Given how difficult it can be to make a living creating webcomics through online advertisements and the like, it comes as no surprise that merchandising has become the stock in trade for many self-sufficient webcartoonists. Indeed, Jeph Jacques, Fred Gallagher, and Aaron Diaz are just a few of the cartoonists who sell t-shirts and prints on their site; Jacques has gone so far as to use his characters as a form of product placement by wearing the t-shirts he sells (a practice that may have started in reverse; I think he crafted the t-shirts for the characters and realized after fan response that there was a market for them. I may be mistaken in this, however).
But there is a dark line between merchandizing and selling out. It would appear that Howard Tayler is walking over that line as he turns his science fiction comic Schlock Mercenary into Schlock Merchandising. Oh, he’s not changing the name of the comic or anything silly like that. Instead, he’s gone a step further and is using the comic to directly sell products; in this case, he’s stealing from the tradition of challenge coins and instituting it into his comic at the same time he runs a crowdfunding Kickstarter to (successfully) fund a product run of fantasy challenge coins for his fictional mercenary group.
I can’t help but think of the IDIC idiocy that infected the original Star Trek; it appears that series creator Gene Roddenberry tried to use the television show to sell a collector’s pin, but the actors rebelled against this crass effort to capitalize on the show. Sadly the characters of Tayler’s comic have been unable to resist their creator’s whims, and as a result it’s being directly integrated into the storyline. It is a waste of reader time and destroys any momentum moving into the new story. What’s more, it’s in poor taste. While I’m all for merchandising and cartoonists making a living there are more interesting ways to do it than force it into the comic’s script. Both the story and the readership deserve better.
Addendum note: I suppose I should mention one argument that was raised during the writing of this commentary: is it the timing that’s to blame? If the coins appeared a month or two after Tayler had introduced them in the strip, would it matter? And to be honest? I’m not sure. All I do know is that for the last couple of weeks Tayler has been beating the Kickstarter drum and commenting on how it’s exceeding funding requirements. We know about the coins already. He could have quietly introduced it into the strip by having our newest Sergeant be given one without making a big deal over it. Instead, we’ve had several days spent on this for what is purely mercenary reasons.
Bubblegum Crisis (the original one) was my gateway drug into anime. It was the first series I purchased and I quickly fell in love with this science fiction world with vigilantes in powered armor fighting against a malevolent corporation. I get a similar vibe from the online manga Convergence, by Wave (oh, like none of you have ever bothered with a pseudonym online?) about Sakura, a young woman who, after discovering some nasty secrets that the Darkwood Corporation has been hiding from the public eye, has to save her sister from one of the corporate enforcers, Velias… who has his own reasons to hate the rebels and yet not wish to see harm come to her sister Suzuran.
While I enjoy the background setting for Wave’s world-building (even if the whole “evil corporation” theme is sometimes overdone, not to mention it’s likely if Darkwood is as powerful as it’s made out to be, it would control the news media and use those contacts to squash any potential leaks), where the comic shines is with Sakura, Suzuran, and Velias. Each character takes their own turn as protagonist and antagonist, with Velias’ motivation for helping Darkwood (and his concerns about doing what’s right) providing him with more depth than most comic antagonists possess, while Sakura’s desire to reveal Darkwood’s shady dealings ends up the catalyst that causes Suzuran to come to harm. But really, the star of the comic is Suzuran herself.
Suzuran is… for lack of better terms, nuts. She’s a delightful nut, mind you, but in her first appearance (after Velias and Sakura’s initial fight), she’s jumping off a tall building and onto a homemade trampoline she hung between the buildings (and her sister knows about this crazy plan of Suzu’s). After that, she jumps up to a line between buildings and then starts playing the flute, of all things. It’s only after Velias shows up to take her into custody (in the vain belief that he could use Suzu to blackmail Sakura to give up her data) that we learn that Darkwood had experimented on Suzu (and Sakura) in the past… and of the connection that Velias has in initially freeing both girls. Further, Suzu’s still programmed by the corporation… and after running into the man behind her programming tries to kill her sister.
So needless to say, Convergence takes some interesting twists along the way. Interestingly, the comic is actually a prequel and is wrapping up to make way for Wave’s next work, and she’s launched a Kickstarter for a print version of Convergence (which will end on March 6, 2013). It’s the unique touches that really make this one a special event. I mean, any comic can have beautiful artwork (which does unfortunately include a couple chibi-style moments which I suspect most manga artists consider obligatory) and an interesting storyline. But flute players, a complete loon for a character, a shady corporation…these are things that don’t often make it into comics, and certainly not all at once. This comic is definitely worth a closer look, so head on out and see for yourself.
While Halloween is over, I thought I’d indulge in one last comic with a horrific bent to it for the week with Howard Tayler’s science fiction series Schlock Mercenary. For the last couple of months, Tayler has been telling two stories at the same time, with Schlock, Captain Tagon and crew the focus of the comic during the week, and Tagon’s father taking central stage on the Sunday strips… with General Tagon’s story about the loss of his family reminiscent of the Schlocktoberfests of old. Interestingly, there are also parallels between the two stories, with weaponized nanites used to kill off Tagon’s family at the start of the Terraforming Wars (which we’ve not heard much of before that I can recall) and the nanite-enhanced soldiers that have replaced thousands of Gavs which Schlock and crew were hired to protect. What’s more, the General’s tale helps explain a lot about Captain Tagon himself, and what drives him. As the General’s tale has wrapped up, no doubt we’ll soon be seeing the two stories merge in the near future; still, this was an interesting Halloween tale, and it’s an experiment in storytelling I hope Tayler indulges in again next October.
