As I mentioned last week in my article on Clan of the Cats, it can be difficult for storytelling comics to maintain a cohesive storyline that is balanced with understand- able individual updates. Today’s Schlock Mercenary has managed to wrap up most of the existing storyline with few, if any, dangling plotlines. Admittedly, SM has moved away from the epic storytelling found in CotC and related strips (and even in its own past, just a few years ago) and is utilizing more compact stories that, while interrelated, can stand on their own. Even with that, however, it would be easy for a less talented storyteller to leave out key details and have readers wonder just how the story had ended.
This can even happen if a reader is inattentive or only skimming the comic (which sometimes happens with half- or full-page comics that have a lot of dialogue). If readers skimmed past the line in the second panel, concerning the mercenary Shafter being placed on retainer by Schlock, then the final panel with “Shafter’s Shifters” who managed to rescue the rogue artificial intelligence Lunesby from a paranoid UNS (the primary government of the Terran worlds) would feel like cartoonist Howard Tayler had pulled this ending out of the blue. But Tayler not only mentions Shafter here, he has built up Shafter’s presence in the comic since soon after the start of the current storyline (having not only resurrected two older characters from the comic’s archives (Jud Shafter and Lunesby) but managed to utilize both as key to the storyline without dominating it).
More amusingly, I never saw this coming. I was running a half dozen scenarios in my head on how Schlock would get Lunesby out from under the UNS, including hiding the hardware needed to extract Lunesby in Chiselo’s luggage (seeing that he’s a sapient elephant, I was going for a pun on searching the elephant’s trunk when Schlock and his crew left Mars), or even in life support for Lieutenant Chelle who was hurt in a recent fight with non-sapient elephants. None of my scenarios were close to what Tayler ran with, and in fact Tayler’s twist worked far better than any of my ideas would have.
Part of me wonders if one of the reasons for this conciseness in today’s update lies with the format Tayler uses. The majority of storytelling comics utilize a full-page format, for easy of printing and artistic purposes. Indeed, some iconography used in panel positioning in several full-page comics has allowed artists to utilize imagery both without and within the panels (with CotC utilizing this several times in its current storyline). However, Tayler doesn’t adhere constantly to the newstrip style, and will vary his panels to the scene and its requirements.
It’s also more than likely that consequences of events in this update will be seen in the future. The increased paranoia of the UNS in the wake of the creation of FleetMind and the abuses it has perpetrated as it strengthens its grip on human worlds have had a direct effect on Tagon’s Toughs and on Schlock himself. The new-found freedom of an independent AI who has recorded proof of UNS abuses might help result in the UNS being forced to back off, either from political action of its voters after proof of government misdeeds started appearing, or through the interventionist activities of Petey and FleetMind.
As with any storytelling comic, Schlock Mercenary works best when each storyline is read all the way through, rather than the piecemeal method of reading that webcomics often end up using. Even with the inherent limitations in the format, Tayler has managed to create a concise and understandable comic that works both on its own and as part of a greater storyline. Nor does the comic seem repetitive when read as part of the storyline (a problem that can occur when cartoonists use recaps to sum up events in a comic). This update also helps prove that a cartoonist can provide an innovative plot twist while still laying the foundation of the twist early in the storyline.