From a revolution breaking down borders between mediums to a specific work that singlehandedly broke down others.

"Homestuck has now become an anime" in more ways than one: this ending is certainly reminiscent of certain animes TV Tropes has informed me about, but that's not necessarily a good thing.(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized THE END.)

On April 10th, 2009, Andrew Hussie began work on Homestuck, the fourth story on his MS Paint Adventures site, after having concluded a year working on Problem Sleuth, which built from humble and rather silly beginnings to an epic conflagration and turned MSPA into a minor Internet phenomenon, which also had the effect of making him less someone who sent his stories into random directions based on people’s input and more someone who used that input to help spur the story in the direction he wanted. With Homestuck he had a story where the directions he wanted to take it were largely set from the start, and he had much grander ambitions for this story, intending to use Flash to underlie the whole thing. That turned out to be much more than he could really chew, and three days later he started the story over using regular GIFs, but nonetheless Homestuck proved to dwarf PS in its ambition and in the ways it bent the boundaries of media, and within two years it dwarfed PS in popularity as well, becoming far more popular than Hussie could have ever imagined, indeed a phenomenon perhaps unparalleled in the history of the Internet, with “Homestucks” practically taking over cons dressed up as a class of characters Hussie hadn’t even thought of when the story started.

It was in this context that I took note of how ridiculous a phenomenon Homestuck had become and decided I owed it to myself to read and review it. While I certainly found it a good comic, I didn’t see what made it such a huge phenomenon, but I was still willing to stick it out through the end of Act 5, which was just a few months away. Of course, those few months were enough to drag me so inexorably into Homestuck‘s spell that it became impossible to escape, and I continued to plow through with the comic as it continued into Act 6 (in part because no other webcomic reviewers were doing so). Even though I never quite embraced it to the degree of its biggest fans, never getting involved with Homestuck fandom the way I have with, say, The Order of the Stick, nonetheless I still waited with baited breath to see where the story was going. In October 2011, when the conclusion to Act 5 almost literally broke the Internet, there was no doubt that Homestuck was just revving into the last push towards its ultimate climax, and with how epic Act 5 had been, everyone was on the edge of their seats waiting to see just how mind-blowing Act 6 would be, what sort of climax Hussie could give a story that had somehow transcended the meaning of story.

Last night, seven years after it started, Homestuck finally came to an end (well, sort of – more on that later), and although Gary “Fleen” Tyrell (who never even really read Act 5, the act that created the Homestuck phenomenon) has a postmortem that treats it as though it’s the ending of the phenomenon it was, for those actually invested in the comic, the feeling is decidedly more of a letdown and the experience decidedly less shared than it was four or five years ago.

It’s hard to figure out where to begin articulating what went wrong, but let’s start with this: Maybe a year or so after I started reading Homestuck, I sat down and plowed my way through Problem Sleuth, after having an earlier false start. I was able to laugh at and enjoy its particular brand of absurdist humor well enough, even sort of understand it on its own terms at first. The big problem with it was that the entire last half was devoted to a long, drawn-out fight against the final boss, Demon Mobster Kingpin, that just consisted of one “awesome” RPG attack after another, interspersed with confusing plans to weaken him that took too long to play out when they didn’t end up being complete duds along with pointless sidetracks, and it just became a tedious slog to get through as I just waited for it to end already.

In many ways, Homestuck has the opposite problem as Problem Sleuth. The set-up and eventual payoff for the final battle was clunky and rushed, and ultimately failed to answer many of the questions still hanging over the comic’s head. Indeed, the final flash has Homestuck‘s own version of DMK, Lord English, at best implied to be defeated, and it’s far from clear exactly how, and you can only come to the conclusion that the main characters of the comic were even involved in his defeat at all based on an earlier spell of exposition that had considerable room for interpretation and remains one of the bigger unexplained points.

Homestuck did have a similar problem to Problem Sleuth in this sense: Act 6, which Hussie initially claimed wouldn’t be as long as Act 5, then admitted “could be close”, ended up being twice as long as Act 5, and half the entire length of the comic, in terms of number of pages, but because Hussie started taking numerous increasingly-lengthy hiatuses starting with the long wait for Act 5’s concluding flash (in retrospect Homestuck‘s high point in many ways), including one that lasted a full year, took even longer than that to play out compared to the two and a half years of the first five acts. Throughout the first four acts of Act 6 (which still managed to fit in Act 6’s first year), I complained that the new, post-Scratch kids it introduced us to, with the possible exception of Roxy, gave us very little reason to care about them as much as the kids and trolls we had grown accustomed to in the first five acts, though possibly they faced an uphill climb to begin with getting me and the fans to be less impatient for the intermissions within Act 6 where we could catch up on the more familiar characters. I also became increasingly exasperated with how much time the comic seemed to be wasting on romantic subplots and other frivolities and that all of Act 6 was little more than a waiting game waiting for the familiar characters to show up so we could actually pick up where Act 5 left off, while Hussie wasted our time exploring the cool concept he’d been waiting all of Act 5 to show us and that, I feared, he’d unnaturally bent his story to accomodate, with any actual plot advancement (and any reason for me not to bail on the comic in the meantime) limited to what we learned about Lord English (and to a lesser extent the Condesce) in the meantime.

And yet, it was after the familiar kids and trolls showed up that the real problem with Act 6 and the conclusion to Homestuck became apparent.

Like Act 6 itself, Act 6 Act 6 is divided into six sub-acts, and this time all the plot advancement is shunted into the intermissions while Caliborn, Lord English’s younger self, hijacks the narrative for the first five of those sub-acts, and badly damages the cartridge containing the actual plot of A6A6 resulting in numerous glitches in the intermissions. The middle three of those intermissions are where the problem lies. In Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 2, Aranea, the pre-Scratch version of Vriska’s ancestor, uses Gamzee to steal a ring John accidentally took with him out of the dream bubbles and that can bring one person back to life, that being Aranea herself, and begins to carry out a plan to wreck the session beyond repair and then use her powers to heal the resulting doomed timeline and make it the alpha, effectively preventing Lord English from ever being born to begin with by preventing the creation of his universe. The rest of the intermission lays out the chain of events resulting from that and setting up the flash that ends A6A6A3 and makes up most of A6A6I3, where almost all the characters we’ve grown accustomed to die, but Aranea is no more successful at her plan, as the Condesce rips the ring off her finger and kills her for good. That leaves it to John, in A6A6I4, to put the timeline back on track.

In A6I5, after Vriska and her ghost army find the treasure she’d been looking for, a glowing Sburb logo, John stuck his hand into it, which popped into numerous events over the course of the comic, before he became fuzzy and popped in and out of more events throughout the comic’s history before finally arriving in the new session. He continues to glitch in and out from place to place throughout A6A6I1, demonstrating an ability to become “unstuck in canon” and accidentally cause a doomed timeline or avert one (as well as immunity to the glitches), but unable to control when or where he zaps in or out. Even as things go to shit in A6A6I2, however, he doesn’t show up again until he challenges Caliborn in A6A6A3, and only at the end of A6A6I3 does he show up and see the carnage that’s been wreaked. After talking with the only two characters left alive, Roxy and a dying Terezi, John is motivated to go visit his denizen in hopes of controlling his newfound power once and for all, which results in more Easter eggs being sprinkled throughout the comic in the form of the oil that had been covering John’s planet to this point and that Typheus attempts to drown him with, and in John fulfilling his personal quest by playing the organ at the heart of Typheus’ lair, clearing out the clouds enveloping the planet and fixing the damage to the cartridge. The fixes he proceeds to carry out aren’t limited to grabbing the ring before Gamzee or Aranea can; with Terezi setting his agenda, he makes his presence felt in various places in Terezi’s past, some of them seemingly immaterial, others tipping her off to Gamzee’s role in the late-act-5 murder spree, but ultimately leading up to knocking out Vriska before she could take on Noir or Terezi could kill her in that confrontation towards the end of Act 5, allowing her to survive and travel with the meteor crew to the new session.

