Friday, October 31, 2014

Best Overall: Everyday

I learned from The Standard not to "conclude" these big pieces, so this isn't an official conclusion because I'm sure I'll be coming back to talk more about Schlock Mercenary in the future.  But I do have to wrap up this string somehow, and it brings us back to the question of Best.  Because while I really enjoy Schlock Mercenary, it isn't the best in any one category I've talked about.  It's not BAD in any of them, but it's not really best.

The art in Schlock is good, but it can't compete with the real powerhouses like Dresden Codak, Sunstone (NSFW), Zebra Girl or Derelict.

The story is engaging, but compared to Gunnerkrigg Court and Gaia are far, far better.

The humor is good, but a real gut buster has to come from The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, Dr. McNinja and Bob the Angry Flower.

And there are good characters, but against Between Failures, Spinnerette and, honestly, even Sluggy Freelance, it kind of lacks.

But those are the big guns.  Competing with ANY of them is hard, but Schlock can be at least thought of in those categories.  Mostly it's "well it's not as good as" but it's there, which is more than I can say for a lot of comics.

There is, however, one area where Schlock is king though:  It updates.  Every.  Single.  Day.

None of those others can claim that.  Most of them can't even stick to their official schedule regularly.  Long breaks are often set between chunks of content, or guest strips, or some random silliness that takes the place of the regular comic.

Not Schlock.  It has updated, everyday, without missing, since it was created.  That's kind of unbelievable.  That is 5255 days as of the day of this being published.  That means 5255 individual strips, plus any bonus stories he added to books.  The fact that he has at least a month's worth of strips as a buffer means he could break his arm and STILL not miss a day until the cast came off.  Well, maybe.

The point is almost no other comic does this, unless you get into the newspapers.  So why does Howard Taylor?  I suspect it's because he thinks of it less as a hobby and more as a lively hood.  Yes, he had a regular job when he started the comic, but I think he always thought that the best option was to keep it updated so fans would stick around, and he kept a buffer so there was less stress on him to write and draw on a daily basis.  It was another kind of job to him, and when it officially became his job, he had to keep fans coming back, so everyday it went up.

That's a big factor in why it's Best Overall.  Dresden Codak can claim better art, but it updates once very 2 months, maybe.  Gunnerkrigg Court manages to update 3 days a week, but even that takes occasional breaks with "funny face" filler strips that aren't really the comic.  Wonderella is STILL on break for the Kickstarter event it had (so he could fullfill the kickstarter).  And Sluggy, well, I think I've talked enough about that.

Schlock does all the things those comics do at least well, if not quite good, and it updates everyday.  That is why it is my Best Overall, and likely will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

And that's enough of that.  Next time, um, something.  Until then kiddies.  And I do hope Howard doesn't break his arm, I'd rather we not test that buffer. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Best Overall: Art

Schlock's art didn't appeared perfectly formed from day one.  Like most of the comics I have read, especially the older ones, the art started kind of terrible and gradually got better over time.

The first year's art is pretty bad though.  So bad the note block suggests skipping it and going to another story, which is 10 YEARS later.  I think you miss a lot doing that, so I would never suggest it, but comparing the first strip to, well, anything in the last 4 is enough to make one cringe.

It's also perfectly normal since most comics start out well below par with their art work.  Looking past that first couple weeks, the art does get significantly better.  By the time of The Teraport Wars, it's more than tolerable.  Hell, it's probably at least that good by the end of the first year.  Typically the best looking strips are the Sunday strips, where Howard really stretches his artistic legs during this period.

That 10 year jump, though, that is a fully matured artist at work.  ALL the strips look like the Sunday strips used to, with the shading and lighting that comes with it.  It's an amazing improvement, but not unexpected as it did take a decade to get there.

My choice to represent the art then comes in that block, in the form of Random Access Memorabilia.  And it has quite a few moments strewn throughout it's 13 and a half month long story that are worth looking at.

It starts with the Gavs.  Back in Teraport Wars, Gav was one guy.  At the end of the story, Gav was a demographic (something like 950 MILLION of them).  The result is an interesting delimia:  How do you be an individual when there are literally a billion of you running around?  The answer for the Gavs is this story, and it starts with rooms of Gavs.  I think this is a great introduction to the level the art has reached at this point as both strips represent the literal same character but with multiple differences so they are unique again.  It serves as a visual indicator for what's being said in the strips and setting up the story.

Which deals with nano-bots and such that build the identical Gavs into true individuals.  There's something wrong with it though (as in it's been hacked, spoilers and such), so when one rips off his own head.  This becomes a plot point and the visual evidence is used to show how wrong something has gone.  We are show a visual comparison of the Binnie before his self decapitation and afterwards.  It's something that can only really be shown through the art, though there is some dialog to go along with.

