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Monday, August 18, 2008

For some reason I thought I had already posted this when I hadn't even added the images.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full sized Common Sense, or lack thereof.)

Well, it's been over a month since the last time I talked about Order of the Stick at length (and it feels like much longer), and it's high time for me to revisit the territory. As I've stated, OOTS started out as a jokey, funny gag-a-day strip about a bunch of adventurers trawling through a dungeon. It's now a multilayered political drama, soap opera, and high fantasy tale. In other words, it's been turned inside out by Cerebus Syndrome, and been about as successful as you could be in doing so, thanks in part to losing none of the humor and metahumor that characterized its early days, and if anything, increasing it.

OOTS even lightly poked fun at its descent into Cerebus Syndrome in this strip, made at a time when Websnark was still king of the webcomics world and still had many of the tics of its height, including the "submitted without comment" routine. For those of you who weren't here when Sandsday made a blatant push for linkage from the now-mostly-defunct Websnark, I point you to the third panel of this strip. Sure enough, soon there was a comment-filled non-comment from Eric Burns, which contained this doozy: "It was funnier to me since there really isn't a Cerebus Syndrome going on here, of course."

A strip makes a joke about its own descent into Cerebus Syndrome when there isn't one? How does that even make sense? But the first commenter to Burns' non-comment comment agrees about the lack of Cerebus Syndrome. A later commenter claims "you can't really start invoking Cerebus when the comic remains consistently and deeply funny" (I'll have more on this in a sec, but for now I'll say this seems to imply OOTS still hasn't fallen into Cerebus Syndrome even now) and compares it to Goats (considering that strip's descent into fate-of-the-planet-at-stake randomness, probably not the best example, but I'll check the strips that were out at the time and get bac to you). Even now, if you ask people on the OOTS board when that strip went into Cerebus Syndrome, they'll probably cite the sequence revealing the Snarl's existence (a few may alternately cite the introduction of Miko), and the OOTS being tasked to stop Xykon from freeing it, even though if anything that sequence comes at the end of a long transition to a more plot-based model for the strip.

Let's take another look at the definition of Cerebus Syndrome:
The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. 'Cerebus Syndrome' refers to Dave Sim's epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that's for another day. People saw how Cerebus's humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they're doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own. [...]
It is extremely hard to take a light, joke a day strip and push it through a successful Cerebus Syndrome. Dave Sim did it in stages, and at least in the early days of the transformation brought massive amounts of Funny to cover it over. Done perfectly, one only realizes in hindsight that the strip has turned out to be quite different than it used to be. Done sloppily, the Cerebus Syndrome fails, and the webcomic enters First and Ten Syndrome. Unfortunately, a failed Cerebus Syndrome is an excruciating process for the webcomic's fans to endure. Please note that one can continue to bring the Funny while going for Cerebus Syndrome -- and in fact, probably should. It is far more common to drop the Funny, which increases geometrically the chance to fall into First and Ten.
In the second paragraph quoted above, you could easily substitute out "Dave Sim" for "Rich Burlew", because that's exactly what Burlew did with Order of the Stick. There's a long list of milestones in the march to Cerebus Syndrome taken by OOTS dating at least back to the revelation of the underlying plot in #13, and arguably continuing well after this sequence. Similarly, I suspect part of the reason most people cite the last of these major milestones as the tipping point is that that is the point where these people realized just how far the strip had come from its origins (especially if they weren't there for those origins and didn't realize how different they were).

It's true that the revelation of the Snarl's existence gave the strip an overarching plot driving all the action and ended about 75 strips of what amounted to aimless wandering, but it's important to remember that the definition of Cerebus Syndrome says nothing about myth arcs or anything of the sort. It refers only to greater character development or, more colloquially, a general increase in drama and an arc-based model. The former starts appearing at least as early as the opening sequence of the second book, the middle at least as early as Miko's introduction, and the latter far earlier than either. (And it's important to remember that Burns specifically notes that a strip need not abandon humor to undergo Cerebus Syndrome.)

Besides, the quest to keep the Snarl imprisoned only really replaced the "hunt down Xykon and kill him" plot of the first book, and by the time it happened it didn't really mark that seismic a shift. At least as early as Miko's introduction the specter of Shojo and Azure City was already forming some sort of plot that was promising to carry the OOTS for quite some distance. The first hints of that were laid down at the end of the first book - where, remember, the strip had overturned its entire premise. And by the time the OOTS was brought before the court, Haley was speaking gibberish, the sort of thing that isn't just a sign of Cerebus Syndrome but a hallmark of the nonstop angst that heralds full-blown First and Ten. And then there's the little niggling matter of strip #242, where Haley remarks "we were a lot safer when we just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules!" By that point, The Order of the Stick hadn't "just made fairly obvious jokes about the rules" for some time. A long time.

You want to point out the most important tipping point in Order of the Stick's march towards Cerebus Syndrome? The one strip that could best be used to separate the early, happy-go-lucky, almost continuity-free days of the early strips from the more plot-based OOTS we know and love today? The one point that you can point to and say, "This is where The Order of the Stick as we know it truly begins"?

You have to go all the way back to the first book, way before there was even any hint of the Snarl or even of any "gate". You have to go all the way back to strip number 43.

