The Webcomic Overlook #44: The Order of the Stick

When you were young, one of the most basic forms you learn is the stick figure. Lines for arms, lines for legs, and a circle for the head. They’re so easy to draw, even a caveman could do it. (And they did, portraying their stick men hunting buffalo or dragging women in their caves or somesuch.) They’re also forever linked to our childhoods, as — in the days before we learned about perspective and depth — they were the first things were learned to draw.

Thus, almost all webcomics using stick figures acknowledge how juvenile it all is. Cyanide & Happiness revels in it, with their characters oozing bodily fluids as if they were characters in a bored 10-year-old’s notebook. xkcd employs the medium to toy with our expectations, launching into subjects that no child would contemplate (such as complex math equations or heartache).

But can stick figures be more? Rich Burlew thinks so. Despite having a degree in Illustration at the Pratt Institute, he decided to primarily use stick figures in his wildly popular webcomic, The Order of the Stick (popularly abbreviated OotS, though its true abbreviation, tOotS, provides a more flatulently melodic acronym). Why? According to an interview at Sequential Tart, Rich believes that “art really is more than just rendering anatomy, especially comic art. Communicating the actions of the main characters is the primary goal here, not to show off how well I understand facial structure.” A lofty goal, to be sure … but does he succeed?

Don’t let the humble appearance of the comic fool you. OotS is the Tom Hanks of webcomics, visually unassuming yet winning a veritable poo-pile of comic-related awards. It has won 5 Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, including Best Long Form Comic in 2008. OotS‘ second print compilation won an ENnie Award in 2007 (an award I never heard of before, but is apparently awarded for role-playing products). Most recently, OotS won the 2007 Eagle Award for Best Web-Based Comic and scored a nomination for Favourite Original Graphic Novel.

Like other works of high fantasy, The Order of the Stick can be summed up as an adventure that involves long, arduous travels between different locations punctuated by events that can best be described as epic cluster****s. OotS is primarily a humor comic, so it has closer ties to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld than The Lord of the Rings. It’s playful and lighthearted, even when it shows scenes where legions of soldiers are getting decapitated. That’s is more or less the only way you can play that sort of scene in a stick figure comic, anyway. You can’t really feel too horrified when death is represented by a frowny face and two big X’s where the eyes should be.

The protagonists are collectively known as the Order of the Stick, named so because they’re stick figures (duh), though the in-story explanation has yet to be explained. Roy Greenhilt, the dark-skinned fighter with a sword that, uh, has a green hilt, is the leader. He’s often irritated by the shenanigans of the less responsible members. He’s aware, too, of his own shortcomings. Among his teammates, Roy evolves the most as a character, even if he’s the one who tends to arrogantly run his mouth on self-righteous speeches. (I like to think of him as OotS‘s version of South Park‘s Kyle Broflovski.)

The red-head ponytailed thief Haley Starshine is a little more complex. Initially, she’s portrayed as a greedy dungeon robber who’s only in it for the bling. Later strips completely overlook her lust for gold and instead focus on the true purpose of her life choices. It’s not a character evolution, but rather a deeper exploration of her character as a whole. There are long sequences that explore her internal struggles and her unrequited (later, requited) love for Elan. On the FAQ, Burlew mentions that Haley is his favorite character, and it isn’t hard to see why. She’s the team’s heart.

And speaking of the blonde-haired bard who’s a hit with the chicks, Elan represents the team’s odious comic relief. I’m sure plenty of OotS fans are ready to smack me across the face with their +2 Rolled-Up Dragon Magazine of Crushing Damage as Elan seems to be a fan favorite. Scenes of spontaneous singing or streaking strike me more as embarrassing and failed attempts at being funny. Elan’s most infamous moment comes when he introduces his puppet, Banjo the Clown, as a new diety. Is this puppet a charming example of Elan’s innocent goofiness or a lame, overdone prop gag that’s trying way too hard to make the reader laugh? (More on this sort of humor later.) I did think that Burlew did a good job by turning Elan into a “Dashing Swordsman” (which was culled from a third party developer), which promises to turn Elan into something more than the team’s Jar Jar Binks.

There are three other members of The Order of the Stick — an elven mage, a dwarven cleric, and an evil halfling ranger — but so far, they don’t get nearly as much spotlight as the series’ version of the Holy Trinity. That’s the way it always turn out, isn’t it? The damn humans always gotta hog the spotlight!

The Order’s initial mission represents the crowning achievement of all Advanced Dungeons & Dragons missions: to pile up phat loot and to level up like a mofo. After traveling some distance and meeting up random encounters and with folk who happen to be their evil dopplegangers (known, creatively, as The Linear Guild), they soon find themselves cast as unlikely players in a plot that will determine nothing less than the fate of all existence. (Like you couldn’t see that coming.) From this point, the Order must protect the three remaining gates that hold together the structure of the universe, fight off a massive goblin army from invading the paladin stronghold at Azure City, and figure out how to raise fallen comrades from the dead.

