Random Internet Discovery of the Week (Now on Wednesdays!)

Moving the RID to Wednesday because I’m settling into a groove of days of the week (such as webcomics on Tuesday and Sports Watcher on Friday) and I want to leave Mondays open for football-related stuff.

Strangely enough, the first time I activated StumbleUpon I was taken to TED.com again. But on the second try I was taken to this site. If you thought you were an insignificant speck of dust in the Universe before, this’ll make you really think you’re an insignificant speck… on an insignificant speck… orbiting an insignificant speck.

I doubt I’ll have much more to say on the “astronomy” tag.

At one point, I almost mistyped “Ethan” as “Elan”. I really do have Order of the Stick on the brain.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized decimation.)

Webcomics community? We need to have a talk. It’s about Ctrl+Alt+Del.

In case you don’t know, CAD is the strip virtually everyone on the Internet loves to hate. To read most of the commentary on it, Tim Buckley can’t draw, can’t write to save his life, is the biggest a-hole in the history of the Internet, burn it with fire so the purification of America can begin, yada yada yada.

In particular, the Internet recently broke to pieces over Buckley’s miscarriage storyline, which caused even CAD‘s few defenders to freak out. For them, this was an unacceptable sojourn into angsty drama, one from which only unspeakable crap can come. For the strip’s existing detractors, this seems only to be vindication, a sign that the unexplainable mass of fans surrounding the strip may finally be seeing the light. And it’s caused a whole new round of soul-searching surrounding Buckley’s strip and Buckley himself.

Well, I’ve just completed a thorough read-through of the entire CAD archives, and I feel that I’m in a position to make an informed judgment of the strip’s quality.

Drum roll please:

Ctrl+Alt+Del… is not the spawn of Satan.

I know, shocking, isn’t it?

But it’s true. In fact, Ctrl+Alt+Del is good enough that it is joining the rarified air and hallowed halls of the “webcomics” section of IE7’s RSS reader, alongside only Darths and Droids and Order of the Stick. That’s something that can’t be said for the dean of gaming webcomics, Penny Arcade. And trust me, I’ve tried to get into Penny Arcade.

(UPDATE: Okay, CAD isn’t joining the RSS reader until it learns how to separate its news posts and its comic posts into separate feeds. But that’s part of the reason it’s popular: I can decide to hold off on that decision, because CAD updates so regularly.)

Now, I’m not saying Buckley doesn’t have problems he needs to work on. He does occasionally need to learn where the joke is and move it to the final panel, and if he has more than one joke he might want to consider putting them in more than one strip. At least some of the time, he does it right (warning, possibly NSFW), even if only by accident, and besides, it should be excusable to have a joke in an early panel if you have a sufficient punchline in the final panel. And some strips are funny despite violating that rule entirely. (And yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del is sometimes actually funny!) And he does tend a little too much towards being violent. And some of the jokes (like the one above) are really obvious and have been done to death already. And it is a little jarring to wonder why Ethan is even considering getting married and having children when he’s such a manchild (it’s just a webcomic, you should really just relax). And Ethan in general seems a bit too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but then again it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy common among gamers. And the dialogue balloons tend to be arranged in nonintuitive ways. The Western eye is trained to read left-to-right before up-and-down, and Buckley’s tendency to reverse that order can make his wordier panels challenging to read. And he can be wordy.

(Okay, maybe I’m damning with faint praise. As for the charge that Buckley’s characters are one-dimensional, I doubt I would be the best judge of that, but I suspect it’s a little unfair. Okay, back to damning with faint praise.)

And the artwork needs work too, but he’s certainly a far better artist than, say, me. He tends to overuse the expression at the left, which essentially looks like someone being bored but has been known to be used for several other emotions as well, especially earlier in the strip’s history, creating a jarring disconnect. (Buckley seems to take this in stride, using that same expression or variants of it for every picture accompanying every profile on the cast page, with a couple of exceptions. Of course, some detractors see that face in every single expression Buckley draws, so maybe that isn’t so good of a characterization, but still, Player 3 is the only one with his mouth closed, and of the others that have mouths at all, Chef Brian is the most different from the others.) And he has been known to use shortcuts at times, such as using images as backgrounds. But honestly, take the former away and the artwork (which has much improved from the earliest strips, which make the current strips look like Rembrandt) isn’t that different from that of Penny Arcade. Which I’m sure CAD‘s detractors will say is evidence that Buckley is ripping off his art style from PA.

