(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized firing squad.)
Everyone who reads Da Blog knows about my love affair with The Order of the Stick. I’ve called it one of the best webcomics ever made and able to stand up among the great works of literature. Yet I’ve realized recently that I could poke holes at most of the story. Of the five books that have been published in whole or part online, only the third is one I don’t have significant problems with calling the “real” OOTS. The first book is mostly D&D jokes, the second book is a bridge between the first and third, and my issues with the fourth and fifth have been well documented. (Seriously, we’ve spent close to a YEAR of real time in the Empire of Blood!) So it’s tempting to wonder if my love for OOTS is really a love for OOTS as a whole, or just a love for the fantastic third book.
But the second, fourth and fifth books have also contained hints of what makes OOTS so great (and I’ve spoken as such about the fourth before as well), and the most recent comic is probably one I would point to if asked what it is that Rich Burlew brings to The Order of the Stick that makes it so great: dramatic timing, and characterization.
Most of this comic cross-cuts between two different plot threads. The first is Tarquin’s frustration with Enor and Gannji’s refusal to fight each other, and Elan’s exasperation with his father for making two best friends fight, for Elan’s supposed amusement. The other involves Enor and Gannji’s refusal to fight each other.
To be honest, right up until the comic before this one, Enor and Gannji were little more than barely-fleshed-out unsympathetic antagonists – maybe even bumbling fools, despite their success at bringing in Elan, Haley, and V. After the mistaken-identity business was sorted out, and after Gannji extorted Tarquin out of some of the bounty, they wound up in the same bar as Roy and Belkar and started a barroom brawl by attacking Roy. That got them thrown in prison, with Tarquin refusing to clear their names, so they’ve spent the better part of fifty strips verbally sparring with Roy and Belkar in anticipation of a meeting in the gladiatorial arena.
In all that time, “Gannji” and “Enor” could very easily be replaced with “Nale” and “Thog” without much in the way of changes, except that Enor’s a bit more articulate than Thog. They’ve essentially been comic relief for other characters to play off of, empty antagonists to get on our heroes’ nerves. And with Roy being ranked #1 and Enor #2, all the characters – and the fans – were anticipating a Roy-Enor showdown that would, essentially, be the culmination of this confrontation with this pair of minor villains. That is, until it turned out that #2 would in fact be facing #3, which oh-so-coincidentially (not) happened to be Gannji. (That leaves Roy to face “the Champion”, who’s been undefeated for many, many months. Which does not bode well for Our Hero.)
The prospect of having to fight each other has suddenly turned Enor and Gannji a lot more sympathetic (even Roy feels sorry for their plight), and this comic makes their story a lot more tragic than it had been. After standing around fake-fighting poorly for a while, Gannji proposes an unthinkable solution: he’s willing to let Enor kill him, reasoning that Enor can survive longer without him than Gannji can without Enor, planning for Enor to cut his tail off and get him resurrected once he escapes. Enor refuses, even proposing to sacrifice himself, since Gannji could deal with life without him better than Enor could without Gannji. Finally, in the antepenultimate panel, Gannji kneels down and closes his eyes, awaiting his fate from Enor, who’s been convinced that “this is the way it has to be”.
This is one more in a long tradition of Rich’s well-fleshed-out, sympathetic antagonists. Rich has shown repeatedly his refusal to accept a strict division between Good and Evil of the sort that D&D seems to require. For example, no OOTS character has provoked more discussion than Miko, she of the self-righteous, jumping to conclusions, ever-suspicious sort. Her inability to withstand or accept the collapse of her worldview is arguably as important and powerful a plot as the main plot, and the closure of that plot provided by her death is one of the more celebrated OOTS moments, which is saying a lot. Tarquin himself could be seen as an example of a fleshed-out antagonist. The two main antagonists, the Linear Guild and “Team Evil”, haven’t been fleshed out nearly as much, unless you’ve read the Start of Darkness prequel and experienced Redcloak’s own tragedy, which reaches its nadir at the end of that book but isn’t over yet.
Rich expertly arranges this comic’s main plot threads to rise and fall with each other. As Gannji proposes that Enor kills him, Tarquin asks his assistant to get ready to kill them. As Enor refuses and the two negotiate who’s going to kill who, Elan pleads with Tarquin not to make them fight each other. Finally, as Enor finally gets ready to kill Gannji, Tarquin orders them both killed, and the final panel shows a bunch of soldiers firing their bows – which just adds another layer of tragedy to the strip, as even Gannji’s plan comes too late for either of them. (The cliffhanger ending leaves open the possibility of either or both surviving – but the forum consensus is that Gannji is much more dead meat than Enor.)
That isn’t to say this strip is perfect – we haven’t cared about Enor or Gannji for long enough for this strip to have its maximum impact, it doesn’t tell us anything about Tarquin we didn’t already know, and this plotline in general has dragged on so long it’s starting to push out more plot-relevant parts of the book (besides Girard’s Gate, didn’t we have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it segment involving V’s divorce?), and I now suspect Rich is starting to try to accelerate (or “rush”) through the end of it. But it hasn’t been without its virtues, and one of them will be the subject of a future post.