Wednesday, August 4, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse Written and Illustrated by Howard Tayler

Like Girl Genius, this is another webcomic. Unlike Girl Genius, this is much more of a daily comic strip (there used to be these things called “newspapers” that originated the concept. I hear they still publish a few for nostalgia purposes). This is the one nominee that I really wanted to pass on. Not that I thought I wouldn’t like it, but just because it’s so hard to compare to the other works, and also because I was so far behind. I had to read 365 strips to catch up, some of them quite wordy; I think this took longer than some of the Hugo-nominated novels this year. And, I didn’t even consider reading the nine years worth of previous strips, which means that I didn’t know the characters and world nearly as much as I’d like to.

What I did get out of it is that our main characters are mercenaries led by Captain Kaff Tagon, and including mad scientist Kevyn Andreyasn, a snarky floating AI called Ennesby, and the titular Schlock, a violent and blobby alien (?). In this volume, they escort an aid shipment to Credomar, where the delicacy of the local political situation frustrates the mercenaries to no end. It’s a more cynical and militaristic Star Trek. Much of the humor comes from sci-fi in-jokes. The rest of the humor comes from characters deadpanning in the face of over-the-top action sequences or their own callousness.

The cartooning is very simplistic, and even though some of the other nominees had occasional artistic inconsistencies, they’re all still miles ahead of this. The plot seems pretty thin as well; it feels quite padded. However, my biggest problem is how one-note the characters are. They’re all variations on a theme: no-nonsense, cut-through-the-bs military types who are a bit unstable. It got old fast. I also got the impression that Tayler had much more sympathy for the mercenaries’ violent attitudes than for anyone else. I’m all for black humor, but watching the mercenaries gleefully attack a world of aid-recipients was…a little unpleasant?

It is hard to compare the daily strip to collected volumes, especially when you’re reading it in big bunches rather than daily, but I could name a lot of examples that are funnier, better looking, or even have better sf concepts.

Still, I won’t say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed this more had I been prepared and followed the characters longer. But, I’m pretty confident that it wouldn’t be getting my Hugo vote. The whole series is available for free here, so you can decide for yourself.

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