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The Sharp End of the Stick

December 1, 2012

The family-friendly comic Schlock Mercenary: The Sharp End of the Stick, by Howard Tayler, opens up with a character getting his throat ripped out. There are multiple jokes about the event.

The entire comic was recoloured and shaded for print. This is the online version.

The entire comic was recoloured and shaded for print. This is the online version.

That’s par for the course with Tayler’s work. Schlock Mercenary is an online webcomic that’s been updating daily, without fail, for a dozen years. Sharp End is the eighth collection to be published, and, as always, this 128-page comic book follows the adventures of a small portion of the interstellar mercenary company Tagon’s Toughs.

Priority one: stay alive. Priority two: get paid. Priority three: customer satisfaction.

Priority one: stay alive. Priority two: get paid. Priority three: customer satisfaction.

Sharp End uses nonlinear storytelling to great effect, dropping the reader, unexplained, into a battle between five nearly naked humans and their amorphous blob companion versus a pack of hungry predators. The story frequently jumps around between the memories of Kevyn Andreyasn, the aforementioned throat-ripee, and the present, explaining how six high tech mercenaries found themselves unarmed and unclothed in a jungle.

What makes Schlock Mercenary such a joy, though, is not its rich universe, iron-clad continuity, or diverse set of lovable thugs-for-hire. It is the fact that Tayler has committed to making a joke in the last panel of every individual strip, no matter how dire the situation. Characters all fear death, feel pain, and act completely rationally, but still manage to make light of events that would paralyze the average person with pants-wetting fear. Remarkably, jokes never feels forced or awkward,as Tayler has sensibly sprinkled the roster of Tagon’s Toughs with sociopaths. Lovable, hilarious sociopaths, to be fair, but sociopaths nonetheless.

Look at that excitement on that excrement.

Look at that excitement on that excrement.

As a result of its adherence to the rule of funny, Sharp End  can come off as not taking itself seriously. However, Tayler takes his storytelling above and beyond what would be expected of a writer, let alone a cartoonist. The laws of its cartoon reality, while frequently introduced as a one-panel throwaway joke, are never broken, thousands of strips later. Anything that would raise an eyebrow or not satisfactorily explained in the strip itself gets an expository footnote, frequently as funny or funnier than the comic itself. The current understanding of physics always applies, frequently with the math right there on the page!

Fans of puns and wordplay will find plenty of both in Schlock Mercenary, but just as entertaining are the visual gags. Whether it’s the exaggerated, glee-filled eyes of of a soldier promised a new plasma cannon or the shocked expression of a man envisioning a slow death by nibbling, Tayler uses his cartoon medium to maximum effectiveness. For a significant chunk of the book, the main cast are completely nude, and it’s clear Tayler had great fun in drawing “fig-leaf” objects to hide their shame from view.

Schlock Mercenary has done its homework, and intimately knows whatever genre it is parodying at the moment. The infiltration of a mountain stronghold involves air ducts. A man drags himself out of a shallow grave, moaning “Brains…” The villain is inexcusably evil and delights in pain and torment. However, air ducts are considered valid pathways in the characters’ own home, the grave riser is not a zombie, and the villain is refreshingly intelligent, wasting no time in killing his enemies and never falling prey to hubris.

Always check the air vents.

Always check the air vents.

A delightful, violent romp of a space opera, Schlock Mercenary: Sharp End of the Stick is the perfect blend of tension, levity, and hilariousity.


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