2020/07/27

An Elegy for Schlock Mercenary

Schlock Mercenary, a sci-fi space opera webcomic that's been running for 20 years, just ended.

I started reading Schlock Mercenary in 2001... I think. It's stuck in the same drawer of the mental file cabinet as 9/11, MIR deorbiting, and shitty internet. I think. It could have been 2002 or 2003.
(It's been around long enough for this statement (in the comments) to fly with absolute sincerity, for example.) Anything you read daily more than a decade is going to have some effect.

Schlock Mercenary stuck to the classic serialized newspaper comic strip format: a rectangular 3-4 panel strip Monday through Saturday and a square 9-12 panel strip every Sunday. Every strip needs to end with a joke. Every Sunday strip, in fine Calvin and Hobbes tradition, often needs two jokes, one for the first row and one for the whole strip.

This is an INSANE format to use to tell a story. It beats rhyming. It beats iambic pentameter. If you told Shakespeare that every 3rd line needed to be a pun, no matter what, he'd have thrown a rock at you because that's not how stories work.

To be fair, not all of the jokes are funny. Most of them earn a basic newspaper "heh" of approval, at best. But it's still an absolutely ludicrous accomplishment as a comedian, let alone as an artist, a promoter, and a publisher. 365 days x 20 years = 7,300 gags at a bare minimum.

I respect the work. I respect the craft - in my book, Schlock Mercenary is a perfect example of almost pure craft without too much art - and I respect the ability to plot, time, and deploy a story for two decades without missing a single update.
2002-03-07
While other people might idolize Schlock Mercenary as a webcomic, a work of sci-fi, or an internet barometer, to me it will always be an iconic Work. A Work on the value of Work, on the almost transcendental value of creating something from nothing day after day, week after week, with incremental improvements, with no excused or delays or gaps. Ever.

Like most icons, it sits above us weak and fleshy mortals, but it is something to aspire to.
 

Wait, Isn't This An RPG Blog?

Let's be honest, most of you struggle to keep a bi-weekly game going. Schlock Mercenary managed daily updates for two decades. There are probably some lessons worth learning.
   

Space Opera

Space Opera is, first and foremost, opera. That means people do things for plot reasons. Science just needs to pass the plausible scenery test. Coincidences happen. People make really bad choices. Things happen offscreen. The general plot can be reduced to a few broad sketches, such as "the heroes meet the old hermit" "the heroes are chased (comic relief)" " the heroes escape with the princess", without any quibbling about muzzle velocity, elevators, or logistics. It's opera.
 

The Rule of Arc Continuity

Always stay one villain ahead of your readers, or your players.

E.g. The PCs are investigating the Cult of Gral, who trade in smuggled diamonds. Midway through the conflict, when they've got some leverage but aren't yet ready to strike, they get a few tantalizing hints that the Cult of Gral is merely a front for / allied with  / afraid of the Oberon League. By the time the PCs resolve the Cult of Gral, they just starting to learn about the Oberon League, and by the time they have some leverage but aren't yet ready to strike, they get a few tantalizing hints that the Oberon League is merely...

And so on. There is always a bigger fish. Gods have their own problems, and fleas have other fleas to bite 'em.

The Darkest Magic


Schlock Mercenary frequently toed the line between "gratuitous and horrific violence" and "CNN special on webcomics corrupting the youth". As long as violence largely occurred offscreen, even if described onscreen, it was fine. That was part of the charm. That ever-present streak of dark humour inherent in mercenary work, or possibly sci-fi in general. Hard vacuum is a harsh mistress.

On the other hand, the first 2 books primarily use this technique for sex and/or poop jokes, so it's not exactly high art.

On the other other hand, the best kind of horror is the implication of impending doom, and there's plenty of that in Schlock Mercenary. Very little of it is cutting-edge sci-fi, but if you're not up to speed on cutting-edge sci-fi some bits will probably give you the willies. Suddenly realizing the implications of their actions - whether it's unlocking a prison instead of a tomb, stealing the wrong thing, or trusting the wrong person - is a state of affairs all good GMs live to inspire in their players.
 


