18.33: Deep Dive: The Schlock Mercenary Finale
The first episode in our eight-episode Deep Dive into Howard’s weekly webcomic strip, Schlock Mercenary. We grill Howard on how he taught himself to draw, why he decided to self-publish (hint: his wife, Sandra Tayler, helped him), and how he managed to write an ending.
The “How it should have ended” game: write your own ending(s) to one or more of your favorite things. (For reference, watch some of How It Should Have Ended.)
Thing of the Week:
The Expanse (DongWon)
Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
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Key points: Schlock Mercenary, a daily webcomic from June 2000 to July 2020. Why a daily web comic? Because Howard imagined it as a newspaper comic. Buck Rogers and Bloom County! Big save the universe plots and characters that we love with their own arcs. How do you balance those? Like a bumblebee, keep flapping! The guiding principle of Schlock Mercenary is there has to be a punchline. Worldbuilding, character work, and the punchline. An outline to hit the ending? If you find yourself diverging, you may need to redo the outline. The drumbeat of the daily strip versus the graphic novel format. Humor and context.
[Season 18, Episode 33]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive Prep: The Schlock Mercenary Finale.
[DongWon] 15 minutes long.
[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Howard] And I’m on the spot for this episode. Also, I think, for the seven episodes that follow.
[Howard] We’re going to talk about… We’re going to talk about finishing big things. And building big things. And… Um… Oh, boy, Schlock Mercenary ran from June of 2000 to July of 2020. Daily webcomic. Wrapping it up was one of the most difficult and one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I feel like a discussion of how I did it and why I did the things that I did could lead us into all sorts of interesting and wonderful places with regards to the things that we’ve worked on, the things that you might be working on, things we love, things that maybe weren’t done so well. There’s so much to cover, so much to cover when we talk about wrapping up big things.
[DongWon] Before we dive into the end, I’d love to rewind a little bit and talk about the beginning. So, I think to understand how you wrap this up, I would love to understand first, why did you make it a daily web comic? Like, what were the things that drew you to that format? And, like, what was… What did that… How did that wire your brain in a certain way to think about how to structure things when you’re putting content out on such a regular cadence?
[Howard] The enormous power of the default. When I began writing Schlock Mercenary, I imagined it as a newspaper comic. I submitted it to a couple of syndicates and was told in both cases, “This is not what we’re looking for.” I don’t blame them. I’m actually quite happy that it didn’t get picked up. But I… Up until that point, I really only imagined a comic strip as being a daily thing in newspaper format. I mean, the default was so powerful that I literally didn’t imagine other things. Why does Schlock Mercenary look the way it does? Because in 2000, Howard really didn’t know very much about what was possible with the web.
[DongWon] I mean, you were starting in an era when I think a lot of web comics were like that. Right? They were all coming out of this model of newspaper strips. They all were very episodic, very serialized. Then, over time, I think we saw a lot of these like daily gag comics suddenly start to develop meta-plot and structure and like these huge events that sort of overtaking them. Was that something you knew that you wanted to do when you started Schlock or were you starting with more of a gag of the week structure? And then, suddenly realized, oh, there’s plot here. There’s story here. There’s worldbuilding in a bigger, more complex way.
[Howard] My two biggest influences going in on this were a great big book of collected Buck Rogers comics I had from the… I want to say 1940s. It might have been the 1930s. Newspaper comics. Where it was definitely long form, and there was some Monday reminder of what we were doing Saturday, cliffhanger. There was some of that going on. But I got the feeling that back then the newspapers just assumed, no, everybody’s onboard. They’re just picking up this paper and Buck Rogers is what they’re reading. We own this audience. It was very streamlined storytelling. And Bloom County. Which did gag of the day sorts of things, but they would string together themes. There was one where, during the Iran-Contra scandal, the Oliver North stand in was an alien puppy dog that was just big eyes and cute and he’s there on trial and no one can prosecute, no one can come down on him, because he’s a cute puppy, look at him. Look, oh, look at what his antenna do. So we got a week of those gags, and then we move on. I thought, “Well, I could tell a longform story that does this thematic sort of thing on a weekly basis, and plot arcs will probably last about a month.” I was wrong. Plot arcs, I found, lasted about a year to a year and a half. It wasn’t until about two years in that I realized I had sort of the makings of a mega arc. I did not know where it was going to go. But I knew where it was going to start. It was going to start with some of the injustices that were created by monopolies and by top-heavy power structures and whatever else. Because those are great things to make fun of, but the more I made fun of them, the more I thought, “Man. I want to topple these. What happens if I topple all of them at once?”
[Mary Robinette] At what point in the process did you know the end that you were writing towards?
