I warned you that once I got going with the OOTS posts, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

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

So it turns out I was wrong, and the title of my last OOTS post was incorrect. He did manage to stop Kubota from getting away.

Couple of points of interest, though. Kubota seems awfully confident. Is it because he sees Elan’s reaction coming, or does he have another plan up his sleeve? Does he plan on killing Hinjo himself once he’s in custody, or does he just feel confident he can beat the magistrate?

(Or… heaven forbid… has he paid off the magistrate?)

Second, Elan actually seems to be slightly upset that Kubota turned himself in, and ultimately gives in to his temptation to punch him in the face.

There’s something to be said about that, something about how close Elan has really gotten to Therkla after really only knowing her for a smattering of strips, something about Elan’s current maturity level and control over his emotions, but it took me too long to write even these words and I don’t know if I had anything to say about it anyway.

Only six more strips until the big 600th episode!

The worst part? He failed at both options.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized Oscar bait.)
If you read OOTS, either run far, far away from this page right now, or click the thumbnail to read the strip before continuing. A spoiler warning is in effect any time I talk OOTS, but it goes double here.

Well, it appears we now know exactly to what extent Therkla’s role in the strip is/was intended to be.

My personal interpretation of events in OOTS is that everything Rich throws in there is there for a reason. That’s why it’s likely Durkon’s one-time flame Hilgya is bound to come back at some point, literally or metaphorically; that’s why I’m half-convinced there has to be some sort of fallout from the Order’s encounter with bandits. And that’s why I have a feeling Kubota’s plots are about to develop in such a way that Elan will find himself really, really wishing he still had Therkla around. I don’t see them burning any sort of resurrection spell on her, given her last wish, and especially with this death scene.

(Well, and given she’d just turned good.)

Well, that or Elan’s encounter with Therkla will lead him to grow distant with Haley if, as appears likely, their reunion is imminent. But I do know there are quite a few people who were awaiting a potential Therkla-Haley catfight who are probably going to be rather disappointed now.

(There is a third option, embodied in the title of the top thread in the OOTS forum just as it went into database backup mode when I checked: “Therkla and Roy?” But the reasons why that’s just wrong are about a mile high… although we could see Haley die and turn out to have the same alignment as Therkla and get into a catfight after all… I’m not honestly suggesting that of course!)

(And then there’s the fourth option that Kubota just left his “fingerprints” on Therkla’s death and left Elan, Kazumi, and Daigo as witnesses… but he doesn’t come across to me as being that dumb, and it would be a kind of tax-evasiony charge to bring Kubota in on, especially as Elan is really the only one who cares about her.)

You know the drill. OOTS fawning ahead. Here there be spoilers.

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

I found a recent comment from Robert Howard that stated that Tangents would take a couple of months to come back in full. Which means I can put up all my other OOTS thoughts while I wait. I’ve added yet another one to the stack, and neither one of the two I was thinking of is the one I want to look at today.

This one concerns the very structure of OOTS that has sprung up recently. At the end of the last book, Rich Burlew split the Order in twain after killing off their fearless leader, and since about #500 the strip has largely consisted of shuttling between the two groups: Vaarsuvius, Elan, and Durkon on the one hand, and Haley, Belkar, and non-member Celia on the other. (Roy’s ghost has popped in once or twice with the latter, though the Oracle of Sunken Valley has been the only living being to see or hear him so far, and we also shuttled over to Team Evil for a spell, and their captive paladin O-Chul.)

Nominally, both branches of the Order have been concerned with reuniting, resurrecting Roy, and continuing their quest to stop Xykon’s evil plot. The former, and thus the latter two as well, has been restricted by a magical spell surrounding Haley and Belkar that only they and Celia know about, coupled with the fact that the only members of the group able to make magical contact with them, or resurrect Roy, are with the other group (while Roy remains with Haley and Belkar).

Haley, Celia, and Belkar have remained largely focused on their goal, although the group dynamics between them have been, in large part, the focus, and the last time we saw them Haley’s past looked to be catching up to her. However, Elan and Durkon, powerless to do anything about the situation, have found themselves distracted by the travails of their hosts, Hinjo and the in-exile government of Azure City, especially the plot against Hinjo by the rogue noble (possibly with otherworldly backing) Kubota. (V has been just the opposite, so focused on trying to find Haley and Belkar it’s caused him/her to do the elvish equivalent of “lose sleep” and grow distant from the rest of the group.)