Besides, when you’re a humor webcomic like CAD is, art is overrated. As long as there’s enough that’s intelligible to get the joke across, you can throw some palettes of paint on a wall and call it a webcomic if the jokes are funny enough. People have noticed that Buckley, like Rich Burlew, is a better artist than his strip lets on, yet instead of figuring out that maybe Buckley’s style might be an intentional design choice, they attack him for not carrying over his “better” art over to his populist comic strip.

You have to wonder what Buckley did to get so devotedly vitriolic enemies. Did they see early critics end up verbally abused or even censored by the famously abrasive Buckley and turn their subsequent opinions of the man into opinions of the strip? Did they see his characters willingly use Microsoft products and fail to bow at the altar of Apple and Linux and go all “lol microsoft sux windows sux this guy sux micros**t competitors are teh r0xx0r5!!!!!111!111!!!eleven!”? Or did they look at Ctrl+Alt+Del, think “I could do that!”, and then, when their strip failed to reach Ctrl+Alt+Del levels of popularity, think, “How come that strip is so popular and mine isn’t? No strip could possibly be better than mine! Ctrl+Alt+Del must suck and I must correct these dear misguided and deluded souls who won’t recognize my brilliance!” So they come up with, honestly, fairly feeble criticisms. “Umm… it doesn’t follow the normal rules for jokes! Uhh… he’s too wordy! Umm… he reuses images of characters! Uhh…” For all that its many enemies attack it for, there must be some reason why it’s so mind-numbingly popular despite all of it, other than that its fans are all brain-dead sycophants.

I suspect many of these critics may be falling prey to a very common misconception. It’s a misconception so common that even many of his fans may fall prey to it, but Buckley himself seems to have some grasp on it. (By contrast, my theory on Irregular Webcomic! hadn’t even occured to its author when I proposed it.) So let me set the record straight right now:

Ctrl+Alt+Del is not a gaming webcomic.

Yes, Ctrl+Alt+Del – a strip named for the command to bring up the Task Manager and reboot in Windows, whose lead character’s devotion to video games borders on addiction, whose two main characters both have jobs selling electronics, whose principal female character is that (supposed) rarity of rarities – a woman who plays video games – a strip that created the gamer-centric “holiday” of Winter-een-mas, that occasionally features four numerically named and color-coded “players”, and that frequently features strips set entirely within a game’s milieu – is not a gaming webcomic.

All of those things are important aspects of the strip, but CAD‘s real core – and, at least in my case and so far as I suspect, the reason I’m adding it to my webcomics list – lies in its characters and relationships. It lies in the relationship between Ethan and Lilah and between Lucas and Kate. It also lies in the friendship between Ethan and Lucas and Ethan’s occasionally tense relationship with Zeke. It lies in wondering what wacky thing Ethan will do next and whether Lucas will find it in him to truly love Kate and what wackiness will Zeke cause next and what punks will get their much-deserved comeuppance and what wackiness will Chef Brian bring us this time around and just what is Scott doing behind that metal electrified door anyway?!?

And this extends even to the game joke strips. It turns out there’s a method to Buckley’s madness, a reason why he misplaces the punchline, overexplains the punchline, overrelies on violence, and does obvious jokes. Unlike almost every other gaming webcomic on the Internet, Buckley is writing, at least in part, for non-gamers. One of CAD’s detractors is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who has gained some level of Internet fame with his Zero Punctuation video game review series (about which I will have more to say later in the week). In February, he expanded on his hatred of CAD on a post on his blog (scroll down to “You Cad” and remind me to change the link to the archive page later). In it, he contrasted this Penny Arcade with this Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Both comics identify the humour in the situation – that the rules of a game world seem absurd when applied to the real world – but while Penny Arcade understands that the crux of a joke should be reserved for the final panel, Ctrl-Alt-Del is apparently so excited about the idea that it blurts it out right away, leaving three more panels to flounder in excessive dialogue and pointlessness.

A punchline should be equated to an actual punch in the face. That’s why it’s called a punch-line. You deliver it and run. You do not hang around explaining how you did the punch and that the recipient should probably be in a lot of pain now.

