Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review - Schlock Mercenary: The Teraport Wars

I don't read a whole lot of webcomics. I used to back in the young days of the web when the idea that someone might draw a comic and put it on the web was a wild idea. Those early pioneers set patterns still seen today: the wanna-be epic where a humor strip loses humor for massive infodumps of bad story requiring understanding of years of confusing continuity, the fanbase pandering where in-jokes take over, the egotrips where self aggrandizement takes the place of actually making the comic, and more. There are acres of webcomics where the artistic quality of the first strip is as good as it ever gets no matter how terrible it is. And that doesn't even get into the massive piles of strips that are just outright terrible.

One of the very few I do read consistantly is Schlock Mercenary which I've been following for more than seven years. The ongoing story of mercenaries a thousand years into a space opera future manages to hold me for three key reasons and they all are in the writing: it's clearly told, well paced, and strip creator Howard Taylor makes a point of recognizing the ugly consequences of the details of his world. Taylor has just released his fourth print collection of strips entitled The Teraport Wars which cover nearly eighteen months of his daily strip.

There's a lot of stories in The Teraport Wars but its central one is a conflict between a fleet of altruists and dyson sphere building aliens who have manipulated interstellar civilization for over a hundred thousand years by torturing secrets out of anyone who used their interstellar transportation system with the mercenary cast stuck in the middle and just wanting to get paid.

This is the best value of any web comic strip collection I've ever seen.

Strike that: this is the second best value of any comic strip colection I've ever seen beaten only by those really impressive Fantagraphics collections and they only edge this out by being the complete works of various masters of the art form. First, The Teraport Wars is more than 210 pages of strips for twenty-five dollars. That's 493 daily strips. You'll pay only slightly less than that for half the content from most people. Second the production values are exceptional. It's printed on glossy paper in full color with a layout that flows smoothly and allows plenty of room for notes from the author and sketches.

And the content isn't bad either. Taylor moves quickly from story arc to story arc and there's a lot of big space opera action. The cast is a wondeful collection of barely functional sociopaths who have taken the saying "Violence is the last resort of the incompetent" to heart; they're not incompetent so they resort to violence much earlier.

One stumbling block is the art. In the beginning the art in Schlock Mercenary was... well... terrible. I've seen worse art in webcomics but not often. By the start of The Teraport Wars Taylor was on his way to developing his ability but things were still rough. By the end of the book you can see real development in the art (eventually he does drop the thick inking). Taylor aknowledges this; in fact the first collection of his strips actually follows The Teraport Wars for when they were originally published.

Webcomic collections can be a tough sell since who needs a print collection of what's being given away on the web? The Teraport Wars does deliver on that by being a wonderful presentation of the strips. if you haven't read Schlock Mercenary I'd say jump to the beginning of the current storyline where the band of thugs takes on a mission of mercy where everyone is in over their heads.