The podcast Writing Excuses first crossed my path through Brandon Sanderson’s writing, and when I started listening to it, I figured I should probably read at least one or two pieces written by the other three primary members of the cast. Dan Wells’ first novel went on my reading list – where it still sits. I looked into Mary Robinette Kowal’s books, but given my background in astronautical engineering, I am very leery of reading something quite so resonant with the real space programs with which I am so familiar. That leaves Howard Taylor’s works, which consist primarily not of novels, but of web comics, specifically the Schlock Mercenary series.
Back when I first started listening to Writing Excuses, I did try reading Schlock Mercenary. Because I’m me, I started from the beginning and intended to read straight through, but I desisted after just a few months’ worth of comics. They weren’t holding my attention, and I found certain aspects of them somewhat off-putting. Yet Taylor’s remarks on the podcast are often insightful, so I did want to see his application of those techniques. When I noticed recently that he had officially finished the comic, I decided to give it another try, and this time I got through it. I got through all of it, one comic at a time, twenty years’ worth of them. It is epic scale storytelling in a short, web comic format.
All of the things that I struggled to get through the first time I made the attempt were still true, still there, but this time I decided to power through that, with the thought that it might improve. It most certainly did improve, although I still found some of the humor off-putting – it just wasn’t my kind of humor. I was mostly there for the storytelling, though, and in that respect I was not disappointed.
Having listened to Taylor’s discussions on Writing Excuses, and because of the format, I was able to clearly see and identify many of the storytelling tools that he applied, where he applied them, and why he applied them. That made these a useful lesson and example of how to write. It is much easier to identify the tools and tricks, I found, in a daily web comic than it is in a four hundred thousand word novel.
Like the time that I went back and read all of the Peanuts comics from the beginning, and watched how they evolved over time and how the character development and storytelling was done, this was for me mostly an exercise in improving my own writing. Plus, I’m always impressed by a format like this that leverages visual art, especially the way that comics are able to telegraph which text bubble the reader should read next. Certainly I do not have that kind of artistic skill set – you won’t be seeing any web comics from me. All of that being said, I did enjoy the story, and even if you’re not looking to improve your writing by reading comics, I would say these might be worth giving a try.