Identify the funny part of the idea and save it for last. Leave with the audience laughing. If you do nothing else, finish strong. That’s a rule any humourist will agree with. But with the centrepoint of the gag already uselessly spent, Buckley’s comic is forced to fall upon its old standby of violence as a sort of prosthetic punchline. Now, violence can certainly be funny, modern cinema was virtually built on the tradition of slapstick, but it doesn’t work in static, non-animated media. There is humour to be found in shock value, but most people have been on the internet long enough to not be shocked by anything as mundane as a claymore through the sweetbreads.
But even if the joke were structured properly, there is still far too much dialogue. This is a problem common to a lot of webcomics, but since we’re already in the CAD-bashing groove we’ll stick with it. Shakespeare wrote that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. He did not then add ‘unless you’re writing a webcomic’. It applies to everything, and don’t tell me you’re arrogant enough to claim to know better than Shakespeare.

But recently (for a reason I’ll get to in a bit), one person came along and decided that, to the extent either was funny, CAD was funnier.

For those who have no idea that Penny Arcade is a gaming comic or is not exactly up on all of the stupid games out there, or is aware of such things but does not give two shits, the Penny Arcade strip is a total non-sequitur. Is this supposed to be funny? Because it isn’t, you know. It assumes a level of familiarity that if it’s not there, it simply does not work on any level. (Personally, I still think the timing or whatever is way off on the damned thing even if you are familiar with Puzzle Quest, but I bitched about that already)

The Ctrl+Alt+Del one, on the other hand, does not make knowledge of the game a prerequisite to get the humor. In fact, it kind of explains it a bit so I have a slightly better understanding on what the fuck is going on.

Over-explaining the joke makes the strip accessible to people who aren’t gamers. The same strip done by a “better” gaming comic would be damn near incomprehensible. It should be noted that I side with Croshaw on this one – I find the PA version funnier, and I do find it funny, and I’m not even necessarily familiar with the game in question, and I don’t think I say that just because CAD and Croshaw explained the punchline for me – and I suspect the best way to make this joke would be to split the first panel of CAD into three to four panels.

Maybe that’s what I should do with Sandsday: fix CAD jokes that aren’t perfect but contain at least the germ of a good idea.

On that note, let’s move to the ongoing miscarriage arc.

One of Eric Burns’ most obvious contributions to webcomics criticism is the term “Cerebus Syndrome”, which he describes like this:

The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. ‘Cerebus Syndrome’ refers to Dave Sim’s epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that’s for another day. People saw how Cerebus’s humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they’re doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own. […]

Please note that one can continue to bring the Funny while going for Cerebus Syndrome — and in fact, probably should. It is far more common to drop the Funny….Note also that not all strips that bring heavy Story, mix humorous and serious elements, and have bad things happen to their characters are undergoing Cerebus Syndrome. It’s only those strips that began on a very light, even limited dimension level and then transform into something different that really shoot for the Cerebus Syndrome.

It takes a strong hand to successfully pull off Cerebus Syndrome, and the successes are few. Order of the Stick managed it (and I’ll have more on it at a later date). So did Bob and George and El Goonish Shive. Sluggy Freelance was one of the first, serving as the model for later ones. But Rich Burlew, Dan Shive, and Pete Abrams are all undisputed masters of the medium (or at least skilled storytellers), and if Dave Anez doesn’t quite fall into that category, it’s still telling that his fans might be surprised to hear that Bob and George went into Cerebus Syndrome – after all, it was laugh-out-loud to the end. (And the exclusion of Anez from that group isn’t meant to demean him – I’ve been known to go on addictive archive binges of B&G strips.) When a strip doesn’t succeed, the results can be grisly, and it becomes something else entirely, which Burns calls “First and Ten Syndrome”, after a now-obscure HBO show:

A strip falls into First and Ten Syndrome when they take a shot at Cerebus Syndrome and miss. Rather than be a mix of the Funny and the Story with much better developed characters and more of a sense of reality, the strips fall into a suckfest of angst and misery, with bad things happening to characters we like and all sense of fun beaten out with a stick. While webcomics that fall into First and Ten can continue to have good — even great — moments, it’s an exercise in masochism to find them.