There are all sorts of problems with this development. For one thing, a pretty good case could be made that there was no other way for Vriska’s story arc in Act 5 to end than with her death, even with her ghost’s attempts to get back involved in the story in Act 6, so undoing that arguably cheapens her entire story arc. If there were any evidence that she’d learned from her near-death experience and found a way to contribute more productively to her comrade’s efforts, that might have been an acceptable substitute, but from what we see of her afterwards she’s as much of an asshole as ever, even going so far as to shame her own ghost to tears. Yet we’re led to believe that her mere presence on the meteor magically solves all the problems everyone on the meteor had and made everyone hunky-dory and well-adjusted by the time they showed up in the new session. Vriska was already one of the most polarizing characters in all of webcomics and the subject of numerous jokes both in and out of comic about Hussie marrying her; this seemed to have the effect of turning her into a complete Mary Sue. Combined with the post-retcon version of Jade having to spend most of her journey to the new session alone after John and Davesprite perished to make room for our John, it effectively means that everything in anything labeled as an intermission to this point in Act 6 – in other words, everything we actually liked about it – that didn’t involve John, Caliborn, or ghosts didn’t happen, at least not in the way originally chronicled, making all of Act 6 to this point even more of a waste of time. But in theory, it shouldn’t have affected the post-Scratch kids until the point the pre-Scratch ones entered the session and shouldn’t have affected the cherubs at all, yet both of them had numerous intersection points with the pre-retcon kids and trolls and were tightly synced with each other, raising numerous unnecessary and unexplained contradictions.

In a somewhat more minor way but perhaps most relevantly for our purposes, by wasting three whole Act 6 Act 6 intermissions on setting this up and carrying this out, Hussie left himself a grand total of one intermission to get us better acquainted with the post-retcon versions of the characters and set up and carry out the actual final battle, leaving himself a tall order to get us as invested in these characters and this timeline as we did with the one we followed for most of Act 6, and he attempted to do so with incredibly clunky, unnatural, exposition-laden dialogue that’s the complete antithesis of what people liked about the first five acts of Homestuck, which is why we know so little about what post-retcon Vriska is actually like. The result is that Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 5 reads more like a fanfic than the actual conclusion to the story, right down to wasting time teasing ships but not having enough time to actually do anything with them. Hussie has a penchant for mind-bending time shenanigans, being infuriatingly coy with details of the story and other important information, writing by the seat of his pants, and just plain trolling the readership, but in this case it had the effect of coming at the expense of good, sound storytelling. Hussie had to carry out the final battle with what effectively amounted to a brand new cast of characters and had to spend more time getting us acquainted with these characters and less time actually tying up loose ends, paying off foreshadowing (not that he’d been all that diligent about paying off foreshadowing earlier in Act 6), or creating a compelling climax. All by (arguably) derailing a character to serve as his agent to write himself into enough of a corner to justify bringing back another character whose role in the final battle, as it turns out, is exactly the same as what her ghost had been planning anyway!

There’s so much left unanswered by this conclusion, even about this conclusion, and it ultimately serves as a serious black mark on Homestuck as a whole. As the end neared I took the position that Hussie was likely to leave more unanswered or dismissed as unimportant than some of the more over-analytical fans thought, but I was still left stunned by how much remains unaddressed. It’s hard to tell exactly how Lord English gets defeated, other than that the most important character to it is someone who barely interacted with the other characters beforehand and even less in a way with any relevance to the conclusion. What’s the full solution to the Ultimate Riddle? Where did those kids who took on Caliborn, inadvertently put the finishing touches on Lord English, and ended up populating the house juju in A6A6A5 come from? What’s life like for our heroes in the new universe? What happens with the trolls, since Roxy recreated the Matriorb and Kanaya told Karkat he was needed to be the new trolls’ leader? What about Vriska and all the ghosts, what happens to them going forward? Why did we even see Caliborn break his clock at this point considering he’s not a proper protagonist and is in fact the main antagonist?

I don’t know for sure quite where Hussie went wrong, where he lost the magic touch that made Homestuck such a phenomenon in the first five acts. But something tells me it’s related to how long Act 6 took both in terms of number of pages and in terms of time. By wasting so much time on brand-new characters that could never have been made as compelling as the ones we were familiar with, especially when they were used more to shine light on the character of our antagonists than themselves, Hussie lost the connection to the characters we were familiar with, and by not only destroying the old session but forcing the pre-Scratch kids and trolls to wander through the void for three years before arriving in the new one, when everything that took place in the first five acts happened in just over twenty-four hours for the kids, he made the connection between the final battle and the rest of the story that much more tenuous even for the characters themselves. Those are the storytelling errors. But for the last two sub-acts of Act 6, a little over a quarter of the story’s total pages, to take half the total amount of time to play out, indeed for the last quarter to take three whole years to come out, we need to take a closer look at Hussie’s real-world decision making. Although the end of Act 5 was billed as the pinnacle of effort and production value Hussie was likely to put into the story, Hussie’s general trend of continually raising the stakes and topping himself meant that continuous pauses may have been in retrospect inevitable. But to explain just how prominent they became in the back end of Homestuck‘s run, we need to take a closer look at the factors sapping Hussie’s attention.

In retrospect, the beginning of the end of Hussie’s ability to even maintain the quality Homestuck had in early Act 6 was the Kickstarter for a Homestuck adventure game held in the summer of 2012. Hussie now had to divide his time between working on the game and working on the comic, and as time went on and the challenges associated with the game mounted, the comic suffered and took a backseat. Not all of those challenges were necessarily avoidable: though nothing was made clear publicly for legal reasons, meaning the full story may never be known, as far as the fandom has been able to piece together the studio Hussie originally hired to work on the game took the Kickstarter money and used it to work on an unrelated game, forcing Hussie to try to recover whatever he could of the money early in the year-long pause and start his own studio to work on the game. But at that point, it would have been clear both that Hiveswap would not be able to be finished before the end of the comic no matter what, regardless of what had been promised in the Kickstarter, and that it would demand a lot more of Hussie’s attention than he had in mind. I can understand the mindset that Hiveswap would actually be making money for Hussie’s business and Homestuck would not do so to the same extent, but the fanbase was waiting on pins and needled to see how Homestuck ended, while Hiveswap would be little more than a hypothetical until it came out. The best thing Hussie could do to maintain goodwill with the fans would be to focus on finishing Homestuck before turning his attention to the game.

