Friday, December 28, 2007

My Ten Favorite Comics of 2007: Order of the Stick

"Redemption is a rare and special thing, after all. It is not for everyone."

You'll notice I haven't been talking up the art in these comics as much as the writing. That's because I'm a writer first, and my comfort zone in terms of theory and criticism is story construction, character development, and so on. The bottom line is, I'm not that good at art, so I'm not that good at talking about art and understanding why it's good. But I have to do that here, because the art of Order of the Stick is very much central to explaining why it's such a good comic.

Here's the first comic
(run in 2003; strip 516 was published just yesterday). As you can see, the style is unusual. Hell, it's fucking stick figures. I'm sure some of you are now looking at me like I'm out of my mind. "One of your favorite comics has fucking stick figures?" Well, I was surprised too. I was just as surprised that one of my favorite comics is set in a fantasy world that operates on the rules of the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition, and everyone knows this.

But, as any chef will tell you, it's not the ingredients, it's what you do with them. And what Rich Burlew does with his art style and pre-built world is something different indeed, that puts it above most gamer webcomics. Like Bruce Timm or Carl Barks, Burlew knows that a simple style can be stretched in near infinite ways to convey meaning. The figures may be one-dimensional, but the characters they represent and the world they inhabit aren't. Sticks are, after all, just lines, and you can do anything with lines if you know what you're doing. Burlew knows what he's doing, and it shows in his ability to deftly handle crucial emotional moments, slapstick comedy, and epic-scale battle scenes with aplomb.

As for the writing, it goes beyond the obvious first few jokes. D&D is a game system built on the backs of the famous fantasy adventure archetypes most famously explicated by Tolkein, so by making the system an active part of the world the characters inhabit, Burlew immediately immerses the reader in an easily identifiable paradigm, which he is then free to play with as he sees fit. And, restrictive as the 3.5 D&D rules can be for players, they paradoxically leave him a great deal of room to tell his story with.

It helps, of course, that Burlew is in fact a very good storyteller. Aside from his near-mastery of dramatic pacing and timing, he's built a fantasy adventure with full, rich characters who develop with each new step in the adventure; plotlines that cascade into and through one another, with firm resolutions leading into new conflicts; and weight-carrying, no-bullshit twists that lend a genuine "anything can happen" flavor to the story. Other than the assurance that one of the characters will get a "happy ending" (and that's certainly broad enough), nothing is sacred, but nothing is illogical either.

And it's funny, sometimes scathingly so, in a way that doesn't require you to understand D&D in and out. Heck, one of the series' best running gags is predicated around (a) one of the characters being of an indeterminate gender and (b) the art being absolutely no help in clarifying this. It'd work if this were horror, sci-fi, or historical drama, because the punchline is that the artist is purposefully dicking the characters around. Most of the humor is predicated on ironies like that, as is most of the drama. (See the personal odyssey of one Miko Miyazaki, concluded this year in one of the strip's greatest moments to date.)

Anyone can find something to like about Order of the Stick, although not everyone will. But it's a great example of what fun a webcomic, hell, of what fun a comic can be in the hands of someone who loves the medium and knows what they're doing.

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