For many, the miscarriage arc represented Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s headlong plunge into First and Ten Syndrome. And there is much to object to about it; it was excessively angsty at its height and played out too much like a “very special episode” of some 80s sitcom, it was transparently a way to get out of the seeming contradiction of Ethan having to deal with the tremendous responsibility of being a father (and thus the whole episode was seen by detractors as evidence of Buckley’s general unwillingness to let his characters change and shake up the status quo), but mostly, the main objection to it was that, as Burns would put it, Buckley didn’t continue to bring the Funny (an error amplified by the jarringly gag-based preceding and following strips and the general suddenness of the seriousness). But as Croshaw points out (and remember, he’s one of the strip’s detractors), Buckley probably shouldn’t have made it too humorous if he was going to do the arc at all:

You’re established as a wacky humor comic, so this is going to mean an awkward tonal shift at best, and hugely disrespectful [sic] to the subject matter at worst. Your most hardcore supporters will feebly attempt to go along with you about this, smiling nervously at each other as they would around a mentally unstable friend with a shilleagh, but mean-spirited embittered c**ks are going to call you out on it.

It’s also worth noting that Ctrl+Alt+Del has itself already gone through Cerebus Syndrome and succeeded, transcending the standard “two gamers with a couch” strip (which it lampooned from the very beginning) into the complex relationship-driven strip I talked about earlier. So we know Buckley can handle the transition as well as Burlew, Shive, or Abrams. Of course he’s stumbled here, but all indications are that he’s learned his lesson, as recent strips have managed to balance the gravity of the situation with enough humor to lighten the mood, without being offensive. (Well, without being more offensive than CAD‘s very existence is to some people.)

It’s still very possible that this is the start of CAD‘s mad descent into First and Ten Syndrome, and if the coming months see Lucas and Kate (or worse, Ethan and Lilah) break up over a misunderstanding worthy of Three’s Company (or worse, Kate turning out to be pregnant out of the blue), Ethan and Lucas getting fired from their respective jobs (or worse, their respective businesses going out of business), Lilah losing her competitive gaming cred for whatever reason (for example, losing her partner and needing to replace him with Ethan when it’s been established that Lilah’s leetness is at its best when she’s angry at Ethan for whatever reason, which given Ethan’s idiocy is never hard), Ethan or Lilah running at the altar for no discernable reason, Zeke declaring war on humanity (again) or discovering his inner humanity, everyone getting evicted from the house, and/or major characters dying for whatever reason, especially if there aren’t any jokes anymore and even the Players start angsting like hell (if they even keep appearing), I won’t hesitate to join the march of ex-CAD fans marching out the door. I may even borrow a phrase from Burns and say “you had me, and you lost me”, which might be the quickest transition from joining a webcomic to uttering that phrase ever.

But for the moment, it’s important to remember that the miscarriage arc is still ongoing, and Buckley still has a chance to salvage something from it. So for now, I’m willing to see what he will salvage and give him a second chance to keep delivering one of the most popular webcomics on the Internet. (Even if his forums currently contain forums for links, CAD-related projects, translations of CAD strips, chances for fans to post their own efforts at writing and art, and gaming discussion boards, but not discussion of the strip itself.)

And I won’t let the irrational hatred some have for it stop me.

If that makes me naive, well, let me be naive then.
(Why do I have a feeling this won’t be the last I have to say about CAD even within the week?)

And now, time for Crazed Pre-Breakfast Ranting Theatre.

If you get to know me, and you see a lot of me, as much as, say, my parents have, you may think that I act like I’m two.

Well, you know f’in what? Maybe I’m fine with that. Maybe it’s telling that I even CAN be like that. Maybe I’m going to be 25 and still act like I’m two. Maybe I’m going to be 50 and still act like I’m two. Maybe I’m going to be 100 and still act like I’m two.

Because honestly, friendship, compassion, trustworthiness, tact, all those other things? They are hallmarks of maturity and they are NONEXISTENT. I dare you to find ANY true examples of those things in anyone younger than 35, as opposed to attempts to ape those things because they KNOW they’re hallmarks of maturity. EVERYONE is, deep down, developmentally two in America, from the businessowners to the politicians to the people on cable news to just about everyone on the Internet, and my twoness simply extends to my reactions to stresses. Heck, if anything I’m MORE mature than EIGHTY PERCENT OF MY CONTEMPORARIES AND FIFTY PERCENT OF MY ELDERS. I’ve been thinking about changing Da Blog’s masthead to “Raising the Internet’s IQ every day”. (Right now? Probably not.)