As a result, the story of this half of the Order has little to do with the overall superplot of the strip at all, and has been, essentially, a self-contained story of its own. It is, essentially, Elan’s story, which is why I was hoping to link the Tangents-derived post to this stage of the story, even though recent strips have cross-cut between the tribulation in the strip above and the battle with a massive demon. Kubota’s top minion, Therkla, has been distracted from her “kill-Hinjo” mission by her growing “feelings” for Elan, which until recently Elan was mostly oblivious to, and Kubota was barely oblivious to. Now that plotline has been building to a climax worthy of a Bond movie, which makes it all the more appropriate that Elan would be at the center of it – and which, especially coupled with the renewed promise the last time we looked at Haley, Celia, and Belkar, pretty strongly suggests the group will reunite at or around #600.

Interestingly, it’s not clear exactly what role Therkla plays in this story. At first glance, she’d appear to be a classic femme fatale, especially since Elan has been an item with Haley since just before the battle over Azure City. However, Elan has never been at risk of turning to the side of evil, or even really being distracted from whatever he needed to do. When Therkla suggested just being together until Haley returned, Elan rejected even that without a second thought (although it’s unclear just how much he’s willing to stick to that position). If anything, it’s been Therkla who seems to have genuinely been drawn, if not exactly to the side of good, at least away from the side of evil, with Elan being the unwitting “femme fatale” in this case – a point driven home when Kubota initially put Therkla in the “him or me” position instead of Elan. In fact, it’s been suggested that Therkla has never even really been evil, but has only been loyal to Kubota for giving her a place where she can fit in. (Therkla’s a half-orc and there’s a long tradition in science fiction and fantasy of half-breeds being rejected by both sides of their lineage.)

This is not the first time Burlew has brought us a story quite this divorced from the overall superplot, which hasn’t really advanced that much since the battle of Azure City. The lengthy bandit episode had little to do with the superplot, as did the starmetal quest that it took up the bulk of. The only real time we had a story quite this divorced from the superplot, at least since the effective start of it, has probably been the last encounter with the Linear Guild, which by and large, Elan also stood at the center of. The foreshadowing of that story, incidentially, started at the very beginning of the starmetal quest and wasn’t resolved until right before #400, a delay of over 250 strips – suggesting it may be a long wait indeed for anything quite so momentous to befall the one thing there’s any real foreshadowing of at the moment, which ironically, would be the next advancement of the superplot. In a sense, it’s stories like these that keep the strip from going “mad”, as it were, with focusing on a single plot it advances above all else, and allows it to keep a little bit of the magic from the Original 42.

For some reason I thought I had already posted this when I hadn’t even added the images.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full sized Common Sense, or lack thereof.)

Well, it’s been over a month since the last time I talked about Order of the Stick at length (and it feels like much longer), and it’s high time for me to revisit the territory. As I’ve stated, OOTS started out as a jokey, funny gag-a-day strip about a bunch of adventurers trawling through a dungeon. It’s now a multilayered political drama, soap opera, and high fantasy tale. In other words, it’s been turned inside out by Cerebus Syndrome, and been about as successful as you could be in doing so, thanks in part to losing none of the humor and metahumor that characterized its early days, and if anything, increasing it.

OOTS even lightly poked fun at its descent into Cerebus Syndrome in this strip, made at a time when Websnark was still king of the webcomics world and still had many of the tics of its height, including the “submitted without comment” routine. For those of you who weren’t here when Sandsday made a blatant push for linkage from the now-mostly-defunct Websnark, I point you to the third panel of this strip. Sure enough, soon there was a comment-filled non-comment from Eric Burns, which contained this doozy: “It was funnier to me since there really isn’t a Cerebus Syndrome going on here, of course.”

