On My Shelves: Schlock Mercenary

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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!

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Yeah, Shlock Mercenary is one of those strips where the writing has overpowered the poor art… other similar strips where writing > art include XKCD and Questionable Content. I was quite happy to meet Howard Tayler at the Denver Worldcon, where he had a booth.

  2. I agree, it is amazing to see a full color comic come out every day with a continuing story arc. My only complaint is the “Nannites” that tend to create a Dues Ex Machina event. I am just surprised that the civilization of the time hasn’t banned the damn things

    • How do you ban a technology across a galactic civilization, especially one that is so incredibly useful? It would be easier to ban personal automobiles here in the USA.

    • Pyre Dynasty says:

      Actually, that’s one of the central themes of Schlock Mercenary. (The other being the hazards of teleportation.) Howard knows what he’s doing. I doubt you’ll find a better meditation on nannites. In fact, right now the heroes are fighting >against< a nannite Dues Ex Machina situation. In this universe nannites are regulated, and they run into plenty of the banned varieties.

      • You leave out the “AI is a Crapshoot” theme, too. Howard’s got a lot of stuff going on in the strip. Oh, and morality of killing and war.

        It’s interesting that he could make Tagon’s Toughs clearly sympathetic even when they’re sometimes very much the mercenaries they’re supposed to be. Of course, putting them up against complete jerks like General Chubchins… er, Xinchub helps a lot.

  3. Aren’t there classes of nanites that are banned? Their doctor/coffin thing got confiscated, I’d almost swear. And there was discussion of “illeagal soldier boosts” and a story arc where they help out a former merc whose mods are running down, so they can invite him to the Doctor and Chaplain’s wedding.

  4. I am only a few years into my archive binge. I am ashamed to say I never figured out Der Trihs’ name until just now.

  5. Oh yes finding Schlock is one of those warm fuzzy moments. I also happily check every night for the new episode to read. He does amazing storytelling in the constraints of a 4 panel 6 day a week comic with a larger multipanel on Sunday. Usually.

    I mean think about trying to describe the current story arc. It has been going on for nearly a year and he broke it into 3 sections and well its amazing how coherent it all looks even when you go back and read the archives.

    • “well its amazing how coherent it all looks even when you go back and read the archives.” I think that should be *especially* when you go back and read the archives. I go back and re-read the archives at least once during a storyline (sometimes more) just to see how it all fits together.

      Thankfully, the stories are good enough that I have read the archives probably 8 to 9 times, I still find them a treat, even after that many reads. I’m still waiting for the dead tree version of when they kill a reality TV channel…

      • I just finished re-reading the book 7 “Emperor Pius Dei”, and I believe it holds the ‘kill a reality TV channel’ story arc :)
        [In fact I just finished rereading the whole 7 books - waiting for the 8th one :)]

    • Not only does he do good story-telling in those constraints, he also manages to pace it in a way that reads naturally if you archive-slurry or buy the books AND still isn’t boring when you’re caught up.

      That is a hard thing to achieve.

    • And don’t forget the lovely narrative blurbs under some of the comics that show how deeply Mr. Tayler thinks about his universe. Yes, they’re often silly, but just as often, they give you a sense of perspective. (as in “Oh, wait, yes, this IS far enough in the future that people would have forgotten the origin of some pop-phrase in use today” with their theories as to where it came from ).

      And let us never forget the chupaqueso!

  6. I have been reading Schlock since 2004, and have since re-read the archives twice. The reviewer is right about both the art and the writing having improved a great deal, but from the beginning Mr. Tayler has never failed to deliver a punchline in 3 panels (6x a week, Sundays are feature strips) while maintaining his story arcs.

  7. Okay, how many web comics have continual references to a book that doesn’t even exist, and is so well-liked that when you type “seventy ma” into Google, the title of that non-existent book is the entire first PAGE of results? Oooh, look! There’s Maxim #25 on Sunday, 11/25/2012! I want his books for Christmas, yes, but I want THAT book even more…..

Your comments or questions welcomed!