Hello! Again. It has been some time, hasn’t it? I can’t pretend to have any real reason for the lapse, other than the usual shifting sands of life – but I could say that those sands have, as it were, brought me back along the tides to my writing roots. I could say that, I suppose, if I wanted to really mangle some metaphors.
So why don’t I put metaphors and excuses aside, and offer up a humble apology, not so much for the absence itself, but for the abrupt and silent nature of its occurence… and move on to that which has inspired me to once more set word to website.
It involves another return, and one of far more note than my own – the return of the Order of the Stick, which has seen over a full week of non-stop comics after a long delay caused by genuine issues like mangled thumbs and tons of effort spent on an almost overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter.
But recovery seems to be going well for Rich Burlew, and we’ve gotten back to the action in a big way.
When we left off, the Order of the Stick were in the midst of an all out skirmish with their counterparts, the Linear Guild (with support from our new frighteningly capable villain, General Tarquin.) With the return, Roy got the chance to demonstrate his own skills as a leader, unleashing a stunning counterattack against the Linear Guild and their allies.
But the action, while among some of the most epic sequences yet in OotS (even if the gang isn’t quite epic as of yet) is only one of the reasons why so many fans have been so desperate for the comic’s return. The action might be one part of it, but right alongside it are the moments of character growth… as well as the twists and turns of the story, when plot points set up years ago suddenly come to light in one perfect scene.
We had one of those, not long before the break, for Vaarsuvius, as our intrepid wizard discovered the staggering implications of the epic spell offered up by the fiend alliance some time ago. That level of cosmic guilt could be enough to break any conscience… and falling afoul of the local trapped dungeon and fleeing in a blind panic left V’s fate an even greater cliff-hanger.
The return of the comic, admittedly, came a few months ago. But the most recent comics are the ones on which I want to dwell. Because, as is his wont, Rich decided to zig when everyone expected him to zag. And the stunning plot twist that we get to deal with (spoiler ahead!) isn’t a follow-up on V’s guilt, nor is it (yet) the final breath of Belkar Bitterleaf… but instead, the center of the action turns out to be Durkon.
Good ol’ Durkon.
Let’s return to the previously mentioned character development – something this strip does, and does well. Our heroes have overcome many obstacles on their quests, and may have also suffered their share of setbacks and defeats – but even as their power grows, some of the greatest challenges have been their own natures.
Sometimes, that lesson is a predictable one. I think everyone knew that V’s blind pursuit of absolute power would end badly. But just how badly it would go? It was a brutal, brutal lesson – and one he is still facing the aftermath of.
Other lessons have been surprising. It may have been equally obvious that Belkar’s homicidal tendencies would eventually become something the party would have to address. But having him solve the problem by taking up a philosophy of enlightened self-interest? Not something I saw coming, yet it seems a perfect way to retain his evil nature while allowing him to still function as a party member.
But the closest match to our present situation is, I think, Roy. Not just because he and Durkon now share the experience of having departed (albeit temporarily) from the mortal coil, but also because of their fundamental role in the group. They are the reliable ones. They are capable and rational, they look out for the rest of their team, and they focus on getting things done.
And yet, that doesn’t mean they don’t have room for growth. Roy learned that the hard way – when, despite his own capabilities, he led the party to defeat and his own demise. He got to do some quite literal soul-searching. And he realized that he needed to commit to the cause for his own reasons – and that he needed to be the leader of the party, rather than simply focusing on being the leader.
Which brings us to Durkon.
Good ol’ Durkon.
What flaws does he have that need overcoming? With the rest of the party, there have been fundamental weaknesses in character present from the beginning. But it’s Durkon! The one who patches the rest of them up! The voice of reason! Roy might be the brains of the party, Elan might be the heart – but Durkon is, if anything, the backbone. He provides the support the rest of the group needs – in both a game-mechanical as well as an emotional sense. The others have had their share of conflicts, internal and external alike, but Durkon has typically stood apart. Roy might be the leader of the group, but Durkon fills the role of his right-hand man (or dwarf) – the wise veteran who has been with him from the beginning, ready to offer advice or swing a hammer as the situation demands.
And yet, he isn’t perfect. And his one true weakness has, for the second time, cost him dearly.
Durkon is ruled by tradition. The traditions of dwarvenkind. The traditions of his faith. Law and order – and more than them, duty and acceptance of one’s fate. It caused him to turn away from a chance at love. And, now, it caused him to reject a friendship and a chance at compromise, resulting in his death… and something much worse than death.
In some ways, it might not be a surprise that his moment of story took so long to arrive. Duty and tradition are far more subtle flaws than arrogance or bloodthirst or greed. It can be taken to extremes, yes, and we saw that fate, in far more stark relief, in the life and times of Miko Miyazaki. But for Durkon, the danger didn’t come out of a need to force such traditions upon others. It came, ultimately, from the need to be bound to such traditions himself.
Perhaps this was a subtle commentary on the role of the healer in a D&D party, who often has to sit in the back and provide support while others have a chance to shine? Or maybe Rich just didn’t have anything interesting to say with Durkon, not until now. The story has been there, I’m sure, from the beginning… but until it came to its moment, perhaps there just wasn’t much else to do, save for Durkon to be the reliable fellow in the background. To remain “The always dependable Durkon Thundershield, dwarven cleric.”
