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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Next week's etymology lesson: Irony!

I actually recall how I found out about it a few years back. At the time I owned an iMac. This was back when Apple was making products in colors other than white in order to highlight its differences from Microsoft’s ubiquity. (“Look! Have you ever seen a computer shaped like a fishbowl and painted candy apple red? No! And you never will again!”)

Well, let me pause here for a moment and briefly discuss my fruit-related computer history. I was an apple diaper baby. When I was a lad, we had Apple IIEs in our public schools, and my father; who was a public school teacher; took the computer from his classroom home during the summer so it wouldn’t get stolen. That’s right peeps; I am the product of inner city public schools. We had gangs and on-campus stabbings and everything. And that was just the girls!

Anyway, where was I? Oh right. So my earliest experience with a computer was the Apple IIE, followed by the Apple IIGS. After the IIGS, the two town high schools where I grew up were merged into one high school on the posher side of town, and the computer lab was expanded beyond a single machine, so it no longer made sense to bring a computer home over the summer. So my father bought a computer for the house: A Macintosh LCII with 80MB of hard drive space. I distinctly remember the salesman telling my father that we’d never be able to fill it up, and I can’t help but chuckle when I consider that I could back –up that hard drive 100 times on a USB drive I bought for $30 at BJs.

When I moved out on my own, I carried on the Apple tradition. I bought myself an iMac in candy apple red, or as Mac aficionados would say “F-you Micro$oft red.” I continued to delude myself into thinking that Macs were easier to use than Windows machines until I met my wife in 2003, who had very little experience with modern operating systems (her last computer having been a Colecovision). She tried out my old iMac (I had converted over to a Windows laptop so I could work from home) and proceeded to curse a blue streak at it. You see, the Mac operating system was trying to be helpful, and it kept trying to do things to help my wife do what the computer thought she was trying to do. The only problem was that she didn’t want to do what the computer was telling her she wanted to do, and she had to figure out workarounds to get the computer to take her word for it that she really did want that document to look how it looked.

So I don’t use Macs anymore. I think of them the same way I think of AOL’s online service: They work really hard to develop tools to get around the roadblocks that they themselves built into the operating system just so they can advertise how easy their products are to use.

Anyway, so at the time I was still a Mac Guy, except I knew how to shave my face and neck and regularly laundered my clothes. As such, during my lunch break I would visit websites related to Mac-related gaming, because Mac or No, I will always be a gamer. This one particular site pointed me to a webcomic about a group of college student who used Macs to game and create artwork titled “Mac Hall,” which is now defunct (the original artist is now doing a webcomic called “Three Panel Soul” which I recommend). That webcomic was on keenspot, which was a kind of portal to a list of other webcomics. I remember browsing through the list of webcomics on the list, and seeing something called “Schlock Mercenary.”

And here we finally get to the point.

Schlock Mercenary is a webcomic about a carbo-silicate amorphous alien with an appetite for violence (and anything else he can catch) and a BH209 plasma cannon that has destroyed whole spaceships. In episode 1 of the comic strip, he signs up for a mercenary company known as Tagon’s Toughs by threatening the recruiter with incineration if he doesn’t reconsider the company’s “humans only” recruiting rule.
It turns out it was really more of a guideline than a rule.

From there, we follow the alien; named Schlock; and the crew of Tagon’s Toughs through a series of adventures that include (really) hostile corporate takeovers, patent violations, and a war against a race of beings made of dark matter that nearly destroys the known universe. The comic has been running without interruption for over nine years, which is particularly impressive for a webcomic. What’s even more impressive is the fact that the stories, the jokes, and even the art have only gotten better in that time. Webcomics do not exactly have a reputation for excellence, and while the early years of Schlock Mercenary were not particularly well drawn, they were always funny. And I mean really funny, as in “I must clean the soda I was drinking off of my keyboard because it shot out of my nose, and it hurt like crazy but I still couldn’t stop laughing” funny.

What’s even funnier than the comic itself are the notes that follow some strips. Schlock Mercenary takes place in the distant future, when faster-than-light travel has been achieved and duct tape has been redesigned such that it can actually be used to seal duct work (really ). A lot can happen in a thousand years, and the author brings the reader up to speed on events pertaining to the happenings in that days strip. Sometimes it’s a history lesson, sometimes a science lesson, sometimes a computer programming lesson about how the Trinary unIT replaced the Binary unIT as the basic programming structure, and the affects that had on sexual diversity in the workplace among computer scientists.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the storylines are huge: literally measured in relativistic units. A given story arc will span months, if not a year, building and building and building to a conclusion that is probably going to result in something very large getting exploded. To give you an idea of how large, at one point someone blows up a Dyson Sphere, and it wasn’t even integral to the story arc.

It’s not always funny, though. The author is no stranger to pathos, and more than one sympathetic character have been snuffed out in the course of the action—we are talking about a troop of mercenaries, after all. But even when long standing characters leave the strip, it doesn’t feel like a cheap way for the author to keep the reader interested; unlike some extremely powerful DC characters that shall remain SuperNameless. Further, ever October the author indulges in a month of darker fare titled “Schlocktoberfest” during which there are fewer jokes and more tension. The mix of humor, action and suspense keep the comic feeling vibrant and new even after nine years of following the same characters.
The comics are also available in dead-tree form. I own all but the most recent book (The Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance; a reference to a joke from the series regarding a napoleonic race of koalazoids and the names they give their warships) because they have become a Christmas tradition at my household. If you like the strip online, I heartily recommend buying the books. Not only is it nice to read the comic somewhere other than a monitor, but the books include exclusive bonus stories that delve a little deeper into the origins of the series’ namesake.

If you can handle the crude art, go back to day one of Schlock Mercenary and watch how the art, humor and characters evolve. You can also use the archive navigation screen to pick a story arc that sounds interesting, which might be a good option if you want to start where the art is prettier. The author-recommended place to start is Under New Management. I say “author recommended” because that was the first story arc to get published in book form. The first few months of Schlock Mercenary were actually the second or third book to get printed, and as with Firefly I can see why he went that way, even if I prefer watching the story from the beginning.

The bottom line is that if you’re a sci-fi fan, you need to be reading this web comic. If you’re a military humor fan, you need to be reading this comic. If you’re a comic fan, you need to be reading this web comic. If you’re a… well, let’s just say you need to be reading this web comic.

So go read it. Go ahead. I’ll be back next week with some other morsel of geekitude for you.