As you might expect, much of the humor is aimed exclusively at Dungeons & Dragons players. They’re the sort of jokes told, punctuated with barely contained snorts, by oily, acne-infested kids who smell of egg-salad sandwiches as they gather around a table at the local Game Workshop. Believe it or not, this is the source of much (unspeakably nerdy) controversy. OotS‘s Wikipedia entry claims that some detractors gripe that the humor is a barrier to new readers, alienating those who aren’t embedded in the tabletop gaming culture. (By the way, I highly suggest clicking on that Wikipedia link. I know I’ve said it of other comics, but the OotS entry really blew away. This is by far one of the most detailed entries I have ever seen. In this day an age where “non-notable” entries are deleted left and right, I stand in awe at the unnecessary voluminousness of the article for Miyo Miyazaki, a secondary character.)

I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons in my life. (“Yeah, whatever, you big nerdlinger!” you say, but it’s true. I write reviews of webcomics; what do I have do to prove my nerd cred?) I’ve dabbled in Black Isle’s D&D games, mainly Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, as well as a slew of other RPGs, from Daggerfall to Final Fantasy. If you’re the sort of person that reads webcomics, chances are you did, too. One or two jokes went over my head, namely anything that had to do with “listening checks,” but they aren’t that hard to figure out. Only some of the humor is directed at RPG players — a bonus for the faithful. The rest is all about corny pratfalls exemplified by our pal, Elan the Bard.

Whether or not that humor is funny is an entirely different question. At best, I cracked a small smile, like when a small band of evil adventurers managed to penetrate OotS‘s version of heaven. (I admit, there are times when nerdy references, this time of Planescape-type scenarios, can make even my black-hearted self chuckle.) Most of the time, though, the jokes come straight out of a Jungle Safari Tour. There’s nothing terribly offensive or infantile about the jokes (and make no mistake, I’m quite appreciative of that). They just happen to be the type that induces copious amounts of groaning and eye rolling. The evil halfling committing violence and quipping, “When in doubt, set someone on fire”? Eh. The millionth unfunny homage to Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on first?” routine? That was only funny when Slappy Squirrel did her Woodstock-inspired diatribe. There’s light-hearted, breezy humor, and then there’s humor that makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

There are other times when Burlew is attempting to be serious and sentimental, yet is derailed by the medium he has chosen. Spoilers ahead. There’s a point in the story where, after a long dramatic build-up lasting several hundred pages, Elan finally plants a kiss on Haley’s lips. You can tell this is supposed to be a big pay-off, the point where two will-they-or-won’t-they characters finally express their feelings for each other. Instead, my reaction… well, I really don’t need to elaborate, do I? Two stick figures making out? Seriously? If you can stomach this scene, though, then other dramatic moments — such as the time where Roy pulls a Tom Cruise to celebrate his love or when Haley just wants to be held in Elan’s manly arms — should roll off your back, mama’s boy. End spoilers.

On the other hand, Burlew succeeds immensely in depicting grand, sweeping scenes. I could take pot-shots here, too, by the way. The main villain, Xykon, is portrayed as a bit of an annoying joke. In one scene, during the siege of Azure City, he’s tossing off one-liners like a second-rate Shecky Greene. This does not, however, detract from the fact that Burlew has managed to craft an epic scene of
two vast armies colliding using nothing but circles and lines. Here’s where to stick-figure simplicity works to OotS‘s advantage. You get a good feel for the size and strategies of each army. The Battle of Azure City switches between many locations — from a breach in the castle wall to the parapets to the commanders of both armies — and at no point does the reader get lost. The backgrounds are simple enough to identify at a quick glance. The scenes can get quite horrifying, too. In a genuinely disturbing scene, a spell causes a legion of paladins to commit mass suicide. In another incredibly well composed scene, we follow one of the main character in freefall (spoilers in link) by scrolling down the page along side him until the inevitable moment where he meets his fate.

The spartan stick-figure style also works to OotS‘s advantage earlier in the story, where Lord Shojo, the head of the paladins, explains the true purpose of the Gates. Burlew depicts the story’s mythos with panels that look like they were drawn by a Kindergartener in Crayola. It’s a shift in style that not only ties into the childish aesthetic of the stick figure characters, but also successfully simplifies a fairly complex concept for the reader.

The Order of the Stick
is also a very talky comic. There’s plenty of dialogue — mountainous bucketloads, in fact — which I can only assume is there to compensate for the lack of artistic detail. Sometimes, it’s welcome. Roy and an angel spend quite a bit of time discussing whether or not he is, technically, lawful good. It rambles on a bit too long, yet provides an invaluable peek into how morality works in the world of OotS.

