Webcomics, Part VII: Schlock Mercenary

Written by Matthew Pardue

After the last two webcomics, I thought I’d take us back to something with a story. A twelve-year-long story with lots of smaller stories inside it (I promised myself I wouldn’t make an Inception joke). This also marks my first science fiction review (unless you count Two Guys and Guy, which occasionally at least looks in the direction of sci-fi thanks to Frank). I bring to you Schlock Mercenary, a story about Schlock, who is a mercenary. Truly, it boggles the mind. With him (insomuch as Schlock has a gender) are many other hired guns (there is, obviously, violence, but very little else that’d affect an age rating; I wouldn’t raise it past PG-13) in the company Tagon’s Toughs, a thirty-first century group that travels the universe in search of profit with an acceptable mortality rate (“acceptable” being any number that doesn’t apply to them, their clients, or random civilians). The creator, Howard Tayler, describes it as a “comic space opera.” I’m not sure if he means that in the sense that it’s humorous, or just a webcomic; either would be correct (also, that’s a lot of parenthetical asides).

Let’s start with the note of humor, since we’re already here. Schlock Mercenary is not only funny, but quotably funny. You could fill an Olympic swimming pool with all the dialogue bits that you can repeat out of context without losing their spark. In this way, it’s vaguely similar to Unsounded; the plot itself is serious, but the characters are dryly witty and practically breathe great dialogue. The difference is that Unsounded splits up its tones so that you have comedy in one box and drama in the other. Schlock Mercenary prefers to keep everything strewn across its desk. Very frequently, you’ll see tense moments during which the characters quip back and forth or just toss around Bond one-liners. Some stories couldn’t pull this off without ruining the grim mood, and to a point, neither can Schlock Mercenary; when the characters are making relatively casual conversation in the middle of a firefight, it does give the sense that they’re not particularly concerned. Then again, these are trained and battle-hardened mercenaries. More importantly, they have a medical system that the WHO leaders would eat their own hands for. This being a very technologically advanced future, any injury short of being a pile of ash is usually manageable (and in the event that it’s not, the setting occasionally brings out clones or time travel).

Original at: http://www.schlockmercenary.com/2010-10-05

That’s a severed head piloting a headless monkey, talking to a robotic tailor who’s also a surgeon. I refuse to explain how the situation came to pass, partly because I don’t want to spoil that particular story, but mostly because I think it’s funnier out of context.

You might be thinking that this kind of techno-magic removes all sense of risk, and you’d be right—mostly. The characters themselves sometimes reflect this mentality (and thank Amaterasu [Shinto sun goddess, if you’re curious], because if they didn’t, it’d dig a pretty deep rift between them and the audience, often as this sort of thing happens). If the company doctor can just scrape up your remains and build you a new body, death, like in Girl Genius, becomes more of a detour than a stop sign. Now, think back a few lines to that important “mostly.” Characters have died permanently, and let me tell you, it packs a surprising amount of weight after you get used to them spending some time in a healing tank (with…healing juices, I guess? This comic is about my only regular source of sci-fi) before going back to business as usual. Deliberately or accidently, Tayler has sidestepped a major problem in fiction: if the audience knows you won’t kill off your (main) characters, dangerous situations are only valuable for the spectacle, but if you do go for realism, you end up with a lot of red ink and Xs on your Cast page. Schlock Mercenary doesn’t have to rely on last-minute saviors to keep the important people breathing, and it also doesn’t steal your favorite characters on a regular basis. There’s a sense of risk because you don’t know how the aftermath of each scenario will go, but at the same time you probably won’t stop yourself from liking the characters because you expect them to get picked off like cheerleaders in a horror movie.