But throughout Act 6, it became increasingly apparent that Hussie just was no longer that interested in Homestuck, which he originally intended to last no longer than the single year Problem Sleuth did, was perhaps even more impatient with its fans (increasingly devoting even the intermissions to self-aggrandizement and sticking it to his own fanbase), and just wanted to get it over with. For the first five acts, maybe even some distance into Act 6, Homestuck may well have been the incredibly dense yet satisfying work that, as Tyrell says, could be the subject of a fruitful graduate thesis, but as Act 6 went along it became much more shallow and inferior, much less rewarding or even consistent. It’s especially painful for me to read because I’ve actually gotten increasingly involved in a corner of the fandom that involves reliving the comic over and over, especially the early, good acts, and it’s such a letdown to go from that to how Hussie wound it up. The Hussie who wrote A6A6I5 onwards, if not before that, comes off as a Hussie that is finishing the story more out of a sense of obligation than anything else, just to get the fans off his back about finishing Homestuck (and get the monkey of leaving Homestuck unfinished off his own back) so he can concentrate on the game. I’m not all that confident Hussie even remembered all the loose ends he didn’t tie up or how he planned to do so, he was working on such a remove from the parts of the story he was actually invested in. The “edit” to the concluding newspost seems to confirm that, even with yet another lengthy pause leading up to it and virtually the entire ending consisting of guest art, Hussie had to rush to get everything put together in time, both making us wonder what got left out because of the time crunch and suggesting just how little Hussie wanted to do with Homestuck at this point.

The main thrust of that edit is to suggest that, at some point, when Hussie’s not working on as much of a time crunch, he might work on an epilogue to the story that might finally tie up some of the loose ends left untied. Unlike much of the fanbase that I suspect is desperate to salvage something from this ending, I don’t read it as him definitively committing to it. So at best, even now, even though Homestuck‘s “ended” it hasn’t really ended and we’re now sitting through another pause of indeterminate length waiting to actually get the closure we’re looking for, assuming Hussie hasn’t just begun stringing us along with false hope just to prevent the fanbase completely revolting over this ending – and even if he does eventually provide an epilogue, unlike PS‘s, it’s still likely to suffer because even in the best case, many of the loose ends it’ll tie up really should have been tied up before the climax, if it weren’t for the storytelling errors, skewed priorities, and other factors that left Homestuck with an ending far inferior to what Tyrell thinks it is and what the phenomenon it was in its first five acts really deserves. Homestuck could have gone down as the Citizen Kane of webcomics, as I suggested when the Kickstarter hit, but ultimately, what Tyrell’s post serves to demonstrate is how much it may well go down as the biggest disappointment and missed opportunity in webcomics history.

Despite its ostensible importance, I’m honestly not sure if this plotline actually served any purpose other than whatever happens in the next strip. Not complaining, yet.

Nothing the gods have said has contradicted anything Shojo told the OOTS - which considering they seem to be talking mostly with each other, probably suggests most of what we learned about their dealings, at least, is true.(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized dynamic entry.)

For the past couple months-plus Homestuck has been the main thing distracting me from getting any work done on the book or other things that might actually be productive… so naturally my triumphant return to webcomics posts involves OOTS.

When Rich Burlew signaled that anyone tired of the constant internal strife between Durkon and his vampiric doppelganger “would be in for a rough 2015”, I let my reading of OOTS come to a stop. Not because that struggle was bad per se, though it certainly was dominating the early comics of the sixth book and seemed clunkily-written and cringe-inducing at times, but because of the same problem I had with Gunnerkrigg Court: I could not handle the high drama and emotional torque of the plotline. Rich seems to have made a tradition of ramping up OOTS‘ Cerebus Syndrome even more than it already was on a regular basis; when Haley and V dropped an oblique reference to it back in Book 2 it sparked surprise on Websnark, the site that gave birth to the term, because OOTS supposedly had never gone through it, but an honest accounting of the strip’s drama levels shows that it had indeed gone through it as early as the 43rd comic – which didn’t stop it from going through it “for real” at the end of the book with the revelation of the gate plotline. Book 5’s length seems to be partly Rich’s way of signalling that the plot really was getting down to business at this point in a way it hadn’t even in Book 3 (in retrospect OOTS‘ Golden Age), but the Durkula plotline seemed to mark the point at which OOTS did what once was unthinkable, the thing that once prevented Websnark from declaring it to have gone down the path of Cerebus Syndrome: the point where OOTS‘ dramatic aspects began to push out its comedic ones.

What I didn’t anticipate was that Durkon’s plot would be the very first proper plot point in Book 6, and it would only take most of 2015 to get to this point because of Rich’s excruciatingly slow update schedule of late, coupled with a side-plot tying up Haley’s loose end with the Thieves’ Guild. Now barely 50 strips into the book, Hel has achieved the goal she hijacked Durkon’s body for – and Roy has finally figured out how badly he’s been played.

Although Rich paid a lot more attention to the advent of the 1000th strip than the multiples of 100 that passed in the last book, the real impact is still to come. There is, of course, no way Rich will allow the vote to go as it stands and have the world be destroyed when he’s less than half the first book’s length into the sixth. But the main other way for the plot to be resolved – for Roy (and possibly a dramatic entrance from Belkar) to finish Durkon off – also seems like it’s happening a little early in the entire plotline of the series, let alone the book, especially when the end of Book 5 and all of Book 6 so far have given the impression Durkon’s internal struggle would be the main underlying plotline of the book (in fact, there’s not much sense so far of where the plot will go from here, assuming there’s still at least one more book after this). Moreover, you get the sense Durkon’s plot isn’t over either; he had to have some idea that by dragging Roy here he’d tip him off to what his true nature was, and that Roy wouldn’t just stand by and let them carry out their plot. If you look in the last panel, he and Hel are both smirking as Roy swoops down into the chamber, giving the sense that Roy taking on Durkon was part of their plan all along. Perhaps they figure there’s no way Roy (and maybe even Roy and Belkar together) are a match for a high-level spellcaster with vampiric powers (if V were in the room with them it might be another matter) – indeed there’s a disturbingly-good chance that now is when Belkar’s long-awaited death prophecy kicks in (which is fitting considering the last time it was teased, it ended in the resolution of Durkon‘s death prophecy that started this whole mess to begin with). Or more likely, they figure Roy’s little escapade will effectively swing the vote in their favor anyway because of some obscure violation of the rules of this little convocation.

Thinking about it, I almost think the most likely way for this to be resolved (other than Hel being wrong about how the demigods vote) is for the real Durkon to wrench control back of his body at a critical moment – perhaps spurred on by Roy realizing his plight at some point and giving him some encouraging words – and nullifying Hel’s vote by switching his allegiance back to Thor at least long enough for the result to be made official (although given what’s been hinted before I’m not sure that’s even possible). This is especially the case when one considers the Order’s divine casting situation; Durkula roped Roy into this plot to begin with by noting that the team would need more divine power than he could provide in his vampirized state, and no matter what else for them to simply lose Durkon right now would probably make them too weak at the worst possible moment. While bringing some of the assembled clerics with them to Kraagor’s Gate is an option (one Roy has already made some progress on), a more likely solution is for Roy to accomplish what he thought he was coming here for to begin with: resurrecting Durkon. Or perhaps the Durkula plotline isn’t over after all, considering the other prophecy hanging over his head from On the Origin of PCs (now available in PDF form!)

Whatever the case, I think I’m back to reading OOTS on a regular basis, at least through the next strip and the resolution of this cliffhanger.

Nothing to do with sports or TV (well, sort of). You should probably move along.

I bet you can't guess what reference I'd have gone with if I'd gone with the comic from a week ago mentioned in the main text.(From Camp Weedonwantcha. Click for full-sized cat-stravaganza.)

