battle of Azure City is pretty much one long Wham Episode. It’s almost stating the obvious that the greatest comic in the history of OOTS so far came from that stretch, whatever that comic may be. But in any case, book 4 seemed to be a significant disappointment. As awesome as V’s final descent into madness was, it seemed the exception and not the rule.

Now, OOTS being off its game is a little like The Simpsons being off its game, at least from the perspective of those who kept voting “Never Jumped” for that show on the old Jump the Shark site. OOTS’ worst is still better than the best of a lot of comics (the likes of Dresden Codak, 8-Bit Theater, and Scary Go Round come to mind – those of you who just shouted Ctrl+Alt+Del may remove yourselves now). Still, book 4 was marred by clunky dialogue, questionable characterization, a disturbing density of strips that are painful to read, and a general lack of the heart that characterized previous books. (Book 4 is perhaps more OOTS-dominated than any book since book 1, and is the first book in which the Linear Guild doesn’t directly appear. The unwillingness to go to anyone other than the OOTS for more than ten strips, if you don’t count Super-V’s attempt to engage Xykon and various IFCC shenanigans, may have come off as laziness.)

Of course, the poster child for iffy characterization in Book 4 is Celia, who seemingly stepped right into Miko’s role as the most hated character in the strip. Celia had so many problems that sorting between them proved to be a challenge. Seemingly out of the blue, Celia became a holier-than-thou pacifist idiot, going against her prior characterization in the process, in a seemingly pointless manner, if the existence of a thread asking what the point of her presence was during my absence is any indication. (Tellingly, I know of no similar thread for Roy on the material plane outside the visit to the Oracle.) Celia was not even particularly consistent about being a pacifist – not only did it go against her willingness to zap Nale and Thog, it also went against her willingness to defend the OOTS (“professional murderers”) to Shojo’s court, and she eventually found herself blatantly cheerleading Haley’s slaying of her own former friends like nobody’s business. I’m still partial to my theory that she was just too ashamed of her limited capability in battle, and when Haley asked if it was a conscientious objection, Celia ran with it rather than admit the truth – the only other consistent interpretation is that Celia is perfectly fine with other people killing for her, and if that was the case I don’t think she would have had a problem with Belkar killing a hobgoblin, since it seems fairly obvious that her ploy to escape them is motivated more by a desire to avoid killing, whatever the base of that desire, than the concern for the Resistance she espouses (if that were the case she’d have brought it up right off the bat), not to mention she wouldn’t have stopped the very killing she’d cheered on earlier. (At least my theory doesn’t make her an incomprehensible raging hypocrite.) Rich’s attempts to explain or play off the most blatant self-contradiction, her pacifism, were interpreted as attempts to redeem her, which led to accusations that Rich didn’t understand the real reasons Celia was so hated, her idiocy (itself contradictory – how is someone studying to be a lawyer that naive? I’m amazed she didn’t figure Roy could fly on his own power). Frankly, judging by the fact that Haley gets the last word on Celia with similar words to what the forum was feeling, without even Roy objecting on-screen, I suspect that Celia was intended to be hated.

(Do not even get me started on Elan. I could write a whole post on how he’s been handled.)

Part of the reason for the intensity of the hatred towards Celia may have been the fact that, during Book 4, the main plot of OOTS ground to a complete halt, as everyone was more preoccupied with getting the gang back together and their own plot than actually getting to the next gate, and the entire book seemed pointless compared to the rest of the megaplot. I’ve said before that, with only a few changes, the end of Book 3 could conceivably have marked the end of the entire strip, and the general aimlessness of Book 4 seems to back me up on that, suggesting that it really was intended as “halftime” between two very different comics. OOTS Gamer Theory Syndrome was one result, but another was that, once the OOTS got back together, V’s Soul Splice ended (and he and O-Chul reunited with the OOTS in such fashion I half-expected this strip or this one to be titled “Deus Ex Monstro” or “Monstrum Ex Machina”), and Roy was resurrected, the clunky dialogue revved into overdrive, and continued even into the strips I skipped. Rich seemed to have trouble making a seamless transition back to the main plot, resorting to much expospeak during the meeting of the “War Council”, and the whole thing almost felt like starting from scratch, with the whole “lich-and-gate thing” more of an abstract obligation than anything else. (The fact the OOTS was finally in one piece and unencumbered again may have contributed to this feeling.)

And as much as I was excited at the revelation of the “planet-within-the-planet”, I couldn’t help but dread the directions this could possibly go. It had all the hallmarks of a shock-value “everything-you-know-is-wrong” twist, and whether it led to mucho exposition, a Planet of the Apes ending, “Adventures on the Snarl World” (a very distressingly common theory for Book 6), or something else equally trippy, it could not help but lead to something stupid.

