(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized sexy shoeless god of war.)
Yes, it’s a second webcomic post this week! I’ve got another planned for tomorrow as well, so you get three webcomic posts for the price of one this week! Consider it your little Thanksgiving “second and third helpings”. And no, this isn’t just because Robert A. “Tangents” Howard felt moved to comment on this strip.
I’m afraid I’ve been remiss in not commenting on the previous strip, a strip so epic and pivotal at least one person on the forums suggested it was originally intended to be #600 but Burlew couldn’t condense the story enough.
Perhaps it’s somewhat fitting that last week I aired the complaints of many an OOTS fan that has complained about the story lagging, because all evidence is we may be looking at the light at the end of the tunnel. (Incidentially, I never intended for that post to turn into an OOTS complaint, or even a place where I defended OGTS sufferers, it just ended up that way.)
Of course the Haley/Celia/Belkar half of the OOTS has been approaching their own goal for some time, dating back to the end of our last stint with them. But when we returned to them, things were going… badly. No sooner did the long-awaited cleric show up than their benefactor promptly sold them all out to the Thieves’ Guild. Haley started the cleric on contacting Durkon and then took off to… well… attempt to hold off her former friends.
So we finally got the battle OOTS fans had been waiting for since the end of the last stint with the Haley-Celia-Belkar group: Haley v. Crystal. Which turns out to be rather disappointing, with Crystal having the intelligence of a, well, pickle and all, but still ends with Haley bowless and down for the count. And Celia powerless to stop her.
This stint with this half has really been about Belkar. Belkar was visited in his sleep by the long-dead Lord Shojo, the one character so far Belkar ever came close to identifying with. It’s a standard “vision”/”message from beyond the grave” sequence, but one with a rather unusual moral: “I need to pretend to have character growth!” Shojo’s advice essentially amounts to becoming sneakier, less overtly evil, and staying in line with what others expect of him outwardly, but fiddling around with the rules when it suits him.
It’s a word of advice that has been debated quite a bit on the forums, with fans looking to plumb its meaning, or if it’s really any different from what Belkar was like before, certainly before Roy died when there were still people who insisted that no, Belkar really wasn’t that evil after all. Quite a number of people, including Howard, have wondered if faked character growth will lead to actual character growth. But the general consensus interpretation is that Shojo has effectively been saying that Belkar needs to act Good in order to get ahead. But I can’t help but wonder if what’s really going to happen is that – despite Shojo’s own Chaotic nature – Belkar is going to look more Lawful than strictly Good – playing by the rules when it suits him, avoiding getting caught, but otherwise still participating with those around him only because they happen to be the ones around him. We’ve yet to see it put into practice, but with Belkar likely coming to Haley’s rescue in #612, we’re probably about to.
The reason I was remiss not to comment on #610 when it came out has less to do with its epic, recap nature, and more with what actually happens in it, the scope of which I only recently realized. In a move apparently intended to appeal to the legions of Belkar fans on the forums, Shojo’s last comments to Belkar challenge him to figure out who he is, as more than a bunch of numbers and letters on a character sheet. Belkar ultimately responds by calling back to one of the Belkar fans’ all-time favorite strips, one which established a lasting nickname for Belkar likely to last straight to the end of the strip, perhaps even more so now – just in time for the cleric to hear, just in time for most of the Thieves’ Guild to start banging down the door, just in time for the cleric to take the Mark of Justice off.
To put that moment in perspective, we were first introduced to the Mark of Justice all the way back in strip 295. More than half the strip’s existence has been spent with Belkar under the weight of the Mark of Justice, unable to kill anyone or stray too far from Roy’s body. #610 is, in more ways than one, an analog to strip 393, which in almost as dramatic fashion granted Haley her voice back, but for Haley’s voiceless stint to have lasted as long on a fractional basis to that point it would have needed to start in the late 100s, and for it to have lasted as many strips it would need to have started with strip 78, the actual version of which was during the original Linear Guild story arc (admittedly after the Guild was gone and the last loose end was Durkon’s return to the group)!
Much of that time was spent with the Mark as a subplot and an inconvenience that, most prominently, reduced Belkar’s role during the Battle of Azure City, apart from the aforementioned all-time favorite strip above. Its role has increased in the current book, arguably starting with just how bloodthirsty Belkar became upon leaving Azure City, and kicking into high gear once it was actually activated.
If I have a quibble with how Rich handled this whole thing, it’s that the dream sequence doesn’t feel like much of a climax to one of the longest-running subplots in the history of the strip. Shojo’s message seems almost to stand alone, if not even a deus ex machina, disconnected from anything Belkar might have learned from being under the Mark’s control. Belkar’s last few appearances with an inactive Mark show he’s arguably regressed, and he can’t learn anything from its actual activation because it occured in the memory-charmed Sunken Valley. Even the lesson Belkar does learn is effectively how not to learn a lesson at all, and – pending seeing exactly how it manifests – it doesn’t seem to follow from anything Belkar’s experienced in “real” life either.
Nonetheless, it’s out of the way and Belkar’s on the prowl, causing even people who were among the loudest “yes, he’s very much Chaotic Evil” backers to cheer him on as he… well… let’s just say turns into Chuck Norris in the strip above. Even the previously scared-to-death cleric seems to gain a new level of confidence just from being in the presence of the Belkinator. Not only does he cut through no fewer than ten Guild members, he woos an eleventh and downs a tub of beer (I don’t care what it’s supposed to be, I’m saying it’s beer) like any big-name Hollywood action hero. Rich might even want to be careful about Mary Sue-ization! I can’t help but wonder if part of the cheering for Belkar has come out of a sense that at long last, after upwards of a hundred strips of angst, it’s now fun to read Order of the Stick again – and the slow update schedule until recently hasn’t really hurt.
It’s too bad Belkar’s eventual death has been all but shouted more than a few times over the course of the past couple hundred strips…
(P.S. After my suggesting several times that Vaarsuvius may have de facto kicked Durkon and Elan out of the Order of the Stick, it now occurs to me that perhaps just the opposite has happened, and V in fact kicked him/herself out with Durkon and Elan potentially about to rejoin Haley and Belkar. Which might suggest he/she may be slowly becoming a villain, and also seems to jibe with previous statements indicating V was a last-minute addition to the cast, possibly returning Rich to something closer to his original plans…)