By Timothy Kwok
Webcomics do not enjoy nearly as much attention as most other storytelling media – which is a shame, because there truly are some pearls of narrative brilliance hidden deep beneath the vast sea that is the Internet. The Order of the Stick, a comedic webcomic written and drawn by Rich Burlew, is one such example.
Rather than keeping to the self-contained gag-per-strip format of many other comics, the Order of the Stick possesses an overall plot that unfolds continuously with every new strip. Set in a medieval fantasy universe, its story follows the webcomic’s eponymous adventuring party in their quest to save the world from the evil lich sorcerer, Xykon. Our main cast are (from right to left in the image above, and then top): Roy Greenhilt, a human fighter and leader of the order; Haley Starshine, a female rogue and the group’s second-in-command; Elan, the team’s well-intentioned but dim-witted human bard; Durkon Thundershield, a straitlaced dwarven male cleric; Belkar Bitterleaf, a halfling ranger prone to acts of cruelty; and Vaarsuvius, an elven wizard whose ambiguous gender is a constant source of jokes.
On the surface, this might make for bland storytelling: take your standard motley band of misfits, place them in a garden-variety magical setting and have them battle an ultimate (and ultimately generic) evil. In fact, this is exactly what the series does. However, it does not take readers long to realise that there is much more complexity beneath this simplified description. Much of that complexity is owed to the comic’s cast of compelling characters, because make no mistake – although the setting is fantasy-based and the artwork cartoonish, the characters are very, very real.
No one character in the order stands out above the others, and all get their chance in the spotlight. Roy, for example, presents an interesting subversion to the stock hero archetype. In attitude and demeanour he appears to be a typical anti-hero – sarcastic, irritable, and more of a knight in sour armour despite his obvious allegiance to good. In character motivation – that is, why Roy even bothers going off on this grand adventure – Burlew gives him a backstory one would expect of much weaker stories in the genre: Roy seeks to fulfil a blood oath passed down from his deceased father to destroy Xykon. It seems like a standard script so far – but then we learn that Roy’s quest isn’t motivated by some personal vendetta. It seems like a standard script so far – but then we learn that his desire to vanquish Xykon isn’t motivated by some personal vendetta. In fact, Roy’s father had given up on his oath years before dying from old age. Roy only bothers with pursuing Xykon because failing to fulfil the oath’s terms would mean being denied entry to Celestia, the in-universe equivalent of paradise in the afterlife. If anything, Roy bears a grudge against his old man for leaving his family to clean up his mess. And it is thus here we see a hint of how Burlew gives a fresh spin on the standard fantasy recipe, providing many twists and subversions to common tropes and characterisations.
But as complex as the characters already are at the story’s start, watching them grow and overcome obstacles strewn along the way is even more satisfying. This is no narrative in which the writer rushes the characters through plot point after plot point, as if checking items off a list. The Order of the Stick is very much character-driven; the main cast fail almost as often as they succeed, and many of the choices they make have lasting repercussions that they must deal with further down the line. Moreover, the story shapes the characters just as much as the characters shape the story, and we see the group change as they progress through the plot. Haley grows out of her tendencies towards greed and mistrust, the arrogant Vaarsuvius is humbled after making a costly mistake in the middle of the series, and Roy eventually renews his commitment to defeat Xykon, looking past his family oath and recognising the sorcerer as a legitimate threat that has to be stopped.
Excitement and action (and, apparently, snark) abound in this 900-strip fantasy epic.
Despite all the drama, however, the webcomic does not veer off into soap opera territory. The serious moments are counter-balanced with copious quantities of humour, and one would be hard-pressed to find any other fantasy work as unpretentious as The Order of the Stick. Many of its jokes break the fourth wall, and sometimes even take the form of self-deprecatory jibes at the webcomic itself. While such humour does have the unfortunate side-effect of pulling the reader out of the narrative, these self-referential jokes are always good for a laugh, and also lend a kind of endearing silliness to the comic. Readers might be especially tickled by a joke in which an anachronistic crime scene – complete with yellow police tape and chalk outlines of the corpses and all – was the focus. In the strip, a police sketch artist presents to his chief facial composites of the two suspects. The composites are beautifully and realistically drawn with proper shading and detail – as stark a contrast as is possible to the comic’s stick figure art style. However, in the Order of the Stick universe, artistic tastes are apparently the reverse of our own: The police chief fires the sketch artist in disgust, viciously denigrating him for his horrible drawing – an obvious, tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment by Burlew of his own simplistic style.
One of the webcomic’s more literal breaking-the-fourth-wall gags.
But readers know better than to follow the fussy police chief’s example. Fans are willing to look past the comic’s art because its rich story and colourful cast and sparkling wit shine through its plain packaging. This much is apparent from the webcomic’s staggeringly favourable reception: The Order of the Stick has bagged numerous webcomic awards and accolades, boasts an estimated viewership of 1.65 million, and even raised over US$1.25 million in a recent online fundraiser –not bad for a stick-figure webcomic that started out as nothing more than an author’s pet project.