The big story in webcomics in 2013 was Strip Search, Penny Arcade‘s online webcomic reality show where twelve aspiring webcomickers competed to spend a year under the tutelage of the most popular webcomickers out there. Both Fleen and Webcomic Overlook did reviews of at least some episodes of the show, and it was apparent to me that, while anyone could conceivably start any webcomic at any time without needing any help from anyone else, the winner’s comic (to say nothing of whatever some of the losers did, since these reality shows never give a boost to just the winner) would start right out of the gate with a built-in audience bigger than what a lot of webcomickers could ever dream of before Gabe or Tycho did a thing on their behalf outside the show – not to mention that the choice of winner would say a lot about what Gabe and Tycho wanted from a successful webcomic under their banner, especially important given the major issues I had with the Kickstarter that, among other things, gave birth to Strip Search in the first place.

So what sort of comic would Gabe and Tycho put under their banner for a year (or more)? That would be Katie Rice and her tale of kids fending for themselves in the wilderness, Camp Weedonwantcha.

Right off the bat, let me say a few things about the art. Rice has an animation background, and it shows; her characters have a rubbery quality about them, with big heads perched upon really thin, tiny bodies. This wouldn’t be out of place as a show on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, which is a useful way to look at the comic as a whole.

Camp Weedonwantcha is, in short, a camp populated entirely by kids, with no adults whatsoever. The conceit isn’t treated in a Lord of the Flies-type way, as the kids spend most of their time simply having fun, but there are still some hints of the nature of the place that make it apparent things are Not What They Seem. Supplies (for certain definitions of “supplies”) mysteriously fall from the sky seemingly at random, there are hidden nooks and crannies containing various secrets, the kids may or may not be surrounded by feral kids and supernatural forces, and even some of the kids we actually know have Something Wrong with them (and probably most of the kids at camp are either just plain weird or being slowly driven crazy). The lead character, Malachi, laments in an early strip that he won’t get to see the end of Game of Thrones, implying he’s stuck at the camp indefinitely, possibly for the rest of his life, and the name of the camp itself suggests that the kids have been dumped there by their parents who just want to get rid of them (as does the “origin” of Malachi’s friend Seventeen). There are enough hints out there to come up with more wacky theories than Lost (such as “the camp is really purgatory”).

El Santo seemed to think these elements are merely background elements that simply add a touch of surreality to the gags; I couldn’t help but see them as Rice laying the groundwork for later Cerebus Syndrome and allowing the comic to lapse into outright horror, or at least a decidedly adult story. But it’s been over a year, and while the early continuing stories dropped some tantalizing hints about the nature of the place, those hints seem to have mostly disappeared. At the very least, if it’s setting up Cerebus Syndrome, it’s doing so very slowly. Or at least, I thought so… until I realized after last Tuesday’s comic that the creepy kid Malachi’s been trying to get to “help” him find cats appears to, in fact, be Proto Kid, the legendary first camper that supposedly went feral long ago, suggesting this story arc may well be the exact moment the comic fully takes the plunge into Cerebus Syndrome (even if he seems to have shaken him off in this strip).

Incidentially, the very first continuing story arc? Was basically an excuse for toilet humor. Yeah, I didn’t exactly have the best impression of the comic early on.

To be honest, while I’m not sure I could handle the comic if it went into Cerebus Syndrome, I’m not particularly fond of it as it is. It shifts between a few batches of gag-a-day comics and continuing storylines, but the gag-a-day comics just aren’t funny, instead just sort of being… there, just little drops of surreality that pop up and fall flat. I get the sense the story arcs are where Rice’s true passion lies where it comes to the strip, and considering Gabe and Tycho’s disdain for “dreaded continuity”, I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason she waited this long to get here, and possibly even part of the reason she included the gag-a-day comics at all, was to mislead them about the nature of the strip to boost her chances of winning. (Disclaimer: I say this not having actually watched the Strip Search finale.)

In any case, the arcs are short enough that the comic doesn’t suffer from the problems I’ve had with other continuity-heavy strips that only update twice a week, but that might be the best I can say about it. I’m unimpressed with the gag strips and dreaded reading it when it was in an arc. It’s hard to call Camp Weedonwantcha a bad comic – there’s a certain charm to it that might make it appealing if you’re into the kind of thing it’s going for, and its mix of humor and drama is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a substantial crossover between fans of The Order of the Stick and people who would be fans of this comic, if they’re willing to accept things being more on the drama side of the ledger. But I’ve actually started to let OOTS fall off a bit, partly because the start of Book Six has had a very heavy focus on the state of and battle within vampire Durkon, with the promise of more to come. To have a comic with even more of an emphasis on drama (though who knows given how much further into Cerebus Syndrome OOTS is going), one where the quality of the humor is nowhere near as good as OOTS? That’s something that I can’t endorse.

I have plenty more I could say about Tarquin’s recent attempts to off Roy and their impact on Elan’s character development, but I never took advantage of any opportunities to do so.

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

After nearly three hundred strips – after no previous book had lasted more than 188 in-comic strips, adding up to nearly a third of all OOTS comics – and nearly four and a half years – nearly half of OOTS’ entire existence – the fifth book of The Order of the Stick is finally winding its way to a close.

Over three years ago, when the book was only just over a year old, we were introduced to another in a long line of Rich’s fascinating, multi-layered, complex supporting characters. His name is Ian Starshine.

We knew who Ian was (and we certainly knew his daughter) for some time prior to his appearance in the cast. We knew it was him that got Haley in the thieving business, we knew his capture was what was motivating Haley and led to her joining the Order of the Stick, and we certainly ladled on the speculation that his captor was in fact his daughter’s potential future father-in-law. But everything we knew about him came in snippets and flashbacks from Haley. Now, we’ve seen him in the flesh, so to speak, and we’ve gotten his story.

Ian was in the midst of trying to overthrow Tarquin’s tyranny when he got the idea to get himself locked up to recruit other dissidents, only to find that those that could understand Tarquin’s modus operandi got killed pretty quickly, and that once locked up, he couldn’t escape for good. More interesting than Ian’s story, however, is his personality. Haley has been a mess of secrets from the start of the comic because Ian taught her never to trust anyone with anything, and while Haley has been slowly but surely opening up, at least to Elan, in Ian we have the picture of someone who went through absolutely none of Haley’s character development. And once Haley gets a glimpse of that picture, she realizes that for all that she wanted to be with him again, her father’s teachings nearly completely ruined her life.

When Ian’s brother-in-law Geoff finds Elan lurking about, everything Haley says to reassure her father only serves to make him more convinced that Tarquin planted him to serve as their downfall, to the extent that he actually refuses to leave with her, convinced she and Elan would just lead him into a trap. Even though Ian’s theory makes no sense given the family history of Elan and Tarquin, it serves to illuminate just how much character development Haley has gone through, because it’s exactly the sort of thing she might have once been worried about before finally getting together with him (and even then only under the most extreme duress).

But even as it illuminates Haley’s character development, it even more so illuminates Ian’s lack of same. It may not have been terribly surprising that Ian would be suspicious of the son of his captor, but what stands out in this sequence is how much it shows his general paranoia. When Haley tells Ian of how much she’s learned to open up to people, all he sees is weakness in his daughter, weakness that allowed the son of a despot to get into her heart. Both of them reflect on the death of his wife and her mother, who urged them in her dying words to “be better than this town. Than all of this.” But they came to completely different conclusions on what she meant: Ian feels the work he’s been doing against Tarquin has been a higher cause than “looting rich folk”, but Haley sees in her mother’s words something grander, a call to get away entirely from the world of trickery and deceit she was born into, and help do something far grander than Ian could even imagine.

