(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized familial farewells.)
After nearly three hundred strips – after no previous book had lasted more than 188 in-comic strips, adding up to nearly a third of all OOTS comics – and nearly four and a half years – nearly half of OOTS’ entire existence – the fifth book of The Order of the Stick is finally winding its way to a close.
Over three years ago, when the book was only just over a year old, we were introduced to another in a long line of Rich’s fascinating, multi-layered, complex supporting characters. His name is Ian Starshine.
We knew who Ian was (and we certainly knew his daughter) for some time prior to his appearance in the cast. We knew it was him that got Haley in the thieving business, we knew his capture was what was motivating Haley and led to her joining the Order of the Stick, and we certainly ladled on the speculation that his captor was in fact his daughter’s potential future father-in-law. But everything we knew about him came in snippets and flashbacks from Haley. Now, we’ve seen him in the flesh, so to speak, and we’ve gotten his story.
Ian was in the midst of trying to overthrow Tarquin’s tyranny when he got the idea to get himself locked up to recruit other dissidents, only to find that those that could understand Tarquin’s modus operandi got killed pretty quickly, and that once locked up, he couldn’t escape for good. More interesting than Ian’s story, however, is his personality. Haley has been a mess of secrets from the start of the comic because Ian taught her never to trust anyone with anything, and while Haley has been slowly but surely opening up, at least to Elan, in Ian we have the picture of someone who went through absolutely none of Haley’s character development. And once Haley gets a glimpse of that picture, she realizes that for all that she wanted to be with him again, her father’s teachings nearly completely ruined her life.
When Ian’s brother-in-law Geoff finds Elan lurking about, everything Haley says to reassure her father only serves to make him more convinced that Tarquin planted him to serve as their downfall, to the extent that he actually refuses to leave with her, convinced she and Elan would just lead him into a trap. Even though Ian’s theory makes no sense given the family history of Elan and Tarquin, it serves to illuminate just how much character development Haley has gone through, because it’s exactly the sort of thing she might have once been worried about before finally getting together with him (and even then only under the most extreme duress).
But even as it illuminates Haley’s character development, it even more so illuminates Ian’s lack of same. It may not have been terribly surprising that Ian would be suspicious of the son of his captor, but what stands out in this sequence is how much it shows his general paranoia. When Haley tells Ian of how much she’s learned to open up to people, all he sees is weakness in his daughter, weakness that allowed the son of a despot to get into her heart. Both of them reflect on the death of his wife and her mother, who urged them in her dying words to “be better than this town. Than all of this.” But they came to completely different conclusions on what she meant: Ian feels the work he’s been doing against Tarquin has been a higher cause than “looting rich folk”, but Haley sees in her mother’s words something grander, a call to get away entirely from the world of trickery and deceit she was born into, and help do something far grander than Ian could even imagine.
But if it were strictly about paranoia for Ian, I don’t think he would have been quick to insult Tarquin out of the blue when they met face-to-face. I think an even more overriding principle for Ian lies in something he tells Haley during their conversation: “You can always trust in family, for good or for ill.” Thus, the flip side of Ian’s certainty that Elan must be a spy simply because Tarquin is his father is that he is so confident in the abilities and trustworthiness of his own family that he’s equally certain that Haley is the true leader of the Order of the Stick and Roy and Belkar were there to help rescue him all along.
But ultimately, that confidence may not only be misplaced, but may be his ultimate tragic downfall. Ian was originally recruited to the Western Continent to oppose Tarquin by his sister and her husband, and Geoff has been sitting in prison with him the whole time. It’s very possible that Geoff has in fact been working against Ian the whole time, tricking him into getting locked up and making sure he never escapes for good – especially when you consider the first hint we got regarding the circumstances of Ian’s capture, when Bozzok, the former boss of both Haley and Ian that both burned bridges with, let slip in passing that he arranged for Ian’s departure when he gave word to some “friends” on the Western Continent. The only thing sadder than it turning out that the one person he most needed to be paranoid of was the one person he never suspected would be if, instead of showing him that blood isn’t the sole determinant of one’s character, it only served to make him more paranoid, even of his own daughter, if he survived it.
These last two strips, though, have raised the possibility that, in some way, Ian has become more trusting while we weren’t looking – or at least that his real blind spot is simply his fanatical opposition to and desperate desire to overthrow Tarquin. Most obviously, when Ian asks his new boss, a former opponent of one of Tarquin’s secret allies who was betrayed after asking him for help, whether or not he can trust her, she replies, “You don’t, and you shouldn’t,” and Ian responds, “Just the way I like it. I’m in.” But what may be more telling is something in this strip Rich may not have even intended. Elan hands Ian his own plan for overthrowing Tarquin, and Ian is pleasantly surprised at its plausibility, affording himself the possibility that Elan might in fact be on the up and up after all – despite very little having changed regarding what Ian knows about Elan. The Ian of earlier in the book might well have decided that the plan’s very plausibility was a way to attempt to lure him into a trap. The only thing sadder than his betrayal by his own brother-in-law leaving Ian untrusting of literally anyone and everyone would be Ian misdiagnosing his betrayal by his own brother-in-law as his betrayal by his potential future son-in-law, reinforcing his misguided blind faith in family above all else rather than exposing it.
It may well be that in this, Ian is a rather fitting mirror image of Tarquin – knowing what we know of Elan and Tarquin, for Ian to find Elan’s plan plausible would probably imply at least some familiarity with the tropes of story Elan and Tarquin are (or, in Elan’s case, were) so devoted to. Tarquin is so desperate to be a villain going out in a blaze of glory at the hands of his own son he spends several strips trying to kill Roy in hopes of making Elan into the hero he so desperately wants him to be; Ian is so desperate to be a hero he’s willing to sacrifice his own principles to go along with anyone who claims to be out for the same goal he is, even if his ultimate goal may well be to usurp power away from them and take control of the resistance, even if in a rather Tarquin-like behind-the-scenes way. (In this, perhaps this isn’t so inconsistent with his prior portrayal; Geoff did, after all, marry into the “family” much like Elan might eventually do.) Either could prove to be their undoing; one would hope that, if Ian is ultimately responsible for Tarquin’s downfall, Tarquin could at least appreciate Ian’s credentials for the job.