And then the next book started… rather jarringly, to say the least. The 1-2 and 2-3 transitions had transition strips that helped ease things, and comic 485 flowed directly out of comic 484. The transition from book 4 to book 5 could have used a transition strip, because it was hard for me to get oriented, especially after a lengthy break, after getting simply plopped in Sandsedge (especially with even more expospeak instead of just letting it be an establishing shot). This is one of the more obvious book transitions Rich has ever done, and along with how suddenly the subsequent random encounter starts, really underlines the clunkiness of Rich’s writing of late – occasionally reading more like an OOTS fanfic. (But that strip is the biggest problem among the strips I skipped.)

And then came the strip that may have singlehandedly subconsciously convinced me to quit OOTS for the time being.

I refer, of course, to the rest of the OOTS’ complete inability to acknowledge Blackwing’s existence. That was a cruel trick to play on V, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with her plight. Now, my extreme negative reaction to this comic probably has something to do with the way I personally process information, but I was far from the only one who had a problem with it – probably most of the forums didn’t even understand what was going on, and those that did were understandably frustrated. (It did not help that, despite mounds of evidence that people can, in fact, SEE Blackwing, people still think they can’t. In retrospect, Rich should not have included the bit where Belkar can’t see the bird.)

But as much as I hated this twist, at least it imposed interesting questions that needed answering. Why wasn’t the OOTS able to acknowledge Blackwing’s existence? What, exactly, happened back at the rift? To what extent was the OOTS memory-wiped – could someone be forced to acknowledge Blackwing’s existence by, say, being asked to remember events where there would be a gaping hole without Blackwing? Surely Vaarsuvius, doubted by his own teammates, would seek, with such an inquisitive mind as his, to get to the bottom of this question?

But no. V makes ZERO on-screen effort to prove Blackwing’s existence or investigate his seeming lack thereof. Instead it seems that the point of one of the most maddening twists in the history of the strip, one that insulted our intelligence and made the OOTS seem like either jerks or idiots, was to turn Blackwing into the “good angel”, to literally strip him of his reality and turn him into V’s imaginary friend, his conscience and guiding spirit in his ongoing character development. Never mind that this could have just as easily been done with a literal good angel, or that the process of setting Blackwing up for this role involved setting up a huge plot twist and then forgetting about it.

Comic, meet wall.

I am not in the camp of those on the forums who claim that #674 was “just a joke”. I certainly hope it wasn’t (and references to the comic since then suggest it isn’t), although reading without an eye to speculation leads to the disturbing conclusion that the sole point of it was solely to illustrate V’s anger management problems, regardless of what about the characters had to be contradicted to get there. First, it’s not funny. Second, the joke relies on the contradiction of previous comics. Third, if the joke is in-universe played on V by the OOTS, it requires unconvincingly derailing all their characters, especially Haley, who’s V’s friend and has, in the past, been more connected to Blackwing (she named the bird, for crying out loud) than V herself has. Fourth, if the joke is external to the universe, it still requires bending the characters unconvincingly, and OOTS is too much of a plot-oriented strip at this point to make a continuity-free joke.

Frankly, I don’t find V’s attempt at redemption terribly convincing either. It seems odd that V would go from being mad with power to engaging in a twelve-step program and trying to distance herself from anything that reminds her of the old V in a couple of days. V’s experience with the Soul Splice was a teachable moment, but what she learned in Xykon’s throne room was that power could take the form of everything at her disposal, not merely brute-force arcane power, and that among the powers at her disposal was people other than herself. V herself later articulates the value of planning, while Durkon lectures her about the value of small victories. All that points to ways she can better use her magic, not anger management issues or other requirements to totally change her personality. V later characterizes the incident in 677-678 as “evoking first and making inquiries afterward” (in typical Vaarsuvian fashion), but it still feels like Rich took a few logical leaps along the way. (And there’s a big difference between “use your allies to your advantage” and “don’t get involved at all if your teammates can handle it even if things would be over a lot sooner”.) I could sympathise very much with Vaarsuvius’ plight and compare it to my own situation (again, more on that later) if I found it suitably convincing. (And it’s likely V’s divorce won’t be as simple as “I will not contest it”, especially being on the same continent as the elves.)

