Wide World of Webcomics: The Long-Running SCHLOCK MERCENARY

Wide World Webcomics: SCHLOCK MERCENARY

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best comics online. Today, we’ve got the creator of one of the most popular and longest-running strips on the web.

Since 2000, Howard Tayler has chronicled the adventures of Tagon’s Toughs, the motley crew for hire of Schlock Mercenary. Their deep-space misadventures have earned a huge following among fans of webcomics and SF, receiving three nominations for the prestigious Hugo award.

Tayler, who also does the hugely popular “Writing Excuses” podcast with Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Brandon Sanderson, gave us an in-depth and frank talk about his space opera, the realities of being successful with a webcomic, the opportunities new technology allows for webcomics, and even an “unpublishable” entry into the strip’s “Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries.” Read on! 


Howard, I talked about this with a few other people like R. Stevens and John Allison, and it comes up again with you -- you're one of those people who was doing a webcomic back when it was this completely new medium, creators weren't doing it.

What were the biggest challenges you faced at first, and what do you feel have been the biggest changes -- for better or worse -- since you started the strip?

Howard Tayler: Challenges? Hosting, building an audience, and finding advertisers. That's why Keenspot was so wonderful back in the day -- all three of those problems were solved. I came along just in time to use Keenspace (their free service) and was “spotted” (invited to the cross-promotional, revenue-sharing side of the house) shortly thereafter.

When I left Keenspot in 2005 I already had an audience, but I had to solve the other two problems again. Fortunately I've got friends in the right places, and I've managed ever since.

I'm a technical person, but I prefer to spend my time creating art and making money with it. Coding a website is not a good use of my time. One challenge that a lot of creators face is what we called the “not invented here” mindset in the software industry. Once you decide to do it all yourself you often decide to do everything yourself. That way lies madness.

I'm happy to admit that my hosting, my merchandise, and the coloring of the strip are all better now that I'm partnering with other people and letting them do the bits I'm not so good at.

Nrama: I'm curious as to how in God's name you thought of something like Sgt. Schlock.

Tayler: When I was sketching concepts for the first strips I borrowed heavily from the science fiction and fantasy I was already familiar with. Drawing a blob came pretty naturally. Giving him a weapon amused me. Having him store it in his mouth amused me a lot. I immediately realized that if I could laugh at something I drew even though I knew what was coming, there was a good chance it was actually funny enough to publish.

All the rest of the details about Schlock have grown out of asking questions like “why” and “how.” Why is he so strong? How does he eat? Why does he have eyes?

Ask these questions of the characters, technologies, magicks, and worlds you are imagining and I promise you'll be creating wonderful things in short order. Creativity can be learned, and asking questions of yourself is part of the process.

Nrama:: One thing unique about the strip is that it's hard sci-fi, a term I cannot use without thinking of Roman DeBeers from Party Down. What have been the biggest challenges in creating more-or-less-plausible challenges for the crew, and what type of research do you do? Do you find your readers have been helpful when you need a question answered?

I'm pleased when people call Schlock Mercenary “hard sci-fi” but it's really not all that hard. I don't spend much (any) time computing the tensile strengths of things. I do some math, yes, and I do lots of research, googling around for interesting bits of physics, biology, and military tech, but Schlock Mercenary is really a Space Opera. My job is to do just enough research that the story passes muster.

For example – we don't know a lot about dark matter, but most of the early indications are that it is much simpler than baryonic matter. This would in turn make it tricky to have something as complex as “biology” happening in a realm of weakly-interacting massive particles.

That doesn't stop me from positing life among the dark matter. I simply decided that any organisms must necessarily be larger. Is that “hard” SF? I don't know. But having invisible enemies the size of planets made for a fun story element, and that's all I needed.

Is that a “plausible challenge” for my crew? Readers seemed to think so in spite of the weakness inherent in the deepest underpinnings of the story's science. Which is why I try not to dig that deep lest I make the same mistake the Dwarves of Moria made.

Nrama:: I imagine the Hugo nominations have been very validating for you. Have you found they've brought in a new audience? What do you feel are the biggest challenges in building an audience with SF/fantasy readers who might not otherwise read comics, and why do you feel some SF fans might be resistant to comic-format stories? 


Hugo nominations are validating, but they're also kind of devastating. Members of the Hugo community are rarely shy about dishing out criticism, especially of the things they just don't think should be on the ballot. I've heard far more unkind words about my creations since getting “validated” via nomination than I ever heard from the comic community.

