The webcomic Order of the Stick is known for its complex villains and somewhat muddied take on the normally objective and quantified morality of Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the villains have reasonable points of view, have suffered great injustices of their own, or at the very least have a decent trait or two which makes them “human.” Then there’s Xykon.
When we first meet Xykon in the comic, he comes across as the sort of bumbling villain one expects to find in a parody of the fantasy genre. He kills his men for no reason and cracks wise while doing so. He can’t remember the heroes’ names. He’s always losing little things like his remote control, and wasting his potent magical abilities to find them. In essence, we get the idea that even though he’s the big boss, we’re not supposed to take him seriously. Even in the first arc, however, we see that Xykon isn’t quite as stupid or ineffective as he appears, as his toleration of the Order of the Stick in his domain serves a purpose. Still, after his initial defeat, it’s easy to assume Xykon is what he seems, just a silly villain in a silly comic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As the series progresses, we begin to see just what the lich is capable of, and indeed he all but destroys a whole city and its protectors, as well as one of the main heroes, mostly by himself. If that wasn’t enough, he shows that he’s capable of particularly brutal atrocities, all the while still maintaining his playful, silly villain demeanor, and from there, we see that he’s been a real threat all along. One could argue that series creator Rich Burlew simply changed the tone of the comic and Xykon changed with it, and perhaps that’s true, but in either case, he constructed the narrative in such a way to make sure that nothing he did later contradicted anything that came before, and as such built Xykon a rather fascinating, if highly disturbing, psychology.
When we are given Xykon’s origin, we learn that from the start, he was a pretty rotten egg. Granted power over death and undeath at an early age, the boy who became Xykon never really valued other living beings all that much. As a mortal man, he fluttered around, killing people on both small and grand scale for fun well into old age, but never, in his mind, accomplishing must that lasted. He was certainly amoral, probably a sociopath or full-blown psychopath, and as those tend to be, he was quite charming. His one human quality, hardly redeeming though it was, was his love for the little things in life, particularly coffee. Eventually, Xykon falls in with Redcloak the goblin cleric, and the two form an alliance to conquer the world. During one of their battles, they are defeated, and Xykon is stripped of his magic power and general resistance to old age by a magical virus. Redcloak offers to turn Xykon into a lich, an undead sorcerer powered by evil itself. Xykon agrees, and casts aside his humanity forever.
Now, again, Xykon was a pretty terrible person to begin with. He killed with a smile on his face, stripped the dead of their dignity by raising them as zombies, made people beg for mercy before murdering them anyway, and sloppily took out his own henchmen in battle. So what was really left for him to lose, or become? Sadly, we find out. After a victorious battle, Xykon and his allies sit down for coffee in their favorite diner, and Xykon realizes, to his horror, that in his new state he can no longer taste it. It’s in that moment, and it’s quite a horrifying one, that we see the last of Xykon that was a person die. All that is left of him is pure, unadulterated evil and hate. His silly and likeable facade drops, and we see his murderous fury and cruelty. From then on, his comrades know that this is the real Xykon, a monster that only finds pleasure in death and pain. By the next time we see him, he’s back to playing dumb and charming, but there’s a far greater sense of menace behind it, and everyone in his presence who understands this fears for their lives.
So when we reflect on the Xykon of the early stories, who is more concerned about his car keys than the lives of his minions, we know it’s not because he’s vapid. It’s because living beings mean just that little to him, and their deaths are actually something he enjoys. All those moments where he seemed oblivious to what was going on around him? He wasn’t. He was just pretending, to lure those around him into a false sense of security. He’s one bit of bad luck or a vicious whim away from inflicting real suffering on those closest to him. More than that, it’s not enough for Xykon to defeat his foes. He has to humiliate them, and strip them of their virtue if he can. In particular, he enjoys wearing down the sense of morality in his now subordinate Redcloak, manipulating the goblin into greater and greater acts of evil which go against Redcloak’s sense that what he does is at least for a good cause. At least as disturbing is the picture above, in which Xykon has slain a room of heroic paladins by casting a spell to drive them all insane and make them murder each other, thereby ruining their heroism and honor. It’s pretty dark and gruesome stuff, and the first time in the comic when we realize Xykon isn’t just a joke. He’s creative, and thanks to his mind games, no one sees him coming.