Friday, November 11, 2022

Why I Love the Schlock Mercenary Webcomic

Hello all! Over the last couple weeks, I have been rereading Schlock Mercenary, a completed sci-fi adventure webcomic chronicling the escapades of a group of space mercenaries as they get into and out of trouble in their repeated efforts to stay alive, make payroll, and repeatedly save the galaxy. Some of you — possibly a fair number of you — may have heard of it already; it ran consistently for twenty years, and it was nominated for a few awards in that time (and I'm not sure which of those is the bigger accomplishment). However, knowing my audience, I wouldn't be surprised if a good number of y'all either haven't heard of it or heard of it and wrote it off. So, given that it has occupied a lot of my brainspace lately — and also given that there's currently a Kickstarter running to get Book 17 in print — I figured I'd share my thoughts on it.

(Side note — you absolutely should go check out the Kickstarter, especially if you already love the webcomic but haven't been keeping up with news since it ended. There's lots of shiny stuff. Also, stretch goals! Most have already been reached, but there are some recently-added ones still to go!)

Why I Love the Schlock Mercenary Webcomic

  1. It's a huge, weird, colorful universe, alien in the best possible way. Reading Schlock Mercenary, you get the impression that a major part of Howard Tayler's worldbuilding method is asking "What would be the weirdest, most fun option?" and then following that up with, "How can I make that work in a way that's believable?" And let me tell you, he does a magnificent job of answering both questions, creating a galaxy that's vibrant and strange and full of weird, wonderful life with equally weird (but sometimes less wonderful) cultures — where you can have a superintelligent AI puppetmaster whose avatar happens to look like a cuddly koala, a sweet-natured, terrifyingly efficient mech-bug medic (for whom internal organs are semi-optional), amorphs like the title character, and more. Everything feels believable, lived-in, down to specific idioms used by particular alien races.
  2. Even the most alien characters and cultures are very human in the important ways. Very few, if any, of the Schlock Mercenary characters are perfect heroes. Tagon and his Toughs don't have a problem with saving the day, but once it's been saved, they'd like to end it with a heavy paycheck (and if they can get paid twice, even better). Petey and the Fleetmind want to protect the galaxy, but they'll cross lines and manipulate both friends and enemies as necessary in order to achieve their goals. Morally grey is possibly the term I would apply, if it didn't conjure up associations of angsty, goth-adjacent anti-heroes. But the humanness, the fact that these characters' natural inclination is so obviously not always towards doing good, is what makes their character growth and the many, many times when they choose to act heroically despite everything truly sing.
  3. It's harder sci-fi without being intimidating. TV Tropes categorizes it as being in the "Physics Plus" category, which means it's almost entirely scientifically plausible. And it's impossible to miss the fact that Tayler has put an immense amount of thought into How Stuff Works on pretty much every level, which is a good thing, given that many of the overarching plotlines stem from technology and its effects on culture and the world. However, you don't have to be an engineer to keep up — Tayler works the important explanation into the story in a way that's natural and easy to read, and bonus information goes in footnotes for those who want it. And as I've already touched on, this doesn't have the grim, cynical, and angsty vibe that I, at least, tend to associate with a lot of other hard sci-fi. In fact . . .
  4. It's just the perfect balance of humor and seriousness. Yes, it's a joke-a-day webcomic. Yes, every strip ends with a punchline. Yes, as I already said, there's a lot of worldbuilding and character elements that probably had their start in "You know what would be really funny?" And yes, most of the humor is very good, especially once you get past the first few storylines (which do contain a higher percentage of "haha, gender-based stereotype"/"haha, innuendo"/"haha, you know what the main character resembles?" than the rest of the comic). But this is also a story about courage and sacrifice and friendship. It's a story about being a leader and making the tough choices that come with that. It's a story about free will and what it means to have it. It is a story that, to paraphrase my favorite Sanderson quote, doesn't tell you what to think, but certainly asks you to think and gives you questions to think upon. Like all great stories, it rewards whatever amount of thought and effort you put into it — but even if you only put in a little, you can get a lot out. (And, if you ask me, it takes an astonishing amount to do as much as this story does while still delivering on the humor side of things.)
  5. I am forever astonished at how Howard Tayler can turn a throwaway detail (or joke) into a magnificent plot twist. This is, obviously, hard to discuss without giving away spoilers, which is why you should read the comic if you haven't already (and also why you shouldn't skip the early strips if you can avoid doing so). Suffice it to say that just because something is silly does not mean it's not important and that, when it comes to storytelling cleverness, Tayler is in the same class with Brandon Sanderson (appropriate, since they have a podcast together) and Megan Whalen Turner.

Have you read Schlock Mercenary? What did you think of it — and if you're a fan, what makes you love the series? On the other hand, if you haven't read it yet, have I successfully tempted you to give it a try? It's long (twenty years of daily comics!), but extremely bingeable. If that much comic sounds kind of intimidating (or if you're giving the early art a sceptical side-eye), you can pick up with the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse storyline, which is about halfway through and will give you a good feel for the characters and storytelling style. (That said, if you find you enjoy it, I do recommend going back and reading from the beginning! There's a lot of good stuff, and it's fun to watch the art evolve.) Whatever you think, please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!



  1. Ooh, this sounds SO INTRIGUING! (But I don't know if I have time to start reading a webcomic, so I'm a little afraid to take a look. XD)

    1. Yeah, I get that. This one is pretty handily divided up into parts, with an easily navigable archive, so as long as you keep an eye on the strip titles, it's actually better set up for reading in small bits than a lot of other webcomics. Otherwise, you can do the other thing I do and just bookmark wherever you stop and delete old bookmarks as you go. The nice thing about it being completed is that you don't have to worry about catching up with what's current! I hope you're able to find time sometime to check it out.


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