(Because I know everyone on the Internet says “don’t write anything you might want to take back later” – which is precisely the reason I’m writing this, to serve as a control on my ability to take it back – I’d advise anyone reading to read the “about me” posts from the beginning, including the very first post in the history of Da Blog. I commonly use Da Blog in the aftermath of blow-ups to write ranting screeds that are important to read if you want to really know me but shouldn’t be held against me just because I make them public in the heat of anger and everyone else doesn’t. Come to think of it, I should write more about the workplace’s idiotic standards of perfectionism at some point. And I fancy myself a perfectionist, but the difference is that I attempt to challenge everyone to approach perfection and the workplace just hires the person who’s the best at hiding their imperfections. Actually, what about our entire culture‘s obsession with perfectionism? It’s easier than ever to prove that there is not and has never been anyone that fits our mold for an ideal role model yet we nitpick more than ever.)

Absolutely amazing final. Now that that’s over, something completely different.

Two things. I mentioned before that I conceived of Da Blog as a series of sub-blogs, but regardless of which sub-blogs you follow, you should probably also follow the blog news tag, because it will often have things pertaining to all other tags. I’ll also use “blog news” to herald the introduction of new tags you might like, like this “sports tv graphics” one.

I know a lot of people don’t like ESPN’s attempt to create a strip or banner at the top of the screen for a score display for tennis coverage; it’s rather non-intuitive. But everything is strips these days – the only networks that still use a box for ANY sport, not counting tennis, are CBS for football and TNT for basketball. And tennis doesn’t lend itself well to a strip; even after importing its post-“Sunday Night Football” broadcast package, NBC still uses a box for tennis, and so does its corporate sibling USA, and so does CBS, and so does the Tennis Channel.

Well, I’ve stumbled upon (no, this is not the Random Discovery of the Week) the BBC’s Wimbledon graphics package, and I believe I may have a solution. You can kind of make it out in this video (which is not the same as the one I’ve linked to):

It’s a box, but it may contain the key to creating a workable tennis strip. I’ve created a mock-up based on ESPN’s graphics package:

I would probably want to make the space for the score longer, because “DEUCE” doesn’t fit in that space and I might want to say something like “AD FEDERER” rather than what ESPN does now, which is just “AD” and highlighting whoever has the advantage. And I forgot to include any indication of who’s serving. Break points, set points, match points, and the like would be indicated by a small banner slipping down underneath the strip. I don’t know what I would do for tiebreaks. My guess is either have another little banner fall beneath the strip, similar to what would be done for statistics, or shift over the spaces for sets and games and add a new space. Or separate both sets and games into their own clearly delineated spaces and simply open up a new space to the left of the others for the tiebreak. But that breaks the implied sets-games-points hierarchy.

Thoughts? Ways my idea could be improved? Or am I so off base I need to be whacked with a two-by-four before my abominations become accepted?

Sports Watcher Independence Day 3-day Weekend Special for the Weekend of 7/4-6

From now on, Sports Watcher will put out a 3-day Weekend Special for all Friday and Monday federal holidays. All times PDT.

9-10 or 11 AM: Competitive eating, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest (ESPN). Let’s just move on.

12-5 PM: Tennis, Wimbledon, includes men’s semifinals, Roger Federer v. Marat Safin and Rainier Schuettler v. Rafael Nadal (NBC). Same on both coasts, so you lucky East Coasters can skip the hot-dog eating contest. Wait, NBC covers the second week of Wimbledon and CBS doesn’t do the same with the US Open… and the US Open is more popular in the States. NBC even covers the last Friday of the French Open and CBS doesn’t even do that with the US Open – the closest it comes is Labor Day. It’s the same CBS cheapskateness that caused them to leave their studio team in the studio for the Final Four.

6-11 AM: Tennis, Wimbledon, includes women’s final, Serena Williams v. Venus Williams, and men’s and women’s doubles finals (NBC). Wow, it’s just like 2003!

12:30-4 PM: MLB Baseball, Boston @ NY Yankees in most markets (FOX). OMG OMG OMG IT’S THE SOX AND THE YANKEES OMG!!!!!!!!!!1!!111111!!!1!!!1!!eleven! There’s an Arena League game on ESPN if you’re not interested. Speaking of which…

4-6:30 PM: Arena Football, New York @ Philadelphia (ESPN). The weekly look into the Arena League playoffs.

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 86 (PPV). I’ll just say this: UFC may have popularized MMA, but as monolithic as it may have seemed even six months ago, it may not be the organization that defines it in the mainstream when all is said and done.

6-12 PM: Tennis, Wimbledon, includes men’s final and mixed doubles final (NBC). We were predicting a Williams Sisters final when the third round was barely ended. We were predicting a Federer-Nadal when the fourth round was barely ended. The raft of upsets is only making tennis too predictable.

