(From The Order Of The Stick. Click for full-sized protected speech.)

OOTS fans are known (at least among their own kind) for how speculation-happy they are, so it’s a rare treat when Rich manages to pull a twist that catches everyone off-guard.

Simply put, no one expected Zz’dtri to come back after Vaarsuvius called him out for being a Drizzt clone. It wasn’t exactly death, but considering how easy that is to fix in this world, getting taken away by copyright lawyers may well have been a bigger guarantee he’d never come back.

This, of course, raises a horde of questions, not least of them concerning Zz’dtri’s chronology during the intervening time, how recently he’s shacked back up with Nale, and other such questions. One rather intriguing avenue it opens up was pointed out by a forum member who matched the aura on the mysterious scrying eye with Zz’dtri’s.

It also shows just how much Rich’s art has changed over the years. Compare the detailing on Zz’dtri’s robe and cape in this strip with that in his last appearance. Although there have been a few times when art changes have been sizable enough to be pointed out, they haven’t been anywhere near as jarring as we see with a character that hasn’t been seen in over 700 strips.

(Although that doesn’t quite apply to the new hairstyle, which I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to…)

Rich Burlew will NOT be upstaged by some random Australian guy!

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

Dammit, Rich, stop confirming wild forum theories, you just encourage more and wilder theories.

As with “the white-haired guy in prison is really Ian“, I’d dismissed the theories proposing that the “champion” Roy had to face in the arena was actually Thog – half the time I had thought they were actually joking. But actually going this route raises some interesting questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I had every expectation the Linear Guild would show up in this arc at some point – I just wasn’t sure how. The only way I could think of seemed too contrived, as though they’d arrive like a deus ex machina out of nowhere at a random point. Now, however, they’re present in the minds of the OOTS before they’re present physically. Simply put, this was not supposed to happen.

Although the Guild escaped in the middle of the Battle of Azure City, no one except themselves (and their secret allies) knew of it. Elan even told the Empress of Blood’s court that Nale was dead. Now, if Thog is not only alive, but just a few feet in front of them, it stands to reason that Nale and Sabine survived the destruction of Azure City’s castle as well, and that should get the minds of the Order members spinning.

One of the first things they’ll do is ask a lot of questions of Tarquin. Thog was already part of the Guild when Nale fought his father, and if any OOTS member got a good enough look at the Wanted poster that got them in this mess, they’d know that. That means Tarquin has had a known associate of Nale’s in his possession for, by the forumites’ calculations, 9 months. How aware was he of that? Is there a particular reason Tarquin has kept him alive so long? Does he know whether Nale or Sabine are around as well? Did Elan convince him that Nale wasn’t with Thog anymore, or did his claim that Nale was dead only make Tarquin more suspicious?

In any event, once it turns out that Nale is, in fact, alive, something tells me the OOTS will have some hell to pay…

One problem with the multi-comic setup: The only major development since my last post has been Fireballs explaining the situation with Me, who then got recruited by the Halley-Newton group. Oh, and Shakespeare got involved.

(From Irregular Webcomic! Click for full-sized potato salad.)

Few webcomics have the balls to spring a twist so huge on their audience it forces them to reassess everything they’ve been through before.

So give some credit to Irregular Webcomic! and its Cliffhangers theme, which used the occasion of its 3000th comic to drop an absolute bombshell on its audience: Erwin, the bumbling Nazi straight man to Haken’s Col. Klink-esque military commander, has been working for the other side the whole time.

I’ll admit, the reveal didn’t have the impact for me it probably should have at first, because the source was Ginny (also now revealed to be his wife), who hasn’t exactly come across as trustworthy in the past. But this comic, which features a past Erwin springing from jail and explaining his backstory to the 80s Mythbusters, suggests that at the very least it should be taken seriously at the moment (you never can tell with Nazis), which works out to be a surprisingly interesting, if relatively obvious, twist on the old trope of the bumbling recurring villains. I imagine either comic probably caused a good chunk of IWC readers to look back at all of Erwin’s previous appearances looking for clues and contradictions – and it’s worth noting that his blurb on the cast page says that he “restricts his individual thoughts to making scathing social commentaries on Nazi policies”. And that Morgan-Mar has teased an Erwin/Ginny relationship before.

