Keep on Schlockinâ€™ in the Free World by Xaviar Xerexes
Howard Tayler loves the puns. And the guns. Oh, does he love the guns.
Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary is one of the monster strips of old school webcomics with archives stretching back to June of 2000. Tayler has been plotting the adventures of one androgynous blob named Schlock for almost 5 years now, every day of every week of the year.
And to think it all started with one little "ommmmminous hummmmmmmm…"
There are many things to like about Schlock Mercenary. As Eric might say, it brings the story and the funny just about everyday. And what a story. Tayler has turned what started as the simple tale of a tiny mercenary company into a vast universe of characters filled with numerous alien races, clever and exotic technology, and political machinations worthy of Machievelli.
In many ways Tayler is telling a familiar science fiction story: a small band of heroes (perhaps mercenaries are better described as anti-heroes) cast loose in the universe trying to make their way to safety. But right from the beginning, Tayler not only smartly upends familiar expectations, but packs a plethora of clever ideas into the tale. The webcomic kicks off with a corporate takeover of Kaff Tagon’s mercenary company that launches the overall story arc of the webcomic involving teraports, wormgates and inter-galactic business conflict.
Tayler also has a knack for crafting well-defined, if not always nuanced, characters including Kevyn Andreyasn , the scientist who invents the teraport; Ennesby, an artificial intelligence; Ch’vorthq, a diplomat slash four-star chef; DoytHaban, a cyborg with a human and an artificial brain; the Partnership Collective of attorneys who are literally a race of alien snakes; and Petey, an slightly unbalanced Ob’enn artificial intelligence who later takes on physical form. This isn’t even mentioning the star of the show, the carbosilicate amorph Schlock, who in his ever-mutable shape and everlasting enthusiasm for a violent solution to any problem is the engine of the strip.
In the first years of the strip especially there’s a manic we’re-making-this-up-as-we-go-along type of energy. Tayler pokes holes in the fourth wall, primarily the narration to the strip as said narration sometimes engages in conversation with the characters of the comic as opposed to mere exposition. Like early Sluggy Freelance, Tayler also has a willingness to not only poke fun at pop culture stereotypes, but to incorporate them in knowing and sometimes ongoing ways. For example, Tayler plays with the expectation that "extras" will always stay anonymous characters. Two of the grunts (Shep and Nick) get speaking lines with jokes and suddenly find themselves part of the recurring cast.
That is not to say that Tayler does not try to add emotional depth to his characters. Although for the most part the tone is light and fast-paced there are moments that go for emotions rather then laughter. There are relationships that evolve: Dr. Edward Bunnigus falls in love with the Reverend Theo Fobius and eventually they marry; Elf loses more than one potential boyfriend to combat; and Schlock gets over his crush on Breya Andreyasn, who in turn marries Haban II (a clone of cyborg DoytHaban).
And although the advanced medical technology cuts down on permanent damage to the characters, Tayler sometimes does allow for real harm to the protagonists. In this series, one of the central mercenary characters, Brad, is badly hurt and Tayler uses it to help develop the friendship between Brad and Schlock. Mostly though, with one more key exception (which I will skip as it is too much of spoiler for anyone who has not yet read the strip), permanent damage is temporary and played for laughs. For example, another recurring mercenary character, Der Trihs, repeatedly gets blown up and reduced to the status of a living head floating in a jar. He always manages to bounce back.
It’s hard to capture and convey the fun of this strip in words. It’s partly the tone, it’s partly that Tayler works in both story and a joke everyday. It’s partly the glee Tayler takes in poking fun at what are admittedly easy targets, but still fun to kick around: the legal profession, the medical profession, government bureaucracy, unions and even open source software.
It’s also partly the willingness of Tayler to mix up the premise in non-trivial ways (In engineering speak, non-trivial actually can mean something pretty major). The crew gets new ships and loses them. The mercenary company gets bought and sold and new commanders come and go. And in 2004 Tayler mixed up the premise in even more major ways (again in the spirit of avoiding spoilers I am not going to describe these non-trivial plot developments) indicating to me that he is still deeply interested in this world he has created.
I haven’t mentioned the art yet, have I? At the beginning the art was a bit rough, although to put it in context, the art wasn’t too far below the levels in several other popular webcomics circa 2000. Even in those early days with rough art, it seems to me that Tayler made good use of what he had, giving his main characters clearly distinguishable physical characteristics, particularly in the case of main character, Ensign Schlock the A-morph. Since the early days, Tayler has actually evolved his artwork forward significantly. There is no major change in how he draws the strip, just a much-improved sense of human anatomy, a stronger and more confident line and a better use of color. In any event, the less then realistic art has matched the tone of the strip fairly well despite the realism of the science in this science fiction tale
I think Schlock Mercenary can be seen as a modern reinvention of the classic adventure comic strip that was such a huge part of newspaper comics in the last century. It has an overarching mythos and backstory that Tayler is slowly dribbling out, but each individual storyline has had its own internal coherence and payoff. It has wonderful characters, a fun, fast pace and a consistent sense of humor. And most of all, it has the right sensibility, one that respects the plot and the science in its science fiction, but not much else.
It’s no wonder that Schlock won for best Science Fiction webcomic at the 2003 WCCAs and if Tayler keeps at it he’s likely to add a few more trophies to his shelf.
Xaviar Xerexes is the Second Editor in Chief of Comixpedia. I suspect we'll see the Third E-i-C pretty soon.