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Tarquin and General Villainy.

Hmm, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that, been busy with a few things. Some of which you can buy.

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Something that can always benefit a story is having a good villain. Some of the most popular shows and movies out there are either focussed on an interesting bad guy or at least include one. Game of Thrones, The Godfather and especially Breaking Bad all include baddies who you can see where they’re coming from but still understand that they’re evil and need to lose. However, they aren’t annoying enough to make you grind your teeth every time they’re on screen so that their eventual fall is more like a relief than sadness that the story is over.

With Order of the Stick, I do like the big bads, Xykon and Red Cloak, because of their individual personalities. Xykon is a monster but is so affable about it that he comes off more as darkly humorous. Red Cloak is more of a fallen hero who is still trying to do the best he can for his race but is not nice about it. Whenever these two take up screen time, I’m not groaning and waiting to get back to the Order themselves, I’m enjoying them. Rich Berlew is good at making interesting villains and General Tarquin, Elan’s father, does fit the bill.

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So why does he? Well, let’s take a look.

First, I need to compare him to someone similar, Walter White. Both are fathers interested in the well being of their family, both do horrible things but justify it for some greater good and both have large egos that fuel their motivations. But while I always enjoyed BB, there were times I couldn’t stand Walter. That groaning I mentioned above? Happened a few times over the run of the series, which is not good for a protagonist.

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The big difference between the two is that Tarquin is clearly painted as being insane. With Walt, his pride refuses to let him accept he could be wrong. With Tarquin, he seems to have lost the entire concept of morality. He knows he’s the bad guy in this story and happily plays his part, unable to comprehend that his children don’t see the world his way, or that they may not even want to be a part of the story he is trying to create.

This could be explained by his power as well as ego, the combination of the two outright destroying any semblance of morality, although we have had hints he may never have had a moral compass. After first meeting him, we are slowly shown a man who is so used to getting his way that he will kill an innocent man just because he fancies a married woman and it’s heavily implied he has committed marital rape in the past. However his reaction is actually a little more disturbing than if he had been malicious about it. He isn’t, he’s so calm, polite and cheerful about everything that it’s almost scary.

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I think one of the best moments showcasing this is the death of Nale. For the previous one hundred comics, Tarquin was subtly manipulating Malack to prevent him from killing Nale by making Nale too useful to dispose of. Tarquin even indulged in allowing his son to command him and some of his friends. Even when he discovers Nale killed Malack, Tarquin volunteers to vouch for Nale. And when Nale says he didn’t want it, Tarquin is absolutely confused for a moment as he tries to process the fact that his son does not want his help.

Which leads to Tarquin’s best flaw: He refuses to accept he isn’t the main villain.

Anyone who has been reading the comic saw it from the start, the man is a sub-boss who is just getting in the way of the main story. This is Roy’s tale of vengeance and saving the world, with Elan just along for the ride. But that taints Tarquin’s legacy. He wants to be remembered as a great villain, or at least a great leader over a continent. And he wants his children to continue this proud tradition. If Elan were to become a great hero, then his family line would have fame that way.

However, if he stopped to think about it, he would realise he is trying to assassinate the true hero of the story. For all his talk of following proper story structure, he is the one sending it off the rails and disrupting the proper final conclusion. However, that does not fit into his world view and so it cannot be true.

It’s this irony that prevents me from getting annoyed with this divergence in the overall plot. I’m actually looking forward to seeing Tarquin finally being forced to realise it. While Miko became grating after she killed Shojo and Kubota trying to play for power at a time like that just had my palm hit my face a few times, Tarquin knows what he is, just not the scope.

Though I do admit I would like to know what’s going on with Xykon at the final gate. Hopefully we’ll get a wrap up before this whole thing ends up dragging out for too long.

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Posted on November 3, 2013, in fantasy webcomic, webcomics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Interesting article, David; I completely agree that Tarquin is one of the more interesting and compelling villains in webcomics, and it’s a testament to Burlew’s ability as a writer that he’s been able to craft such a character.

