Unnamed amorphous creature:”Hi, I’m here to enlist.”
Der Trihs: “You can’t. You’re not human. You see, little fella, we don’t do sociological stuff like ‘Interspeciated Workplaces’. We’re a crack team of space mercenaries. We do ‘hurting people’ and ‘breaking things’.”
Amorphous creature (taking a plasma cannon from its own mouth and pointing it at Dehr Trihs): “Sounds like my kind of fun.”
Der Trihs: “When can you start?”
I don’t remember who first pointed me at Schlock Mercenary, but that’s how it starts; the amorphous creature is, of course, the eponymous (soon to be) Sergeant Schlock, a carbosilicate amorph who looks rather like a large mobile pile of clay… or, possibly, something less palatable.
The initial story was simple and the drawings were crude (Howard Tayler was not a professional artist and taught himself), but showed signs of becoming something much better, so I stuck with it… and pretty soon I was hooked.
Schlock Mercenary is something unique: a comedic yet serious space opera with many hard-SF components. One of the problems that many webcomics and similar stories, such as those in manga and ongoing series, encounter is “Cerebus Syndrome” – the shift from comedy towards drama, losing the humor that was the foundation of its early success, and often finding that trying to go back to comedy damages what’s been built since.
What Howard Tayler has managed to do for over twelve years now is to keep comedy constantly coming back… while not ruining the suspense, drama, action, and sometimes horror of his universe. That’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, but Howard makes it look easy.
Moreover, he has done this for all those years without fail – a new comic every single day, three hundred sixty five days a year. He maintains a long-term buffer of strips so that even if an emergency prevents him from being able to write or draw for a significant period of time, the strip will continue to update anyway. This shows a discipline and foresight that very few webcomic artists have; we’re all familiar with otherwise very fun webcomics whose update schedules vary from “every other day” to “sometimes… when I feel like it”.
What makes Schlock Mercenary work so well is the fact that the entire comic balances characters, plot, and universe very, very well. We come to know many people in the course of those years, and learn quite a bit about them, ranging from the eternally-put-upon Der Trihs (who spent the first few years constantly being shot up) to the frighteningly capable yet strangely innocent Sergeant Schlock (who is on the one hand depicted as a near-sociopathic alien mercenary and on the other as a fiercely loyal and sympathetic character); Captain Kaff Tagon, who uses Obfuscating Stupidity to such a degree that it takes quite a while to be sure that he is not, in fact, stupid; the scheming, manipulative Admiral Xinchub; and the nigh-omnipotent AI called simply “Petey”; and many, many more.
These people and others deal with everything from simple courier missions to invasions by dark-matter beings from another galaxy, betrayal by their own people, the invention and exploitation of a completely new transport technology, alien infestations on deserted vessels, and more, all against the backdrop of a complex, bizarre, yet in many ways well-researched universe that incorporates a huge number of hard-science speculative aspects mixed with classic space opera.
Tagon’s Toughs are not the biggest badasses in their universe, either, which makes their adventures all that more white-knuckled because they’re often thrown into problems that are, technically, way out of their league. What the Toughs are, however, is both lucky and inventive, and the fact that Sergeant Schlock is virtually unique (there are other members of his species, on one planet, but few if any others have left and none really have his attitudes, for reasons explained during one story) is one of their most reliable “secret weapons”.
Schlock himself is not always the star of every story; there have been considerable sections in which he’s only “onscreen” for a small portion of the time. He is, however, one of the most colorful characters and his unique traits have saved him, and his comrades, many times over. In essence, he’s a self-aware carbosilicate nanotech colony, virtually indestructible without immense force, and so very different from most other lifeforms that most opponents simply have no clue how to deal with him effectively. The few that do still often don’t understand just how extensive his capabilities are.
I’m particularly impressed by Howard Tayler’s ability to do true horror stories and manage to, somehow, keep adding in the light humor bits without significantly reducing the impact of horror. For a while he had a tradition (“Schlocktoberfest”) in which he’d write a horror-themed story in time for Halloween. He abandoned that some time ago, but oddly this year he started another story with considerable horror elements at about the same time. It’s much more complex than the older stories, though, so this adventure has not yet completed.
As I mentioned earlier, Howard wasn’t an artist to begin with, and one has to deal with the crude drawing for quite a while. He has dramatically improved both drawing and writing as time has gone on (though his artwork is never going to approach, for instance, the virtuosity of the Foglio’s work in Girl Genius), and the current artwork serves his purposes extremely well. But even the oldest comics show that Howard Tayler had a very good grasp of the essentials of presentation, and conveyed everything he needed from them.
If you have not tried Schlock Mercenary, I strongly urge you to do so; there are good reasons it has been nominated for the Webcomic-related Hugo several years running!