But if it were strictly about paranoia for Ian, I don’t think he would have been quick to insult Tarquin out of the blue when they met face-to-face. I think an even more overriding principle for Ian lies in something he tells Haley during their conversation: “You can always trust in family, for good or for ill.” Thus, the flip side of Ian’s certainty that Elan must be a spy simply because Tarquin is his father is that he is so confident in the abilities and trustworthiness of his own family that he’s equally certain that Haley is the true leader of the Order of the Stick and Roy and Belkar were there to help rescue him all along.

But ultimately, that confidence may not only be misplaced, but may be his ultimate tragic downfall. Ian was originally recruited to the Western Continent to oppose Tarquin by his sister and her husband, and Geoff has been sitting in prison with him the whole time. It’s very possible that Geoff has in fact been working against Ian the whole time, tricking him into getting locked up and making sure he never escapes for good – especially when you consider the first hint we got regarding the circumstances of Ian’s capture, when Bozzok, the former boss of both Haley and Ian that both burned bridges with, let slip in passing that he arranged for Ian’s departure when he gave word to some “friends” on the Western Continent. The only thing sadder than it turning out that the one person he most needed to be paranoid of was the one person he never suspected would be if, instead of showing him that blood isn’t the sole determinant of one’s character, it only served to make him more paranoid, even of his own daughter, if he survived it.

These last two strips, though, have raised the possibility that, in some way, Ian has become more trusting while we weren’t looking – or at least that his real blind spot is simply his fanatical opposition to and desperate desire to overthrow Tarquin. Most obviously, when Ian asks his new boss, a former opponent of one of Tarquin’s secret allies who was betrayed after asking him for help, whether or not he can trust her, she replies, “You don’t, and you shouldn’t,” and Ian responds, “Just the way I like it. I’m in.” But what may be more telling is something in this strip Rich may not have even intended. Elan hands Ian his own plan for overthrowing Tarquin, and Ian is pleasantly surprised at its plausibility, affording himself the possibility that Elan might in fact be on the up and up after all – despite very little having changed regarding what Ian knows about Elan. The Ian of earlier in the book might well have decided that the plan’s very plausibility was a way to attempt to lure him into a trap. The only thing sadder than his betrayal by his own brother-in-law leaving Ian untrusting of literally anyone and everyone would be Ian misdiagnosing his betrayal by his own brother-in-law as his betrayal by his potential future son-in-law, reinforcing his misguided blind faith in family above all else rather than exposing it.

It may well be that in this, Ian is a rather fitting mirror image of Tarquin – knowing what we know of Elan and Tarquin, for Ian to find Elan’s plan plausible would probably imply at least some familiarity with the tropes of story Elan and Tarquin are (or, in Elan’s case, were) so devoted to. Tarquin is so desperate to be a villain going out in a blaze of glory at the hands of his own son he spends several strips trying to kill Roy in hopes of making Elan into the hero he so desperately wants him to be; Ian is so desperate to be a hero he’s willing to sacrifice his own principles to go along with anyone who claims to be out for the same goal he is, even if his ultimate goal may well be to usurp power away from them and take control of the resistance, even if in a rather Tarquin-like behind-the-scenes way. (In this, perhaps this isn’t so inconsistent with his prior portrayal; Geoff did, after all, marry into the “family” much like Elan might eventually do.) Either could prove to be their undoing; one would hope that, if Ian is ultimately responsible for Tarquin’s downfall, Tarquin could at least appreciate Ian’s credentials for the job.

So I can get at least ONE webcomic review in in calendar year 2013. Even if it’s very short.

(From Square Root of Minus Garfield. Click for full-sized apocalyptic statements.)

Once upon a time, the people behind the site mezzacotta, a repository for all the half-baked ideas they could come up with, came up with another one: a comic that would consist of every single mash-up of the newspaper comic Garfield that they could come up with.

And lo, it was good. Even though I considered myself a Garfield fan (though I had started to think it was running low on ideas and dreaded the point when my book collection got far enough to include Jon hooking up with Liz), I still found myself fascinated by the numerous ways the Comic Irregulars found to mash up a Garfield comic each day. So many people wanted to come up with their own mashups that the comic eventually moved to a daily schedule to accommodate them all.

Then I started to fall behind on my RSS reader, and when I returned, √-G had become a noticeably different comic. It had become too reliant on beating old memes into the ground, usually based on mash-ups of the same comic or two. So when I started my ill-fated attempt to use Archive Binge (another former mezzacotta project) to assist in reviewing webcomics, one of the comics I chose was Square Root of Minus Garfield, thinking that I could find myself doing my own “you had me, and you lost me” on it. But a funny thing happened: the other comics I chose to review inspired such dread in me that I actually found myself looking forward to the point where I would read the day’s batch of √-G comics – admittedly part of that probably had to do with the utter lack of drama compared to the others.

I eventually abandoned the project, but I did eventually catch up on all the √-G comics that I’d missed, and I’ve had it in my RSS reader for a few months now, probably dating back at least to the closure of Google Reader. So what’s the verdict?

Well… Square Root of Minus Garfield is certainly a different comic than it was when it started.

The memes have calmed down, in part due to David Morgan-Mar’s efforts to space things out between repetitions of a meme, but they’re still present and groan-inducing. Originality is much more rewarded, but it’s not necessarily good originality; some of the more unique mashups seem to be a thing of the past, and a goodly number of mashups are specific to one particular strip, even when they aren’t memes. I still hold to what I said in 2011: modern √-G reads much better read as it comes out than in one huge batch, as the repetition of the memes stands out much more when you’re exposed to many repetitions at once.

And yet… there’s still something about √-G that’s weirdly compelling. It’s now much more of a straight-up vaguely absurdist humor comic, less about the ideas presented and more purely about the humor that can be wrung out of it. Certainly there are a few groan-inducing comics, particularly the overplayed memes, but even then it doesn’t overstay its welcome like some more dramatic strips might. I probably won’t feel inclined to catch up if I fall behind again, though it would be relatively easy to do so, but for the time being I think it might actually stay in my RSS reader, at least on a provisional basis.

Certainly, no matter how much I might like what Garfield used to be, I have to imagine √-G is still funnier and more original than what Garfield is now.

Rethinking Penny Arcade

For as long as I have been following webcomics, I have been perplexed by the wild popularity of Penny Arcade. In my original review I reached the conclusion that it was the blog posts on the front of the site, of which the comic was a mere illustration, that were the real source of the comic’s popularity, and very little I’ve seen since has dissuaded me from that.

Last Friday, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins announced that Penny Arcade would be scaling back considerably; gone would be the Penny Arcade Report or third-party videos on PATV. The implication of the blog post seemed to be that if it weren’t for how huge Child’s Play or PAX had become, they’d be abandoning those things too.

This is a surprising about-face on a number of levels. For one thing, I don’t think the PAR really had a chance to reach the same levels of indispensability as Child’s Play or PAX, only going on for a year and a half. For another, just last year PA held a Kickstarter to remove ads from its web site that, regardless of its original intentions, ended up growing their brand even further, through the creation of the Strip Search web-reality show (though in retrospect that Kickstarter could be seen as a warning shot that something like this could be coming down the pike). It’s tempting to read this as a response to numerous controversies that PA had gotten into recently, especially a job posting that seemed to encourage applicants to lower their salary expectations – a pure cost-cutting effort, in other words.