A strip makes a joke about its own descent into Cerebus Syndrome when there isn’t one? How does that even make sense? But the first commenter to Burns’ non-comment comment agrees about the lack of Cerebus Syndrome. A later commenter claims “you can’t really start invoking Cerebus when the comic remains consistently and deeply funny” (I’ll have more on this in a sec, but for now I’ll say this seems to imply OOTS still hasn’t fallen into Cerebus Syndrome even now) and compares it to Goats (considering that strip’s descent into fate-of-the-planet-at-stake randomness, probably not the best example, but I’ll check the strips that were out at the time and get bac to you). Even now, if you ask people on the OOTS board when that strip went into Cerebus Syndrome, they’ll probably cite the sequence revealing the Snarl’s existence (a few may alternately cite the introduction of Miko), and the OOTS being tasked to stop Xykon from freeing it, even though if anything that sequence comes at the end of a long transition to a more plot-based model for the strip.

Let’s take another look at the definition of Cerebus Syndrome:

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. […]

It is extremely hard to take a light, joke a day strip and push it through a successful Cerebus Syndrome. Dave Sim did it in stages, and at least in the early days of the transformation brought massive amounts of Funny to cover it over. Done perfectly, one only realizes in hindsight that the strip has turned out to be quite different than it used to be. Done sloppily, the Cerebus Syndrome fails, and the webcomic enters First and Ten Syndrome. Unfortunately, a failed Cerebus Syndrome is an excruciating process for the webcomic’s fans to endure. 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, which increases geometrically the chance to fall into First and Ten.

In the second paragraph quoted above, you could easily substitute out “Dave Sim” for “Rich Burlew”, because that’s exactly what Burlew did with Order of the Stick. There’s a long list of milestones in the march to Cerebus Syndrome taken by OOTS dating at least back to the revelation of the underlying plot in #13, and arguably continuing well after this sequence. Similarly, I suspect part of the reason most people cite the last of these major milestones as the tipping point is that that is the point where these people realized just how far the strip had come from its origins (especially if they weren’t there for those origins and didn’t realize how different they were).

It’s true that the revelation of the Snarl’s existence gave the strip an overarching plot driving all the action and ended about 75 strips of what amounted to aimless wandering, but it’s important to remember that the definition of Cerebus Syndrome says nothing about myth arcs or anything of the sort. It refers only to greater character development or, more colloquially, a general increase in drama and an arc-based model. The former starts appearing at least as early as the opening sequence of the second book, the middle at least as early as Miko’s introduction, and the latter far earlier than either. (And it’s important to remember that Burns specifically notes that a strip need not abandon humor to undergo Cerebus Syndrome.)

Besides, the quest to keep the Snarl imprisoned only really replaced the “hunt down Xykon and kill him” plot of the first book, and by the time it happened it didn’t really mark that seismic a shift. At least as early as Miko’s introduction the specter of Shojo and Azure City was already forming some sort of plot that was promising to carry the OOTS for quite some distance. The first hints of that were laid down at the end of the first book – where, remember, the strip had overturned its entire premise. And by the time the OOTS was brought before the court, Haley was speaking gibberish, the sort of thing that isn’t just a sign of Cerebus Syndrome but a hallmark of the nonstop angst that heralds full-blown First and Ten. And then there’s the little niggling matter of strip #242, where Haley remarks “we were a lot safer when we just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules!” By that point, The Order of the Stick hadn’t “just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules” for some time. A long time.

You want to point out the most important tipping point in Order of the Stick‘s march towards Cerebus Syndrome? The one strip that could best be used to separate the early, happy-go-lucky, almost continuity-free days of the early strips from the more plot-based OOTS we know and love today? The one point that you can point to and say, “This is where The Order of the Stick as we know it truly begins”?

You have to go all the way back to the first book, way before there was even any hint of the Snarl or even of any “gate”. You have to go all the way back to strip number 43.

And I’m not just saying that because I’ve had a fascination with the number 42 since even before I learned of its importance in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It doesn’t look like much, especially if you’re someone used to the sort of strips that characterized the first 42 of OOTS’ existence. But trust me, Elan doesn’t just open the door to the Linear Guild at the end of this strip; he opens the door to plot, to story arcs, to gates and paladins and pseudo-Asian cultures. And Vaarsuvius’ monologue in the middle of the strip proves to be far more prescient, and far broader in scope, than most fans could have ever envisioned.