12:30-3 PM: IndyCar Racing, Grand Prix at the Glen (ABC). Because I can’t put every Arena League quarterfinal on here. Alternately, AVP volleyball is on NBC starting at 1:30.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, Boston @ NY Yankees (ESPN). OMG OMG OMG IT’S THE SOX AND THE YANKEES AGAIN OMG!!!!!!!!!!1!!111111!!!1!!!1!!eleven!

I need a job. You need to fill one, whether you know it or not.

I have a little memo for Fox:

If Joe Buck doesn’t want to call baseball games anymore, can I take his spot?

Despite not having any consistent and truly private Internet connection with which to do so, I’m still looking for ways to take one game each week, load it up on MLB.tv, and call the game like I’m a broadcaster. And I’m probably a more excited broadcaster (even on baseball) than the infamously-dull (even on football) Buck. Not to mention I would probably brainfart on the rules less than a good many of the broadcasters out there on baseball and football, despite having no real training at it.

Once I can work up the equipment needed for it, I might put up some samples of me calling games on YouTube and on Da Blog.

Sticks and stones

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized rules. Oh, and spoilers.)

I know I promised to write this “later in the week” on the Irregular Webcomic post. I’ve been looking for a good time to sit down, with a fairly consistent Internet connection for cross-reference purposes, and make sure I said what I really wanted to say.

Which is this:

The Order of the Stick is the best damn webcomic on the entire Internet, bar none.

Now have a look at the thumbnail to the right, and have a look at the first comic or two. It’s a bunch of stick figures (hence the name – admittedly FAR superior to anything I could produce, even in the first strip) making lame and obscure Dungeons and Dragons jokes. How the hell is this the best webcomic on the Internet? Has Mr. Wick lost his bleeping mind?!?

(Or is he just an incredible geek? We can rule that out, at least in the way you’re thinking, because as I said before, I’m not a D&D player. Stay with me here.)

Well, first, don’t judge it by its first few strips. It Gets Better. I promise.

Well, actually, I’ll give a few details: First, the titular party was given a backstory, and while it may appear terribly generic – the party is adventuring through a dungeon run by a mad lich, on a quest to kill said lich – it actually contains hints several key elements for later strips. (Including the fact that it is not terribly accurate when it says the dungeon was “created” by said lich.)

Then, far from simply treating the lich Xykon as some abstract enemy sketchily described just enough to provide motivation for the Order’s actions, we actually got to see him plot strategy, and have a look at some of his closest minions. Then we got to see him plot again. And again. And we started to see not only Xykon, but also his minions, get a significant amount of character.

Then the Order encountered their own evil counterparts and engaged in a lengthy combined adventure-turned-predictable-betrayal-and-battle with them.

Then the Order defeated Xykon and destroyed his dungeon.

No, really.

Keep in mind, this all occured within the first 120 strips. The panel above is from strip number 572. How on Earth did The Order of the Stick manage to keep going after overturning virtually its entire premise and effectively ending the story?

Well, first, it wasn’t the end. Xykon turned out not to be dead after all (he was, after all, undead to start with), and the act of destroying the dungeon caused the Order to run afoul of a feudal-Japan-cariacture nation – apparently the dungeon housed a gate that was holding back a creature of chaos that would destroy the universe if he was unleashed.

But that only hints at the large, complex story to spin from this inauspicious beginning. I haven’t read any of the book collections or prequels with accompanying commentary, but my impression and my theory is that Rich Burlew never at any point intended to stick with the strip he started with, but was using it as a backdoor to get an audience for the story he really wanted to tell.

You’ll notice I haven’t spoilered anything about any of that description (though there is a spoiler for the rest of this post). That’s because, with the exception of most of the statement about the Japan-cariacture nation, it’s all backstory. There’s a concept in literary criticism of the “inciting moment” (I’ve also seen it called the “trigger event” – that event, either before, during, or after the start of the telling of the story, that sets in motion all the events in the story that follows. If it comes some time into the telling of the story (and it usually does), all that comes before is just exposition. Well, The Order of the Stick‘s inciting moment is Elan’s pressing of the proverbial “do not touch” button – destroying not only the Dungeon of Dorukan (and thus running afoul of said Japan-cariacture nation, from which they learn of – and are tasked to stop – Xykon’s bigger plot), but also virtually the entire concept the comic had followed to that point. The entire first 120 strips – an entire book collection unto itself – is nothing more than backstory for the story that follows, and shares little in common with it to boot. Although OOTS would continue with a funny, joking, independent spirit for some time, it was no longer even approaching a gag-a-day strip, and even then the build to its dramatic shift in focus was well underway for most of it.

