NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Monday, May 14, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Schlock Mercenary [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Back in August I started the first of my Monday Funny posts.  One of the first online comics that I linked to was the "Schlock Mercenary" which I cited as having one of the funniest mad scientist characters in Web comics.  Well, right now Howard Tayler is opening preorders for Volume 8 "The Sharp End of the Stick" - from the collected adventures of Tagon's Toughs and the irrepressible Sgt. Schlock.

Schlock Mercenary is science fiction, it takes place several hundreds if not thousands of years in the future, and tells the story of some tough guys just trying to make a living keeping the peace, and breaking it just a little. What makes the web comic about science is the well-developed "history" of the technology used in the future.  From matter annihilation (the next big step past matter-antimatter) to medical nanotechnology, Howard Tayler has created a well-thought-out world for his stories.  Make no mistake, these are indeed stories told in a graphical format.  I came to the web comic rather late, and bought one of the bundles of the early collected comics.  I then sat down read everything that I had in print in front of me, and then went to the website and picked up where I left off.  I should say right now that with seven volumes in print, there's quite a bit to read, and yet the printed volumes still make up only slightly more than half of the total number of strips that have been published.  As I read through the stories I realized the excellent storyteller skills of Howard Tayler. There is a grand sweep and the real direction to the stories that may not always be evident from day to day, but as you look over these strips, you can see that the author has always known where he's going and takes the reader along for wonderful ride.

Last August at Dragon*Con, I had the opportunity to meet Howard  Tayler.  First off, anyone that can wear those awesome boots must himself be pretty awesome - as in Marvel Superhero awesome.  In fact, we probably need to add a new Avenger in his honor.  After watching him do a masterful job at moderating a webcomic artists panel, it was my honor sit at dinner with Howard, his "neighbors" Larry Correia and Dan Wells, and several other writing friends and fans.  I must tell you that I have never had a funnier dinner, than listening to this trio pick and tease with each other. The dinner conversation ranged from Boy Scouts and model rockets to automotive engine fires and "meat sweats."  Yet along the way I got a glimpse at the wonderfully warped and funny, creative minds behind their stories.

I bring this up now, because in honor of the release of Volume 8, Howard and the Schlock Mercenary team have announced a contest.  The contest is for readers to tweet, share, or blog about Schlock Mercenary, and the availability of Volumes 1 through 8 of the collected strips.  I provided several links throughout this article, that you can use to discover this quirky, fun comic on your own.  In a way, this is a shameless plug on my part, because I do hope to win the contest.  Howard has promised numbered, sketched versions of Volume 8 to the winners of this contest.

But surely there must be another reason for bringing this up at this time.  After all, what does this webcomic have to do with brain science?

Actually, quite a bit.  From the start, in the world of Schlock Mercenary we've seen medical technology that rebuilds the injured (sometimes from just their heads), computers bonded to human nervous systems,  medical nanites run amok (here, here, and here).  Even though he did it all without my help - it's awesome, and one good reason why I recommend this webcomic to my friends.

As if I needed another reason, over the next several blogs, I plan to take a somewhat serious, somewhat lighthearted look at the subject of zombies.  As a scientist and a science fiction writer, I wondered, what type of scientific explanation could account for zombies.  Many scientific explanations have been used by writers in the past, starting with the real-life "Voodoo Zombie" produced by drugs that remove volition and higher thought levels from still living humans.  The standard explanation used in many movies is magic, but if a scientific explanation is put forward, it's usually some form of virus that can reanimate dead tissue.  As a physiologist and pharmacologist, I've had some experience with studies involving stem cells.  My own theory, captured in a short story, is that stem cells may be able to restore the ability to function as if alive, without requiring blood flow and oxygen delivery (and hence a heartbeat and breathing).  Again, this is a science fiction explanation, and we can do a little bit of handwaving to make it all work out.  A similar explanation would be a small nanomachine that can deliver nutrients to cells in the event of compromise to the blood system.  These "healing machines" could,  for all intents and purposes, produce a zombie in the process of attempting to heal damage that has already killed the patient. In fact, this is precisely the situation that occurred just a few weeks ago in the current online comic for Schlock Mercenary.

The idea of medical nanomachines that can take a "snapshot" of a human or other subject, and restore it after medical damage, seems to keep recurring, as I found out much to my chagrin last year.  I had just finished advising one of my author friends who needed a way for one of her characters to begin having memories that belongs to someone else.  I had no sooner worked out the details with her for the story, when the comic strip Sluggy Freelance had a similar storyline.  I spoke with Sluggy artist Pete Abrams about it, and found out that he too was chagrined when he had written his comic strips, and found a similar storyline in use in the Doctor Who television show.

So there are many things to like about Schlock Mercenary.  The strips comprise a well told story, and make no mistake: taken together, it is a story every bit as complex as a text-only novel.  The strip includes very well thought out and researched science.  The concepts used in Schlock Mercenary.  Our current, and cutting-edge with respect to science, but also with respect so the to some subtle satire and commentary.   Of course, it has been referred to by some as "that Blackwater comic" but this is unfair.  The comic is not about war, and it's not really about mercenaries even though those are the main characters. The comic is about people doing what people do, making friends, making enemies, and trying to deal with both.

So check out Schlock Mercenary.  Buy some books, read some books.  Check out Howard's online store, my favorite are calendar and the magnets from the mad scientists laboratory.  Spend a little money and help keep this web comic artist producing more enjoyment for us.

After all, where else can you get your daily dose of schlock, but from Schlock?

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