[Howard] That wasn’t until around book 10. That wasn’t until around book 10.
[Mary Robinette] For the listeners who have not experienced it, how many books are there?
[Howard] 20. Yeah, right about the time… Right around book 10, I thought, “Yeah. I could finish this in five more books.”
[Ha ha ha!]
[Howard] I could wrap this up in five more books.
[Mary Robinette] [garbled]
[Howard] And then I started noodling… I was just having so much fun with… I would
the thing and realize, “No, I haven’t finished exploring this. There are more jokes to be told, there’s more character development, there’s… Oh. It’s now been another 18 months. I’m on book 12 and I’m literally no closer to the conclusion I’ve envisioned than I was 18 months ago.” But, yeah, right around book 10, I think it was book 3… The first book’s called The Tub of Happiness. The second book, The Teraport Wars. Teraport wars is the one where we start seeing the grand Galactic whatever. Then, book 3 was Under New Management. Book 4, the Blackness Between was where I introduced dark matter as something that could have complex structures and life with desires that conflict with ours. Goals that bring us into conflict. Spoiler alert everyone. That’s the piece right there which I think aired in 05, 06… That was the piece that ultimately needed to be resolved by book 20.
[Mary Robinette] Since you said the word spoiler, I do just want to let new listeners know that when we do these deep dives, that we go full spoiler. So we encourage you to read the material that has been linked to in the liner notes. Because later you’re going to get all the spoilers.
[Howard] The good news is even if we spoil the big ending for you, there are so many beautiful moments… Yeah, I’m blowing my own horn here a little bit…
[Howard] But as I read in preparation for this, I wrote this. Obviously, I know how it goes. I loved rereading it. I just had so much fun with the characters and with their individual plot resolutions. That was something that I learned fairly early on, which is, yeah, you can have a save the universe plot. But if we don’t have characters that we love who have their own desires and their own plot arcs and their own disasters and their own recoveries from those disasters, the end of the universe doesn’t really feel like it matters.
[Erin] You’ve mentioned a couple of elements, like the characters and all these things that go into it. How did you sort of decide in day-to-day when to devote time to the larger arc, when to devote time to an individual character moment or a great line? How did you balance that out over the course of one day going into the next?
[Howard] That. Feels. Like. The. That feels like the bumblebee and the laws of aerodynamics question. Because, very often I would stare at what was happening on the page and I would say I feel like I planned this. I feel like I did all of this on purpose. But I don’t know how I’m doing it. Sandra is standing there next to me and saying, “Yeah. It’s the bumblebee and the law of aerodynamics.” Law of aerodynamics does not explain how a bumblebee flies. Bumblebee’s job, keep flapping. So she would, right there, she said, “That’s fine, honey. Keep flapping.”
[Howard] Since then, I have learned, one, the laws of turbulence in gases and liquids very nicely explain how a bumblebee stays aloft. It amounts to keep flapping. Two, I have become much more conversant with the sorts of tools I was unconsciously using. One of those tools was a prioritization of what is important… What is most important to have happen. For me, the most important, the guiding principle of Schlock Mercenary is there has to be a punchline. People have to be getting a reward for reading the strip today. So I would often begin with do I have a structure that is going to have a punchline at the end? There’s a question that often gets asked, how do you know whose point of view to follow? The answer is I follow the character who is in the most pain. Because that’s often going to be the most interesting. For me, it was, yeah, the character who’s in the most pain is the most likely to be the one where there’s going to be a good joke. But that’s also… I’d rephrase the question. Who’s going to be able to tell the best joke? We should pause for a thing of the week, and we’ll come back in a moment.
[DongWon] Our thing of the week this week, when we talk about very long-running series that have come to a conclusion, is a series of books by James S. A. Corey that is collectively known as The Expanse. Several of the books were adapted into a TV show as well. But the entire book series runs nine volumes, and wrapped up a couple years ago. It covers an enormous amount of territory, both in terms of story, character, and world. It starts very focused in our solar system, it’s a big space opera. Then it continues to expand and grow in these leaps and starts that are endlessly fascinating and have endless complications with the characters. It jumps around in time as well as in space. I personally think that those two authors who cowrote the series stick the landing beautifully. It is worth going through the journey for all nine volumes that does a beautiful job of managing to balance the big ideas, the politics, and the individual character journeys. I adore these books. I’m very biased. I got the opportunity to work on the first couple of them. But watching where they ran with the thing from there all the way to the finish line was a thing of beauty, and I highly recommend everybody check out The Expanse books.
[Howard] I would like to return to the question Erin asked.
[DongWon] I have a thought on that actually.
[Howard] Oh. Go ahead.