That story is a big part of its appeal. In a recent strip, one of the peanut-gallery demon-roaches that litter and make asides in the strips featuring Xykon and his minions (dubbed “Team Evil” by the fans – Xykon and company, not the roaches) makes references to (at least!) nine sides in the ongoing conflict. His partner yells “Ssh! They don’t know about some of those yet!”, which would imply a maximum of seven sides known to whoever he was referring to – but it’s hard to limit the number of known-to-us sides to just seven. I can think of four right off the bat (the OOTS, Team Evil, the aforementioned Linear Guild of evil counterparts that only has three permanent members, and an impending split within Team Evil), and that’s before considering the remnants of the Japan-counterpart nation, or the noble who wants to usurp the throne of said nation, or the people’s resistance to Team Evil’s rule of said nation, or or or… and then you consider that the OOTS itself is split up at the moment, that the resistance consisted of three bickering factions until recently, and the gods have their own agendas, and it’s been hinted that Sabine’s bosses have agendas of their own, and what about whatever surviving members of the OOTS’ predecessor group there might be still floating around out there, and there are individuals that have made a smattering of appearances (or even just been referred to once) that might potentially have their say, and and and…

It all adds up to a rich, complex maze of political intrigue that keeps people waiting with baited breath for each update to find out what wacky turn the strip will take this time. Throw in all sorts of hints, prophecies, potential plot turns, and subplot upon subplot upon subplot and you have a story with as much depth and intrigue as any soap opera. It’s like Lost without the confusing bits and red herrings.

Or the dead seriousness, because as great as all of that is, it could, by itself, be as much of a turn-off as a feature. But despite being laden with mounds of plot and seriousness, The Order of the Stick remains as funny and vibrant as it was in its earliest days; it’s incredibly self-aware and full of metahumor, not only about Dungeons and Dragons but of the very core conventions of story, as everyone knows they’re in what essentially amounts to a D&D campaign (especially Elan, who, being a bard and thus an experienced storyteller, can see all the tropes coming a mile off). References to and jokes about D&D rules abound, not to mention a few running gags, cultural references, and off-color jokes. The parts that aren’t funny work well as well: Burlew’s dialogue isn’t exactly a weak point.

Not to mention, Burlew isn’t afraid to shake up the status quo (skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers): out of 572 strips, 148 (or 25.9%) were spent with Haley unable to speak in anything but cryptograms, 274 (or 48%, nearly half) were spent with Belkar unable to do any killing within a city lest he activate his “mark of justice” (and Belkar lives on killing), 129 (or 22.6%) have been spent with Roy, the ostensible main character, dead, and 104 (or 18.2%) have been spent with the rest of the group split in twain. There hasn’t been a moment with the entire group whole and unrestricted since #245, or 42.8% of the strip’s entire existence – less than half! And nearly half of that was in its original, “dungeon crawling” stage!

And all that just scratches the surface of the strip’s appeal. It’s funny, it’s well-written, the story is compelling, and you never really know what to expect but you sure have enough bones to try. That all plays a part in explaining why Order of the Stick is one of a very small group of webcomics that have become, essentially, their creator’s job – without any advertisements on the site (other than for OOTS books), any newspaper presence (okay, out-of-continuity OOTS strips used to appear in Dragon magazine, but still) or any subscription required.

And isn’t that any artist’s dream?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and find out if there’s a new strip up yet, because the RSS feed is only automatically checked once a day…

Important notice

For the moment, and for the forseeable future (possibly for all of July), the strip’s update time is “whenever I can get it up”.

If you want to hasten the day when it returns to 11 PM PT, you can get me a laptop battery for my laptop.

Or you can pay for the first month of Clearwire wireless or Comcast cable Internet.

Or you can move in next to or above or below me and set up an unsecured wireless connection strong enough for me to easily use it. (In the latter case, you’ll have my dual gratitude for pushing out my loud, nocturnal, party-hearty neighbors.)

Or you can get me a job.

In the first two cases, I’ll pay you back when I no longer need the fourth. Contact me at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com if you’re interested.