No standard print media since the last update, that was just last Sunday, but I accidentally got sucked into re-reading some Schlock Mercenary. Schlock has been running daily since 12-Jun-2000, which makes for a very large archive - it just completed book 16, so a post the other day suggested a few potential starting points for people. The earliest suggestion was the start of Book 10, so I followed the link to remind myself which one that was, and, erm, started reading. From 29-Feb-2008. 3025 strips in three days. Eek!
What rereading them revealed is just how good a storyteller Howard Tayler has become, there are bits buried at the start of books that illuminate things that happen a year or more later in our real time when the story reaches the end of the book. It''s often difficult to remember those when reading them daily, but they really show up in a reread.
Ostensibly about Schlock, the series developed into an ensemble cast:
Schlock - Cheerfully amoral 'Carbo-silicate Amorph', a sergeant in the mercenary company Tagon's Toughs. A shapeshifter, he keeps being mistaken for a 1.5m pile of manure. Occcasionally bright, commonly childlike, mostly violent.
Captain Kaff Tagon - Commander of Tagon's Toughs. Inclined to appear a bit dim, but actually very good at what he does. Which still doesn't stop him wedging his foot in his mouth with predictable regularity
Commander Kevyn Andreyasn - Possibly the smartest biological sophont in the galaxy. Has repeated revolutionised technology (and started galaxy spanning wars as a result). Resident Mad Scientist.
Ennesby - Formerly the AI running a virtual boy band, now Tagon's snarky adjutant.
Petey - Formerly the AI running the Tough's starship, now the face of the Fleetmind, a hivemind of starship AIs that control the Plenipotent Domain, the galactic superpower, which is running the war against the dark matter Pa'anuri of Andromeda, a war Kevyn accidentally restarted. Appears as a koala-like hologram,
Ebby, Legs, Andy, Nick, Elisabeth, Chisulo - the other members of Schlock's squad, with Ebby in command. Nick's the only human, and he makes Tagon look bright. Eventually designated as Xeno Team.
Book 10: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse
The Toughs get a new job - escort a shipment of relief supplies to the artificial world of Credomar (a cylinder about 6km in diameter and 40 in length, with a population of 5 million). But first they pick up a few new recruits, including 18 year old roboticist Para Ventura. To a large degree Book 10 is about Para finding her place in the Toughs
So how difficult can delivering a few supplies be? Very, it turns out, when Credomar is factionalised over control of the food supply, the contract says they have to distribute the supplies, and the docks are out of action. With 65 megatons of supplies to unload, they should be done in about 25 years. That's when Para repurposes a damaged tank as the eponymous Longshoreman Of The Apocalypse, which promptly proclaims that it, LOTA, is too mighty for puny pronouns. When things go wrong, the Toughs have to launch a desperate raid to sieze a stock of antimatter, Para finds herself alone against a mob, and LOTA siezes a solution to the problem.
And meanwhile, there's the puzzle of Credomar's wierdly inefficient design.
After accidentally bending their ship and its AI in Credomar, the Toughs have to split up to make enough to cover wages while it's repaired.
Schlock, Elisabeth and Chisulo get a job at the circus. As Chisulo is an uplifted elephant and Elisabeth looks like a elephant-sized gorilla they aren't entirely out of place, though Carbo-silicate amorphs are old news, which leaves Schlock playing janitor. They're undercover to investigate a murder, but something smells very off about their employer.
Kevyn, meanwhile, is back off to Credomar, King LOTA wants an evac mechanism for the city's inhabitants, and Kevyn is the inventor of the teraport. Things get murkier when they figure out the smoking gun of just why Credomar is so inefficiently designed, Are they building a safety mechanism, or unlocking a weapon of mass destruction? And can they trust LOTA?
And for Tagon and most of the company it's the humiliation of being reduced to mallcops. In Mall One, a rotating spacestation, full of open spaces and plagued by a mysterious set of urban runners. There's only one way to catch them - train the Toughs in Parkata Urbatsu, the martial art of urban running. Meanwhile, is Nick about to get a girl, and which girl is it going to be, the mysterious blonde spy, or the fast food clerk?
And all the strands braid back together again with a desperate mission into the heart of an enemy-held asteroid to rescue Kevyn's clone, and Tagon's dad. Of course neither are exactly helpless - never underestimate a man with a remote-controlled headless monkey and a bandolier of grenades.
An earlier book saw the Toughs stumble on a deep black UNS intelligence operation, one that they only got out of alive by agreeing to have their memories altered. Petey now has a way to reverse that, and it's time for the Toughs to remember what really happened, what really never happened, and who did it to them. One of the not-memories is the wedding of Doc Bunny Bunnigus and the Reverend, which means doing the whole thing over.
Given the need to speak to her (not-)mother-in-law, Bunny quickly decides on a field trip to check up on Shep, one of the Toughs' retired soldiers. Given Shep lives in a rough habitat, she takes Schlock, Para, Legs and Ennesby along with her, and hires Kathryn (that would be the mysterious blonde spy) to ferry them there. Things rapidly escalate as they discover the whole habitat is under the control of the mysterious Professor Pau, who doesn't like doctors, but has a medicine to cover every eventuallity. With Shep kidnapped, it's up to them to get him back, and Kathryn may have just the skills they need. Well she would have if she hadn't just defaulted on the contract she signed, giving Schlock the right to eat her.
So it's Kathryn vs Schlock in the bowels of Haven Hive, and Kathryn turns out to be unexpectedly resourceful. But then she stumbles onto what's really going on, and she's not about to let that go unanswered. Even if it means a chance of running into Schlock again as the Toughs make their move to free Shep.
