Two new comics creators are heading into the high seas and high piracy of the South Seas in the new war series The Mercenary Sea. Set in the days and months leading up to the official opening salvo of World War II, The Mercenary Sea follows a group of enterprising men and women looking to carve out a life for themselves in the wild waterways off the coast of Asia.
Scheduled to launch on February 12, The Mercenary Sea is described as a swashbuckling adventure book set in the wartime landscape of Asia by writer Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds, but also say it’s more than that. Citing references as far-ranging as Jonny Quest, G.I. Combat and Bridge Over River Kwai, this new ongoing series looks to seize fans just as readily as the book’s mercenary crew seize treasure.
Newsarama: Guys, what can you tell us about The Mercenary Sea?
Kel Symons: This is a book that's steeped in adventure. Even the setting - the era - has an air of romanticism. At least for me, anyway.
More than a few folks have commented on this being a "pirate" adventure... I never saw it as such. But I get why people might make that connection. Perhaps another word, a better word, cousin to pirate, is "swashbuckler." I mean, that's what this is. It's Errol Flynn before the mast, ripe smell of gunpowder and salt on the air, and just over the horizon is... well, we won't know 'til we sail there.
Mathew Reynolds: I can tell you that our people can't stay out of trouble. They are floating around in a paradise. The animals, the environments, any sane man would just pick an island and fish for the rest of his days. Harper is driven by his need to explore, his need to know answers to some big questions. Answers that he doesn't trust anyone to give him...he must see the answers with his own eyes.
I also think that he, like so many hardened men, started out very kind and outgoing and the world just kicked the hell out of him for it. He can't help it. He keeps going back for more beatings. He is compelled to do the right thing and that often keeps him from following his dreams. He's also slick and he's surrounded himself with skilled people that trust him. People that he trusts. People that he loves. His world is a hard world. Ain't it hell on the mercenary sea.
Nrama: I love the title of this series, but what does “The Mercenary Sea” mean in respect to the story of the series itself?
Symons: Yes, I love the title too. On one hand, it clearly relates to the setting, and our freelance crew of fortune-hunters.
But to my way of thinking, it's something more than that. A sensation. In discussing with Mathew about what to call this (after we nixed the original title Venture, because Image had a book a few years ago with the same title) I told him I wanted something that was instantly "getable" but also symbolized the world our story was set in. I don't know, I'm a big believer in finding that right fit when it comes to a title - You know: Halo. Dungeons and Dragons. Tombstone. Those titles evoke more than just setting, theme or genre. They embody the feeling of a whole world - not just the realm of a story, but the spirit in which a tale is told. It was important to find that for this.
So when Mathew threw that title out, with a bunch of others, it rang a bell - a clear, audible signal that announced: "This is it." I mean, it's almost lyrical, isn't it? “The Mercenary Sea”... Seems to me it's a phrase that would be right at home in a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.
Reynolds: It means danger. Peril. It's an escape into a world of high adventure with people that can handle themselves. Kel has mentioned this before, It's a love letter to the stories we loved as kids. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, The Dirty Dozen...countless others. We really made the thing for ourselves. It's something we just HAD to see. Visually I had been working on "atmosphere" and Kel provided a foundation, a world of characters that I could place in these lush environments. I wanted it to feel like an animated film. A dangerous animated film. A film with guts. Something that would scare some "committee". "It's too tough. We're going to neuter it and pull some of its fangs out." There is no committee, so it still has all its teeth.
Nrama: This is set in tense days and months before the official start of World War 2. That’s a great period of time when it comes to storytelling possibilities, so what drew you to 1938?
Symons: It is an era of possibility. The world hasn't been entirely mapped. No satellites. No GPS. Everything is pretty much line of sight. It's a modern age that's really not that far removed from the era of "Here be monsters" living at the edge of the known world.
Reynolds: It's a tough time period. You had to have practical skills to cut it in 1938. By the time you get into the 80's, computers are handling the work, the navigation, even Zapping threats at the push of a button. In 1938, if you are exploring a river system on an island in the Pacific, it's a very real possibility that you are going to have to cut some trees, design a pulley system to pull you over a sand bar. In 2014 you are simply told "you can't go that way. They tried it in 38 and lost half of the crew."
Symons: Technology's still in its infancy; travel and communication - they're by no means instant. The simple act of discovery... finding something out... requires more than just the push of a button. And there's still some wide-eyed innocence left in the world. Places to explore. A real spirit of human adventure.
Nrama: According to the solicits this is set far from American shores and in the Asian South Seas – do you have experience or life spent in this part of the world, or does your knowledge of it come exclusively from research?
