Meta-review: Schlock Mercenary

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Comic: Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler

I’ve often been puzzled at the relative lack of science fiction web comics out there. Of course, I started on the Internet back when it was the stomping grounds of tech-types and computer geeks, a number of whom were into science fiction. But when you think of web comics, you don’t often think of starships or cyberspace or futuristic societies.

This is odd, as there are so many animes (and no doubt manga) of science fiction. I can easily rattle off several sci-fi animes, both old and new: Star Blazers, Macross, Bubblegum Crisis, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor… hell, Neon Genesis Evangalion even. Many of these evolved from manga, showing a history of science fiction in cartooning.

But when you look at the web comic community, the pickings become slim. There are few futuristic comics out there. A lot of Shivae Studios is science fiction (and to be honest, I have no idea how Tiffany Ross manages so many comics), as is Nukees by Darren Bleuel and Melonpool by Steve Troop come to mind, to name a couple.

But the one strip that seems to be the poster child for science fiction has to be Schlock Mercenary. It’s definitely among the oldest of the science fiction strips, with only Melonpool and Nukees really being older. It’s definitely the oldest science fiction strip to update seven days a week, non-stop. I mean, there are even updates on Christmas Day, and I’m not talking “Christmas Specials” or the like.

Art – Inking: 4 Ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 3.5 ribbons
Art – Coloring: 3.5 ribbons

Howard’s artwork has improved a bit since he first started out, but not nearly as drastically as most comics that have lasted this long. Indeed, Howard seems rather to have solidified his style rather than expand upon it. Of course, part of this may be the medium in which he draws. His characters have a fairly static design to them; there’s not much demand for fancy clothes or dresses or the like for futuristic mercenaries.

Indeed, Howard tends to go with a minimalist approach. Most of the time there are no fancy backgrounds. However, when he’s drawing a starship or a starscape… that is when things get truly spectacular. This is why I gave two rankings for backgrounds. Ordinarily backgrounds tend to be generic nondescript colors. And it makes sense – you’re not going to have fancy backdrops for a starship corridor.

But sometimes you’ll see a little touch here or there. Like Petey’s picture behind the cast in one panel (I’ll get into stuff about Petey later). The big stuff can be found with the starscapes. This doesn’t just appear on Sunday strips. Once Howard learned how much fun he could have with Photoshop with lens-flares and the like, all of his drawings of starships have become truly phenomenal.

Unfortunately, except for Sundays, he doesn’t bother with any extra shading or such for regular weekdays. I say unfortunately, but he’s also managed to keep running, non-stop, a spectacular web comic that started in color and has remained in color (except in two stories that I can remember, which used black and white for stylistic purposes). So as far as gripes go, it’s a fairly minor one.

Character development – primary characters: 4 ribbons
Character development – secondary cast: 3.5 ribbons
Character development – Antagonists: 3.75 ribbons
Character chemistry: 3 ribbons

One of the problems with early science fiction, and indeed a reason it’s long been looked down upon by critics and non-fans alike, is that the stories didn’t often focus on characters. Perhaps it’s unfair of critics to sneer upon this genre like that. When you think of it, what is the difference between a story of an Alaskan trapper who has to build a fire lest his soaked feet freeze solid and a man forced to eject a girl out of an airlock because her added mass will throw off his ship’s trajectory so he can’t deliver vital medical supplies to a planet in need? Both are basically a story of Man vs. his Environment.

(Of course, I detest the second story for the sheer stupidity of it. You always give a ship enough fuel to compensate for emergencies. What’s the difference between a girl stowing away or being hit by a small celestial object which changes the ship’s trajectory? Either case, you still end up with a lost ship and a failed mission. But this has long been my grief over that story. I might write and enjoy science fiction, but I also believe in contingency planning.)

Schlock Mercenary isn’t about the tech. It’s not about the fancy new backgrounds or the bizarre history of the galaxy in the thousand or so years since the 20th Century. It’s about a band of mercenaries. Naturally, it’s about people, not things. (I count Ennesby as a person, btw, even if he’s an AI.) And the cast has grown from the initial crew of Captain Tagon, Admiral Breya, Commander Kevyn (and naturally, Schlock himself) to include the mercenaries working for Tagon.

