The second of the nominees I’m going to cover is Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler (art and script). Book 10, The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, is the collection eligible for the 2010 Hugos. It’s not yet available for purchase, but a reader can easily go to the archives and choose which book they’d like to read. You can start at volume one if you like, but it’s easy enough to follow without reading several years’ worth of comic. (Because there are a whole lot. It would take a considerable amount of time to read a decade’s worth of comic in the short time available before voting ends.) Tayler has also created a quick-reference for any new readers that delineates the characters and setting, which is a nice touch.
Schlock Mercenary as a whole is a comedic space opera done mostly in single-strips on a daily basis. It’s like reading a newspaper comic with similar art style and tone, which makes it different from the other nominees for the award—it represents a different medium of comics, not just because it’s a webcomic, but because it’s a humor strip. Tonally speaking, it’s a whole different universe.
The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse follows the crew of the mercenary ship Touch-and-Go through what should have been a routine food delivery to the Credomar habitat, a human space colony that’s having some—a lot—of political problems. The contract didn’t mention the political problems. Through various stages of combat and comical mishaps, the Touch-and-Go crew tries to stay alive and deliver the food to somebody, without being sued into oblivion. The titular character, Lota (Longshoreman of the Apocalypse), is a robot who in the end manages to be the savior for the Credomar habitat and the Touch-and-Go, thanks to too-smart programming. Lota stays on Credomar as duly elected king at the end of book 10 while the Touch-and-Go move on to their next assignment.
I find this nomination curious and interesting. In fact, I don’t quite see how it made it to the list not just this year, but last year, too. After all, you rarely see humor novels nominated for the Hugo. It’s not that I don’t like humor—but I see the Hugo as an award for excellence in storytelling and craft. Rarely, and I mean rarely, does a humor novel have the thematics or craft work to match up to the “serious” novels of that year. (Which is not to say that they never do: Douglas Adams, for example, is quite the master.) I would argue that’s the problem I have with Schlock Mercenary and why it won’t be my pick. I like it, make no mistake, and I love that a webcomic done in “newspaper” strip style made it onto the nominee list. I even like that a humorous story made it on there.
But I’m not seeing that excellence, here, especially in comparison to other comics that came out in the same year. For a graphic story award, a piece needs to show mastery in at least one of two things, ideally both: art and story. Tayler is a productive artist—he manages to keep a hard schedule of publication, day after day, for years. That’s impressive, even if he was only doing the script, but he also does the art. The thing is, that art is simple caricature work. It’s perfect for the strip-comic style, yes, and probably the only manageable thing for such a heavy schedule. So, cross off art from the list of “excellence” qualifiers: it’s good for what it is, but it’s up against things like Fables, which is known for its gorgeous illustration. (Or, if one wants to limit to webcomics, take a look at the art for Girl Genius.)
When it comes to story, there’s nothing wrong with Schlock Mercenary. It moves along at a good clip, it’s readable, it’s funny. I can’t say enough that I like this comic and I don’t think there’s anything bad about it, because this seems like such a negative review, but only in the context of the Hugo Award and its history of winners. The problem I have is that, without extraordinary art, I want a mind-blowing story that really does some strong narrative work. Schlock Mercenary doesn’t do that. It’s relatively predictable and moves along the general paths of a humor story—lots of mishaps and adventures that allow for jokes—but that’s a problem for me when it comes to an award like this. Fun is not enough. I don’t want to just like it, I want to twist my brain around it and spend hours pondering the work the author did with the characters and plot once I’m finished. Some sort of moral complication, maybe? I don’t know. Reading this with the intent of judging its place on my potential ballot was a different experience than reading for pleasure.
Schlock Mercenary is a good read and I recommend it, but not for the Hugo Award. If I could extrapolate a little, I think that its nomination is a hint toward the reading habits of the average Hugo voter—they’re SFF fans. While a lot of SFF readers like comics, most of them seem to have a brief touching point with the genre and that’s it. A free webcomic, a space opera no less, is going to appeal. It’s easy to access, friends can link you to it, it has genre-relevant jokes and gags. I’m also aware of the other “side” of the Hugo, the part that is all about fan love and popularity, and I like that half too. I suppose if it’s a vote for the most-read, not the-absolute-best, then it works for me.
You know, I could pull that reading habits theory over the other nominees, too: the two Universe stories are by, respectively, Neil Gaiman and Paul Cornell, who SFF fans are already familiar with and love. Two other nominees are free webcomics. Fables is just about the only comic on the list that I don’t see having a tie, via author or easy access, to the SFF fandom. Then again—the Hugo is an SFF award. I’d just like to see the voters branch out more to unfamiliar people and comics that aren’t directly part of the usual circles.
Feel free to argue with me. It’s just that—being a comics reader as much as an SFF reader—I see so many things that were passed over, likely because they were not as readily at hand for the voters. Then again, people argue every year that the Hugo is too narrow a circle of super-popular authors and artists. Sometimes I agree with that, sometimes I don’t, but I am beating a dead horse and readily admit it. On that note—
Tomorrow: Girl Genius!