Chris Sims reviews Order of the Stick
As someone who moves from webcomic to webcomic, spreading reviews like Johnny Appleseed spread seeds for substandard apple crops, I haven’t had time to stay with one webcomic to see its whole run through. Fortunately I am not the only reviewer out there.
The last time I checked up on Order of the Stick was in 2008. Fortunately, David Herbert was around to pick up the slack with his own more recent take on the comic with a focus on its villains. Now Chris Sims of Comics Alliance provides his own perspective:
As the most recent storyline comes to a close, though, all those things have come together in a way that works perfectly. It’s better than it’s ever been in the past ten years, and a huge part of that is the way that Burlew has been using stick figures battling with swords as a platform to examine the nature of fiction, and how playing with the rules of a narrative can lead to some beautiful storytelling.
When you get right down to it, that was probably a necessary direction for the strip to go in. Order of the Stick has the unique distinction of being, in a lot of ways, a parody comic that somehow managed to outlast the thing that it was parodying. Looking back from today, those early strips about weapon size rules and the complexities of leveling up seem almost quaint, if only because the game system they’re goofing on has gone through a major revision, leaving the subject matter as the same kind of weird little footnote in the world of RPGs that it is in the sprawling saga that became the focus of the comic. Of course, all that stuff is still there, with casual conversations about +5 swords and plot points based around how many spells per day a capital-W Wizard can cast, and to be honest, it’s still a major part of the appeal. When I talked to him about the Kickstarter and how it kept on shattering expectations with every new stretch goal, Burlew mentioned that cultivating an audience of gamers meant that he was appealing directly to people who were hardwired to want to see numbers rise and unlock new rewards, and I suspect that he was only half-joking.
In the comic, though, all those rules are really just doing the same thing that they do in a tabletop RPG: they form the background for a story. From a very early point in the strip’s run, Burlew made it clear that he was doing more than just a gag strip about halflings. The seeds of the greater plot, the one that’s taken up the majority of the past decade, were dropped pretty early on, and everything has flown from that. The thing is, once you start acknowledging that your world is built around a set of rigidly defined rules, it becomes clear that your story is built on the same kinds of laws. That’s what sets the past year’s worth of strips apart, even for a strip that’s consistently gotten better for the entire time it’s been around.
Instead of cracking jokes about the rules of the game, Order of the Stick has started examining the rules of its own narrative, and it’s been fantastic.
I think it’s fair to say that “inevitability” is a pretty big theme of the most recent storyline, manifesting in different places as the inevitability of betrayal when villains ally with each other (something that happens twice with one pair of bad guys and manages to be shocking both times), the inevitability of death, the way that a person will inevitably react according to the core of their personality even under the most extreme circumstances, and even the inevitability of actions having consequences.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the strip still manages to be consistently funny and exciting even while it’s exploring the fatalistic nature of narrative structure, but it really has surpassed itself here. It’s not just that it’s smart, or that it’s funny, or that it’s dealing with heavy stuff in a way that makes you forget you’re reading a comic about stick figures that routinely use the phrase “magic missile.” It’s that Burlew does it all at once, in a way so clever that it makes the meta-commentary as exciting as the swashbuckling adventure.
Set aside some time and catch up. It’s worth it.