I’m in a far less forgiving mood when the paladin Hinjo talks down to Miko in why she is a far worse person than anyone on the Order of the Stick. By this point, we, the reader, had been treated to many, many occasions why we should hate Miko. She’s self-righteous, stuck-up, and unreasonable. Yet, I already found it tiring the first time Roy launched into a long tirade over why we should hate Miko. We have to be subjected to it a second time? I get it! We’re supposed to hate Miko! This was by far the most annoying segment in the series. I didn’t bother reading OotS again for another two weeks after.

Still, despite its annoyances, I’m going to give OotS a fairly high rating. It’s for basically the same reason why I gave the similar 8-Bit Theater a good score for its advances in the field of pixel art. The Order of the Stick does something no one else does: elevate the humble art of stick figures into something grandiose.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on June 4, 2008, in 4 Stars, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, dramatic webcomic, fantasy webcomic, stick figure webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, Uncategorized, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Funny, the sentimental moments are what elevate OOTS from “like it” to “love it” for me. I guess I am, as you say, a mama’s boy. Or girl, actually. I find it strange that you can appreciate the depth of Haley’s characterization right up until the payoff, and then suddenly the fact that she’s a stick figure gets in the way. I find it far more common for people to outright reject the idea that they could have any characterization AT ALL because they’re stick figures, rather than get 95% of the way there and then balk.

    Also, you mention Burlew hitting us over the head with the fact that we should hate Miko. What you probably don’t realize is that many, many of his fans DON’T hate Miko, despite the comic’s consistent portrayal of her as a raging bitch. After every strip, a fleet of apologists would explain why she was still right and perfect and awesome and the main characters deserved to die for opposing her, even after she performed the horrible deeds she did. (This also explains the voluminous detail her Wikipedia article has, incidentally.) I’m pretty sure Burlew felt that he needed to include those additional words to silence extremely stubborn fans of hers. Even now, if you go to the comic’s official message boards and start talking about Miko, a 500-post flame war will begin about how she was in the right and Roy was in the wrong. I guess it’s one of the downsides of the instant interaction between author and audience that webcomics allows; Burlew can see when part of the audience isn’t getting the hint and make it again, at the expense of repeating himself to all the people who figured it out the first time. So, while I agree with you that he hits us way too hard over the head with it by the end, I also understand why he did it. The squeaky wheel got the oil.

    I’m not sure if you know, too, that there are two print-only books in existence with additional prequel material. Not saying you’re required to review them, but their existence addresses two things you mentioned: One of them does answer the question of why they are called “The Order of the Stick” (it’s a fairly dumb one-page joke, though, and not worth buying the book just for that), and the other gives a LOT more depth to Xykon and his assistant, Redcloak. Enough that it really dispels the idea that Xykon is just an annoying joke, in my opinion. The first one is skippable, though it does have some of the missing focus on the dwarf cleric, but the second one is a fantastic read. Maybe you can score free review copies?

  2. Thanks for the input, SPoD!

    As you might guess, I’m not a long term reader of OotS — I read the entire archives over a 4 week span. It sorta gives my review that new reader flavor.

    As for Miko: was Burlew’s portrayal of Miko as a major pain in the ass part of the reason some fans defended her? I didn’t like her at the beginning, but I started to take her side for the simple reason all the characters seemed to hate her. Rooting for the underdog, you might say.

  3. No, I think it had more to do with her being a paladin. Longtime D&D players tend to have favorite classes, and those who prefer to play paladins tend to be the most vocal about it due to the “knight in shining armor” aspect. Simply by being a paladin, Miko immediately garnered the unwavering support of people who thought paladins could do no wrong and that Miko must therefore be the true hero of the story. The fact that Burlew paints her as an antagonist (without actually making her evil) sort of short circuited their brains. A paladin who is a pain in the ass but is still a paladin is actually fairly novel for D&D-based fiction. Usually, paladins can do no wrong–unless they fall to the Dark Side and start eating babies and whatnot.

    Also, we have Belkar, a main character, who is plainly evil and duels Miko for awhile; many players are conditioned to side with Good characters and oppose Evil characters in D&D, so Miko picked up supporters then by virtue of opposing Belkar. In my opinion, some readers confused the labels “good” and “evil” for “protagonist” and “antagonist” because D&D encourages them to think that way, leading them to defend Miko’s every action.

    If you’ve never played tabletop D&D, a lot of the reaction in-character to Miko will make less sense, too. Paladins are often the subject of controversy because the rules require them to keep a painfully strict Lawful Good alignment, which includes keeping all of their allies on the straight and narrow. I think Burlew was actually doing a fair job of reflecting the realistic reactions a bunch of gamers who were accustomed to playing those freewheeling characters would have had to a paladin showing up. However, looking at it from an outsider perspective, he may have “shorthanded” it a little too much, assuming that the bulk of his fanbase would understand why no one likes a paladin in the party without having to spell it out.