Symons: Research and imagination, mostly. I've traveled some to Europe, and to Southwest Asia - but none of the places this story will take us. Guess that means I'm on an adventure, too.
Reynolds: I'm fascinated with the war in the Pacific. It's underrepresented in comics and film. I'm also fascinated with the Vietnam War. It's truly a nightmare that I can't turn away from. Here is the thing for me, the Pacific is wild and beautiful. In most comics and films we see G.I.'s fighting in Europe. Manicured fields, barns, fences or destroyed buildings. On an island in the Pacific you get jungle and for all you know, a leopard may be watching every move you make. On top of that you could be about to step on the world’s most poisonous snake...oh and the Japanese are trying to kill you. Nothing like having a platoon of brilliant ninja just waiting for you to make a wrong move.
Nrama: The mercenaries in this are the crew of a refitted German U-Boat called Venture. What can you tell us about Jack Harper and his crew?
Symons: Jack is a man of certain principles, but no gentleman. At least not in the traditional sense. He's got some rough edges that are hard to file down. On the other hand, he also possesses a childlike sense of wonder, which fuels his drive to search for a legendary lost island.
As for the others aboard Venture, they're a group of misfits who found each other, learned to rely on one another. Not just a crew, but a family.
Reynolds: They are not unlike Larry Hama's G.I. Joes. They are not all American though. So that's fun. We have a good mixture of cultures on the boat. I love 'em all.
Nrama: It’s never easy to make a living, but 1938, the South Seas, as a mercenary – quite the danger. What’s life like for these seafarers?
Reynolds: They are survivors. You make dumb move in the states and you could be eating beans and rice for a month but, As Kel has mentioned, you take a wrong step at sea and you could pay for it with your life.
Symons: Since its life on the open sea, I think they're always one misstep away from disaster. Compounding the danger of being an adventurer is the fact they're on the run from their former employer, a Chinese Admiral who's hell bent on getting Jack and the sub back. Not to mention they are in the middle of a war. May not always be on the front lines, but they can hear the gunfire from where they are.
Nrama: So you have this Chinese Adminal, but who else are the Venture’s crew up against?
Symons: We try to dole out as much back story and character as possible - lay in the threat from their previous employer, Admiral Shi Tang. As well as the unsavory sorts you'd meet in backwater regions like this - pirates, crooks and other assorted ruffians. There'll be the dangers of jungle islands, with cannibals and headhunters, as well as intrigue of a spy drama - and that's mainly what our first arc pays out: Jack and company are forced to take a job working for American and British intelligence to help rescue an English agent trapped in Japanese-occupied China. In doing so, they'll also run up against another old adversary - the captain of a Japanese destroyer they had run-ins with when they sailed for the Chinese navy.
Nrama: Is this an ongoing series or a mini?
Symons: Ongoing, definitely. I can't promise it'll be every month - might be a gap here or there. But I've got a couple years worth of stories already planned out. I've mapped out a few adventures after our initial arc. Even started scripting issue 7. Every 4-6 issues or so will be a new story arc.
Nrama: Is 1938 the be-all end all for The Mercenary Sea or could you envision it moving forward to butting up against and into World War II itself?
Symons: I see the final story arc, the final issues, leaving us right on the doorstep of America's entry into World War II.
Nrama: Let’s talk broader; now I haven’t read the book yet, but on the surface this sounds like it fits in the military/war genre that comics does so well, but also something underrepresented in modern comics. Would I be off the mark, and if not, what would you say about telling these kinds of stories in comics?
Symons: I am a big believer in using comics to tell any kind of story. I have my favorite "superhero" comics, for sure: Batman and Swamp Thing, for instance; and non-traditional hero books like The Runaways, Umbrella Academy, The Boys and Astro City. But the majority of the comics I read are non-caped fare: Y: The Last Man, Hawaiian Dick, Darwyn Cooke's Parker adaptations, Fables.
As for combat comics, I know Mathew's got a much firmer grip on those than I do, but I really enjoyed Garth Ennis's Battlefields.
And hey, I'm a huge fan of classic war movies. The Great Escape, Bridge on the River Kwai, A Bridge Too Far, Battle of Britain, Saving Private Ryan. I'm definitely finding some inspiration in those.
Reynolds: It fits well into the Combat genre but at its core it's an adventure story. If you have a stack of Jonny Quest comics, you can add The Mercenary Sea to that pile or you could put it in the G.I. Combat pile. You are going to want to break out your G.I. Joes after you read it.