Webcomic relief

March 11, 2002, midnight | By Kevin Chang | 18 years, 10 months ago

Internet-based comic strips like Schlock Mercenary are on the rise

First in an occasional series

There are some comic strips that everyone knows about. Peanuts, Dilbert, Garfield, the list goes on. But now, there's a new breed of comic out there. Web comics.

Web comics, also known as netstrips and webtoons, aren't controlled by syndicates and so are uncensored. It's up to the authors to decide what to write about, which results in a variety of things you'll never see in the newspaper's funny page.

Anyone can find a web comic that suits his tastes. Subjects range from science fiction, video gaming and computers to religion, society and spoofs of every movie imaginable. There are people getting into mildly unrealistic situations and ridiculously unrealistic situations.

The oldest, and arguably best, web comics are five or six years old, though most have only one or two years of archives to speak of. Entire communities have sprung up around web comics, much as with everything else on the internet. Several companies have set up servers dedicated to hosting web comics, providing reader services and nothing else.

An amorph with a plasgun (yes, they're both very interesting things) and the mercenary company he works for. That's all you really need to know about Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary (http://www.schlockmercenary.com/), a relatively new science fiction strip that's quickly building a loyal cadre of readers.

Tayler came up with the idea for a comic strip on the Internet several years ago, but the idea stagnated for a long time. "I thought a 'web-comic' would be a neat idea back in 1995," he says, "but the artist I tried to rope into the endeavor wisely backed out." Several years later, Tayler found other webcomics and was inspired to do all the work himself. Schlock Mercenary launched on June 12, 2000.

Tayler counts three webcomic artists among his idols: Scott Kurtz of Player vs. Player (http://www.pvponline.com), Illiad of User Friendly (http://www.userfriendly.org) and Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance (http://www.sluggy.com). Tayler calls Sluggy the strip that "convinced me that I could do this." Kurtz and Illiad stand out "for being able to pay all their bills with derivatives of their online work."

The story starts with the title character, Schlock, signing onto a mercenary company by, ironically, holding the recruiting officer at gunpoint. From there on out, the mercenaries get involved in numerous adventures, including protecting a group of pop stars that are strikingly similar to a certain boy band and saving various races of beings from various other races of beings.

The single best quality of Schlock is the masterful plot weaving. It never gets too deep, but it's always smooth and easily understandable. Tayler does an admirable job of meshing the characters' dialog and other interactions while inserting his own comments into the mix as the narrator.

Some of Tayler's story ideas come from his personal experiences. "The most notable [experience] for me is the time I was visiting a private IT contractor whose biggest customer was a local government," he says. "The red tape these poor people had to deal with was AMAZING… when I got home I scripted ‘Bureaucracy Bountiful,'" a storyline about inefficient government services. "The only thing I needed to add was the elephants," says Tayler.

Most of Tayler's characters are completely original, though they are based, he says, "on behaviors I see in real people." One can only hope that Tayler's friends don't act like the characters in the strip, shooting lawyers on sight and causing property damage for no apparent reason. "There have only been three cases in which I took an acquaintance and dropped him into the strip," he says."Kevyn, Theo, and Thurl are the characters in question."

And one for the record. "Some folks think Kevyn looks like me. He does, but I'm not the one his personality is modeled after," Tayler states.

Character creation and development is not really as hard as it looks, according to Tayler. "These characters write themselves. All I do is allow reasonably motivated heroes and villains equal time at the Schlock Mercenary Plot-o-Graph, and they handle the rest."

Schlock is by no means the only place where Tayler shows a sense of humor. "The hard part [of making the strip] (the part that I actually spend most of my time on) is selecting the right nozzle for the Schlock Mercenary Humor-In-Jector®," he says. "It's a retrofitted jelly-donut machine, but don't tell the Krispy Kreme folks, because I suspect the guy I bought it off of lifted it from them."

Tayler has also learned the crucial art of leaving outlets that allow him to bring back pieces of old storylines or come up with interesting explanations of things left over from earlier storylines. Mixing these old parts and completely new characters and locations is one of the watermarks of a good web comic, and Schlock definitely has it.

Ideas come to Tayer from, of all things, plumbing. "Inspiration often strikes when I'm in the shower, in the tub, or on the toilet," he says. "I never run downstairs naked, though. The idea always lives at least long enough for me to properly dress," he adds.

Loyal readers and loyal readers-to-be might be wondering what will come next. "It's hard to say," says Tayler. "I've had a hard time seeing past [the current storyline] to what comes next." He does plan, however, to bring back some old characters and develop them all further.

If there's one bad thing about Schlock, it's the art. Tayler's pen lines/solid colors art style is somewhat lacking, a fact that even he acknowledges. "Had I known how bad my early artwork would look to me just six months later," he says, "I never would have started at all. Ignorance is bliss." Overall, though, it's a great strip, with jokes that more than compensate for art and relatively light archives.

When you do start reading, be prepared to spend a solid two or three hours browsing through the archives, especially if you have a slow internet connection. The strips can take a while to load, and even more recent strips like Schlock with smaller archives take up a lot of time when read from beginning to end.

According to Tayler, there are both great advantages and disadvantages to being an online cartoonist. "There's no syndicate editor proofing my work and censoring me, and I can format things however I like," he says, "and I can reach people all over the world."

On the other hand, says Tayler, "the pay isn't so hot. Last time I checked I made a whopping $1500 in a twelve-month period."

"It's a good thing I have a day job to buy milk for the baby," says Tayler, "because $100 a month pretty much keeps me stocked up on art supplies and nothing else."

For anyone interested in becoming a web cartoonist, Tayler has three pieces of advice:
1) Draw something every day. Even if it's just a doodle.
2) Show your stuff to your friends, even if you think it sucks.
3) Don't expect to get rich. Expect to work hard at something you love.

Interested? Thought so. As with all web comics, it is highly recommended that you start with the first strip. Characters develop personalities and later events almost always reference earlier ones. You can see the first Schlock Mercenary strip here: http://www.schlockmercenary.com/d/20000612.html

Tags: print

Kevin Chang. Kevin Chang was born on April 28, 1985. This makes him a bull, and coincidentally, a Taurus. Somehow, he ended up in the Magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School, where he is now a SENIOR! 03! Yes, he is a geek. He is often … More »

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