A couple of people have asked me why I’m committing myself to a daily (well, every weekday) blog post. The answer is simple: by making that commitment, I’m forcing myself to produce something tangible every day.
The only way to improve an acquired skill is through practice. Getting better in my chosen field is a great incentive, but by publicly setting a goal for a minimum amount of practice, I’m adding incentive. If I don’t meet the goal, I look like an idiot, and I don’t want to be that idiot.
In this case, I’m taking Howard Tayler as my role model. Howard writes and draws the web comic “Schlock Mercenary”. The first strip was published in June of 2000 and Howard has not missed a day since then. Has it been worth it? Oh, yes. A quick comparison of that first strip with the latest one on the home page shows what all of that practice has done for his art. The writing, too, has improved: the story lines have gotten longer, more intricate, and more coherent, without losing the humor that caused the strip to stand out in the first place.
This is starting to turn into a review of Schlock Mercenary, and the world really doesn’t need yet another one of those (a quick search suggests that there are already thousands, if not tens of thousands or reviews out there), so let me see if I can turn this in a slightly different direction, and poke at what Howard is doing as a writer.
One recurring element of Howard’s universe is “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries”. Maxim 14 states what lies at the heart of Schlock Mercenary:
‘Mad Science’ means never stopping to ask ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen?’
What Howard is doing is telling a cautionary tale. For 13 years, he’s been warning about the perils of not planning ahead. We see it in the first strips, when a recruiter and a doctor fail to consider that their usual processes won’t work on an amorphous blob. We see it in the way Kevyn casually releases inventions that wreak grievous harm on the galactic economy. We see it in the way the UNS (and, in fact, every other organization) places short-term goals and immediate needs ahead of long-term survival.
If he’s just telling the same tale over and over again, why do so many people keep reading? Howard keeps asking and answering the question “what next?” Characters’ failure to consider the consequences of their actions propels the story, but the their failure to consider the implications of their resolution to the problems posed by the earlier failures invariably leads to a new crisis down the road. In short, he’s invoking the long tradition of the chain of disasters (what TV Tropes calls Disaster Dominoes). Warning: following a link to TV Tropes can result in the loss of entire days of productivity. In that respect, TV Tropes is something of a chain of disasters itself.
The reader knows that any resolution is purely temporary, and no matter how closed a disaster seems, it will somehow come back to bite someone in the ass. Howard describes his approach in Maxim 17:
The longer everything goes according to plan, the bigger the impending disaster.
He excels at keeping the reader guessing about when and how the next disaster will occur. By the time he reveals the extent of the disaster, it’s grown beyond all expectation, and its resolution will involve an even bigger oversight – and and even bigger laugh.
Where will this escalating chain of disasters end? Won’t it reach a point of overkill and stop being funny? Perhaps, but Howard has an answer for that in Maxim 37:
There is no ‘overkill.’ There is only ‘open fire’ and ‘time to reload’.