So, what else has happened while I was away? Well, we also got one heck of an unexpected plot twist concerning the much-anticipated liberation of Ian Starshine: the country that originally captured him almost certainly no longer exists. As Rich has been wont to do recently, this tears asunder mounds of forum theories on how said liberation might go down, while opening up whole new frontiers for speculation. It does not necessarily invalidate the once-commonly-held “Tyrinar is Elan and Nale’s father” theory, especially since Nale’s father seems to have been a general, not necessarily the leader of a nation, when Nale was young. I could easily see a story being told of a once-mighty conqueror ultimately undone and left to destitution, possibly by his own favored son. (On the other hand, the idea that Tyrinar’s real name is Ian Starshine, or worse Girard Draketooth, is just stupid – along the lines of the planet-within-the-planet. And equating Ian with Girard just because they both have red hair is stupidest of all.)

Belkar is really bad at pretending to be good. Earlier, he at least gave off the impression that he was reforming, holding off Bozzok and Crystal as though out of a genuine concern for Haley, taking an option that would result in less killing, and even sparing Crystal’s life instead of stealing a kill from Haley. But he becomes substantially more obnoxious about it here, and once the OOTS leaves Sandsedge he basically becomes the same old Belkar as always, only with a few words here and there about being a team player, offset by the numerous times he lets the facade slip. (Sorry, this is not a team player.) This seems to further back up my interpretation of Shojo’s advice as Belkar needing only to know the OOTS’ moral framework, not necessarily follow it. (And if that’s not Belkar’s interpretation of the matter, it may soon be.) The other half of that interpretation – it doesn’t matter even if the OOTS doesn’t buy it – seems also to be happening.

And then there’s the absolute blockbuster – and second speculation-shattering development – that completely overturns the complacency that seemed to come over the OOTS early in the book (come on, reaching Girard’s Gate twenty strips in?) and could be fodder for an entire post in itself: the coordinates Roy picked up from Shojo were in fact the result of a deliberate attempt by Girard to mislead Soon, sending the OOTS right back to square one. More to the point, the rift between the members of the Order of the Scribble may have been deeper than anticipated. Its plot relevancy may have seemed to have faded when Hinjo declared Soon’s Oath expired, but my post on Serini’s non-interference clause now seems more relevant than ever. (Similarly, incidentially, the revelation of the Linear Guild being pawns of the IFCC makes my “Linear Guild is really helping the OOTS” theory surprisingly plausible in a twisted way.)

That previous post pointed out that comic #277, which introduced the rift and non-interference clause, depicted something that could be seen to be deeper than it made it sound – a team on the verge of becoming mutual enemies – and in that light, this revelation isn’t as much of a stretch. Still, what would lead Girard to basically assume a paladin, of all people, would break his oath? Did Girard just underestimate the power of a paladin’s word? Was Girard just that paranoid? Given the reference to “the power of the Snarl” (not the power of the Gate, and readers of the Start of Darkness prequel will know the difference), was said power such that nothing else could overcome the lust for it, such that it was the real motivation behind the breakup of the Order of the Scribble, not defense? Was Soon, in fact, just the sort of person to make Girard think would break his oath? Perhaps Soon’s classic exegesis of redemption to Miko came from more personal experience than we thought – perhaps Soon wasn’t very much unlike her. At the very least, it’s always bugged me that a (by all appearances) ordinary paladin, who predated the order of paladins he founded, somehow became the lord of Azure City (also predating the Sapphire Guard), for what we thought were reasons that weren’t to be put in the official histories. Between this and the “planet-within-the-planet”, it’s starting to look like the Crayons of Time series may have gotten just about every single thing wrong; its sole purpose was notifying the OOTS about what they “need to know”. We may be in for a lot of exposition if and when the OOTS meets Serini (I still doubt Girard would still be alive after all this time, life-extending spells aside, and scratch my head at the OOTS seemingly assuming he is, while NOT assuming the same about Serini).

Or was it Girard that wasn’t very much unlike Miko?

So Miko is assigned to pick up these people who have done something that threatens the fabric of the entire universe. Along the way, she hears much more about their dastardly deeds. Exactly what these people are planning she doesn’t know, but they can’t be good, and they certainly don’t go down quietly once cornered – and the party leader even scans as strongly evil. Oh, but that was the lich’s crown interfering, everyone in the party really isn’t evil, with the possible exception of the halfling with the lead sheet – and all those dastardly deeds were actually done by their evil twins, and once they know what the charges are they go along willingly, if not quietly, and if with mounds of gold. (Okay, in retrospect given later revelations Miko could have introduced herself in a less threatening fashion, but at the point she engages them she’s got mounds of evidence they’re up to no good.)

And while Miko probably shouldn’t have dismissed their calls for rest and asked them to sleep in a muddy ditch, they do bilk her for everything she has when they do find an inn. Then they ask her to evacuate the inn because “professional killers” are after the leader, then the inn explodes with her inside, then she catches a member of the party gloating at her demise, and the leader turned female, and reacting insincerely to the hotel bill being paid. And then the leader, who’s been hitting on you for this entire time, tells you off and you have to drag them back to Azure City in chains.