And I'm not just saying that because I've had a fascination with the number 42 since even before I learned of its importance in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It doesn't look like much, especially if you're someone used to the sort of strips that characterized the first 42 of OOTS' existence. But trust me, Elan doesn't just open the door to the Linear Guild at the end of this strip; he opens the door to plot, to story arcs, to gates and paladins and pseudo-Asian cultures. And Vaarsuvius' monologue in the middle of the strip proves to be far more prescient, and far broader in scope, than most fans could have ever envisioned.

How pivotal is this strip? By the time all the loose ends are tied up from the ensuing story arc - by the time Durkon, left behind in the inevitable battle with the Linear Guild, finally returns to the group - it is strip number 85. Which means, when dated back to strip number 43, the entire sequence has gone 43 strips. Or just over half of all the strips published to this point. The Linear Guild sequence has lasted longer than the strip's entire existence prior to it.

There's a lot in the Linear Guild arc that hints at the strip to come in ways the Original 42 does not, starting with the slower pace of the plot compared to the limited arcs done in the Original 42. Not to mention the existence of some sort of long-form plot. We get some of the early hints of deep characterization (the OOTS were basically two-dimensional characters before the Linear Guild arc gave us such things as Elan's backstory) and relationships between characters (at least nominally, virtually all of Nale's actions after the arc concludes derive from a single panel in this strip). We see long-term planning starting to bear fruit, including the realization of a prophecy dating to #15 (which Haley even points out!).

We get the start of multiple ongoing running gags. We get the introduction of not only the group of villains secondary only to Xykon and his minions (at least through the end of the third book), but also Celia, who subsequently reappears to defend the OOTS in front of Shojo in the sequence that introduces us to the Snarl, becomes at least a brief fling for Roy, and is currently adventuring with Haley's half of the OOTS. Although the art continues to evolve until at least Miko's introduction, it's during the Linear Guild arc that the dialogue reaches its current font size. And it's before those last loose ends are tied up that we learn the deeper motivation for Roy's hunt for Xykon.

The very next arc involves bypassing the entire rest of the dungeon and cutting straight to Xykon's lair. That's V's plan from the start and, although that attempt doesn't end well, that's essentially what ultimately happens. If I was wrong in my initial post - if Rich's descent into Cerebus Syndrome, as Eric Burns describes in part of his description I didn't quote, was a result of boredom, not planned from the start (and remember, I own none of the OOTS books with accompanying commentary) - it came either after the original 42, or during or immediately after the Linear Guild episode, through the "bathroom break" of #86-87. The sheer number of subsequent subplots set up in the Linear Guild storyline suggests to me that, if Burlew didn't decide from the start what he was going to do with his strip, he sure did before completing 43 strips. (And he probably had some idea before completing 15, judging by the long-term nature of Eugene Greenhilt's prophecy. Even Elan's recovery of a Belt of Gender-Changing in strip 9 winds up having importance over 200 strips down the road.)

From Rich Burlew's perspective, I would think that strip 43 is where the transition - in retrospect, shorter and quicker than I let on earlier - from the gag-a-day OOTS of the Original 42 to the arc-based, plot-based strip we know and love really occurs. And from the perspective of someone who was around for those Original 42 strips (which again, I am not) it would have seemed impossible before #43 that in just 80 more strips, the Dungeon of Dorukan would be blown to smithereens and Xykon presumed dead (well, deader than before). And that such an event would not herald the end of the strip.

Even at the time, it would take until the revelation that Xykon still stands to really convince anyone that the end of the strip was not imminent, and until Miko shows up there's not really much in-story reason for the OOTS to stick together at all. Take a look at this strip, fairly deep into the second book (deep enough that not only is it a wonder the OOTS stuck together long enough to reach the town (remember, I'm not a D&D player), it's a wonder they're still together even after reaching there) - Roy's hunt for the starmetal is the only reason why the Order sticks together after destroying the Dungeon, and Roy's swift-talking of Belkar and Haley is the only reason they stay in the group. Had it not been for that, the Order may well have never been tasked to stop Xykon from freeing the Snarl.

(Hmm. And Roy's hunting of the starmetal was caused by Sabine shifted into a blacksmith. The Linear Guild are responsible for keeping the Order of the Stick together! I smell a fourth post brewing...)

Even in the Order's subsequent relatively aimless wandering, no one would mistake it for being a gag-a-day strip, and in fact there are next to no "fairly obvious jokes about the rules" at all. The strip is fairly tightly organized into arcs, with a good part of the strip between the Order's departure and Miko's arrival taken up by the Order's encounter with a group of bandits. There are also two semi-lengthy interludes involving Team Evil that help to establish their plot, one before the bandit arc and one, as previously mentioned, between the recovery of the starmetal and Miko's arrival.

I mentioned some of the points in this post the last time I wrote a lengthy post on Order of the Stick. I mentioned how OOTS managed to overthrow its entire premise by the time the first book was over, and how it managed to keep going thanks to a strong balance of a compelling story and funny jokes. This, then, is something of an expansion of that post, showing just how early Order of the Stick started its metamorphosis into the rich, multilayered strip it is today, and both how much more sudden and more gradual that transformation was. And it ends, as I tend to, with a whimper because I always have trouble wrapping these posts up.

So I'll see you in another month with an analysis of another aspect of OOTS.

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