Still, when I read this, I wanted to be a fly on the wall when Gabe and Tycho told their sugar daddy Robert Khoo about their decision. Khoo once told Gary “Fleen” Tyrell that PA was “a content-creating company focused on the videogame industry, with the webcomic just one part of it. Granted, the comic is the dominant part, but he didn’t commit to that always being true.” Gabe and Tycho now seem to have gone the opposite direction: they have effectively made clear that they don’t want to be a general “content-creating company focused on the video game industry”.

To be sure, it’s not like Khoo forced everything they’ve done over the past 15 years on them; Gabe introduced the PAR as “what we want to see from games journalism”, and both Child’s Play and PAX occurred as a result of Gabe and Tycho thinking about various issues. At no point did they do anything solely because Khoo told them it was the next step they needed to take on their march to global domination. Rather, it seems that Gabe and Tycho have come to the same realization I’ve tried to follow: that just because you feel someone should do something doesn’t mean you’re the ones to do it.

You might think the lesson here is a variation on an old theme: not to do something just because “that’s what you do” or “that’s what you need to do to grow your business” or your “brand”, but because you actually want to do it. And maybe it is. But if I was right about PA – if, as I put it when the PAR launched, “the larger empire that PA has grown into is not a symptom of its success; rather, it literally is its success” – I can’t help but wonder if Gabe and Tycho may have just made the decision to take down all that made them popular in the first place. By keeping Child’s Play and PAX they may only be turning back the clock to five to eight years ago, still a stage when they were the envy of the webcomics community, but they may still prove to be a cautionary tale, a sign that sometimes, those people telling you to “grow your brand” may have a point, because without them you may not have a brand.

Breaking Bad and the future of scripted linear television

Of the many cable series that have attracted tremendous critical acclaim and popularity in recent years, there is one in particular that seems to be reaching its zenith in popular culture in its final year, one that has certainly received its share of critical acclaim but isn’t even the biggest critical darling (or, arguably, most popular show) on its own network. That show is Breaking Bad.

Grantland’s Bill Simmons describes how Breaking Bad airing its last few episodes head-to-head with Sunday Night Football over the next few weeks is forcing him to make the sort of decision that seemed to have been left behind in the pre-DVR era:

Back then, most people couldn’t record two shows at the same time, and you didn’t have to worry about an unexpected moment being spoiled on Twitter…So you simply recorded The Wire and watched the game live. And that became the habit on Sunday nights, at least for me — record the good Sunday-night show (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Dexter, whatever), avoid it until the football game finished, then throw that episode down like television dessert…[But] this final season of Breaking Bad changed the rules…It’s the greatest final season of any television show. At least so far. Two different times this season (including last week), the show ended in such an electric way that I didn’t even know what to do with myself. After last Sunday’s episode, I somehow ended up in my backyard — I don’t even know how I got there. And there are three episodes left!…For the first time, I find myself choosing an already-filmed, can-watch-it-whenever-I-want television show over live football.

At a time when DVRs and online streaming threaten to make the traditional linear broadcast schedule obsolete for scripted shows, is Breaking Bad a glimpse into the future, a preview for how a scripted show on a linear television network can be so compelling as to pull a sports fan away from the almighty NFL? Outlining how Breaking Bad got to this point, Slate’s Willa Paskin describes an aggressively modern, yet potentially soon to be normal, rise to prominence, and identifies in Breaking Bad the qualities that can allow a scripted show to survive on linear television:

The ratings success of Breaking Bad shows that excellent programming can grow an audience, a big audience, if treated with proper patience…Breaking Bad is also, perhaps, proof of what a really propulsive plot can get you. Mad Men was media-friendly and stylistically aspirational from the very start, but it does not have the same What happens next?! vibe as Breaking Bad, and its slower-growing audience reflects that. Don Draper looks great and deep, but there is still nothing like a cliffhanger to make sure an audience checks in at the appointed time.

Once you’ve had a shot of a show like Breaking Bad, in other words, it’s like crack (or, perhaps more appropriately, meth): it keeps you coming back every week to find out how the story unfolds next. Social media reinforces this process and forces someone like Simmons to tune in at the appointed time, not a second later, lest spoilers litter the feed. HBO understands this well, which is why so many of its most popular and talked-about shows, like Game of Thrones and True Blood, are heavily serialized.

But while such shows can ensure that no one who starts watching will dare to stop, it can also make it difficult for any potential new viewers to join in, lost in the thicket of continuity built up over the seasons. This helps explain why broadcast networks have typically been reticent to air serialized shows in primetime. Instrumental in the slow growth in Breaking Bad‘s audience and AMC’s willingness to wait for that audience to build, Paskin notes, was the ability to catch up on past episodes on Netflix; even if the show premiered with middling numbers, any new viewer could watch all the previous episodes and be as up to speed as someone there from the beginning. (Webcomic aficianados may recognize this as the archive binge.)

If and when the day ever comes that a scripted show can just as easily be released over the Internet as over a traditional linear television channel – and that day may be fast approaching, given Netflix’s own investment in original series – there will need to be a good reason for it to be tied down to a slot on a linear television channel, a reason that can compel millions of people to tune in at one particular time, as opposed to watching at their leisure. Ironically, the best bet for compelling such behavior is another aggressively modern technology, social media, and the desire to engage with the discussion about the show on social media or simply avoid the spoilers that discussion inevitably contains.

In other words, the most important property that the TV show of the future can have is the modern equivalent of “water cooler value”, and that value is amplified when people are so engaged with the content they have to see “what happens next” as it happens. As I explained four years ago, the latter is best served with serialized installments doled out slowly on a regular basis to build anticipation for what comes next, which Paskin suggests belies Netflix’s own strategy of releasing entire seasons of its own original series at once. If it becomes harder for a scripted series to justify its place on a linear television schedule, then such serialized shows are investments requiring much more patience than broadcast networks have shown in recent years, and the ability to easily catch up on past episodes is instrumental to allow the audience for such a show to grow fairly quickly over the seasons. Regardless of whatever else you may think about the CBS-Time Warner Cable dispute that ended earlier this month, this is why Les Moonves’ desire to secure CBS’ right to sign digital distribution deals with platforms beyond cable operators was so relevant.

I personally think most of what currently passes for a scripted show on linear television will move to the Internet within a decade. What’s left, though, will need to provide a good reason for people to come back at the exact same time every week – and in doing so, they may want to take a few pages from webcomics’ playbook.

Apparently, blood isn’t always thicker than water.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized casual filicidal vengeance.)

I think we can pretty much declare the Linear Guild’s relevance in this comic to be at an end.

I had thought Malack was too noble to continue following the orders of Tarquin and Nale for very long, although his long-term planning probably put the lie to that. But then, out of nowhere, Nale turned on Malack, throwing his staff into the distance and having Zz’dtri dispel his protection spell, allowing him to kill Malack by simply waiting out the time it took for him to burn to ash. This might be considered rather short-sighted, as it allowed Durkon to get his free will back, which he promptly used to kill Zz’dtri and rejoin the OOTS, but Nale letting slip that he had been planning Malack’s demise since he was nine years old hints at a far bigger picture that allowed him to consider the possibility of Durkon rejoining the OOTS an acceptable sacrifice for an opportunity that might never present itself again, especially given his worrying about Tarquin and Malack turning on him first. Many forumites are rather curious as to what it was happened when Nale was nine that led him to vow vengeance on Malack, and that was part of the reason I didn’t post on it at the time.