How pivotal is this strip? By the time all the loose ends are tied up from the ensuing story arc – by the time Durkon, left behind in the inevitable battle with the Linear Guild, finally returns to the group – it is strip number 85. Which means, when dated back to strip number 43, the entire sequence has gone 43 strips. Or just over half of all the strips published to this point. The Linear Guild sequence has lasted longer than the strip’s entire existence prior to it.

There’s a lot in the Linear Guild arc that hints at the strip to come in ways the Original 42 does not, starting with the slower pace of the plot compared to the limited arcs done in the Original 42. Not to mention the existence of some sort of long-form plot. We get some of the early hints of deep characterization (the OOTS were basically two-dimensional characters before the Linear Guild arc gave us such things as Elan’s backstory) and relationships between characters (at least nominally, virtually all of Nale’s actions after the arc concludes derive from a single panel in this strip). We see long-term planning starting to bear fruit, including the realization of a prophecy dating to #15 (which Haley even points out!).

We get the start of multiple ongoing running gags. We get the introduction of not only the group of villains secondary only to Xykon and his minions (at least through the end of the third book), but also Celia, who subsequently reappears to defend the OOTS in front of Shojo in the sequence that introduces us to the Snarl, becomes at least a brief fling for Roy, and is currently adventuring with Haley’s half of the OOTS. Although the art continues to evolve until at least Miko’s introduction, it’s during the Linear Guild arc that the dialogue reaches its current font size. And it’s before those last loose ends are tied up that we learn the deeper motivation for Roy’s hunt for Xykon.

The very next arc involves bypassing the entire rest of the dungeon and cutting straight to Xykon’s lair. That’s V’s plan from the start and, although that attempt doesn’t end well, that’s essentially what ultimately happens. If I was wrong in my initial post – if Rich’s descent into Cerebus Syndrome, as Eric Burns describes in part of his description I didn’t quote, was a result of boredom, not planned from the start (and remember, I own none of the OOTS books with accompanying commentary) – it came either after the original 42, or during or immediately after the Linear Guild episode, through the “bathroom break” of #86-87. The sheer number of subsequent subplots set up in the Linear Guild storyline suggests to me that, if Burlew didn’t decide from the start what he was going to do with his strip, he sure did before completing 43 strips. (And he probably had some idea before completing 15, judging by the long-term nature of Eugene Greenhilt’s prophecy. Even Elan’s recovery of a Belt of Gender-Changing in strip 9 winds up having importance over 200 strips down the road.)

From Rich Burlew’s perspective, I would think that strip 43 is where the transition – in retrospect, shorter and quicker than I let on earlier – from the gag-a-day OOTS of the Original 42 to the arc-based, plot-based strip we know and love really occurs. And from the perspective of someone who was around for those Original 42 strips (which again, I am not) it would have seemed impossible before #43 that in just 80 more strips, the Dungeon of Dorukan would be blown to smithereens and Xykon presumed dead (well, deader than before). And that such an event would not herald the end of the strip.

Even at the time, it would take until the revelation that Xykon still stands to really convince anyone that the end of the strip was not imminent, and until Miko shows up there’s not really much in-story reason for the OOTS to stick together at all. Take a look at this strip, fairly deep into the second book (deep enough that not only is it a wonder the OOTS stuck together long enough to reach the town (remember, I’m not a D&D player), it’s a wonder they’re still together even after reaching there) – Roy’s hunt for the starmetal is the only reason why the Order sticks together after destroying the Dungeon, and Roy’s swift-talking of Belkar and Haley is the only reason they stay in the group. Had it not been for that, the Order may well have never been tasked to stop Xykon from freeing the Snarl.

(Hmm. And Roy’s hunting of the starmetal was caused by Sabine shifted into a blacksmith. The Linear Guild are responsible for keeping the Order of the Stick together! I smell a fourth post brewing…)

Even in the Order’s subsequent relatively aimless wandering, no one would mistake it for being a gag-a-day strip, and in fact there are next to no “fairly obvious jokes about the rules” at all. The strip is fairly tightly organized into arcs, with a good part of the strip between the Order’s departure and Miko’s arrival taken up by the Order’s encounter with a group of bandits. There are also two semi-lengthy interludes involving Team Evil that help to establish their plot, one before the bandit arc and one, as previously mentioned, between the recovery of the starmetal and Miko’s arrival.