[DongWon] If you don’t mind me jumping in. It’s more of a compliment than a thought, actually. One of the things that I thought that you do beautifully in this is really balancing three different toolkits you’re using. I could see how you do that in a daily way. Right? I was reading these as a big block, not as a daily strip, but you have… The three tools I’m seeing in your kit here is, one, you have the world building, which gives you all this like big ideas stuff. Right? Whether that’s dark matter being sent in, whether that’s a civilization structured around this idea, whether it’s like these digital heavens spaces that people get teleported into. You have all these high concepts that are sort of driving the metanarrative that’s thematic. Then you have deep character work and relationship work that is driving the minute to minute plot of the story that keeps things flowing in such interesting ways and interesting dynamics and people are making choices rooted in who they are. But then you have the third tool in your kit, and this is what a lot of people don’t have, which is, as you were talking about, the need for the punchline. So, on a daily basis, you have a structure of we need to get to that joke. So you’re able to rely on the motivation of the joke, the guiding rails that you’re on because of the character work you’ve done, and then the overall target, which is these huge intellectual world building structures. I think those three things operating in sync, almost in tension with each other a little bit, just… I can see it like laser targeting you towards that finale that you’re getting towards. It was really fun to watch that unfold.
[Howard] Thank you. That’s… It took me a long time to figure out that was kind of how I was doing it. One of the things I found out… And this is returning to Erin’s question of how did you select which pieces you were working on. I realized that the way I had been creating individual strips and individual story arcs was not going to work for creating the ending. I needed to outline my way all the way to the very end with some big structures so that I could start aiming things. Otherwise I was going to ramble. I mean, the ramble was fun. We’ll talk a little bit about in a future episode about that. But…
[DongWon] When did you realize you needed to do those outlines?
[Howard] Putting a year on it, that would have been 2015, 2016. I knew that I needed it and I wanted each of the last books to be about a year of comics. So it was…
[DongWon] So you’re like two or three volumes before…
[Howard] Late 2017 is when I’d… When I was committed… When I actually started the last of the three books. That was… The way I structured it was I wanted to treat the ending as a trilogy. I want the first book of the trilogy to set up the final conflict and to bring all of the characters and put them in good… Get all the pieces on the chessboard and end us in a way… End that book in a way that feels triumphant but also propagates a disaster into the next book. That structure served me really well. If I’d tried to do it in five books, if I’d tried to do it in one book, I don’t think I could have pulled it off.
[Erin] I feel like I hear people a lot coming to this realization, who are writing longer works, where they’re like, “I started out, and I was just doing a thing. Then, outlines came upon me, and it turned out I needed them.” I’m curious, how did that change… Did it change your process at all? Did it make it easier? Was there anything that was more difficult once you realized that you had to do that for the ending?
[Howard] For my own part, and I begin with that phrase because I don’t want to force discovery writers into the same path that I was in. For my own fart…
[That’s it for… Garbled]
[Mary Robinette] I mean, you were talking about the gaseous nature…
[Howard] For my own part, I felt very… It felt very precarious to me. I was very worried that by outlining these things, I was going to break a portion of my process and wasn’t going to be able to follow through. Fortunately, I was, at the time, hanging out with some really strong writers of outline and fiction in short form and longform and whatever else. I count their friendship and their examples and their instruction is critical pieces of getting me passed the fear of the precarious and into the understanding of Howard, you’ve got the toolbox. You’ve figured out that it’s turbulence that makes the bumblebee fly. Now flap that direction, and it’s going to work.
[DongWon] How much did you stick to the outline?
[Howard] The bigger part… The biggest part of the outline, I stuck to it. Five nines as accuracy. I know this book will feature this cast, this book will feature that cast, last book will have people split up and they come back together. So, at that level, yeah, very, very accurately. At a lower level, there was a place in the second book where I realized I had diverged wildly from what I’d originally imagined, but I really loved where it was going. So I sat down and re-outlined things and was pleased by with what… Where that went.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I’ve definitely done that too. I’m partway through a book and I’m like, “Oh. I’m going to do a different thing than I’d outlined.” One of the things that I was struck by was the difference between the way it reads when you’re reading it as a single strip versus the way you’re reading it on… When you’re reading it in graphic novel format. I wond… I’ve heard you talk a little bit about this in the past, about the way you think about it. I was wondering if you could unpack that for us now, the way you’re thinking about…
[Howard] Sure. It’s… The way I think about it is it was a horrible, horrible compromise. I worry still about people who read it in the longform. That’s because the pacing of reading one strip a week… The pacing of panel panel panel punchline panel is very, very… It’s like a drumbeat. When you read the whole thing as a graphic novel, it’s the cognitive equivalent of just a constant pounding that I’ll admit was not necessarily pleasant for me. But the pacing here is weird. I keep pausing for punchlines. Why am I doing that? Oh, because that’s how this was constructed. That’s just what it is.