What’s more, there aren’t any real romances in SM. Oh sure, Breya gets married to Habin II (a loooong story, trust me), but we never saw that romance. The other romance, between Reverend Theo Fobius and Dr. Edward Bunnigus (who has stupid parents to explain her masculine first name) has also never been focused on. Instead, they started dating and then were engaged… and yet we see little development here.

However, the comic doesn’t focus on people so much as events and how they affect the characters. Indeed, Captain Tagon’s decisions have resulted in deaths among his own people. Mistakes have been made. And he’s not always in control of his own destiny.

Indeed, since last October, Tagon has not been in control of his own destiny. He was killed in Schlocktoberfest 2004, then six months later (both in an attempt to keep Tagon from being killed, and to save the galaxy itself. Future Kevyn has helped manipulate events that have kept Tagon alive.

I’m not really sure how much chemistry there is with the characters. Kevyn has long been sardonic and sarcastic, and it was only after Tagon’s death and Kevyn inheriting the mercenary company from Tagon (indeed, it was stipulated in Tagon’s Will) that we ever got any inkling of just how close of friends they were. Often their relationship was vaguely adversarial, with Tagon annoyed at Kevyn’s sarcasm and tendency to pun (though Ennesby has picked up that mantle).

And of course there’s Petey. I’d be lynched by fans of Schlock Mercenary if I didn’t mention Petey. A ways back Tagons Toughs were without a starship, and ended up buying a stolen one, a battlecruiser with enough firepower to worry interstellar governments. Naturally it came with a hitch: it was haunted, and the AI was insane and suicidal. And from there, we met Petey, an AI who became as big a part of the cast as Tagon and Kevyn… and who died in Schocktober Fest 2002.

Except he didn’t.

Petey’s return (and the revelations about that return) was apparently met with quite a bit of enthusiasm among fans. The fact that he’d gone from the AI of a huge warship to a Fleetmind with a growing fleet of warships, all bent on destroying the Ob’enn’s ability to make war (the Ob’enn being the race that created Petey and the warship he controlled in the first place, and who were later responsible for its destruction) actually increased his “coolness” factor, even though he was no longer under Tagon’s command. While Petey is as much plot device as character, he’s got a certain charm that is undeniable.

Story Continuity: 5 ribbons
Web content: 2.75 ribbons
Story Type: Storyline transcending into Epic
Story Style Science Fiction, Adventure

I’m not entirely sure what Howard had in mind when he first started Schlock Mercenary. However, I would be willing to bet he had the first year’s comic mapped out, if loosely, and an idea of what was to come. I would also be willing to bet that he probably had Petey planned back then as well. Let’s face it… Petey and his growth of character happened entirely too quickly to just be a whim. There was definite planning there.

That’s been a definite sign of Schlock Mercenary for a while: the storyline is planned. While I doubt he had planned out things to the extent that the Brudlos brothers did for Alpha-Shade is (in that they wrote out the entire first meta-story (encompassing what will probably be a dozen “chapters”) before starting on the comic itself), I do suspect that he has at least a year, if not more, planned out for the comic.

That’s why this is an Epic story in my eyes. Indeed, it may have been an epic story since the very beginning. Schlock’s introduction to the comic was planned, as was the buyout of Tagon’s Toughs by Breya. The uses of the Teraport and the consequences of it, from the FSherl’ganni Gatekeepers manipulations against Breya and her brother to the Attorney Drones double dealings against them, was well thought out. The plot has been building toward the current problem at the Galactic Core… and yet even once things are finished there, there is plenty to work with afterward.

Recent events continue to surprise me. I expected one of the Kevyns to die. Either future Kevyn would pass on, having fulfilled his duty to save the galaxy… or past Kevyn would die trying to save Tagon. And recent events suggested I was right. Until Howard pulled the rug out from under our feet and revealed that they recovered Kevyn’s head (considering how often Tagon’s Toughs end up disembodied heads, you’d think this was Futurama or something).

When Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance had two Zoes, he killed one. I expected it. I anticipated it. I hated it. I considered it a waste of opportunity. There was so much that could be done. But Howard… I could see him happily having two Kevyns. I could even see both Kevyns remaining part of Tagon’s Toughs, though it’s more likely one of them would go off with his sister to be a future plot point to draw Tagon and his band of mercenaries into yet another adventure.

