724 also has a throwaway line that crushes my “Nale really knew of Elan all along” theory.

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

I still can’t get over what Rich did three strips ago. He took one of the most clichéd setups in all of literature, one of the most anticipated comics in the entire strip and one almost guaranteed to be hard to read, and gave it a quintessentially OOTSian twist, somehow exceeding expectations, and making it at least a little easier to read in the process.

In the meantime, however, we’ve been getting some long-overdue exposition. But before I relate the substance of the exposition, a note about the tone of the comic recently. Much of the current book has been a throwback to the very earliest days of OOTS, partially a side effect of enough plot points being wrapped up in the third book to render tenuous the connection to any future books, a problem Book 4 exacerbated. A month ago, I suggested that this led to a disconnection from the plot, the plot as an artificial goal without a lot of immediacy. (By the way, something I forgot to mention in that post: “Don’t Split the Party”? Really? I can understand the “we’ve gone to the classical literature well too often” rationale for avoiding the forum-favorite “A Tale of Two Parties”, but did you really have to go with the most uncreative, literal, bland title imaginable?)

However, especially since Tarquin took his helmet off, we’ve seen the good side of getting back to OOTS’ roots as well: a certain informal, fun-loving tone that isn’t afraid to resort to silliness. Partly it’s because the personalities of Elan and Tarquin bounce off one another, but the punchline of 724 is driven entirely by Gannji, and comes entirely from the inherent silliness of trying to pass a can of soup off as a “thermal detonator”. It’s kind of wonky and gives the impression Gannji’s personality is being warped by that of Elan and Tarquin, and it’s a little reminiscent of OOTS past, but in a good way. This same tone has continued into strip 725, where Tarquin’s narration is more than a little reminiscent of Shojo or Hinjo, or even Nale himself. And while 726 starts with awkward dialogue, you can’t help but get a smile on your face when Elan evokes some of his old antics (as much as I’ll have to say about Elan’s seemingly inconsistent character later).

Tarquin tells us tantalizingly little that we probably couldn’t have figured out ourselves: After his own attempt at a short-lived kingdom, Tarquin switched to mercenary work with Malack, his old buddy, which he’s been doing for fifteen years. When the Empire of Blood was conquered, Nale tried to be crowned instead, and – evidently with most of the original Linear Guild already in tow – fought his father and killed three of Malack’s children.

Nonetheless, there are some tantalizing elements of even this short, sketchy account (which may become fodder for another prequel down the line). Not only did Tarquin not start out on the Western Continent, Malack was “an old adventuring pal of mine”. If all Nale knows of Tarquin is his adventures on the Western Continent, as seems likely, it’s very possible that Tarquin did not start out as a bloodthirsty general, but an adventurer not unlike Elan – perhaps filling the role of Belkar crossed with Roy. (Worth noting that Elan and Nale’s mother was Tarquin’s first wife, and he’s gone on to have at least four more since – admittedly likely broken by the turmoil of the region.)

Moreover, if Malack has been serving as a mercenary High Priest for at least 15 years, it’s likely that Haley was wrong about the Empress of Blood being a figurehead, at least originally – she’s just grown fat and happy while on the throne (smart enough to kick Thog’s ass, not smart enough to be an effective ruler). (Also worth noting that the Empress of Blood’s two-year reign with no apparent challengers appears to be above average for the Western Continent.)

Oh, and then there’s the future to worry about… Haley’s “note” for Roy has to come into play, so the reunion of the OOTS can’t be as simple as V’s Sending (perhaps (s)he’s physically incapable of cramming a message into 25 words? Roy, Durkon, and Belkar come in guns a-blazin’?), and if Elan’s paying attention he’ll recognize that Haley’s concerns about Tarquin’s evilness will bear fruit as well. And then there’s the prospect of Tarquin knowing what happened to Haley’s father (a thought: might Bozzok’s “friends on the western continent” be related to Tarquin’s other “adventuring pals”?) and supporting the OOTS’ hunt for Girard’s Gate…

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