The Webcomic Overlook #105: Order of Tales
High fantasy is probably the only literary genre in existence where the author has to essentially write two stories. The first is what’s happening now: hero goes on an adventure, fights a dragon, yadda yadda yadda. However, the author also has to write a second story. He has to write a detailed and epic history of the lands and people going back to, say, 1000 years before the hero of the story was even born. The hero’s tale cannot exist in a vaccuum, and his raison d’etre is deeply embedded in the tales that go before him. So, quite amusingly, it’s essential in high fantasy to include stories of a glorious, long lost past in a tale that is itself a fantastic approximation of humanity’s glorious, long lost past.
It’s probably all Tolkien’s fault. The brutha not only inserted poems about elven lovers that were only tangentially related to the narrative of Lord of the Rings itself, he also wrote a library’s worth of back notes (of which the Silmarillon was only but a small piece of the puzzle) to flesh out the myths and beliefs of Middle Earth. It’s kind of understandable in his case. The guy was a professor, and those guys are up to their wazoos in textbooks. Besides, he pulled off the faux-textbook atmosphere so well that to this day people enjoy reading and studying Tolkien as if it were a minor college elective.
The fantasy novelists the follow Tolkien reiterated the superficial aspects. Most fail to come up with anything compelling. One of the best recent efforts is Susanna Clarke’s Hugo-Award winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, who fills you in on the history of the Raven King John Uskglass through some of the most ridiculously detailed footnotes you’ll find in fantasy literature today. (It also made me very happy that I sprung for the hardcover. I imagine squinting to read the footnotes in paperback form would be a headache and a half.)
Storytelling is also a key component of Evan Dahm’s fantasy webcomic Order of Tales. Here, Mr. Dahm fills us in on the past through a nifty device: his hero is a plucky little storyteller whose greatest weapon is knowledge — specifically, the legends, myths, and history encompassing his fantasy world.
Evan Dahm first burst out on the webcomic scene with the highly acclaimed Rice Boy. I haven’t read the comic, but people whose opinions I respect tell me that it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. (Believe you me, sliced bread is pretty frikkin’ great.) It’s full of some of the most iconic images in webcomics: the simply designed rice boy character and The One Electronic, a robot man whose got a big spotlight for a head. I will have to read it someday. However, since The Webcomic Overlook favors ongoing series over ones that are concluded, I decided to latch onto Mr. Dahm’s current ongoing project, Order of Tales, which is scheduled to finish some time later this year.
The protagonist of Order of Tales is an earnest young frog-lizard named Koark. He engenders our sympathies immediately, which I think is partially due to his resemblance to Kermit the Frog. In modern parlance, Koark is what we would call a total nerd. He would rather pick flowers than do medieval jock activities like jousting and swordplay. He aspires to be a Teller, one who collects, reads, and sometimes memorizes stories from the various unique civilizations of his land. When Koark’s home comes under attack from evil forces, his father christens him a Teller and a member of the Order of Tales, a once glorious organization of storytellers so decimated that Koark is the last of his kind.
An aside: in a weird coincidence, I’d been working on a fantasy novel where the main character is a story collector involved in a secret society (which I’d named “Order of the Owl”). I thought I’d been pretty clever until I started reading Order of Tales. While I can probably explain this away that Mr. Dahm and I have both seen Star Wars at least once, I still probably have to backtrack to my fallback plan of casting my hero as a pig firmer who finds out that she is The Chosen One.
Moving right along.
Koark finds himself thrust into a quest when he has a chance encounter with the spotlight-headed fellow named The One Electronic (or, as everyone calls him “T-O-E.” From what I’d seen of Rice Boy, T-O-E is often depicted with a human face photoshopped on his circular screen of a face. Here, his face displays nothing but the glassy surface, which doesn’t look so offputting in the context of Order of Tales‘ fantasy setting (provided you allow for the existence of mechanical men in your fantasy universe in the first place). T-O-E is Koark’s Gandalf: he’s wise, world-weary, and is reluctant to reveal everything he knows. He’s also quite legendary, and he has no trouble gaining an audience with Order of Tales‘ power brokers. Does he also have a taste for the halfling leaf? Perhaps.
T-O-E sends Koark off to rendez-vous with a friend at Tenshells. Things don’t go as planned: Koark finds the place ransacked, he’s accused of murder, and he’s unclear of why he was doing T-O-E’s bidding in the first place. After discovering that the true perpetrators were the Blackbirds, Koark snatches their ill-gotten gains from under their noses. There, he meets the Bottle Woman. She’s a surly, transparent gal made of glass with liquid in her belly. Everyone seems to want her so they can use her for their nefarious purposes. When you look at fantasy tropes, you could say that The Bottle Woman is a combination of both the One Ring and the archetypal Chosen One of high fantasy.
(Wait. Chosen One? Crap.)
Koark discovers that The Bottle Woman is as clueless as he is. She doesn’t know to what ends that people want to use her. All she knows is that she feels an undeniable urge to go to Rog, the mysterious and unseen force causing havoc throughout the land. Rog has a history before the beginning of the tale: he’s responsible for the world’s greatest cataclysm, and there’s fear that history may repeat itself.
All the while, Koark and The Bottle Woman run in allies who aren’t friends for long. Most are willing to simply be rid of The Bottle Woman so they can be left in peace. Koark soon learns that there’s no such thing as a safe sanctuary. Those who pledged to defend you may turn on you in an instant, friends may have plans that while altruistic may not be in your best interests … and while those who you thought were your enemies may not exactly be trustworthy, they might be your best option for survival.