[Mary Robinette] So what’s interesting for me is I have a different experience. So when I read it… When I’m clicking through and read it strip, strip, strip, I get the beat, beat, punchline, beat, beat, punchline. But when I’m reading it as a full-page, as a graphic novel, the size of the jokes vary, and the other thing that happens is that I start to have… I start to carry context with me across the things. One of the things, like, that is so difficult about humor is that so much of it is contextually based. When you’re writing something where you need to land a punchline, you’ve only got the context for those two or three previous panels. But when you’re doing it longform, a lot of the… You’re able to have a lot of the jokes that are landing for me bigger, because I’m carrying context through the whole thing, than when I’m doing it in an individual beat. For me, that was an instructive thing when I’m going back to my own stuff, which is in a completely different form that I can… To think about the way context is carrying across and having the jokes that are… Where the context only needs to be like one line before, but then also the ones where there’s like a page off, that you’ve been setting up for pages and pages.
[Howard] Yeah. That was always difficult for me because, I knew, on any given day, the way the Schlock Mercenary website was built is when you arrive at the website, the most current strip is there. So I always wanted the most current strip to give you enough context that when you got to the last panel, there was a reward. Maybe you didn’t need the whole joke, but you needed some of it. But if you went back and read more, then obviously there would be more.
[DongWon] Well, that’s what I really love about using humor in this way, in the rhythm of that humor being at the end of every strip. Then you have the longer Sunday strips or whatever it is. But that rhythm… Because humor is fundamentally… Or not maybe fundamentally, but often about changing the context of information you have. Right? You’re given information, the punchline is the abrupt recontextualization of the information you have to see it from another angle. Which, when you’re trying to get your readers to absorb an enormous amount of complex worldbuilding it’s such a useful tool. So the end of every four or five panels, I was getting not just the information that was given to me in a complex way, but then you would have an opportunity to tell me, “Here’s the important thing you need to take away from this.” It was like gathering the executive summary at the end of every strip in the form of a punchline, which really helped me absorb all the stuff that I was looking at. Because it’s quite dense. Right? But it’s… 20 volumes of complex military science fiction worldbuilding means there’s a lot of information that you need to be having in your brain as context for why is this character making this choice, why is this civilization invading X, Y, Z. So the humor and that rhythm of the daily joke, I think, was an enormously beneficial tool for you in being able to deliver that in a way that if you had just done a straight graphic novel may have been incredibly dense, like Alan Moore style, like what am I looking at at this point? So I think that structure actually was… Ended up being a really beautiful tool in your kit
[Howard] Well, thank you. I… I’m admittedly self-conscious about it. The very first Schlock Mercenary book, Tub of Happiness, the only reason it got printed was that Sandra said, “Honey, people want to give us money for it. We can just put it in print.” I’m like, “I can’t even look at those strips and lay them out. They’re so awful. I want to redraw them.” She said, “Then don’t look at them. I will lay out the book and we will sell it. Because I would like to eat.” So there is a huge measure in my heart, there’s this huge measure of it is what it is. Compromises were made. Which of the words between Schlock and Mercenary says that I won’t sell out my art in order to feed my family?
[DongWon] Howard, if you didn’t grow between volume 1 and volume 20, I think I’d be more concerned than you looking back at volume 1 and being concerned.
[Howard] Yeah. But, yeah, I love the perspectives that y’all are bringing to how you’re reading it. One of the things that we’re going to cover in a later episode is writing endings and how, from about book 10, I was laying the groundwork for what I knew was going to be the resolution to the conflict. I kept that piece. But I ended up being wrong about what the real satisfying piece of the resolution was. That, to me, feels like a great place to end the episode.
[Mary Robinette] Maybe we should actually do homework before we end.
[Howard] You know what? Let’s do some homework about ending things. You may have seen on YouTube there’s a little series called How It Should Have Ended. Where they take a movie and then they give you an ending that actually makes more sense. The one that leaps to mind immediately is using the eagles to fly the ring to Mordor. Take a thing that you love. Something that you’ve really enjoyed. Try to write a new ending for it. Something maybe that makes more sense to you, or that maybe it fits your head canon better, or you would just be happier with. But outline a new ending for somebody else’s thing that you love.
[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.
[Mary Robinette] Do you have a book or short story that you need help with? We are now offering an interactive tier on Patreon called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and the hosts of Writing Excuses to ask questions.