Webcomic Feature: The Order of the Stick

A branch upon the tree.

You can imagine this is a tricky feature for me to write, indeed one I’ve dreaded inevitably writing. On the one hand, I can critique the good points of Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick (OotS for short) and look like a fanboy in light of Remember’s origins and artistic stylings, and on the other I can critique its failings and look smug and superior despite those same aspects. In a way I guess this is the burden of justification I took on when I started featuring other webcomics on Remember at all, and since I took that responsibility I guess it’s about time I owned up to it.

It’s true I owe a lot to Rich “The Giant” Burlew in providing OotS to the world and inspiring myself and many others to take up drawing sticky personages as a hobby and/or profession. You need only flip through the archives to see how closely I originally followed his example in drawing stick figure characters, but you’ll also see how much I’ve deviated from his same example in more recent pages with more complex character designs, noticeably different creature designs (the dragon design, for example), effects, lighting, etc.

These aspects are what artistically separate Remember from Order of the Stick and are usually the points I use to defend (where necessary) Remember from critics who dismiss it as just copying Burlew, but I obviously can’t deny that Remember has a lot of genes from the pool of Order of the Stick. But as we all well know, having genetics inherited from someone does not make you identical to that someone, and similarly I don’t think Remember can be considered copycat of OotS.

Moving on from that then, I’ll try to do my usual review without providing anything to be misconstrued as elitism or fanboyism.

The Order of the Stick was begun in September 2003, the era perhaps to be known as the First Webcomic Boom, following the 1990s which saw their initial inception (bwaaaaahm). Rich Burlew, as one might surmise, was a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, and drew the stick figures that now populate the comic to illustrate his games, before deciding to put them all together into a comic.

The story chiefly follows the titular Order of heroes (Consisting of a human fighter, a human bard, a human rogue, a dwarven cleric, a halfling ranger, and an elf wizard) but also features events going on surrounding the antagonists, an increasing roster beginning initially with Xykon the undead wizard and Redcloak the goblin cleric.

To begin with the story was fairly vague, a group of adventurers seeking the treasure in a dungeon belonging to Xykon, who sits viewing them advance and sending minion after minion their way. However, it took a turn for the dramatic when, poisoned by a trap, human fighter Roy receives a visit from his deceased father who explains the blood oath that is guiding him to this quest against Xykon. Far more details are revealed in the prequel books that were later released, On the Origin of PCs covering the banding together of the heroes and the origin of their name and Start of Darkness covering similar alliances with the main villains.

The story does display the substantial focus you would expect from the increasingly-grand odyssey it professes, but it also tends to wander quite substantially. For example, rogue Haley and ranger Belkar are separated from the main group and then go on something of a road trip leading to Haley’s hometown which involves meeting with her guild, numerous new NPCs all with backstory and getting involved in significant stories that last for quite some time in the comic, very little of which actually contributes to the main quest or even the development of the characters.

So I believe it’s fair to say that the writing meanders about its overarching goal, though the characters are (usually) working towards it. As a consequence exposition is generally kept to a minimum, but I think it could benefit occasionally from employing it. After all, there’s seldom a classic story that doesn’t involve a yarn or two being spun at some point by a wise elder, a study session montage, or a brilliant scientist at a whiteboard. Exposition shouldn’t be constant but it also shouldn’t be neglected as a story element, especially if it allows skimming over of substantial side-tracks in story to get back to the main plot.

Having been running for going-on nine years, the art of the comic has changed in a few ways. For most the transition is actually fairly similar to my own developments in Remember, with the subtle improvement of character posing and expression, but also in more significant ways visible with the occasional dramatic scene and new outfit for the characters (haircuts are remarkably popular).

The art tends to still stick fairly closely to its root elements with plain and simplistic designs modified for complexity when needed, and this may actually contribute to the delay in releases OotS has become unfortunately known for (this is also attributed to the oft-ill health of Burlew himself). Magic items are generally drawn as ordinary items and stated to be magical, but grievous wounds to characters tend to also be portrayed with significant gore (one unfortunate gladiator being disemboweled, for example). Colouring has changed gradually to be more subdued and less saturated as well, which is very noticeable between the early and newer pages.

In all, story and release-delay issues aside, the comic is very well put together and is often, as it should be, recommended reading for roleplayers and gamers alike. Attention to detail is significant but the actual D&D rules are not essential knowledge for anyone reading. Ruling jokes have subsided considerably from their early prevalence and barely appear anymore.

It’s hard to fight accusations of bias when I say this but indeed I would recommend, heartily, Order of the Stick. It has kept going despite all manner of issues that have plagued it, it has reliably put out good and well-produced content, and in addition to turning a profit from merchandise (available online and in stores, sayeth the obligatory plug) it has helped to launch the careers of other webcomic authors (most notable being Erfworld, whom it personally hosted for its first year).

So I guess I end up sounding fanboyish after all, oh well.

Posted by: Lying

2 Comments »

  1. I’m tempted to recommend Tim reviews Homestuck, but that seems a bit cruel. The archives have gotten a bit lengthy.
    How about True Magic? It’s recently rebooted.
    For a non-webcomic related suggestion, how about something about the brony phenomenon? I am admittedly somewhat biased, being a brony, but it’s always nice to see what those ‘outside the herd’ think about the whole thing. :)

    Comment by Kobold Scribbler — February 8, 2012 @ 1:17 am

  2. “…Xykon the undead wizard…”
    Sorcerer, not wizard, as he would emphatically correct you if you asked him. It takes a while for that to become clear if you’re only reading the online comics, but I think it does eventually (and if you read Start of Darkness, it’s a main plot point).

    Oh, and check out Burlew’s Kickstarter as well, if you haven’t - he’s had an incredible success there.

    Nice critique, overall.

    Comment by Sorator — February 23, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

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