The Idiot Ball

Schlock Mercenary is a space opera, and in opera, someone needs to hold the idiot ball. It's mandatory.

But amazingly, for the most part, nobody holds the ball longer than plausibly necessary. People make bad decisions for all the right reasons: limited information, panic, trauma, limited resources, hardwired programming, secret orders, or occasionally entirely plausible stupidity. People try to make good choices and, quite often, succeed.

And when people do realize they've been holding the idiot ball, they tend to try to throw the ball to someone else as quickly as possible. This is the true purpose of a villain's monologue; not to give the players time to plan, but to give them time to realize how flawed their original plan was, and what they can do about it.
 

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

The tetraport, the revolutionary galaxy-changing new method of faster-than-light travel, is introduced in the first handful of strips.

Twenty years later, it is not only relevant but pivotal. Ditto for the characters, no matter how many convolutions and clonings have occured since. The plots arc, but they always, in the end, arced. What was lobbed up came down, with the usual rounding to account for boring dead-end plot threads, one-off gags, and extremely subtle retcons.
  
The mercenaries need a cheap ship, so they buy one of H-bay. It turns out to have a hypergenius AI, Petey. July 27, 2001, Petey invents missiles that use the new tetraport system, more-or-less in the background, and the foreground-level characters go "oh shit, this is rather ominous". And indeed, it is ominous, all the way to 2020. Petey has worrying delusions of grandeur; ditto.

That's a fucking arc. It's like a Bach fugue in comic form. One concept elaborated on, with variations, in endlessly surprising ways.  
 

Visual Consistency

Speaking of once concept, tech in the Schlock-verse has a uniform visual language. Ships in Star Trek tend to look sleek, have nacelles and shields and lasers and operate in a level plane. Ships in Star Wars tend to look lived in, a bit like aircraft, and a bit like geometric shapes. Etc.

Tech that communicates, manipulates, or projects stuff in the Schlock-verse has yellow balls on sticks. Antimatter reactors (annie plants) are big blue spheres embedded in stuff. That's a visual language. If someone holds up a grey box with a yellow ball on a stick and presses the big red button on it, you know it's a detonator or a remote control. If a ship appears with giant blue balls (a joke I'm sure the strip made at some point, which should give you a calibration point for its humour), you know it's got serious reactors. Or more ominously, if it doesn't have annie-plants, you know something is up.

Visual consistency is hard in RPGs. Images exist in your players' heads. Art in RPG books is usually just for the GM, and relies on that GM noticing cues and relaying them consistently.

There are also a few brilliant comic-only visual gags, like characters prying themselves into frame or overwriting each others speech bubbles, or the jokes that start in one comic and end in the next.

2000-11-13
2001-11-08

"It's Got 'Schlock' In The Title, What Did You Expect?"

There's no dancing around it. The internet of 2000, and the nerd-o-sphere in general, was a very strange place. They say the past is a different country, and back then, it was mostly people who looked like they were built from the same video game character generator. Set the sliders one way, Gary Gygax. Set them the other way, Spider Robinson. That's the extent of the available options.

So there's a strong streak of Dilbert-style gender essentialism in Schlock Mercenary. It's a thousand years in the future, AI exist, and  but... women in a mercenary company? Who aren't interested in shopping? Etc.

Incremental change is tricky to track but around 2008, a few glimmerings of deeper thought appeared. By 2013, things had definitely started to change. The boob jokes tapered off. Some actually interesting questions about identity and memory started to creep into the comic.