Howard works within the possibilities of his characters. He accepts the challenges of clones (hell, how many Gav clones are there? I think there are planets with indigenous species with a smaller population than the Gavs) and doppelgangers, and sees it as a positive, as a story maker instead of a problem.

And that’s what is so great about Schlock Mercenary. It continues to excel, after five years of comics, because it accepts new challenges and breaks the mold of the ordinary.

Rating: PG

Schlock Mercenary is rated PG. Any swearing (and it’s not often) are censored with #%(&s and the like. There is no nudity, no sexual situations, and the violence isn’t any worse than what you’d see in daily cartoons or regular television shows. Further, the Narrator helps explain things in such a way that you actually sympathize for those who are going to die, even if it happens off-screen. If the Kittens don’t have a problem, I doubt you will.

Punctuality: Monday through Sunday, with a large Sunday strip with extra shading and the like on Sundays.

Schlock Mercenary hasn’t missed a single update that I can remember. I mean it. It has to be one of the most reliable comic strips around, and the day that an update is missed, thousands of fans will undoubtedly write Howard Tayler and ask if he’s alright and what’s wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if it kept updating for two years after his death (or maybe longer, I could see Zombie Howard continuing to work on it beyond death…)

Overall: 3.75 ribbons

I started reading Schlock Mercenary thanks to Websnark last year. Outside of the Schlocktoberfest stories every October the comic tends to be upbeat and amusing. However, events that happen in the comic do affect the characters. Elf reacted poorly to the death of another mercenary she had feelings for, and it was commented that she turned to using stims to compensate for it (though unfortunately little has been done to follow that story). Kevyn himself was torn up (as was the rest of the crew) when Tagon himself died. And none of the band took Petey’s destruction at the hands of the Ob’enn back in 2002 particularly well.

Despite that, the comic tends to be upbeat and cheerful. Several characters react to the increased pressure of deaths and the like with an equal increase in sarcastic comments, puns, and sardonic humor. What’s more, the situations the characters find themselves in inevitably is amusing enough to lighten the situation, whether it’s Schlock ramming a small tree up a herd animal’s… um, butt to “encourage” it to run faster (and steer it) or Tagon doing a happy dance for having weaseled yet more money out of his employers.

Howard manages to mix the good with the bad quite well. Even the “darker” Schlocktoberfest stories manage to remain upbeat, even if we’re wondering how our heroes will survive.

If there is a problem with the comic, it’s that there are so many possibilities left untouched. There is a rich cast of characters here with so many story possibilities. I want to see more about Elf’s stim addiction and its consequences… and what Dr. Bunni does to help Elf through this. I want to learn more about the Reverend and Bunni’s engagement… and how their relationship is growing. Heck, I’d like to see more of the romantic interest Tagon has for Elf mentioned just before Tagon died in Schlocktoberfest 2004. And this is just a couple off the top of my head.

We need to see more character-driven stories. These are more than just mercenaries working for Tagon… they’re people, and they have lives, histories, families. It would be great to see more of this aspect of the comic focused on. This is easily as important as any story to save the galaxy from Dark Matter Entities and the FSherl’ganni.

Another problem I have is how difficult it was to find the Cast page. I stumbled upon it through the Search option. However, if you’re trying to figure out who a character is (like Chelle, one of the tank drivers whom I mistook for Bunni initially, even though she doesn’t have the chest – I couldn’t remember where else I’d seen her and figured it was just a mistake in the art), then it’s easier to look for a Cast page link than to click on the Search Strip link. It just seems intuitive to me.

Speaking of links… that’s another problem. Unfortunately, some of the links mentioned in the Comments under some of the comics have outdated links. Some lead to comics that no longer exist. Others are a result of Schlock Mercenary’s move from Keenspot to becoming an Independent strip. But that is a relatively minor quibble.

When it comes to storytelling and a fantastic ongoing storyline, Schlock Mercenary excels. Its characterization needs some work, but does not seriously hurt the quality of this comic. And as far as science fiction web comics go, Schlock Mercenary is definitely the best strip out there.

Just whatever you do, don’t hire an Attorney Drone when Tagon’s Toughs are in the area, or you might have cloned snake-guts splattered all over your clothes.

Addendum Note: Freak has pointed out that Freefall is another Sci Fi strip older than Schlock. To be honest, there are probably a few other strips I’m unaware of, and I realized that at the time, but didn’t add a modifier stating that. Consider that fixed.

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