If there’s a word that writers have grown to dread even more than the clarion cry of “Mary Sue,” it has to be “deus ex machina.” Part of this may lie with the fact the phrase hints at sloppy storytelling; if a writer has written themselves into a corner and has to rely on some contrived coincidence, then obviously the writer hasn’t been doing their job. But while on the surface it might appear that cartoonist Tom Dell-Aringa’s Martian science fiction webcomic Marooned has succumbed to deus ex machina, I must admit that at its core, the appearance of a Dark One to rescue our protagonists from certain doom does make a certain amount of sense.
For one thing, while Captain John, Ugo, and Liam are trapped on a Martian ghost ship in orbit around the Red Planet, there’s no real proof that the Dark One is going to be able to actually live up to its boast. It’s all well and good to say “I’ll save the day!” but without actions to back those words, the words end up empty and contrived. And given that Liam (who shares the same abilities as the Dark One, though she’s not as skilled) is threatened by the dark denizens of the ghost ship, and we’ve already seen the Dark Ones are not all-powerful, the Dark One could very well end up in the same boat as our protagonists.
To be honest, at this point of the story I suspect we are going to see some form of deus ex machina; the question is, how will it appear and will there be some sacrifice involved? While Marooned is comedic in nature, there have been several story elements that take a darker turn. And to be honest, there are times when deus ex machina is called for. Given that the Dark Ones are pre-existing elements in the story with links to several of the characters, their presence is not completely unexpected. But still I can’t help but wish (and hope) that somehow Captain John and his companions will ultimately outwit their foes despite the presence of a god-alien in the machine.
If I’ve mentioned this once, I’ve said it a hundred times, but it bears repeating: pacing is everything in webcomics. When webcartoonists aren’t careful they can end up with a lot of wasted time and effort in their stories. This is especially true for comics without a set ending in mind such as Howard Tayler’s long-running science fiction webcomic Schlock Mercenary, and the current subplot about Lieutenant Para Ventura, whose role as an U.N.S. Internal Affairs Intelligence Corps officer (or to be succinct, a spy) has finally been revealed in the comic.
While Tayler is often good at keeping his stories concise, I must admit I’ve found the “banter” between Para and Thurl to be tedious at best. In the time she spent insulting Thurl, she easily could have told Kevyn everything she needed to and thus continued the story. These last few comics have felt more like padding, with Tayler stretching out the story through Para’s insults rather than letting the comic flow more naturally. I can’t even say that it was Tayler remaining in character for Para, seeing that while she can be arrogant at times, I can’t really recall her being deliberately offensive. Well, not recently at least.
It can be tremendously hard to edit down writing. Often writers can fall in love with scenes, no matter how unnecessary, or with dialogue they feel is cute. But by cutting scenes down, writers can ensure their story continues to flow smoothly while retaining the reader’s attention. Likewise, Tayler has shown a willingness to use over-sized updates on days other than Sunday. Rather than pad these updates, he should have edited it down and presented the inevitable twist earlier. It would have saved him time and effort, and would help keep his readers enthralled with the storyline.
For a while now Howard Tayler has been building toward the reveal of Lieutenant Para Ventura as a UNS intelligence agent in his science fiction webcomic Schlock Mercenary, and while half a year ago I dismissed the possibility, it appears I must eat my words at this point. Naturally, there has to be more to this than meets the eye, given that the UNS is preparing to send a Battleplate warship to seize Oisri, the planetoid that Tagon’s Toughs are currently protecting, which is more than a match for the Toughs’ warship even if it hadn’t been subverted by Ventura. Given Ventura’s hold over their warship and the intelligent munitions they use, it’s likely Ventura could wipe out the Toughs singlehanded… which suggests then that while she works for the UNS… it’s a different faction than the group preparing military action to take Oisri and the secrets it holds. Of course, this may be wishful thinking on my part; I’ve grown to like Ventura (and Tagii, the artificial intelligence that controls the Toughs’ warship) and don’t want to see her as an antagonist. Though seeing that I’ve been wrong about her in the past, all bets are off at this point.
I have to admit I’ve been enjoying the space-based aspects of Questionable Content (which may explain why I didn’t particularly enjoy Jeph Jacques possible “homage” to South Park with a quick glimpse back to Faye on Earth). Perhaps part of this lies with my enjoyment of science fiction, which QC definitely qualifies as (what with the Anthro-PCs and other robots that inhabit the comic, and the particulars of Hannelore’s upbringing. But I must admit, watching Marten and his friends visit with Hanners as she returns to her father’s space station has helped drive home the science fiction aspect of the comic in a way that casual robot insanity fails to do.
Part of this undoubtedly lies with the expanded cast of characters Jacques has created for this storyline. While Jacques is no stranger of creating fascinating characters we only see once in a blue moon (or those who’ve been put on a bus and shipped off to Florida for marine biology internships), he’s inhabited this station with an interesting crew that will likely never be seen once this story comes to an end. Lieutenant Potter is a case in point; it would have been easy for Jacques to have Lt. Potter be a one-shot character, but instead he’s expanded the storyline and expanded on her so she’s more than just some overzealous military officer who was humiliated for doing her job.
Perhaps what I’ve liked most of all is how casually Jacques has depicted the science fiction aspects of the comic (and yes, I know space stations are currently viable, but not to the scale of the station shown in this storyline). Little things like Lt. Potter pushing off the ground and floating weightlessly by a window (which, realistically, does not depict stars; there’s too much light in that room for them to be easily seen) or her comments on how zero-g sex isn’t as enjoyable as it sounds (seeing that it’s a threesome including Sir Isaac Newton’s inertial laws) help to ground the science fiction aspect of the comic into the fabric of the comic, acting as background for what truly matters: the telling of a good story.