The Toughs are hired to provide security on an archaeological dig, the dig being on an artifact, Oisri, that's so old it has a planet wrapped around it. The problem being Oisri is potentially so valuable it may be worth throwing entire fleets at them. Fortunately the Toughs have an answer for that, an autofabricator with a large pile of dirt going in at one end and lots and lots of missiles coming out at the other. That takes care of the overt threat, but leaves covert routes open, including nano-warfare, which it turns out Tagon has a history with.
It actually turns out the major threat is on a more human scale when one of the scientists accidentally rips his head off, then gets up again. The Toughs are up against Redhack, the culmination of the intelligence project they stumbled on. It was supposed to be a means of immortality, now it's a weapon, turning people into killing machines, and the only way out may be to kill everyone the Toughs signed on to protect.
Meanwhile, there is a spy aboard their ship.
Kathryn is back at Mall One, bonding with Tagon's dad over a little urban running, when they run into an alien with a job for both Tagons and the Toughs. Which is when Karl Tagon finds out his son has blown up yet another UNS battleplate; time to get everyone out of Dodge before they're scooped up by UNS intelligence. That includes Kathryn's urban runners and Alexia Murtaugh, the mercenary/cop who took the blame for what went down in Book 12.
Meanwhile the Toughs are facing up to the news their ship was totalled when its AI went berserk during the events at Oisri. Petey wants them to retire, and some of them are seriously tempted, the Plenipotent Dominion is a post-scarcity society, thanks to having turned the galactic core into a power generator. If money isn't an issue, then boredom may be, and when Karl Tagon turns up with a gunship and a job, he finds his son and the Toughs ready to board. Of course there is the small matter of the gunboat refusing to answer to anyone but the spy who betrayed them.
The job the Oafans have for them is a bug hunt, but the scale of the bug hunt wasn't actually as clear as it might have been. Eina Afa, the ancient spacestation that needs delousing, is big enough you could stuff the Moon and Mars inside with room to spare. The job gets fairly rapidly rescoped as a biological sampling mission, but then the station's old defences wake up, and they're stuck trying to find a way to talk down yet another berserk AI.
The Oafans send an embassy to Sol in Ennesby's new ship, with Captain Murtaugh and Xeno Team along as security. Of course, diplomatic credentials or not, there's a certain intelligence agency that may consider the Toughs to know too much. If they knew what the Toughs really have in mind they'd nuke them from orbit, as the only way to be sure. This time the Toughs aren't going to revolutionise technology, they're going to revolutionise society.
Of course theirs may not be the only revolution people have planned. So it's up to the Toughs, a UNS ship designer, and a killing machine in a body he doesn't own to save the day and stop the UNS descending into civil war. (With a little help from a 750kg uplifted Polar Bear).
The Toughs are still helping get their new home in the Neofan Freehold (aka Eina Afa) up and running. There are cities to be built in a day (okay, two), judiciaries to be created, and ancient librarians to be resurrected to see if they know enough to save the Galaxy (they don't, but they do know where the index is). Fortunately money isn't an issue when you have an ancient spacedock stuffed to the gills with millions of derelicts whose trans-uranic hulls are individually worth a fair fraction of the annual GDP of Sol system. And in between times, there's an archive Petey needs
looting access to, which rapidly descends into a crime-scene.
But everything comes together when the science team stumbles onto the location of an ancient Oafan 'world forge'. Only one problem, it should be the size of Saturn, and it's been squished down to the size of Earth. Plus someone's already living there.
Fortunately the Essperrin are perfectly willing to sell access, for a ship or two. They would even be cute, as knee-high space ant-butterflies, but for their habit of 'improving' any technological system they can get their hands on. And their senior commander can't help noticing how much portable worth the Toughs new ships represent....
I don't quite know how far back Howard Tayler has had the Schlock arc pinned down, but it's been clear for a while that the core arc is the Redhack technology and what functional immortality is going to do to society. The roots of that arc stretch right back into the very earliest days of Schlock Mercenary, when it was still primarily a daily strip and a long story arc was a month. The stories above represent the arc moving into the end game (Tayler's said as much), which is perhaps obvious when Book 17 is called A Little Immortality. There's still the war against the Pa'anuri to resolve, and will Petey end up a benevolent god, or a tyrant, but I think those are the backdrop against which a more human story plays.
Schlock went through the same art evolution as a lot of webcomics, in fact it's early art is much more basic than a lot of comics start with. Tayler himself says: "Seriously, don’t start people at the beginning. Just don’t." But if its art has evolved further than most, I still think it's the storytelling that has come furthest. That goes for characterisation too. Earliest Schlock had almost no female characters, but current Schlock has 5 female command characters out of 10 and several significant female characters in the enlisted ranks. Schlock doesn't just beat the Bechdel test, it has military operations being entirely run by female officers (the male officers are almost entirely absent from Book 15), and other female characters getting together to talk about the spaceships and robots they're designing and building. Kevyn, the resident mad-scientist, is regularly mocked by Para, who is simply better with robots and AIs than he will ever be (and Elf, his partner, is often the more practical engineer) Meanwhile Tagon started out as almost a buffoon, and he still has his foot in mouth moments, but he's now convincingly a commander to be reckoned with.
Howard Tayler is right, the Schlock archive is huge and intimidating, but I think it's worth the investment. Personally I might start with Delegates and Delegation to see if it appeals, the story is relatively self-contained even if some of the motivations won't be. That will leave you in a good position to work forward from there to the leading edge of the story, and you can go back and pick up the older stories at your leisure.