Monday, October 06, 2008

The Comics Page #18: Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness

Amazon link for START OF DARKNESS
It’s common for a webcomic to move from simple gag strips to intricate dramatic plotlines that require we suddenly care about the characters. What’s rare is for a strip to do this without completely falling apart. ORDER OF THE STICK, written and drawn (after a fashion) by Rich Burlew, has managed to achieve a careful balance between jokes about DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS rules, character banter, and genuine plot, resulting in what may be one of the best webcomics currently going. To be fair, it got into plot business reasonably early, and has never abandoned its metatextual roots, so it may not be a shift so much as a predetermined blend. Giant In The Playground has released a few trade compilations of the webcomic, but START OF DARKNESS is one of two print-only prequels delving into the surprisingly layered backstory of a stick figure fantasy comic. THE ORIGIN OF PCs deals with the origins of the actual Order, while this delves into the series’ overarching villains: Xykon the lich, Redcloak the goblin priest, and their pet, a fearsome monster lurking perpetually in the darkness. Burlew recommends reading NO CURE FOR THE PALADIN BLUES, the second compiled volume, before this one because this spoils some of the backstory, and that story begins roundabout here if you’re curious. For those already up to speed, START OF DARKNESS marks a change of tone but still shows off what the strip does well, blending sharp comedy writing with solid comics storytelling and a genuine interest in its characters.

We first meet Xykon as a young boy, one who has suddenly developed mystic powers, which he uses to re-animate his dead dog, kill and re-animate his family, and basically to set out to become the most powerful and most evil spellcaster that ever there was. Meanwhile, an entire clan of goblins is slain by the Paladins of the Sapphire Guard, and a survivor, an acolyte of the Dark One (the goblins’ default deity), inherits the Crimson Mantle of the High Priest, and with it knowledge of a great plan to wreak revenge on the “civilized” races that have plagued them since their birth. Taking his younger brother with him, he meets up with Xykon and a partnership is born. Naming himself Redcloak (because Xykon doesn’t have the patience to learn his real name), he persuades the not-yet-undead sorcerer to aid him in taking control of a mystic gate that could give them both the power to rule the world. Things do not go as planned.

The moral dimensions of this story are apparent from very early on, with the ostensibly (and, by the game rules which the strip follows to the letter, objectively) good paladins massacring an entire village of goblins. Further complication is added in the backstory, which implies that the goblins, orcs, bugbears, and hobgoblins of the world were created solely to be killed for experience points by patrons of the good gods (the Dark One having ascended to his position from among the goblin race.) Anyone who’s read a good amount of fantasy has no doubt come across this sort of inversion before- heck, play a Horde character in WORLD OF WARCRAFT and you’ll encounter it. But Burlew doesn’t simply let us off the hook by putting us firmly on Redcloak’s side, either. His quest for justice for the goblins starts to turn into one for vengeance, and Xykon’s growing corrupting influence helps to drag it down even further. Xykon himself is Just Plain Evil, without any redeeming qualities, but he’s still well-rounded; he’s got a short attention span, no head for strategy, and a determination to enjoy life and undeath through causing the suffering of others.

Through this, it’s still funny, and the interesting thing is how broad the humor is allowed to be without obstructing the serious business. The simple artwork makes it easy for us to accept a D&D-esque fantasy world with diners, action figures, and taco joints. Burlew also likes to break the fourth wall a lot, which is particularly fun if you’ve been reading OOTS for a while.

Burlew uses more or less the same page format that is employed for most of the strip, but while the online strip is in full color, this prequel is mostly in black and white (presumably to save on printing costs, but he gets some good gags out of it too.) The art, as mentioned, consists of stick figures in a fairly simplistic 2-D environment, but is surprisingly expressive and carefully rendered.

This is a good fast read, one which depends on familiarity with the strip but not too much. (The main strip’s still free anyway, so why complain?) Obviously it’s a dark chapter, with inevitable tragedy by the end of it all, but at the same time it opens up a lot of possibilities as to where the story will go in the end. For fans of the online strip it’s a must-buy, for everyone else, start reading those archives.

Grade: A-

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