Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dungeons & Dragons & Digital Comics or Why Order of the Stick Sticks With Me

I don't read a lot of digital comicbook material yet. I'm not such a luddite that I can't admit that someday, it'll probably be a regular part of my collecting habits. But I do so love the act of bagging and organizing my comics. I like having a physical item to revisit, one that wears with use and eventually, in some cases, falls apart and has to be replaced. All of that is part of the appeal for me.
     There is also a financial aspect, meaning I don't have a lot of extra money to spend on the kinds of books I'm interested in digitally, even at their sometimes lower price points. So what I do tend to read digitally are free webcomics, and I've been following a number of them for years, none of which are more rewarding or enjoyable than the Order of the Stick.
     It is one of the nerdiest and most niche series I read. Not only is it set in a Dungeons-&-Dragons-specific world, there are constant references to actual rules and mechanics from the game's third edition. Indeed, when the series began, that's all it was: insider gags about rules that were silly or illogical. But over time, it has become a sprawling epic that remains grounded in its incredibly well-developed core cast. Creator/writer/artist Rich Burlew has become a master of the long game, but never loses sight of the importance of telling smaller stories along the way. In fact, the main team's central goal and primary villain haven't changed in nearly 900 strips, but they've accomplished many smaller tasks and made plenty of less significant enemies along the way. Burlew will split them up, disable certain members for weeks or months on end, and even killed team leader Roy once and had him spend a remarkably long time off the board, hanging out in the afterlife. Whenever these longer plots resolve, there is an immense satisfaction, but Burlew is quick to introduce new threats and dramatic complications, so nothing ever fully settles down. It's the very definition of epic, with all the war, romance, and tragedy to back up that claim.
     In no way is Order of the Stick a perfectly crafted comicstrip. Burlew's writing can be excessively long-winded, something he himself points to many times in his scripts. But even when the words crowd the panels, there is important and carefully thought-out information contained there. Sometimes it's emotional windbagging, sure, when characters arrive at the peaks of their various arcs. But more often than not, Burlew puts a lot of time into every dialogue balloon, and though a bit of brevity would be nice, its absence is not a crippling defect.
     And Burlew can also do a lot with silence, even in his crude, stick figure style. Sometimes whole strips will be wordless, but every beat pushes the story forward for somebody. Though characters are set aside for long stretches so that others can be focused on more closely, no one is ever forgotten, and there is a tremendous effort on Burlew's part to maintain continuity. This also means a lot of self-referential material and call-back humor which, again, is part of what makes Burlew such a great longform writer. There are various levels of payoff from a variety of storytelling techniques every step of the way, and that's a nice kind of reliability for a series to have.
     Order of the Stick is not for everyone, but I honestly believe it could be enjoyed by people who've never played D&D, provided they forced their way through the first dozen strips or so. Once the characters start to blossom and the story begins to unfold before them, there is enough dramatic tension and humor based on story context that you could get a lot out of it without understanding the gamer in-jokes. But if you're a D&D fan, I can't recommend anything more strongly. Years into its incredible run, it has a larger cast and more complex story than ever, but everything progresses so steadily that it's easy to follow the myriad threads. And Burlew keeps amping up the stakes and increasing the emotional impact, most notably through a recent unexpected character death that properly brought me to tears. Not sobbing uncontrollably, but wipe-awayable tears. When you can do that with stick figure characters who all began as tired D&D cliches, you've obviously built something great.

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