    As you can see, D&D players have a very love-hate relationship with the paladin class, which is why Miko is the subject of so much discussion. It’s one of those subtexts in the comic that’s probably lost on non-players. OOTS has a lot of mainstream appeal, but I really think Burlew is still writing first and foremost for longtime players of the game, and using Miko to address the 30+ years of baggage the paladin class has is probably the key example of that.

  4. Tim O'Shenko

    SPoD: Good points on Miko, especially how the other characters are seen reacting to her presence. I remember, in one of Roy Greenhilt’s big speeches to Miko, that the whole issue of keeping the party lawful/good was brought up. (If I recall correctly, Greenhilt asks who in their right mind would want to be a paladin, given that they have to keep the whole party in line). Even though I’ve only played D&D once and didn’t remember anything about the role of a paladin, the line was enough that I caught on to why the Order hated her.

    Still, that one little quip was buried in a wall of text, and had I just glossed over the page, I probably would have missed it completely. That would leave me with just the typical reasons (she’s stubborn, self-righteous) for disliking her, and I never would have thought of her as anything but a one-dimensional cretin.

    On the whole, I think Burlew would do well to scale back just a tad on the dialog. We readers would be less likely to miss out on important snippets of dialog if we didn’t have to wade through swamps of circumlocution, nor would we feel as though we were being beaten over the head with certain plot points. I understand that verbosity is an important and appropriate element for this comic, but it could stand to lose about 30 words a page and still be adequately verbose.

  5. I agree; I always suspected that it was a symptom of the fact that he needs to keep a healthy dose of comedy in each and every page, most of it verbal, in what has essentially become a dramatic story. It started out 100% comedy, and he reduced the comedy text of each strip by 50% and increased the drama text by 100%, leaving him with 150% of the amount of text each strip. (These numbers are made up, incidentally.) If he drops the comedy wholly, he has a fan revolt, which he can’t afford–this comic pays his mortgage. So he merely crams more speech balloons into each strip. In that respect, the prequel books are more satisfying; if he needs a whole page to say something dramatic, he just does it, and makes up for it with comedy later in the book.

  6. “They’re the sort of jokes told, punctuated with barely contained snorts, by oily, acne-infested kids who smell of egg-salad sandwiches as they gather around a table at the local Game Workshop.”

    Ouch! Was that comment really necessary? I broadly agree with much of this review, but I don’t know why you felt the need to stick a jab at D&D-playing nerds in there – especially when you go on to admit you’re pretty nerdy yourself.

    In any case, the amount of jokes purely about D&D goes down as OOTS goes on, and becomes more of a plot-based than comedy-based comic. Even at the beginning, it was more about the characters than the in-jokes, so someone like you who’s never played D&D can still get plenty out of it.

    I agree the comic’s biggest weak point is its wordiness, though. Its second biggest weak point is its tendency for the plot to drag – which happens to a lot of story-based comics, but OOTS’ slow update schedule makes it particularly noticeable.

  7. Lovecraft is Missing
    Larry Latham

    Press Release
    August 19, 2011

    For Immediate Release

    Lovecraft is Missing Book 5: Far Off Drums
    Begins Friday, September 2, 2011

    The mysteries begin to unfold as Nan Mercy, Win Battler and Father Munsford Jackey delve deeper into the disappearance of an obscure pulp fiction writer in 1926. Cosmic horror and pulse-pounding adventure swirl around the multiple factions moving towards an as-yet unknown goal, with the only certainty being that the result is not in the best interests of humanity. Is Lovecraft the key to defeating the evil, or is he merely a pawn in a larger game that somehow centers around his creations? Or is there a more terrible truth waiting to be uncovered?

    Lovecraft is Missing is a pulp adventure webcomic inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. In 1926, three people –a librarian, a young pulp writer and a priest- are brought together around the circumstances involving the disappearance of a writer whom none of them have ever met. The more they dig, the more they learn about the cosmic evil threatening the world—and their own personal connections to it.

    Lovecraft is Missing first went live on the web in October, 2008; there are now 134 pages up, along with three years worth of blogs, reviews of horror fiction and films, plus enough oddities to entertain even the most jaded reader.

    Larry Latham writes and illustrates Lovecraft is Missing, drawing on his life-long love of werid fiction, comic books and animation for his unique style. Lovecraft is Missing is the winner of the 2009 Digital Strips Best New Webcomic award and the 2010 Comic Monsters Best Horror Web Comic award.

    You can follow Lovecraft is Missing on Facebook and @Munsford on Twitter.

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