Then you catch them trying to escape once there, and the halfling (who, reportedly, she’s confirmed to be evil at this point) actually has, while baiting you in the process. Then, after a long and arduous chase, the rest of the party actually defends the vile creep and saves him from death, apparently off the hook for their known crime. But wait – here comes the clincher…

So it’s sometime later, and you just happen to be at a watchtower when an evil party shows up, and in this evil party is the same lich the party claimed to have destroyed. So, to sum up, the Order of the Stick, who’s been involved in a number of suspicious circumstances besides, destroyed a gate, something that holds together the fabric of the universe, but claimed it was an accident and they were keeping the lich’s plans from coming to fruition anyway, a lich they killed, except the lich isn’t dead (well, dead-dead). They don’t detect as evil, but the party leader initially did before they were prepared for you to do so, for a frankly ridiculous reason. Xykon actually asking them to destroy the gate is only “probable”, but anything else that would seem likely still doesn’t speak well of the Order of the Stick. Being dead can be something tough to ascertain, but generally you should know when something has been completely destroyed. The Order of the Stick, according to #371, claimed to have “destroy”ed Xykon, and they didn’t. Why would they unless they wanted to give the impression that Xykon wasn’t a threat? Sure, the argument is riddled with holes, but from the big picture it’s amazingly plausible from Miko’s perspective. The main questions would be why the Order would have acknowledged Xykon’s existence (couldn’t know Miko hadn’t heard of him, perhaps?) and why they still came along willingly…

…until you find out the man you’ve accepted as your lord has not only been “fak[ing his] senility just to avoid being assassinated” but breaking the laws willy-nilly, to the extent of rigging the trial to acquit the Order of the Stick, who he’s conspiring with to send to Girard’s Gate in violation of Soon’s Oath, which he expresses contempt for. At this point, would you expect Miko to get more confused, or for things to make a lot more sense for her? Not even Hinjo buys Shojo’s argument that he was “doing what was best for the entire city” and working for its “safety”. At this point, Occam’s Razor might actually suggest Shojo was trying to get all the gates destroyed so he and Xykon could use the Snarl to take over the world – indeed, that Shojo exactly fit the profile Girard was afraid of.

While Miko did have her own quirks that made things worse, just as Girard probably did, every conclusion she came to (at least before her fall, when every aspect of her worldview falls apart, so you might expect her to go batshit insane) was at least partially reasonable given the available evidence. This, then, makes her fall and death all the more tragic, because she had no way of knowing better. Perhaps, then, Soon was prone to getting into circumstances that didn’t speak well for his character (and certainly his lawfulness) if you were working from incomplete information, and Girard extrapolated that out into thinking he was bound to break his oath eventually. At the very least, Girard may well be, character-wise, the chaotic equivalent of Miko, utterly blind to the worth of others (in this case, considering “Lawful Good” an oxymoron), utterly uncompromising (by not seeing any need to compromise, especially if Chaotic Neutral), quick-triggered, and absolutely full of himself.

But probably the best strips in the book so far have probably come from the Team Evil interlude, and they haven’t been lacking in plot twists. Rich completely ignored a multiple of 100 for the first time in strip #700, which nonetheless stoked more speculation on the identity of the MitD… unless you’ve read Start of Darkness and realize just how important Tsukiko really is becoming to Xykon, and how much trouble Redcloak doesn’t realize he’s in. Meanwhile, Redcloak – his goblin-state-consolidation plans cut short by V’s attack and Xykon’s response thereof – has elected to cut to the chase and proclaim that Azure City is Azure City no longer. Even once Redcloak leaves, it’ll be tough to oust the goblins – but on the other side, Redcloak seems to be setting in motion a backup plan for if and when his Plan A fails (evidently too cowed by Xykon to abandon Plan A entirely), suggesting two supposed allies are rather deep in a high-stakes game of chess… (And on the list of semi-major characters introduced as no-names, Jirix – who was dead when we last saw him – joins Kazumi, Daigo, Tsukiko, O-Chul, Hinjo… let’s just say Rich is fond of that trick. Also, the relevance of SoD to the main plot of OOTS has increased considerably in the past 200 comics.)

Finally, regarding this strip, the anachronisms on the poster tell us this has nothing to do with anything Nale may be doing now. Meanwhile, it sounds unlikely these two will actually get to the point of turning Elan and V in now, unless V’s plan doesn’t work, though that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of other people getting in their way. But it would be pointless to spend what’s about to be four strips on these two only for them to immediately disappear with no real impact… I’ll stop now.

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