Without dialog is when Tagon, after putting on his very nifty battle suit realizes he must be in it for a while, and thus must insert BOTH catheters.  I love how the entire joke is related via the art, and it's something that would have taken a great deal of effort earlier in the comic.

Some of the best art is pure characterization, specifically for poor Tagii.  The AI of the Toughs ship in the story was doing an amazing job, is dramatically disconnected because she might have been working with the enemy and a spy (only the later part was true).  Not being disconnected properly, and being a VERY fast thinking AI meant the few minutes and hours she was disconnected was more like thousands of years, resulting in complete madness.  Glimpses are given as to how crazy she's been going making her scarier and scarier.

In the end though, the best art is for the Pa'anuri, the dark matter creature that at the end we learn was created by the device the Gavs had been playing with.  I don't recall it showing up visually much before, but even if it was, the first view of this one is spectacular.  It is rather simple, honestly, blue and black, but it's more that we're seeing a shadow created by the Pa'anuri via various instruments aboard the ships.  The view shows how amazingly BIG these things are, and how it just rips through the Morokweng like it was barely there is just as amazing.

This art is definitely some of the best if not the best Howard has done for the comic.   It relates the story in ways that really never came through before, and much better than any dialog read could have done.  The story is also a tour de force of Schlock as a whole.  Great characterization, including a bit near the middle that finished Tagon's back story I talked about last time.  Great humor that wasn't just restricted to Tagon inserting things that are usually one way only.  And a great story, probably one of the best, and one of my favorites of the comic.

Next time, the last pillar of Best Overall.  Until then kiddies.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Have to Skip this week

The Best Overall Art article is kicking my butt.  I don't know why, but I'm really struggling to get it done.  Aiming for next week.  Until then.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Best Overall: Character

Schlock's cast of characters is, well, huge.  The Ovalkwiki page for just the characters is amazingly long, I think only Sluggy Freelance outdoes it.  Finding one story that covers all of these characters is basically impossible, so the real quest is to settle on just one of those characters.

That's not as easy as it sounds as there are many stories based solely, or almost solely around one character, and many, MANY awesome characters.  Oddly though, Schlock himself isn't one of them.  He is a very one note character, defined as killing, eating and eating what he killed.  As a character, Schlock isn't as interesting as he is a prop.  Biologically, Schlock is far more interesting than as a character, his unique structure and design, and it drives many plots.

The rest of the cast is far more rich.  From Kevyn and his sister to Elf and Thurl, all of them have something that make them stand out, and many of them have stories.  Schlock Mercenary is just as much about Kevyn as it is Schlock, but there is at least one character who does have a story that fits really well.  That's Kaff Tagon himself.

The reason is simple:  He's the main mover of the story.  As the leader of the Toughs, he is the one that decides which jobs they take, and those jobs are the jumping off points for just about every story.  His orders and decisions also effect the movement of those missions and so knowing how and why he comes to those decisions is not only important, but helps define him as a character.

So what we see of him is always through his orders, how he treats those under his command, those who are his equals or supposed betters and the actions he performs.  One of his earliest actions, back in the first year, was to be the lead element of a boarding operation to take his ship back (Schlock went in first to find them a way in, Tagon was on the first transport).  Now it is played off as a mistake, a lapse in judgement on his part (Howard admits Tagon and most of the male characters early on came off as more than a little dim), but it seems to me that it was kind of in character for him, as he was more inclinded to engage in direct operations later on.

Originally I picked two stories to show his character, the first being Tagon doing just that, leading a raid to capture a rebel leader.  It some ways it was a practical decision, the rest of the Toughs were on a paid vacation, and he had the back up of two of his best, Schlock and Elf.  Staying behind really meant just watching a bunch of mercenaries to make sure they didn't go to jail.  He also left Kevyn in charge, which was a sign of trust on his part, something Kevyn had earned.  Yet he still lead the operation when he could have sent, well, almost anyone.  His choice of who to take over the Toughs at his death (which happened) was probably the best thing to happen to the entire galaxy, and his actions in that final fight further solidified his traits as practical yet caring.

The issue though is that all that stuff really isn't something that needed that particular story to learn.  It solidified traits, yes, but these were traits that we already knew were there, it just confirmed them through the drama of his death.  It didn't really expand him as a character.

The second story, however, did.  Schlocktoberfest 2008 is the last of the Schlocktoberfest stories, a series of yearly tales that are single month stories typically featuring a horror element.  2008, however, broke the mold, so to speak.  It wasn't a horror story, unless the horror is "oh shit, Tagon is 49!"  Yeah, that's the story, an entire month about Tagon dwelling on the fact that he's turning 49.  Not even 50, just 49.  Still, it is an exploration of him as a person facing his mortality and the fact that he really hasn't been a young man for a while now.