I mentioned some of the points in this post the last time I wrote a lengthy post on Order of the Stick. I mentioned how OOTS managed to overthrow its entire premise by the time the first book was over, and how it managed to keep going thanks to a strong balance of a compelling story and funny jokes. This, then, is something of an expansion of that post, showing just how early Order of the Stick started its metamorphosis into the rich, multilayered strip it is today, and both how much more sudden and more gradual that transformation was. And it ends, as I tend to, with a whimper because I always have trouble wrapping these posts up.

So I’ll see you in another month with an analysis of another aspect of OOTS.

Now THIS is how you pimp your book!

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

If I commented every time OOTS moved me to comment on a strip you could use my webcomic label to find out whenever there was a new strip, so I try to shy away from doing that.

But the last two panels of this strip? I’m going to reiterate what I said on the strip’s forums: Best. Recap strip. EVER.

Also, while I’m here, I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on a tendency I’ve noticed on the OOTS forums to treat the events of the two prequel books, especially the more recent and more revolutionary (for lack of a better word) Start of Darkness, as virtually common knowledge. Granted, part of that is me looking at the spoiler tags that contain the prequel-rooted information, but many people seem (or at least seemed in the past) to base predictions on the events of the prequel books, while forgetting that Rich is on record as saying the prequels are not necessary to enjoy the overall story.

In that context, I’d like to take a brief look at the previous strip, and suggest that Rich may have erred, “prequels not necessary to enjoy the story” or otherwise. The cliffhanger only really has resonance for someone who has read On the Origin of PCs or has had relevant parts already spoiled for him or her. For someone in neither category, they may be able to infer that the Thieves’ Guild is bad news and may even be able to draw a connection to Haley from the accompanying caption, but that’s probably too much thought to really go “dun dun DUN!!!”

Still, for this bounce-back? If the Eric Burns of 2004-2006 were here, he’d give this man a biscuit of some virtual variety.

Whoops, I forgot to include a title for this post!

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

Skip this post if you’re not any more familiar with OOTS than what I wrote in my initial post, for both spoilers and geekiness.

There are only two reasons I’m writing this post; if either weren’t in place, I wouldn’t write it. The first is that the forums are down as Giant in the Playground moves to a new server. The second is Celia’s line in the third panel.

Two strips ago, a discussion broke out in the GiantITP.com forums over whether or not Celia knew Belkar was in the cart or not. The general consensus, and my personal opinion, was that she did. Belkar’s last line – “If we make any noise, the magical Cart Fairy might not take us on the enchanted trip to Happy Fun Sunshine Land” – was interpreted as meaning “Celia wants us on our best behavior”, not “Celia doesn’t know we’re here”. In fact I think some people hadn’t even considered that Celia might not know Belkar was in there, despite it being consistent with her sometimes-ditzy and naive personality and hatred of Belkar.

The main reason was that Belkar appears to be so sick it’s hard to believe he’d be able to make it into the cart under his own power. More to the point, so far as the three of them know, Belkar still has to stay within the bounds of the Mark of Justice, which means he still has to stay within a mile of Roy’s body (and in that context, the sign in 573’s penultimate panel, “Greysky City one mile”, takes on a certain importance in hindsight). Also, Celia mentions finding “clerics”, which are only strictly necessary (so far as they are concerned) for curing Belkar (although raising Roy would require a cleric of some sort; so far as they know, they can conceivably cure Belkar without a cleric). Keep in mind the original point of the expedition was to find someone capable of contacting the other half of the Order, and only secondarily to bring Roy back to life.

Well, now we know that Celia didn’t know Belkar was there after all.

I’m saying this now so I can plausibly avoid the self-flaggelation the rest of the forums will undergo once they come back up. And if this sounds weak, well, it’s partly because I don’t have the forums to look up what the strongest reasons really were. Not that I would want to go there, of course.

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…