Howard Tayler started writing Schlock Mercenary when he was 32. If you can do small-number math, that means he's now 52. That's a fairly good spread for an old dog learning some new tricks. One of my favorite internet humans, Sean "Day[9]" Plott, who's been streaming video games - a new-enough concept - for the better part of 11 years - said that we're in a weird stage of internet culture where we get to see people make mistakes but not learn from those mistakes. Maybe Schlock Mercenary was ahead of the curve. In a way, Schlock Mercenary is like watching the internet on fast forward. You get to see all the mistakes and growth at once, plotted in a digestible format.


About the Author 

In 20 years, I don't think I ever engaged with Schlock Mercenary on a meta-level. The author, Howard Tayler, is mostly an unknown to me, outside of standard comments and announcements.

His Wikipedia page doesn't have the ubiquitous "Controversy" section and a few cursory google searches didn't bring up anything shocking, so either he's done a good job covering his tracks or he hasn't done anything too heinous. Who can say?

What Is It About the American Midwest?

There's something eerily "Utah-Wyoming-Nebraska-Iowa-Wisconsin" about both
Schlock Mercenary and Dungeons and Dragons. Someone should write a paper on it. Astronauts come from Ohio. What is it about the midwest? The vast crushing gulfs of space? The sense of exploration and discovery? Sheer boredom?
 

An RPG, You Say?

Apparently there's a Planet Mercenary RPG. The PDF is $25. From a quick scan of available reviews, it doesn't seem to do anything superbly well, but it does seem to function.

It's probably not the system I'd use though, just out of my innate need to tinker and rebuild, and to tell a different story instead of sticking to some stifling "canon". After binging the entire archive, the compulsion to build - or steal - a better one is strong.
 

Final Notes

If you've got time to spare, give Schlock Mercenary a read. Either start from the beginning or hit the random button, read until you hit context you require, then skip backwards until you find that context.


11 comments:

  1. The author suggests starting here: https://www.schlockmercenary.com/2008-02-29

    The art is better, the characters a bit more developed. Apparently his server logs show that more people stick to it starting here than at the very beginning.

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    Replies
    1. As a story, maybe, but as a work (or as RPG material), starting at the beginning is probably wise.

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  2. I've been reading Schlock Mercenary for the better part of maybe seven years. It was a trip starting from the beginning; it's older than I am. I might have to go back and reread it now.

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  3. C'est la vie, c'est la vou, c'est la vallonement.
    It took me four or five days to read through Schlock Mercenary when I first picked it up. I don't remember who brought up the "infinite canvas" in the context of webcomics (though I have the feeling it was you or Patrick). No one has made a 5-cube hyperwebcomic that can only be read in VR yet, but Schlock Mercenary did produce a continuous story of twenty years written by a single author. That's something McCloud never thought of.

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    Replies
    1. I don't think "infinite canvas" was me, but it's a neat term.

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  4. Wow... I remember reading this way back in the day - this went on for 20 years?!?!

    I, like you, am blown away by that *work*. Dear lord.

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  5. I've been reading this comic since almost the beginning, through many job changes and life changes. It's been one of a few constants through that time. If you're interested in the author, he's also on the Writing Excuses podcast, which has a lot of episodes about character and world building and other subjects that are relevant to people DMing and playing D&D.

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  6. Schlock Mercenary may have ended, but the Seventy Maxims will live on forever. o7

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  7. I wrote an introduction to Howard a number of years ago for a convention. I was his handler, so my wife and I picked him up and dropped him off at the airport, took him to lunch, and took care of his needs.
    The first evening, he told me, "I read your write-up; I don't need a eulogy for when I die, now, I've got one."
    I don't think he'll actually use it as his eulogy, but I was pretty pleased. I also, somewhere, have a portrait he drew of me an a UNS Marine.

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  8. I’ve been reading schlock since near the beginning ( when Howard came through a grocery store I was working at wearing a T-shirt with the eponymous character on it and gave me the url). It’s saddening that such a consistent feature of my life has ended but I’d never say I regretted the time I’ve put into reading and rereading that magnificent piece of fiction.

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