And of course it starts with him talking to his father.  While we won't learn more about the root of their relationship problems until a later story (which I'll be covering, BTW), the hints that they had a more positive relationship at one point and there is an attempt to bridge the gap.  The gift his father gives him, a tailor to make a new uniform (that hides more weapons) is actually odd, but it's the elder Tagon's effort to make his son look less like a solider and more like a leader and officer.

The rest of the story is the younger Tagon trying to get his head around his age.  There's no dramatic tension, no firefights (aside from shooting some derelict) and no world shaking revelations.  Just a man looking at his life and wondering where it all went and what there's left for him.  It effects his self worth for a bit, and makes him think even more about his age.  The rest of the cast do various things to alleviate this issue, to varying degrees of success, until Ventura gives him an odd complement that finally settles him down.

It's not blunt, it's rather subtle really.  While the story about his death reinforced already established ideas, the one about his age adds much more about his character than the rest of the comic had done.  We see how he sees himself versus his father (and later we'll learn why) and that he's still got the skills, talent and looks to more than make up for his apparent age.

This is just the best example, there are many others, and while I would love to cover them, there are 14 YEARS of comics to find them all.  Schlock manages to make it's characters real this way, and makes them far better than many comics of the same type.

Next time, Art.  Until then kiddies.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Best Overall: Story

Story in Schlock Mercenary is kind of a hard thing to break down, because it never really ends.  The story began with Schlock signing up for Tagon's Toughs, and continues to this day.  It's a space opera, one that never really ends but just keeps going.  There are divisions for stories, of course, but they often simply fold into one another as the comic goes on.  Determining the ending point of my choice to represent Story in Schlock was kind of hard because it rolled right into the second Schlocktober fest.

Still, picking The Teraport Wars as the representative of Schlock's story seems an odd choice.  It's fairly early on, only 2002 (the comic started in 2000), it doesn't have all the deep character stuff that would drive later stories, it's not really focused on the Toughs or any one character, and it's long been overshadowed by later stories.

I think because it doesn't have all that is why it should be the representative because Howard really had to dig deep for this one.  Until this point, most of the stories had been short, maybe a month if that.  Teraport Wars lasts almost 6 months.  It's a truly epic piece compared to the rest, and it feels epic.

I think what helps though is that Tagon's Toughs are both a small part, and a major part of the action at the same time.  They come in late, long after the battle is over and are there for patrol and technical expertise, nothing more.  Yet they quickly fill in a much larger role that gets bigger and bigger until the very end.

Nearly every character gets something important to do.  Schlock in particular shows his chops as an intelligent solider, asking for help when he could do no more, and acting when necessary.  The character, whom I stated was pretty one dimensional last time, showed he was a bit more.  Meanwhile the rest of the cast gets to flex their strengths, from Tagon himself to the grunts on the ground.

Petey himself gets his first real moment of awesome, and gets humbled a bit as well.  He's often shown as someone who knows every angle, but in Teraport Wars, he's outdone several times, despite being linked up with the original fleet mind.  I liked this humbling as it shows he's not infallible.

He's not an idiot though.  In fact no one, as the old trope goes, is holding the idiot ball.  They are all going by the information they have and executing their best options with that information.  Given the scale of the story, it's quite a surprise that no one carries that ball around.

Which isn't to say they can't have their actions questioned and they adjust as needed.  Petey does it and Breya does it as well.  Neither are presented as stupid because they didn't think of it, but once it was presented, and confirmed, they changed how they reacted to the situation.

It also sets up oh so much of the comic to come after.  The note block under the first strip outright says it won't mean much later, since bigger events will come soon after, but it sets up so many of those events that I suspect that Howard only had a rough draft of what was to come because without this story, none of it would have happened.

At the top of the list is Petey, who earned a great deal of Tagon's respect, enough that Tagon placed him into the chain of command as an officer.  That, along with the initial fleet mind concept created to deal with this story would set up the Fleet Mind (capitalized because it's important) and basically save the galaxy, or at least not destroy it right away (that plot is still up in the air).

It would establish Xinchub as one of the main antagonists for the Toughs for much of the rest of the comic, and through him would establish the nannite issues that would arise much latter in the comic and in the current story line might result in outright civil war.

And it would also produce the Gavs.  One guy, unfrozen from our era (so Howard could include various pop culture references), duplicated 950 MILLION times, turning him into a demographic.  The results wouldn't be seen for a few years, and I'll bring it up later, trust me.

It's a great story, an important story, and while at the beginning of the first year it was suggested to skip this, and a lot of other stories, I think it's too important to do so.  Oh, the art isn't as good, boo hoo, I've read comics with far worse art for the story.

And the great thing is?  This is only the beginning.  Later stories would be even better, though often not nearly as epic.  But that's fine, it doesn't need to be epic to be far reaching, but this first big story needed to be.

Next time, Character.  Until then kiddies.