Though I suppose the same thing would happen if I got nominated for an award specific to the comics industry.

To the point, however: my fans have always been SF/Fantasy readers. That's why my comic took off the way it did. My readership is not your typical comic-book/comic-strip readership. If this were 1975, and there was a newspaper just for people who love literary science fiction, Schlock Mercenary would be everybody's favorite comic strip in that newspaper.

Of course, it wasn't until the advent of the World Wide Web that a publication could reach a niche, interest-based demographic rather than a geographic one, and now that the web is killing newspapers my hypothetical scenario seems a little absurd.

Still, that's what I built -- a newspaper-format comic strip for fans of literary science fiction.

To the second part of the point: why might some SF fans be resistant to reading comic-format stories? The answer is the same for fans of any literature. And I guess that's the same as saying “I don't know.”

Why don't some people like comics? Has the dominance of overmuscled, underpants-on-the-outside heroes in US comics tainted the general public's perception of the medium? Certainly in Japan you can sell comic books on any subject and to any audience. But that can't be the end of the answer.

Fundamentally, I think it comes down to the word “literary.” Many people just want to read books. Movies, comics, stage-plays -- these all enforce a directorial vision of the story. In a book, however, the reader's imagination is king.

Since genre-fiction often captures people's imaginations, I can see how some folks might prefer to leave their imaginations as unfettered as possible in exploring the worlds their favorite authors create.

Nrama: For that matter, what's been the trickiest part of combing SF and humor?

Tayler: Telling the right joke. Certainly we've all heard Star Wars jokes. That's not what I wanted my strip to be about. Late in the game I discovered that what I was actually writing was humorous social satire in which a science-fictional setting allowed for extrapolations and exaggerations of current society in such a way that they can be “sent up,” “called out,” or otherwise mocked.

I also love character-based humor. For it to work, however, the joke has to be coming out of the mouth of the right character. Get it wrong and it's just a penny-ante pantomime where all the people are shaped funny. Or worse, where all the people are shaped funny and happen to be two-dimensional.

So I guess the trickiest part is knowing each character's back-story, and setting events in motion such that every four panels something funny will happen that is in-character, that moves the plot forward, and that makes some sort of an insidiously subtle statement about the world in which we live.

Nrama: As the strip has gone on, have bere been characters fans responded to more than you anticipated, and has that affected the storyline? If so, tell us a little about those times.

Tayler: The story was more affected by reader feedback in the early days. Nowadays when somebody loves (or hates) a character I'm more likely to take it personally, because I'm a crazy person and all of these characters are actually voices in my head.

I did at one point realize that all the women in the comic were mostly sensible, and all the men were mostly ultra-violent buffoons. Fan reaction to these characters pointed out what was happening, and that's why I set out to challenge myself by putting three of the “sensible” female characters in starring roles in the current storyline: Doctor Bunnigus, Lieutenant Para Ventura, and Kathryn Flinders.

I've been very happy with the way that story has turned out. Schlock has been kind of miffed, because women keep stealing all his best moments.

Nrama: You have iPad and iPod apps for the strip, and I've been curious about the potential that's opened up for digital comics with these technologies. What have you learned so far, and what do you think both individual creators and larger companies can do to take advantage of the increasing variety of electronic distribution? 


: I've learned that iPod and iPad apps are fantastically expensive to produce, and the vast majority of them make no money at all. But I was a software industry guy before I came to comics, so this was no surprise.

I've also learned that reading Schlock Mercenary via the iPad app is a far superior experience to reading it on the web.

Ultimately I think the only way some comics genres can survive is via electronic distribution. I think DC and Dark Horse are moving in the right direction. I think the eBook revolution over on the non-picture-book side of the fence is very, very telling.

All of the people I know who have e-readers have told me that they're reading more than they used to, that they make impulse purchases far more often, and that the e-reader gets all the credit for that.

The comic book industry needs that badly. I think we're going to get it.

Nrama:: Do you see yourself ending the strip at some point? Or, for that matter, what would make you say, “I've told all the stories I have to tell with theis crew?”

Tayler: Ten years ago I thought I could be happy writing and illustrating Schlock Mercenary until I was eighty, or dead, or whatever. I'm less sure of that now. I have a tie-things-up-in-a-bow ending on tap, and I'm working towards it.

There are stories I can't tell in this setting, or even in this genre -- at least not without breaking the universe I've built, and it's already structurally unsound. I want to be able to tell those stories correctly. Be warned, however: not all of them have pictures.