So after Durkon helps the OOTS take care of the sand monster, Tarquin shows up, having picked up Nale along the way, and takes the destruction of the gate surprisingly well, admitting that “I was probably going to destroy it myself anyway”. I’m a bit surprised Elan informs Tarquin of the existence of one more gate and appeals to his desire to preserve his empire, especially since he and Haley then do an about-face in this comic and resist Tarquin’s offer to teleport them to Kraagor’s Gate. (As an aside, given that Team Evil teleported to what’s probably the exact location of Kraagor’s Gate and that the OOTS don’t have much in the way of other options but to accept Tarquin’s offer, I’m starting to wonder if we’re set for just one more book, with the last two books having enough material for three.)

Incensed at Tarquin’s lassiez-faire attitude at the destruction of the Gate, Nale calls out his father for falling into a rut, and then starts gloating over killing Malack. At that point, Tarquin reveals how he was actually using Malack, that Tarquin had no intention of letting him kill Nale but instead hoped to convince their friends Nale was too valuable an asset (after Nale succeeded in capturing the Gate) and so put pressure on Malack to let him live. Rather than kill him when he had the chance, Tarquin was still loyal to his son and hoped to welcome him back into the family.

Nale, however, has none of it. Tarquin had hoped Nale had come crawling back and willing to accept his place at Tarquin’s side, but Nale is still the same man who clashed with Tarquin lo those many years ago. He had no intention of joining with Tarquin for good, only sticking with him in hopes of capturing the Gate and for long enough to not get killed. He still saw himself as his own man, wanting to build his own place in the world, one far bigger than what Tarquin had settled for, and this, coupled with his continued shortsightedness, proves his undoing, as Tarquin’s hopes that Nale would get his rebellion out of his system were the only reason he had let Nale survive to this point, and once those hopes are dashed, he has no reason to allow Nale to live any longer.

It’s a bit of a shame Tarquin was kept unrevealed for so long and the backstory of the Linear Guild so far out of focus, because it’s apparent that that backstory may be another of Rich’s great literary achievements, an almost Shakespearean tale of the often-tenuous ties of family and the hubris of youth, a story we just saw the climax of while only getting secondhand bits and pieces of the play leading up to it. I almost wanted to delay this post for another strip in hopes of getting more of that backstory, with the underlying motivation of Nale’s killing of Malack still out there. I can’t help but imagine Rich intended for a third prequel book centering on the Linear Guild and Nale’s original split with Tarquin, which may have been intended to be released in the middle of this book but which may yet see the light of day.

On the flip side, in less than ten strips we’ve seen the death of three members of this version of the Linear Guild; Sabine remains banished and Tarquin and Kilkil were only members as part of the ongoing marriage of convenience, not to mention how Thog remains MIA. Another reason I considered delaying this post by a strip was to gauge Nale’s chances of being raised, by Durkon (in either fashion) or someone else, and if he doesn’t it’d be interesting to see what might happen if he joins Sabine in the infernal realms. Tarquin actually seems to have outmaneuvered the IFCC here; it’s unclear whether they knew Nale’s plans for Malack (Qarr’s reaction to Malack’s death may or may not say anything about what the IFCC knows, especially given Sabine’s admission that even she doesn’t quite know what they have cooked up sometimes) or about Tarquin’s attitude towards his son, but if they knew about both you have to imagine they figure the Linear Guild has outlived its usefulness; a third reason I considered delaying this post was in hopes of seeing their reaction. Do they intend to bring the Guild back somehow, or is Sabine now going to be working on a different plan of theirs, existing primarily as part of their side and not the Guild?

I haven’t said anything about Elan and his place in this drama, although there’s not much to say about his pained reaction to Nale’s death, since we know he’s wanted to have a real family for a long time, was so excited about meeting his twin he ignored all evidence of his evilness until it couldn’t be ignored any longer, and had his suspension of disbelief in the world created by Girard’s illusion broken by Nale being perfectly fine with the re-marriage of Tarquin and Elan’s mother. We’d already known that despite everything, he was still conflicted about his family… and had some sort of plan involving Durkon, his father, and “finding a sense of good inside [his] family”. Was Nale also important to that plan? Did seeing Tarquin kill Nale change the way he viewed his father in some way, to say nothing of his experiences inside the illusion? I’m very interested in seeing how he reacts to his father after seeing this much conflict inside the family he sought so much. Family – both Elan’s and Haley’s (I have a post sitting mostly-written about Haley’s father and his paranoia) – has been a key theme of this book, and it’s perhaps fitting that this peak of drama would occur right as the book appears to be winding down.

Multiples of 100 have become so meaningless in this comic that I decided not to post on the 900th comic so I could post on the one immediately following.

Should I take "Sir Not Appearing in This Book" as a sign that this book is in fact going to be split in two?(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized loyalty roulette.)

Remember my Gunnerkrigg Court review, when I mentioned my inability to handle intensely dramatic scenes? Well, The Order of the Stick triggered it twice a few months back.

The first came when Belkar delivered the news of Durkon’s death to the rest of the group and Roy, to put it lightly, did not take it well. I was all set to write a lengthy post examining how Roy’s extreme denial, to the point of threatening to kill Belkar himself, was incomprehensible to those who hadn’t seen the deeper context to Roy and Durkon’s relationship in On the Origin of PCs… but I couldn’t bring myself to reread the comic, certainly not the sort of close, in-depth reading required to write a post, when I had already only skimmed it on first reading to avoid having to go through the intense emotional swings that were the very reason I felt the need to post. I could have just as easily posted on the following comic, where Roy is just about ready to give up on the entire quest before Belkar of all people snaps him out of it, but it also didn’t help with the emotional torque problem.

Then as the Order are walking down a corridor, they happen to bump into Xykon and company and engage in a battle involving the anti-climactic death of Belkar and Roy using his anti-magic-user trick he learned from his grandfather in the last book to ultimately put away Xykon… just in time for it to be revealed to all be an illusion caused by one of Girard’s traps. By itself, I could handle this, though it’s another painful strip to re-read… but the illusion keeps going, showing all sorts of events happening in the aftermath of the story, all of which only served to convince me that none of it would actually happen by virtue of its depiction in the illusion, all the way to the anti-magic-user trick I was convinced Roy would never get to use for real, and which left me and many of the fans wondering just how long the Order was standing there, struck dumb by the illusion. When it got to the point of a comic depicting the reunion and re-marriage of Tarquin and Elan’s mother, I didn’t even bother to zoom in to the strip on my iPhone. And I hadn’t read a single comic since.

Before starting work on this post, I would have figured the wedding being depicted was that of Elan and Haley, because that would have made sense (Malack’s presiding over the proceedings notwithstanding). As it turned out, the rather unconventional choice, which solely reflected Elan’s own wild fantasies, had a method to the madness, as Elan became tipped off to the nature of the illusion by the fact that his own self-admitted “childish ideas that should never have happened” still ended up happening. This by itself could have inspired another post about Elan’s own self-awareness and whether or not it might serve as the catalyst for further character growth, but I never would have been able to write that post either; fortunately, Robert A. “Tangents” Howard did (though I personally think it’s just as easy to see this as yet another point towards Elan’s Mary-Sue-dom).