Order of Tales follows the most standard of fantasy structures. The heroes voyage from point A to point B, then to point C, then to point D. Standard, yes, but to fans of high fantasy this is the ultimate comfort food. If you’re not going to send your valuable reading time being whisked away to far off lands of magic and whimsy, then why read fantasy at all? I might as well be reading some John Grisham.
Mr. Dahm sends us to some truly breathtaking venues, like the giant nautilus spirals of Tenshells and the majestically tall towers of the Sirpah. And it’s not just a matter of making everyday objects giant-sized. In one part of the story, Koark and The Bottle Woman realize that they have to take an underground path on the way to the town of Imfort. The buildup to the dire nature of the path is highly effective, so that when we get our first chilling glimpse of the path itself we fear for our heroes.
Dahm gets a lot of mileage out of the most simple designs. One of the most noticeable aspects of Koark, for example, are his tiny feet. You don’t notice it at first: in the first chapter, Koark is styling Alladin shoes. But when Koark grows older, sprouts some long stilt-like legs, and wears his traveling shoes, he looks like he’s gliding across the ground. The fact that we can relate to Koark is, incidentally, one of the greatest advantages comics have over print. In literature, it’s very difficult to write a non-human, anthropomorphic character that people can relate to. The only exception is usually children’s literature, and they usually have some handy illustrations to use as reference points. In comic form, it’s easier to make a connection, because now you can see how a frog-lizard moves or emotes.
Following the “less is more” aesthetic discipline are the wonderful designs of the different races that inhabit Order of Tales. The Horned, for example, are basically just horseshoes with giant eyes. It’s an easy look to pull, but yet it’s so versatile. You can string a ribbon and a bell between the horns and — voila! — instant crown. Or you can wrap up one of the horns in a makeshift bandage. It’s almost as if Evan Dahm created the Horned for the specific challenge of creating diversity out of identical looking characters through small visual touches and conveying personality and emotion completely through the eyes.
Interestingly, the Blackbirds, servants of Rog, are indistinguishable from each other both in terms of appearance and demeanor. The are also weak-willed and pressed into service due because they can’t read or write. How Dahm artistically ties this theme together is really rather astounding.
Order of Tales loves to linger in quiet scenes that evoke contemplation. Several of the panels take up the entire page, inviting the reader to embrace the wonder of the epic vista alongside its characters. Even scenes of violence somehow seem to happen in slow motion. When a rock is launched from a catapult, the panels layout urges us to contemplate the trajectory. The entirety of Order of Tales feels very zen, much like the T-O-E himself.
When reflecting on the stories of legends gone by, Order of Tales makes a seamless transition into prose. Some might find this a tad jarring. This a webCOMIC, not a webNOVEL, you say. Personally, I’m hard pressed to think of a better alternative. If the tales were illustrated like any other panel in Order of Tales, for example, it would somewhat defeat the internalized effect that Koark is reciting written and oral history, where images are generated completely inside the mind of the reader/listener.
Plenty of the stories, by the way, are only around to provide color to the world of Order of Tales. However, there are a couple that provide insight into the main storyline. The one about Rog is the most essential, and the story of the Machine Men is probably high on the required reading list.
Dahm’s work is reminscent of Jeff Smith’s Bone… though I don’t know if I’d tell that to his face. Here’s what he stated in Mountain Xpress when asked a similar question about Rice Boy:
I read Bone a little while before I started Rice Boy, so I imagine the influence is there, but I can’t really find it. I think I’ve drawn more influence from the sorts of things Jeff Smith has drawn from than from Jeff Smith himself: old cartoons, mythology and fantasy stories. I have trouble looking for my own influences; I try to make a practice of sucking in the whole world through my eyes indiscriminately and synthesizing it in my comics, somehow or other.
Fair enough. I’ve avoided making comparisons, and I’ll continue to do so now… though, as a parting shot, don’t these guys look a lot like the stupid rat creatures? Still, I think it’s a good starting point. Fans of Bone will find a lot to enjoy when it comes to Order of Tales.
But say you’re not a fantasy reader. Say you’re just looking for a good webcomic to dig in to. This Order of Tales I’m talking about might not be something up your alley. And the length is a bit daunting. Right now it stands at over 500 pages. Do you really want to start reading Order of Tales?
The answer is, undoubtedly, YES. Many times YES.
Order of Tales was one of the comics brought up by a reader when I put together my Top Ten Best Webcomics of the Decade list. I said it didn’t make it on because I hadn’t read it yet, and it would be dishonest to place it there on reputation alone. What do I think, now that I’ve read it?
Order of Tales would’ve ranked first or second… easily.
Seriously, Order of Tales is amazingly put together. It makes no false steps. The comic itself is one of the finest examples of sequential art storytelling I’ve come across: print, digital, or otherwise. It’s eye-catching, suspenseful, memorable, full of wonderful characterizations, and lyrical. Those 500 pages went by quickly because the webcomic is the very definition of a page turner. Order of Tales is so good it’s outclassed almost every single other webcomic I’ve ever read. It should be dipped in lucite and preserved for future generations as how a comic should be.
In the end, that’s why I spent most my time in the review comparing Order of Tales to books rather than to other comics. It’s not just a great webcomic. It’s great literature. In summary: Order of Tales is as perfect a webcomic as you can possibly create.
Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).
Posted on January 25, 2010, in 5 Stars, adventure webcomic, all ages webcomic, comics, fantasy webcomic, funny animal webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Evan Dahm, Order of Tales. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.