Will Schlock Mercenary end? Maybe. Maybe I'll bring on a creative team to take it over while I move on to other things. One thing is certain, however: I don't ever want to do a continuity reboot, nor do I want to allow a creative team that liberty.

That probably means that some of our favorite characters will grow up and move on, grow old and die, or get blown up and never come back.

Nrama:: Darn it, is Schlocktoberfest ever coming back? Or are you all dark-ed out?

Tayler: The problem with Schlocktoberfest wasn't the “dark.” It was the “plan the whole rest of the strip so that a self-contained, Hallowe'en-appropriate story can begin on the first of October and wrap climactically on the 31st. That was fantastically difficult, and it broke so many things I loved.

I'm much happier being able to let the stories flow without fastening any start or end points to particular dates.

Nrama:: Will we ever get the rest of the Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries?

Tayler: Yes. Expect merchandise soon. I'm about halfway through the list. I'd love to offer you a brand new one, but right now all of my placeholders are unpublishable.

Would you like an example of an unpublishable one? “It's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the bet on the dog.” Why can't I publish it? Because while I love the sentiment (follow the money, gambling is inherently corrupt) and I love the simple twist of an existing pithy maxim, society currently holds very idea of dog-fighting right now in such low esteem that I don't want to go there.

Yes, that's one of the best of the unpublishable ones. Believe me, there are some rotters in there.

Nrama:: Do you ever look at doing Schlock in other media, such as animation or motion comics, whatever those are?

Tayler: Absolutely. Probably not motion comics, but animation, film, or TV would all be wonderful.

Unfortunately right now the film and TV industry is cherry-picking the comics industry for intellectual properties, and they're grabbing the very best of the cheap ones.

Schlock Mercenary is my livelihood -- I can't afford to sell the movie rights for a few tens of thousands of dollars, especially not under a contract that takes away my existing merchandising rights.

I need to keep merch rights and to have a slice of the producer money, and let's face it, that's not what's going to happen. Not when there are clever, wonderful stories like Cowboys & Aliens available for much, much less.

I'll take the right movie deal, but I don't foresee anybody offering it. 


: Tell us about some of the other things you're working on outside of Schlock. Would you want to do a longer-length, non-strip-based comic?

Tayler: I just wrote a six-page short for Issue 12 of Jim Zub's Skullkickers. We'll see how that turns out. I'd love to do things like that in the future.

I also have more than a few novels in me. I've got a ghost story, a cyberpunk murder mystery, and an epic science/fantasy space opera all vying for attention. I'll probably start with the ghost story since it will take the most research, and is the most likely therefore to teach me things I need to learn before I tackle the other ideas.

Nrama:: What have you learned from doing the Writing Excuses podcast? Also, have you been able to extort from Brandon how The Wheel of Time ends? Several of my friends will pay dearly for this information.

Tayler: Well I learned that I'm a satirist. Also, I've learned a million things about story structure, many of which I was doing instinctively, but now must think about. Ah, the crushing burden of knowledge.

For the record, Brandon tells me nothing. Well, almost nothing. He tells me things about his process that might not come out in the interviews, but he certainly has not let slip any of the big reveals.

Nrama: Who are your favorite comic creators, online or off?

Tayler: I grew up on Jim Davis' Garfield so I'm still a little soft for it.

Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes are my favorite comic strips from the newspaper era. I'm sad that the industry lost Bill Watterson to other pursuits. I've loved the picture-books from Berke Breathed.

Davis and Claremont's Excalibur run in the late 1980's and earl 1990's was what I wanted all superhero comics to be like. The humor was perfect, and the art told the story expertly.

Lately? I love Alex Ross's art, because he gave superheroes real faces.

I still read Dilbert because I'm so happy I escaped the corporate world.

The Book of Biff and Maximumble make me happy just about every day. And if I could only buy one comic book each month, it would be Zub's Skullkickers from Image. It's the fantasy book I wish I had written.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Tayler: A zillion things. We can save 'em for another interview. Personally, I think that the research of Anders Ericsson regarding talent and focused practice has more potential to change the way we teach art than anything else going right now. Of course, there are many people more qualified to stand on that soapbox, starting with Anders Ericsson. (laughs)

Head into space with the gang from Schlock Mercenary every day at www.schlockmercenary.com.

Next: It’s animals vs. aliens as Matthew Petz talks War of the Woods! Then, take a trip to the library with the guys from Unshelved!

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