When visiting the home studio of Orem Web-comic cartoonist Howard Tayler, the first thing a guest observes is the tiny, intricately painted figures of monsters and warriors on his hobby table. After taking in his elaborate double-screen computer setup, posters, wall art and myriad comic strip art adorning his studio's walls, one gets the impression Tayler is a combination creative genius and fanboy.
"We role play a lot," he said, regarding his Dungeons & Dragons-like figures. "We're nerds."
Tayler is the author, creator and artist of "Schlock Mercenary," a free, daily four-panel space opera Web-comic (www.schlockmercenary.com). The comic includes a strong dose of his effortlessly wry humor and offers a satirical perspective on modern society.
"Schlock Mercenary," which revolves around the exploits of a diverse group of human and alien space mercenaries -- including the title character, a green blob "carbosilicate amorph" named Sergeant Schlock who favors large hand-held laser weaponry -- evolved from Tayler's childhood doodling and daydreaming.
"It's like a blend of 'Buck Rogers' strips and maybe 'Bloom County,' only not quite so blatantly political," he said.
Tayler and his wife Sandra, a published children's author and science fiction fan in her own right, have labored during the past eight years to transform the hobby into a profitable, home-based business.
The Web site currently generates anywhere from 20,000 to 45,000 visits per day, and while Tayler makes some money from online advertisements, what really makes the business work is sales from the site's store of "Schlock Mercenary" books and other merchandise. Self-publishing, which Sandra compared to "soloing Mount Everest" without Sherpas or climbing guides, has allowed them to print the books relatively inexpensively and then turn around and sell them at a handsome profit.
"Books are 80 percent of our gross," she said.
Sandra acts as her husband's business manager, tackling editing, proofreading and shipping merchandise to fans. They attend comic book and science fiction conventions around the country and get a nearly steady stream of fan e-mails. At one science fiction convention, a passerby picked up a flier about Tayler's cartoon at his booth, "put it back down, and bought $80 worth of books," he said.
Two fans have even fabricated their own costumes based on characters in "Schlock Mercenary," including one who appeared in his alter "Schlock Mercenary"-ego on ABC-TV's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
The two parents split their daily schedules up between running the business and caring for their four children ages 5 to 13.
But the couple says it was a long and painful road to bring Tayler's intellectual property to where it is today. In 2004, Tayler and his family, after much prayer and consideration, took a literal leap of faith, quit his six-figure project manager job with Novell to pursue penciling, inking and publishing his Web-comic full time.
"It was Sept. 22," Sandra said. "It was 'Talk Like A Pirate Day.' "
Tayler said the jump to complete, safety net-free self-employment was "terrifying." He would hole up in his office working grueling 80- to 100-hour weeks with little to no time for his family.
"The price of going full time was four years of my life," Tayler said.
But the highly motivated, self-taught cartoonist continued to refine his craft and his site's free content business model (all of "Schlock Mercenary" can be viewed for free on his Web site) and fans began to take notice. Slowly the family's sacrifices began to reap results and generate the income they needed to pay the bills, and reduce Tayler's weekly hours to more palatable 40 to 50 hours.
Now enjoying a certain amount of business success and also making time for himself and his family, Tayler said he's realized where his true priorities lie. While he has a passion for sci-fi and his "Schlock Mercenary" business, it's only "if it doesn't get in the way of [family]. If it does, it's not worth it."
"That's what saved me," he said.
"We make sure Daddy gets to go to all the school plays," she said.
But that doesn't mean Tayler can't be found at his artist haunt away from home -- the Dragon's Keep comic book store in Provo -- where the sci-fi/fantasy milieu really gets his creative juices flowing.
And when he's having a bad day, he reminds himself of the tough times he's conquered with his determination, a pencil, a pen and a PC.
"I walk down the street and think 'I'm e-famous,' " Tayler says half-jokingly.