Good ol’ Durkon.
Now, let’s say outright that what I love about Order of the Stick is that it always, always, is working on many different levels at once. So right here, we certainly have this awesome plot twist in terms of a character death, followed immediately by an even better twist in terms of their undeath. We have the inevitable conflict this will cause for the party, especially in light of their current struggle with Tarquin’s crew.
But we also get to face what this means for Durkon. Because this fate could, ultimately, cost him everything. He has had little to fear from death – indeed, death has always meant, for him, a chance to regain the honor he thought he had lost.
He was sent from home by the high priest of his people. He never knew why – never knew that there was a prophecy that he would return home and bring death and destruction to his people. All he knew was that he was cast out from the only life he knew, and finds himself wandering through human lands, essentially in search of atonement without knowing what he is atoning for, or why.
When the party visited the Oracle of Sunken Valley, he was told he would return home posthumously – what others might considered a depressing answer. But for Durkon, it was reassurance that he would be forgiven whatever had caused him to be cast out, and would be laid to rest alongside his ancestors at long last.
Or, as things stand, he might return as a ravenous, bloodthirsty monster, and unleash the very death and devastation upon his kin that he was exiled to prevent. As usual, trying to thwart prophecy very rarely works out.
Now, we don’t know that this will be his ultimate fate. The party might slay him and raise him and redeem him. They brought back Roy from beyond the grave. V was able to return to their ranks despite his own (far more willing) foray into damnation. This might be just one more obstacle for them to overcome.
Or… it might not. The party has been through a lot, and the stakes keep getting higher. Some losses stick, and this might be one of them. Not just because how well it fits with Durkon’s prophecy… but because of how well it fits with Durkon’s story itself.
As I mentioned earlier, every last one of the crew has undergone character growth and development over the course of the comic – except for Durkon. But it is more than that. They have all become deeply tied to the story – and to characters within it. Roy’s family has motivated the quest from the beginning. Elan’s brother and father are two of the primary antagonists of the series, and he’s had several personal arcs, from training with Julio Scoundrel to the sad tale of Therkla. We’ve only seen V’s family briefly – but V’s pursuit of power was a significant event whose ramifications are still being felt. We’ve seen Haley confront her own emotions over Elan, but we’ve also seen her confront her past – both the guild of thieves she once fled from, as well as her father and his imprisonment in the Empire of Blood. Belkar would seem the biggest misfit of the bunch, but he’s managed to nonetheless throw his lot in with the others, and has had several of his own ongoing subplots, from his changing philosophy to his own possible impending death. He has even formed a connection of his own, and even if Mr. Scruffy is only a cat, that bond is strong enough for them both to brave death to keep the other alive.
But what plots has Durkon had? His brief relationship with Hilgya Firehelm, which ended nearly 800 strips ago?
If you visit the Order of the Stick Wiki, they have compiled a very solid amount of background on each of the characters and their role in the story. If we focus on the depictions of what has happened for the characters since the story began, Roy clocks in with over 4,000 words. Elan is next in line with around 3,400, while Haley and Belkar are about 2,700. Vaarsuvius is in the back with not much past 1,500 words… save for Durkon. With barely over 300 words to his name.
Three whole paragraphs. That is all it takes to sum up Durkon’s role in the story. And why should it take more? The others are the central characters upon whom the drama is strung. Durkon is simply there to help them along the way.
Good ol’ Durkon.
Now the OotS Wiki was not written by Rich Burlew. It may not be an accurate depiction of the comic, but only how fans have perceived it. Yet… what can one remember about Durkon? With the others, there are plenty of struggles and changes that leap to mind. Yet Durkon… he’s been defined by a few amusing stereotypes and jokes – his accent, his hatred of trees, his dwarfy nature. Now, all the others were born from similar one-dimensional traits as well – but the rest of them have all moved beyond it.
They have developed as characters, and formed connections – to the story, to the NPCs, to the central plot itself. Durkon, tied so strongly to his principles and his faith, has rejected every connection that has gotten close to him.
And in doing so, put himself in the very situation where he is now – where he will unleash death and destructions upon his friends, and perhaps ultimately, upon his family and his clan.
So the question is – is this where his story ends? Does he end up trapped in the fate, either controlled by Malak or by the curse of vampirism itself? Has his time in the Order of the Stick come to an end, as he joins the cast of antagonists? Is this how he will fulfill the prophecy spoken about him so long ago?
Or is this instead where his story begins? Because that is the other option – that this is where we start to fill in all those missing connections for Durkon. That if he does manage to somehow survive this, whether by being restored to life – or even as a free willed undead… might this be the chance for him to finally start to grow and develop as the others have?
Or is all this conjecturing for nothing – since knowing Rich, he might have something even more devious in mind. Another twist that shakes everything up once more – and yet, ultimately, seems to fit perfectly with every single step that has come before it.
Because that, in the end, is one of the best things about OotS. It manages to constantly offer up surprises and shocking developments, even as it retains a pristine and powerful continuity from start to finish.
Nale’s clever and convoluted plans might inevitably end in failure, but Rich’s seem to pay off every time.
And that is just one reason why the Order of the Stick remains a damn good comic.