Well played, Mr. Morgan-Mar (even if he won’t see this until next month). Well played.

Catching up with sports graphics in the NFL and more

Well, if I put this off any longer than I already have, I’ll have to include baseball graphics and that means dealing with MLB Advanced Media not knowing how the Internet works, so:

Back in 2003, Fox introduced something new to their NFL score banner: rather than represent teams with abbreviations, Fox represented them solely with the teams’ logos. I fell in love with it immediately: abbreviations are arbitrary, cooked up solely for the benefit of graphics packages, while the logos introduced a sublime simplicity to Fox’s graphic. I’ve continued to go logo-only in my own fantasies ever since.

Sadly, Fox got cold feet – I guess they got complaints that people who weren’t familiar with NFL logos were getting confused – and dropped the logos during the playoffs, replacing them with these ugly abbreviations that were obviously slapped on in place of something else. In 2004, Fox used abbreviations alongside the logos on what was fundamentally the same graphic, and after that Fox stopped using logos as a permanent element of the graphic entirely. Fox would continue to evoke the logo graphic for years by having team logos appear in place of the abbreviation when the banner first comes onto the screen.

For a while, it seemed as though that would be it for using logos and relegating abbreviations to the dustbin of history (or updates on games you’re not watching). But then a funny thing happened: the NFL Network started using logos alone, and did so in two different incarnations for years. And now, in 2010, apparently the NFL Network’s success has convinced Fox to return to using the logo-only approach. In fact, they arguably take it too far; only the logos are shown even when going to break, providing no opportunity for newcomers to associate a logo with a team.

Fox also shows the potential of designing graphics with the timeout indicators in mind from the start, even to the point of turning the timeout indicators into Christmas lights during the holidays. If I had a problem, it’s with how awkward the graphic is arranged, with the logos on top of the scores and the scores arranged lengthwise.

Ironically, NFL Network decided to incorporate abbreviations into their graphic at the same time. This graphic isn’t much different from graphics I’ve made on my own time, so I can’t complain too much about it, even the excessive space between teams’ scores I’ve called the Portland Trail Blazers out for in the past. One spiffy new feature is that the indicator of which team has the ball also shows the direction the team is moving down the field (though that just makes the on-field down-and-distance indicator that much more redundant). On the downside, the timeout indicators are still on a tab slapped on to the graphic, though it’s a much less jarring tab than on NFL Network’s previous graphic, and down-and-distance and statistics feel almost as slapped on.

Still, with Fox’s new graphic and ESPN’s changes to its existing graphic, all of the NFL’s TV partners now use logos in their graphics, though CBS’s logos still look awkward. ESPN removed the “MNF” from their graphic and instead replaced the “40th Season” in the down-and-distance area with the same “MNF” wordmark. They used the space they saved from removing the “MNF” to add logos to the team names. Later in the season, they increased the font size of the time left, the down and distance, and the stat line, which I found jarring, and its inconsistent application gave away that the graphic wasn’t designed for it.

This move pretty much doomed the fate of the way ESPN’s new scoreline had previously popped itself in, with the “ESPN” sliding into its box and opening up to reveal the rest of the scoreline, which had been complemented with “MNF” doing the same thing. Now the whole scoreline “zooms in” to view. It’s not too bad for MNF, where the scoreline now pops in as a black field saying just “ESPN MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL” and then turns into the rest of the scoreline. But in other sports it just looks amateur. While I prefer turning the colored box into a triangle for college football to what they did during last year’s bowl season, the way the box pops onto the screen leaves a little to be desired.

Other than my continuing issues with the timeout indicators, I don’t really have an issue with ESPN’s new college basketball graphic.

On the other hand, ESPN has become the only NBA TV partner to have timeout indicators on their NBA graphics as well. One wonders if this is their way to continue their streak of having a different graphic for every NBA Finals.