(I also might have had plenty to say about Belkar’s own fantasy, but that’s another story.)

So what else did I miss? Well, the Linear Guild shows up again only to discover Girard left a Mario reference behind, but the OOTS doesn’t over-rely on spells to determine the situation and uncovers how it really hid the gate – which prompts Roy to unveil his plan to destroy it, on purpose this time. Vaarsuvius, having now travelled to directly underneath them, attempts to warn them not to do it – but it’s at that moment that the IFCC call in their little “favor”, bringing us to another point I might have posted on. Despite much speculation that the fiends would use it to control V for their own ends, they don’t really need to; all they really need is to stop him/her from warning the rest of the group.

So yeah, just like that, Girard’s Gate is destroyed just after Xykon and company arrive, the other four members of the OOTS get their look inside the rift, and we finally get to what it is that did prompt me to post: a look at the ongoing internal dynamics within Team Evil. Redcloak and Xykon are all set to begin Round 3 with the OOTS when the Monster in the Dark intervenes, not wanting them to attack a group he recognizes as allied with O-Chul. I don’t believe I’ve said anything about the MitD’s character development in the last two books, even though, as this comic proves, it has as much to do with the future direction of Team Evil as anything involving the relationship between Redcloak and Xykon themselves. The MitD has always tended to come off as more amoral than evil, and I wouldn’t say O-Chul’s influence has exactly turned him good, but it has given him a connection and loyalty to someone outside Team Evil, a connection and loyalty with the potential, and in fact the actuality, to clash with his loyalties to Xykon and Redcloak.

Despite stumbling to come up with a good justification why they shouldn’t attack the Order, the MitD actually manages to convince Xykon that O-Chul is the real hero of the story, and that the Order’s presence without O-Chul is a sign that this is just a diversion to weaken the team, despite the fact they just blew up the gate right in front of them. It’s apparent that Xykon’s willingness to listen to the MitD is influenced by how pissed off he is at what happened when he stayed at Azure City so long, and his willingness to listen to Redcloak’s more sensible thinking is compromised by his role in that and ulterior motives for taking that role. Whereas before Rich used that relationship to keep them in Azure City as long as possible, now he’s using it for the opposite effect, getting them to the next gate as quickly as possible. Although Redcloak’s increasing spine-growth isn’t directly a factor here, one wonders if Xykon’s own increasing resistance to Redcloak’s advice, even his good advice, may provide fuel to that growth and accelerate any eventual breakup of Team Evil, regardless of who triggers it. In any case, Redcloak does manage to leave one last parting shot, summoning a sand monster to take out the OOTS in their absence.

Some of the recent strips have given me an impression of Rich trying too hard to accelerate the end of the book, which has lasted well over two hundred comics (the last book was the longest to that point at 168, this book is already over 225) and close to four years, meaning we’ve spent as long in real time in this book as we had in the previous two and a half books (admittedly not helped by the Kickstarter and Rich’s thumb injury), slowed down immensely by just how much of the 700s we spent in the Empire of Blood, but even in the 800s it seemed like Rich was too eager to take his time to get everyone set up at Girard’s Gate for a confrontation that basically amounted to nothing, a brief clash between the Linear Guild and OOTS notwithstanding. Regardless, we appear to finally be reaching the end of this book and setting up the pieces for the next one… which may well be the last one, if Team Evil are already zipping off to Kraagor’s Gate.

How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part V: The Reinvention of E-Mail (And How Another Blast from the Past Could Be Your Google Reader Replacement)

If you follow my tweeter, you know that I finally got on board the smartphone bandwagon a few months ago, shortly after completing (or so I thought) this series. I’d lost my cell phone back in February and for all her reticence, Mom wanted me to have a cell phone while she took a vacation in Phoenix over my spring break, so she gave me her old iPhone. As you might expect, it has proceeded to become a massive time-suck, not helped by my laptop being unusable during the break and falling apart now (I honestly fully expected to have a Windows 8 tablet by now, but Mom actually seems to be holding out for the more expensive tablet with cellular access).

Confession time: the e-mail address I’ve given on Da Blog in the past, the mwmailsea at yahoo dot com one? I’ve actually checked it very seldomly for years. For the most part, it’s filled up with a bunch of newsletters I signed up for many years ago, some not even intentionally, most of them before I got IE7 and its accompanying RSS reader, that I never really intended to even read, so the signal to noise ratio has been low and I’ve generally used another e-mail address to actually communicate with my family, therapists, and school personnel. Even that address I’ve never checked as obsessively as some people check their e-mail.

Now, however, I’ve hooked up both e-mail accounts to the iPhone’s e-mail app, meaning I now find myself checking both accounts regularly throughout the day. In the process, a funny thing has happened. Those newsletters that I signed up for lo those many years ago, that I’ve never given a second thought to in years? I’ve actually bothered to look at some of them, and some have managed to link me to rather interesting articles, some of which I’ve even gone on to link elsewhere.

For years, e-mail has sort of been the quiet, unsung backing of Internet communication. As Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more have continued to seize the headlines, e-mail has remained the same, quietly plugging away and serving as the backbone of everything else. Almost every time you’ve set up an account on a new site, or submitted a blog comment, you’ve had to provide a valid e-mail address, but e-mail itself has remained under the radar, with most people using it either for one-on-one communication or as a dummy to throw at those sites asking for one. But with e-mail now taking a newly central role on smartphones and tablets, it’s possible it could be the key to understanding the future of the Internet.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that there may soon be a new syndication mechanism geared towards blogs, one that doesn’t simply collect text the way RSS does but allows blog creators to optimally place ads and other content. Could the e-mail newsletter be that mechanism? E-mail allows for the addition of images to such an extent that you can make it look like your actual website in a way RSS doesn’t allow, and most blogs already have the ability to subscribe via e-mail tucked away somewhere. Even the structure is more in your control; many big sites offer a daily roundup of relevant stories in one complete package. It does have a number of drawbacks; besides the susceptibility to spam and viruses, which leads many e-mail providers to put up filters that break images, signing up for too many newsletters could overwhelm you without filters to move them into folders, which doesn’t always work. (This is the case with RSS as well, but folders are easier and more reliable there.)

Webcomics tend not to support e-mail delivery. There seems to be a philosophy around the webcomics community these days that says that the design of your site is as much a part of your comic as the comic itself. There’s something to be said for that, but only insofar as the design of your site serves to define your site. As Part IV should have made clear, site design becomes less important in a mobile world, unless you’re talking about the design of your app, which is pretty much the same thing. Besides the ability to customize e-mail to look more like your site, two elements are really the only ones important enough to be included in an e-mail, assuming you don’t just ape what you’re putting in RSS feeds already (for comics that put their comic images in their RSS feeds): an ad and perhaps a link to the store. This could be another place where “comics page” services could come in handy, if not with delivering comic images alongside ads the revenue from which gets passed on to creators, then at least with links to comics that have updated since the last e-mail.

Perhaps the revival of e-mail could be the key to bringing everything together into the decentralized social network I put forward at the end of Part III. It won’t be able to do everything, since e-mail is still geared more towards one-to-one communication, and other things will need to take the role currently filled by the social networks of today – although Tumblr and Twitter might cover most of what’s needed, especially since most e-mail clients allow you to sort your contacts into groups that you can then contact all of with the push of a button, serving a similar function to Google+’s circles. Regardless of anything else, it seems clear to me that e-mail is a critical cog in understanding the Internet of the future.