In this second installment of my Masters of Storytelling series, I am deviating straight away from books, and moving to comics. Not what most people think of when they think of masterful storytelling, but a comic is the combining of two art forms, written and visual. It’s every bit as valid a medium for storytelling as any other.
In that spirit, I honor Howard Taylor, author of the popular webcomic, Schlock Mercenary, and one of Brandon Sanderson’s colleagues in their ongoing podcast, Writing Excuses.
Schlock Mercenary is, as Howard describes it, a futuristic space opera. Set around the year 3000 AD, it chronicles the adventures of a mercenary company, “Tagon’s Toughs,” named for their captain. The titular character, Schlock, is a carbosilicate amorph, which means he’s a creature that looks like a pile of crap with the ability to move, speak, and think. Granted, he’s usually thinking about either pretty explosions or relaxing in a tub of pure ovalkwik, but he’s more intelligent than he often seems, very crafty, and he’s fiercely loyal and protective towards his comrades.
There is a large number of said comrades, of various species, with a variety of personalities, insights, and skills, coming and going throughout this comic’s narrative, providing a rotating cast that we meet, leave, return to, etc. (and we recognize them when we return to them, “oh, that guy!”) This comic consistently displays multiple fronts in a balanced, entertaining way, giving us epic storylines told on a fairly personal level. Every comic ends on a note which is humorous, dramatic, or a combination of the two, without seeming to force it. It makes sense for the characters, and the narrator, to say these things. It provides for a consistent, enjoyable read, either following every daily update or binge-reading great swathes of the archive.
And speaking of the archive, major kudos are due to Howard Taylor for never once missing an update, or relying on filler. His audience can trust in a new, entertaining comic every single day. That in and of itself goes a long way towards why I classify him as a Master, particularly when you add publishing bonus stories in the printed books, attending conventions, an ongoing podcast, and raising a family.
Even Howard’s own story is inspirational. He took a risk and started creating a comic, the visual quality of which improves dramatically over time. His success is, to me, one more proof that people can pursue their dreams and passions, if they are willing to commit proper time, effort, and resources to it.
But I digress.
For being a story about a group of people who are particularly good at (re: prone to) violent activities, we get some very well-crafted, far-reaching, and emotional stories. I wanted to salute one of the cast when they saved many lives at cost of his own, involving a great fall, long enough that he could have several calm, coherent thoughts before hitting the ground.
The narration could be coming from a living person, with comedic effect. Particularly when either they start using analogies which fall hilariously apart, or when they break the fourth wall with a character, or when there is an interesting, relevant explanation provided, with a punchline. (sometimes literally)
There are running jokes, natural-sounding dialogue riddled with one-liners, sound effects (ominous hummmmm!), and unforgettable moments which make you cry or laugh (Schlock using his plasma cannon as a rocket, “WHEEEEEEEE!”). All in all, it is simply a well-crafted, well-told story.
As a final note, the comic does not take itself too seriously. The universe is well-built on one hand, yet has some things which are obviously purely for the humor. My favorite example of the latter is a species which lives “hand to mouth.” As in, they have mouths on top of their forehead and an extra arm with a hand where hair would be. “Hand to mouth.” The pun works excellently when you see it in visual format.
I enjoy this story, I enjoy how it is told, and I enjoy the characters whose stories make up Schlock Mercernary.