For a while I wondered if Fox was going to go the way of Turner, and have a different graphic for every sport – their old graphic for NASCAR, their new graphic for the NFL, and an FSN-inspired graphic for baseball. I was proven wrong when both Fox and SPEED went with graphics inspired by Fox’s NFL graphics for NASCAR. My biggest problem is that the little pods for the cars in the running order look bulky, and call to mind the problems I’ve long had with ESPN’s current NASCAR graphics, even though Fox doesn’t try to cram intervals or other stats onto the same line.

Turner, meanwhile, introduced a new graphic for its NBA broadcasts, fixing the problems with their last abomination. In fact this version arguably outdoes ESPN on their idea to try to cram all graphics into the same two lines at the bottom of the screen, bringing out the advantages of that approach like nothing I’ve seen before. If I have a quibble, it’s the distracting way team logos appear whenever someone scores, which mirrors a general graphic theme that appears for highlight packages and the like. It’s a neat idea to try to de-genericize the score graphic, but still.

In fact, Turner may be moving towards graphic standardization, if the CBS/Turner graphics for March Madness are anything to go by. These graphics are a rather jarring change from the graphics CBS uses during the regular season (although some of the fonts are reminicent of the graphics package used by CBS before the current one), and contributes to the sense that Turner has taken over the tournament and nicely let CBS play with them. (However, overall the tournament keeps enough of a CBS sense that I really don’t get the synergy with “Inside the NBA” from Kenny and Charles’ presence in the studio that was intended, or from the presence of other TNT NBA personnel calling games, except maybe Reggie Miller alongside Gus Johnson at the regional semifinals.) The graphic is rather odd, but servicable, and my lack of problem with the timeout indicators may be a sign I’m growing resigned to the fact of iffy incorporation of them.

It’ll be interesting to see if similar changes are coming to Turner’s coverage of NASCAR and baseball.

Comcast, meanwhile, whipped out Versus’ new college football graphics, which are about as expected. If you’re going to put timeout indicators on a tab, you could do worse than what Versus did.

Comcast also introduced new graphics for Comcast SportsNet, rolling out a new standard for those networks that uses a shape once favored by ESPN. Thank God, too, because it means the graphics that made TNT’s look good on basketball are gone.

However, the hockey graphic looks a little amateur, especially with the way the team logos can sometimes disappear and reappear.

I’ve already seen the implementation of this graphic for baseball, but I won’t show it to you until I’m ready to deal with that can of worms. How the Comcast-NBC merger affects these graphics remains to be seen, but it has already affected one graphics package. NBC’s golf coverage has adopted the Golf Channel graphics and been rebranded “Golf Channel on NBC”.

They’re at least marginally better than what Golf Channel had before, enough that I can actually buy them being on a broadcast network, though it’s still a jarring change from NBC’s other graphics. It’ll be interesting to see how these look come the US Open.

A word of praise for the Sacramento Kings for trying something different – something I honestly had expected to see first in the NFL. Their new graphic uses team names – and not just team names, but team names taken from the teams’ jerseys. It’s barely noticable, so here’s hoping other networks (probably Fox or Turner) pick up on the trend.

By the way, NBA TV’s graphics are much less FSN-inspired than the last time I checked.

If you’re wondering, FSN is not going to a banner for all sports, instead adopting the most slapped-on timeout indicators possible for football. Check out the on-field down-and-distance that’s basically a cheap version of what Fox used for the NFL last year.

Finally, I don’t get ESPN’s rollout schedule for its new graphics. They still aren’t on tennis or NASCAR (tennis will probably get them for Wimbledon, NASCAR maybe by the time ESPN takes over the Sprint Cup schedule, but NASCAR in particular is still mystifying), but they are on MLS broadcasts and college lacrosse (which uses a variant of the college football graphic – and I should mention that college hockey doesn’t have these yet either). MLS has introduced us to a new variation of the graphic.

At the very end of the video, the graphic pops out of existence in a unique manner, a variant of how it pops in. I’m very impressed; I’d like to see that be the way it pops in and out for other sports. (I’m also seeing a trend reflected in this graphic regarding new implementations of ESPN’s new graphics package, but I’ll save that for next time.)