I promise we’ll resume our discussion of mental illness in popular music soon enough. But before that, I want to talk about some a remarkable development that occurred last week in the realm of crowd-sourced funding.
Kickstarter’s been in the news quite a bit lately. Just last week, Forbes magazine reported that two major projects both passed the $1 million mark in donations. But I’m not here to talk about the Double Fine Adventure, an initiative by the creators of the head-tripping Xbox cult hit Psychonauts to fund their next adventure game outside the constraints of the game industry. Nor to talk about the Elevation Dock, an iPod doohickey that I guess people liked because it raised almost twice its 75K goal. Nor even Fucking James Franco, an successful endeavor by Portland’s Social Malpractice Publishing to archive the finest Franco-related erotica (now yours for $15.00 plus shipping and handling!).
No. Let’s talk about Order of the Stick.
Order of the Stick is a popular webcomic by writer-artist Richard Burlew, currently squeaking in just over $1.2 million in the final hours of its Kickstarter reprint drive. Order of the Stick is a parody strip, gently poking fun at the conventions of Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing games over the course of an epic adventure. No understand: while the Venn diagram of “stuff Fletcher likes” and “stuff geeks like” has a very very large overlap, Dungeons and Dragons is one of the few items (along with Dr. Who and Final Fantasy VII) to land squarely in the right-most circle. But despite unfamiliarity with the source material I read through the archives of Order of the Stick a few years back, and liked it a lot. Mind, only one out of five jokes lands the way it’s supposed to, and a few of the apparent fan-favorite characters are hair-pullingly irritating. But the story also works as a light-hearted fantasy adventure that manages occasional gravity and pathos despite its simplistic art. There’s also a really impressive siege storyline that juggles twice as many characters as The Two Towers without sacrificing clarity, scope, or impact; it’s a must-read if you’re interested in graphic or serialized storytelling.
But I’m not writing this to recommend Order of the Stick.
I’m writing this because Order of the Stick, an amusing but crudely illustrated stick-figure Dungeons and Dragons parody, made over a MILLION FUCKING DOLLARS BY FUCKING ASKING NICELY FOR IT.
THIS IS A BIG FUCKING DEAL.
There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this:
1) Geeks are passionate, and, like Ludacris, will express their passion with their wallets. Someone apparently spent $5,000 to have his personal RPG character featured in an upcoming strip. With our money, perhaps, we love not wisely but too well.
2) Order of the Stick is a work that would have absolutely no chance whatsoever of even being published before the dawn of the internet age. What would the venue for a work like this have been? A back-page feature for a biannual D and D fanzine? A photocopied pamphlet on the counter of your comics shop? Thanks to the internet, artists like Burlew can publish, find an audience, and eventually profit from their highly idiosyncratic work. This is great news for the artist, and for society, which can only profit from a wider variety of creative output outside the purview of the entertainment industry.
3) In defiance of the frenzied lobbying of the music and film industries, Burlew made this really impressive amount of money despite the vast majority of his opus being available to everyone, for free, over the internet. You can make money without draconian copyright legislation. Scarce goods like books and custom sketches, donor perks, interaction with an engaged audience: these are all ways, apparently, to make not just money but a shit-ton of money, even when your product is being distributed for free over the entire net.
So in the end, I think the success of The Order of the Stick is great news for the future of the arts. It points to the viability of a new model of producing and distributing content, removed from intellectual property law and the entertainment industry. Congratulations to Burlew, and to his audience for making this happen.