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You had me but you lost me: Schlock Mercenary

The webcomic Schlock Mercenary has evolved over a period of many years into one of the most professionally drawn and produced in the genre. Creator Howard Tayler is famous for his punctuality and hard work, and for turning out a consistently great product…

As a result, Tayler has become one of the select few who can support himself and his family on the income from his serial. I have asked for and received a complete dead-tree collection of his work from my family as a gift; obviously I have been a fan.

How, then, did Tayler lose me (in the famous formulation of Eric Burns)?

I have disagreed with Tayler on social issues having nothing to do with the strip. His laissez faire attitude toward Moonie sushi is on the record here at my blog. His recent use of what I regard as a mildly offensive racial stereotype, "…cry like a playground bully who has just been nut-punched by that little asian girl," prompted me to post a comment on Tayler's blog: he apparently has deleted that comment rather than respond to it. At the end of the day, this is what prompted me to post this piece to my blog rather than submitting it through him—I didn't feel I could trust him to honor my comments. However, I would never abandon a quality webcomic over issues with its creator, at least short of something truly horrible. These are mild issues at best, and I mention them mainly in the interest of full disclosure.

My real issue is that, in my opinion, the writing and characterization in Schlock Mercenary has gotten increasingly lazy over the past few years, even as the technical quality of the art has improved dramatically. The supporting characters have become ever more one-dimensional, and the main characters have really abandoned most pretense of actually being part of a mercenary company.

I really miss Sergeant Schlock, for one thing. The strip has his name on the title for a reason; he has been a fun and interesting character. Sadly, the lead role has been almost entirely taken over at this point by Kevin, who is a thinly-veiled Mary Sue for Tayler (up to and including a similar but taller and fitter appearance). On the other hand, Schlock has been increasingly Garfieldized—compare Schlock's original drawing, speaking and behavioral style with the current one and I think you'll be a bit shocked.

The real breaking point for me, though, has been one Lieutenant Pibald (or perhaps Piebald; I'm not sure the spelling has been consistent). Pibald replaced Corporal "Pronto" Pontucci in the role of explosives specialist after Pontucci's unfortunate death. I think I can do no better than to begin by quoting Pibald's Wikipedia Entry:

While Pronto could be trusted with weaponized antimatter with nothing more than profound feelings of doom, Pi is genuinely insane. He is clinically paranoid, a megalomaniac, actively trying to blow up parts of the ship, and has announced himself to be able to perform brain surgery without instruments and breathe in space. A particular pet project of his was an 'ant farm' where the ants were homegrown nano- and other assemblers and the sand was a motile high explosive. During the Toughs' next engagement the farm spilled and metastasized, briefly giving the Touch-And-Go exploding cancer.

This is not a person a mercenary company would trust with explosives. It doesn't matter how fictional the universe is, how wacky the mercenaries are, or even how much outside manipulation by the AI deity Petey is supporting Pibald's continued tenure with Tagon's Toughs. There would not be an opportunity for a second incident, or a third, or a fourth with this wack job. He would be demoted, fired, and most likely spaced.

The current storyline finally completely broke my suspension of disbelief. I don't feel like I can do justice to how ridiculous Pibald's role in it is: check out the archives for the details. Suffice it to say that Pibald exhibited his usual mental disease, insubordination and stupidity in more than usual measure, with the net result that only extreme luck kept him from killing innocent people.

Today's strip reveals that Pibald will be given a slap on the wrist.

I'm sorry, I just can't do it anymore. I still like the art. I still like the universe. But I miss what Schlock Mercenary was, and I just can't enjoy the serial as it is.

You had me, but you lost me.

As Groucho Marx famously put it, I "feel compelled to cancel my subscription." Fob