Think back a second time to the bit about healing juices (to be fair, I think that most of the time the characters end up in horizontal healing coffins, like from The Fifth Element but minus the stupid clothing, rather than vertical liquid-filled tubes). I said I don’t have a big science fiction background, and as such, I’m bad at knowing when something is or isn’t realistic. For a given value of realism, anyway; Tayler, obviously, deals in what may someday be possible given a steady progression of technology, and creating theories about that is like going back in time and asking Oscar Wilde to predict the Internet. We can only be critical of the forecasts to a reasonable degree. Tayler does, though, accompany some comic strips with a discussion of the technology involved. From what I can understand of such things, he seems to know what he’s talking about. I hope everyone can just run with it, either way; fantasy gets away with all kinds of improbable things just because it’s magic (where’s your conservation of mass, Harry Potter? Lavoisier would be livid. Also, yes, I had to look him up on Wikipedia), yet we demand that science fiction, which has the fiction part right in the name, stand up to much greater scrutiny. Who are we to say what will and will not be possible a thousand years from now? Hell, three hundred years ago we still believed in spontaneous generation. I’m pretty sure that by the time of Schlock Mercenary, contemporary scientists would look at our textbooks and laugh themselves into a coma.

That went on for longer than I’d planned, but you get the idea. Now, for a related note: I both am and am not satisfied with the aliens. Related to that related note, I just realized that I haven’t actually shown you Schlock yet.

Original at: http://www.schlockmercenary.com/2011-05-11

He isn’t the robot (who has a lot of facial expressions for something made out of metal, I now notice, as do all other robots; let’s file that under the fiction side of science fiction). Also, Schlock doesn’t naturally have eyes. It’s been a long time since the story in which he went home for new ones, but I seem to remember him picking them off a bush (fiction, check). So, on his own, he’s a blob with unfortunate resemblances that other characters have pointed out before. He can separate into a pretty indefinite number of chunks, tastes with his whole body (wait, how does he speak? Ok, ok, I’ll stop for now), and members of his species usually say hello by eating pieces of one another because they have their memories stored in their flesh, so they can trade experiences when they meet, thus ensuring that everyone’s completely honest. From the looks of it, you can’t get much more alien than that. Think, though, about how he has a sense of taste in the first place, how his eyes (I really want to say there’s an eye-bush on his home planet, but the idea is crazy enough to make me doubt myself) resemble eyes that we’re used to, however he got them, and how his species communicates verbally when they aren’t nibbling at each other. My science background is pretty much confined to high school biology and that summer geology course I took to fill the college core curriculum, but if we ever do run into aliens from many galaxies away, I’d expect them to bear even less resemblance to the live we’re used to. And Schlock is the most alien of the aliens; many others are bipedal, usually with two eyes, a mouth, occasionally arms, and so on.

I’m being unfair, though. Given that science fiction writers can only draw inspiration from what we’ve already discovered, it’s pretty hard to come up with something entirely different, at least without enough LSD to have lunch with Jimi Hendrix and time itself on the surface of Bill Murray’s eye. Plus, since these aliens are also characters, we need to be able to understand and relate to them in some fashion. Tayler does a well enough job, all things considered.

My final nitpick with this very fun webcomic is that it’s in dire need of the occasional recap. There’s a reason I didn’t edit out the bit about the eye-bush and just go hunt down the information (well, two reasons, since I’d have to comb through the archives for a good hour just to know where to really refine my search): I want to mention that so much has happened in this long series that it’s hard to remember all of it. Schlock Mercenary has some overarching plots, but it also splits itself into fairly self-contained substories, usually in the form of the jobs the mercenaries are hired to do. Over twelve years, this stuff has piled up. I can only think back to vague pieces of early stories, even important ones that impact the current plot. Still, I suppose Wikipedia is always ready to come to the rescue.

To summarize (because damn, did I ramble), great dialogue and humor, fun characters, good science, good drama, decent artwork (it’s less impressive early on, but I’m sure none of you would miss an otherwise excellent narrative just because of the pictures, right?), and clever stories that you might want to reference on occasion so you remember everything that’s going on. Check out the first page, when Schlock first signs on to traverse the stars and shoot at people; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.