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)
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 The Order of the Stick. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.