Twenty Years of Schlock Mercenary

Schlock Mercenary finished in July of 2020 and I missed it.

Space seemed fitting

Rather than go into detail about the webcomic or about the cartoonist, this post is going to be a mix of my feelings on Schlock Mercenary, both as a fan and as a writer.  

For those of you who don’t know, Schlock Mercenary was a daily science fiction webcomic written by Howard Tayler. It was started back in June of 2000. The story follows Schlock, a carbosilicate amorph often mistaken for a giant pile of poo as he enlists with the mercenary group (hence the titular name). Eventually, Sandra Taylor would have a major hand in editing and business, and Travis Walton would be brought on for inking.  

What started as a gag-a-day sci-fi comic turned into a galaxy-spanning epic (while still sticking to its humorous roots). It grew so big it has its own compendium, OvalKwiki, and even has its own in-universe book of mercenary maxims, The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries. Over the years it has been nominated for 5 Hugo Awards. It ended in July 2020 without having missed a day, bringing the total strips to over 7,000 strips divided into 20 volumes.  20 years.  

It’s an accomplishment that could be compared to the vastness of space. It’s singular, daunting and can’t really be summed up while still doing justice to it. It’s something so sprawling that you can see Howard’s art evolve across the run. Something between breathtaking(ly hilarious) and existential. It’s a gold mine of sci-fi inspiration and a masterclass in both comics and long-form storytelling. And damn if the ride hasn’t been just as amazing as the scope.  

I first discovered Schlock Mercenary when I went away to college, Fall of 2005. I don’t remember how long it took me to read through the comics (back then there were only 2,000 or so), but I’m pretty sure I binged them—consuming them like Schlock consumes Ovalkwik. Once I got caught up, I kept checking in for daily updates… at least for a while.  

There’s not many series that someone can say has been with them through multiple phases of their life. I can’t say that I followed Schlock Mercenary daily through its entire run, but I rediscovered it three more times—twice during the disillusionment that spanned my twenties.  

The last time I rediscovered it was in March of 2021, after my marriage. During COVID.  Well after the comic ended in July of 2020.  I missed it.  

I had a whole volume to catch up on. I was so excited about bingeing the comic that I didn’t realize it was over until looking through the subreddit. Cue the existential crisis.  

I was afraid to get to the end. But who was I kidding? Of course I was going to finish it.  

So, how do I feel now that I’ve finished reading through the culmination of Schlock Mercenary? Well, I have mixed feelings.

As a fan, I feel like I’m saying goodbye to an old friend—one that has been there on and off through half my life. Though they moved away and life keeps pulling us in different directions, they still come around every few years. Sure, sometimes we miss that they got married or had kids or any other number of life-altering events… But when we get together, things are just like old times. There might be the awkward catching up for about three minutes, but then the old jokes are there, the old comfort is there. Things have changed but the heart is still there.  

Looking back, it’s strange that those so familiar to us can be so easily forgotten in the day-to-day grind of life. Those friends and family and stories that were so integral to parts of our life that it’s impossible to even consider our lives without them… Except every now and then, when we’re looking back through old photos or sitting around a bonfire. Or cleaning out the garage or the closet. We dig an old movie or video game out of the box or dust off an old paperback.  

During Schlock Mercenary’s 20 year run (15 or so that I discovered it), I completely forgot about it at least four times and rediscovered it just as many. As far as I was concerned, during those gaps it didn’t even exist.  

But it was always there. Easy to pick up. Just like old times.  

So how do I feel as a writer about Schlock Mercenary ending?

Humbled and inspired.  

For me, I wouldn’t have gotten into writing without all the media I consumed growing up. I wouldn’t have known what was possible without seeing other books, movies and video games. I found things that worked for others and shamelessly incorporated them into my own stories (I like to think I have a little more tact about it now). I found things in stories I didn’t like or that fell flat and found myself wanting to write something better or different.  

I don’t like thinking in terms of “favorite media” because our tastes are always changing and it’s too damn hard of a task to boil down the things we enjoy into such a small list.

That being said, I do like thinking in terms of media that defines a certain point of my life. Schlock Mercenary is both something that has been profound to me and also spans several points of my life. There’s scant media I can put in that category… And the more I think about it, maybe that warrants a blog post all its own.  

My own monthly serial, A Battleaxe and a Metal Arm released April 2nd, 2021. By the time you read this, I’ll be prepping for the 2nd month’s launch on May 7th. Currently I’m three months ahead of release—episode 2 is completely ready to release.  3 is finishing formatting. Episode 4 is in editing. I’m working through episode 5. Then I’ll be working on a newsletter promo that ties into episode 5 (to-be-launched at the same time). 

I’ve got an ending in mind, even major plot points and dozens of episodes brainstormed. I don’t know exactly how long it will take to get there, but if there’s enough demand, I even have some ideas for “revisiting” certain locations (if Helesys and Taunauk keep going long enough). I can’t imagine BAMA going on for 20 years, but I hope it goes on for a few.  

I bring this up because it can be daunting to look at the work of another, especially one as vast as Schlock Mercenary.  

When we first set out to make something, the vision is vast. I feel like this is especially true for writers when we’re thinking up story ideas. When we brainstorm, we’re painting in broad strokes and the possibilities are endless. You hear about writer’s block all the time, but you rarely hear about “idea’s block”.  

That’s because ideas come easily. There’s millions of people that daydream up ideas for books. Many, many more people dreaming up ideas than there are people writing them. 

You start to realize that you have to focus on one or two of those ideas if you’re going to get anywhere with them. You start to realize that there’s a billion lights of places you’ll never get to write and only a few that you’ll ever get to really see.

That’s because writing isn’t hard until you’re writing the actual words—or rather, laying down the blocks. That’s how books are written: Line by line. Block by block. Hence the genesis of the term, writer’s block (maybe). But that’s how anything gets done, right? That’s how you learn a trade, build a house, get in shape, write a novel, a series, or write a double-decade spanning comic strip.  

You show up and do the work—line by line. It is both as hard and as simple as that.  

Thank you Howard. Thank you Sandra and Travis. For the laughs, the camaraderie  and the inspiration. For doing the work and making Schlock Mercenary.

To the Schlock Universe and my old friends in it: I hope it’s not the last time we bump into each other.  

In fact, I think I’m due for a reread…

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