“Schlock Mercenary” is a comedic webcomic about space adventurers who break things and hurt people. More specifically, it’s about a gang of mercenaries who travel through space, look for work and try not to die in the process. It’s a space opera with a fun concept, but that’s not what makes the webcomic special: The plot is engaging and the characters are always good for a laugh, and with the webcomic’s anniversary coming up this summer, it’s the perfect time to give it a read.
The Origins of “Schlock Mercenary”
Howard Tayler, the author of “Schlock Mercenary,” didn’t have any experience with art or comic writing when he began his comic. Instead, he worked at a software company and operated a small independent record label on the side. He picked up doodling as a way to stretch his creativity and, from there, “Schlock Mercenary” was born. The first comic was posted online during the summer of 2000 and never missed a day until its conclusion in 2020.
Four years after “Schlock Mercenary” went live, the comic received enough attention that Tayler was able to sell his comics as books while still keeping the comic strip available for free online. Considering that Tayler had never drawn much before, it’s not surprising that the first “Schlock Mercenary” strips don’t look as polished as many other comics. While the images aren’t confusing and the characters are expressive, it’s clear that they were drawn and colored by a beginner. Reading “Schlock Mercenary” is an interesting experience because the reader can watch Tayler’s artistic growth as they read through the series.
Although the initial artwork could be seen as a detriment to the comic, it also serves as a direct window into how time and effort can help an artist improve their craft. It shows how a creator doesn’t necessarily need to wait until their product is perfect before putting it on display. Sometimes, taking the leap to show your work to the world is a necessary step before a creator can improve.
The Story of “Schlock Mercenary”
“Schlock Mercenary” is a futuristic space melodrama set in the late 31st century, hundreds of years after mankind took to the stars. There are many other stories that have a similar setting, but “Schlock Mercenary” takes a surprisingly human approach to many sci-fi tropes. Although the story follows a band of mercenaries, the story doesn’t start with a firefight or a dramatic action scene; instead, it begins when the mercenary group experiences a hostile corporate takeover, with the hired guns being forcibly merged with a larger, more image-conscious company. While there’s still plenty of action, the important drama revolves around the mercenary crew learning to take orders from new management and navigating the bureaucracy.
Amid the running gags and punchlines, the mercenaries face issues that are relevant today, such as the struggle of women in male-dominated industries and the way new technologies are deployed by society.
The characters in “Schlock Mercenary” travel to many extraterrestrial words and engage with common sci-fi archetypes, including aliens. There are battles, explosions and jokes, but it’s the element of humanity that draws readers in and convinces them to stay.
Why “Schlock Mercenary” Has Lasted for so Long
Comic strip writing is a unique challenge. Novelists create a continuous story packaged in a single volume and readers go into it already knowing that there are many pages worth of story to consume. Short story writers have to engage the reader for as long as the story lasts, but don’t necessarily have any obligation to convince a reader to come back for more. Even stories that are updated episodically have at least a chapter’s worth of content that can be used to develop the story and make narrative promises to entice readers to return.
A comic strip has none of these luxuries. A classic single comic strip has three or four small panels that must perform three functions: Entertain the reader in the moment, entice them to return and, if the comic strip is successful, make the reader laugh.
“Schlock Mercenary” managed to perform this balancing act again and again. Part of the reason that this comic strip remained engaging is because Tayler was very deliberate about his craft and made sure that the stories and jokes were created with a sense of intention.
The comic’s consistent updates were another key to its success. It’s difficult to build plot and keep up momentum in a format that’s built around punchlines — it’s likely that audiences would have gotten bored of the comic strip, or just forgotten about it if the update schedule had been any less rigorous.
Altogether, “Schlock Mercenary” managed to tell a satisfactory story, all within the constraints of the classic comic strip format. The longevity of the series is a testament to its quality and the passion Tayler put into it. Although it concluded in 2020, the characters and themes are still alive and well. The 20-year-old comic is available online for free. Anyone who wants a fun, lighthearted take on science fiction will have a great time reading “Schlock Mercenary.”