It is said that everyone is the hero of their own story. Even the vilest villains in history did not consider themselves to be bad people. Yet fiction is filled with villains who lack any further motivation than being evil for evil’s sake. Even Shakespeare had characters like Don John the Bastard, who refused to give any reason for his villainy save “…it better fits my blood to be disdained…”
There is a reason for this. Villains need to be villainous in order to be dramatically effective. Delve too deeply into a bad guy’s past or motivations and the writer runs the risk of making him more sympathetic than the hero. And while some writers have had success in telling the villain’s side of the story (Wicked comes to mind immediately) it is generally a bad idea for a writer of genre fiction to try and buck that trend. Somehow, artist Rich Burlew was able to overcome this difficulty and tell a tale that expands the backgrounds of his two main villains while simultaneously exploring the nature of evil, both philosophically and within the confines of a narrative structure. Not bad for a stick-figure comic, eh?
Start of Darkness is the second original graphic novel based on Burlew’s immensely popular web comic, The Order of the Stick. Originally a simple comic that poked fun at the rules of Dungeons and Dragons and how they would play out in a real fantasy world, OOTS has blossomed into a fully-fledged epic in its own right. Now the strip features more humor based on its characters and the conventions of the fantasy genre than it does jokes about the difficulty in figuring out the mechanical difference between a charge and a bull-rush.
Our story focuses primarily upon Redcloak, a goblin cleric who is elevated to the position of High Priest of his religion after his mentor and his tribe are killed by rampaging knights out to “cleanse the land of evil.” Granted the knowledge of his predecessors, Redcloak goes into hiding with his younger brother and begins work upon a sacred (or is that profane?) quest. The (un)holy plan? Join forces with a sorcerer of equal power and use a ritual devised by their deity to unmake the world and create something more equitable for all the monstrous humanoids currently eking out sad lives lurking in swamps and living in caves, waiting to become a footnote on some human hero’s path to glory.
Enter Xykon, a down-on-his-luck evil overlord/necromancer who is long in the tooth and short on ethics. He seems the perfect pawn for Redcloak’s plans, except he’s not much for planning and gets bored quite easily. And when Xykon gets bored, he tends to start killing minions. After all, it’s not like he can’t bring them back as zombies if he needs them for something besides target practice later, right? Still, Redcloak will try to persevere even as he finds himself becoming more of a minion than a partner to the power-mad sorcerer, thinking it will all be worth it in the end.
Burlew’s stick-figure art won’t win any awards, but it’s amazing how he can tell such a complex story with such simple figures. The artwork may be simplistic but this is an emotionally and structurally deep story, despite the series’ usual comedic tone. One can’t help but feel some sympathy for Redcloak as he sinks deeper and deeper into depravity, crossing line after line in his righteous crusade against human superiority.
Despite being the first story in The Order of the Stick saga chronologically, this is a bad book for readers to start with. Check out the original web comic from the beginning and then come back to this volume after the first 300 strips or so. You’ll appreciate it a lot more. Like the Dungeons and Dragons game, this book is appropriate for teenage audiences and older, provided you have no objections to cartoonish depictions of children being killed, souls being trapped, and gratuitous breaking of the fourth wall by demonic, genre-savvy roaches.