Blank Label Comics Appreciation Week: Schlock Mercenary

I owe a debt of gratitude to Howard Tayler for helping me remember the proper way to spell the word “mercenary.”

It is, perhaps, a shameful thing – this is not that difficult a word, and I am someone with a degree in writing, who takes at least some small amount of pride in my writing capabilities… and yet, inevitably, when I attempt to describe an individual who sells their combat skills to the highest bidder, it takes all my focus to avoid speaking of a mercanary – which is clearly something else entirely, some sort of dreaded aquatic monstrosity that is half bird, half fish.

I’m not sure how this problem developed. I know, even as I type the letters, that it is not the proper spelling. But my fingers inevitably follow their own twisted desires, and mercanaries flows out onto the page as naturally as can be. Oh, I make sure to correct it, each time – and after many discussions of Schlock Mercenary, I’ve finally started to train myself to use the proper spelling.

But interestingly enough, that discussion of Schlock Mercenary hasn’t been on here.

I’ve mentioned it in passing once or twice, and that is all. This is peculiar, for it is one of the earliest webcomics I read, and one I can always recall enjoying. I talk about it with my friends, certainly – many of them are science geeks, unlike myself, and able to especially appreciate the scientific mojo brought to the strip. This is also the only comic – web or otherwise – that has actually inspired an RPG character of mine. (Though one that, sadly, never saw the light of day.)

That clearly means the strip speaks to me on some level. That the ideas within it – the characters, the stories, the setting -have wormed their way into my mind and taken root.

And yet, I’ve never seen fit to actually discuss the comic.

I blame the consistency of the strip. It isn’t really a webcomic, after all – it is an inevitable facet of life. Every day, the sun will rise. Every day, there will be a new Schlock Mercenary. I suppose this comparison is horribly flawed, given that people can and will discuss the relative merit of a particularly breathtaking sunrise – but my point is that the strip functions on a level where it never calls attention to itself, but simply maintains a constant harmonious level of quality.

But, I suppose, you may not read the strip, so allow me to try and give a description of it, and explain why I have said the things I have said. (Save for the mercanary problem. I’m not going to try and figure out from what horrible depths my brain procured that strange difficulty.)

Schlock Mercenary is a strip set in the 31st century. It takes place in a science-fiction setting, if that wasn’t apparent from the time frame. It revolves around a band of mercenaries who, in return for appropriate sums of money, will render their usual services, such as “excessive amounts of violence,” or for a higher price, “just the right amount of violence.” It features a lovable cast of flawed characters, many are whom are aliens, and others that are simply scientists. It updates every day of the week. It always updates. Most strips are a standard 4-panel length, sundays are full pages. It has clean, pleasant art in full color. The website has a search feature for the archives, a handy storyline guide, regularly updated news blog, a variety of other useful information, and a short, somewhat outdated description of a sparse handful of the main characters, though not a full cast guide for the many, many diverse members of the crew.

The strip is somewhat hard to pin down in mood – it is light-hearted, generally fond of visual punchlines, and is largely driven by narrative and plot. Being a daily strip that has been running for over seven years, it has accumulated massive, sprawling archives. It has managed to progress the story through a sizable number of events, and does a remarkably successful job of incorporating significant events while still, on some level, maintaining the status quo – or at least the general dynamic of the strip.

And, in many ways, that is probably its greatest strength, and greatest weakness. Schlock Mercenary has established such a degree of consistency, it rarely defies expectations – I know it will be good, and it is, but never in a way that really calls attention to it. Even when it goes through big events, that is just part of the show.

It also has the downside that it takes place in a setting where just about anything is possible. Characters can be recovered from death, time can be turned back, mistakes can be undone. It doesn’t happen often, and there are plenty of permanent, long-lasting changes that take place – but it also means that any given death isn’t always taken at face value.

The most recent storyline seems like it should be a big one – it features the death (of which our erstwhile heroes are sadly not involved in) of one of the largest antagonists of the series. The only one, in many ways – most villains have been massive corporations, governments, or similar faceless entities, while this guy has been something of a singular archenemy.

But… death isn’t always the end, and there are any number of ways he could come back. So it produces an interesting storyline and results in a variety of unintended consequences for the strip to follow, but it never has the shock value that a different comic in a similar situation would undeniably have.

This isn’t a bad thing – but it means it is much easier for the strip to stay off the radar.

On the other hand, the consistency can be a good thing – with it having been running for so long, and gone through so much, it feels as though the strip has been in its current state forever. But… this isn’t true. When the strip began, the art could easily have been produced by a child using MSPaint. It was readable, all things considered, but it is almost impossible to describe the different levels of quality in what it was and what it became.

It changed, of course, because that tends to be a result from producing art every single day for years on end. Oh, it requires the will to improve and the aptitude to do so, which Taylor clearly had – but it is largely due to all that practice, all that practical learning.

And now, it seems amazing to look back on those strips and see the difference. I’m curious as to how his most recent book will turn out, as it is a collection of the earliest strips. (A collection he initially avoided, as a matter of fact, and instead focused on later storylines whose quality could speak for itself.)

Nonetheless, the strip stands out as an example of how far determination and persistence can get you. Even beyond that, for all the humble beginnings of the comic, it is an icon of how to do a webcomic professionally. Reliable updates, slowly refined skills, accessible website (even if it needs a better cast page.) Howard Tayler is no longer the only man known for using a buffer, but I’d say he is the poster child for doing so. He’s shown what you can produce when you take producing the comic seriously.

Schlock Mercenary is a good comic. In this review, I haven’t actually touched on the characters, or the story, or the setting – I’ll instead leave them to speak for themselves. Suffice to say they are good characters the fill a variety of roles, and have their fair share of stereotypes and original concepts, and that the strip does a remarkable job of focusing on this small and merry band even as it gives the reader a grand sense of the wider universe.

The strip is filled with a sense of exploration and discovery – both for the characters and for us – and that’s a damn fine thing for a comic to be about.

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