    As for what makes him an effective villain, I would say that the biggest factor is that he is shown to be amazingly competent. All too often in fiction, you have situations where a villain is talked up as a big threat, but when it comes time for the villain to act, he or she is shown to be not much of a threat at all. (Dominic Deegan was infamous for this, to the point where readers actually began to feel sorry for the villains because they were so hopelessly outmatched.) In contrast, Tarquin is established from the outset to be extremely powerful and intelligent, and he has been consistently portrayed as being several steps ahead of our heroes. Which serves not only to ratchet up the narrative tension, but also to make the heroes’ eventual victory feel truly earned.

    Also, a question for David, El Santo, or any commenters here – which other characters from webcomics do you think are good villains, and why?

    • Good villians in webcomics, huh? Anyone that Rayne Summers is railing against. They can’t help but look decent and reasonable in contrast. 🙂

      It’s actually a tough question, since very few notable villains come to mind. Probably Golgo from Rice Boy, though. Not so much because he was sympathetic, but because his single-minded drive was sorta enrapturing.

    • Thanks, and yes his competence is also a good trait.

      Hmm, another good villain? That’s a tough one actually because most of the comics I read these days don’t have straight up villains. Though I did get a largely positive reaction from the referee from my comic Domain Tnemrot.

      Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Darths And Droids was done very well though. It could be argued that that example doesn’t count since Annie, his player, is clearly a protagonist, but within the campaign he is definitely a more competent and devious antagonist than the movies made him. It’s one of the main reasons to read the comic.

  2. I think the main villain of Homestuck (SPOILERS)Lord English/Caliborn is prety awesome. here’s an excelent writing why. The tl;dr version is: He knows that he is evil, and he conciously chooses to be as evil as it is possible.

  3. For some reason, I drifted away from Order of the Stick at about the same time Tarquin first appeared. I think it had to do with the direction the webcomic was taking. For instance, I thought the very earliest strips were the best, when they were mostly joke-a-page as opposed to a sprawling epic. After the first arc, Order of the Stick might as well have been called “Invasion of the Speech Bubbles”. It ceased being fun, just added more and more detail, and, I think, ended up losing itself in its plot. And I think it fell prey to another, very sad trend that afflicts fantasy in particular: it can’t resist Epicness, to the extent that even intimately touching moments must be set within it. It thinks it’s daring to deal with everything on as large a scale as possible, using a manichean (or, increasingly dark vs. darker) worldview, without realizing that what would we daring now is for something to be set on a small scale. (No, the entire universe is not in peril, but your town might be, etc.). Adventure for adventure’s sake. Or camaraderie.

    I can’t say exactly when this Epicness started in popular culture. Tolkien merely used a stencil that existed long before him, but I’m thinking more of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien — especially the ditching of all the lighter touches in Lord of the Rings, for no better reason than because Peter Jackson Does Not Do Lighter Touches. While I haven’t seen The Hobbit (though I’ve read the book), I don’t think the cinema has quite recovered from that, and I don’t think fantasy in general is going to.

    In OOTS, I think there was a point where Burlew thought he had done as much character development as was possible and just chose to get outlandish. When the Linear Guild appeared, perhaps. From that point, I knew (1) that this would abandon a cyclical approach to go on forever and (2) that even Burlew would lose control of his story. (1) has been confirmed; I haven’t been far enough to confirm (2).

  4. On the subject of the “Tarquin vs. Walter White” comparison, I just thought I’d post a comment Rich Burlew himself made recently on the OotS forums:

    You reveal who you really are under stress—stress doesn’t magically turn you into someone else unrelated to who you usually are. The fact that you may not have ever known that this is who you were doesn’t change anything.

    I don’t think Tarquin sat around thinking, “Ha ha! I am fooling them into thinking I love my family! I am so clever!” I think he thought that he really loved his family, right up until the point where loving his family conflicted with him being in total control. And then both he and the readers got to see which one of the two really mattered to him.

    Sound familiar? 😉

  1. Pingback: Chris Sims reviews Order of the Stick | The Webcomic Overlook

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