Ah, that magical time between high school and college – when life seems like it’s about to start, just as things have changed forever. A time for spending with your friends, discovering new things…and running for your lives in a foreign country, with death around every corner.
In Image Comics’ No Mercy, things go real wrong real fast for a group of graduates who find themselves trapped far from civilization, in a crashed bus and no idea what to do. And that’s before things get really bad. The darkly comic thriller comes from the creative team of Alex de Campi (Grindhouse, Valentine), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder) and Jenn Manley Lee (Dicebox).
Newsarama caught up with de Campi and McNeil to talk about the new series which debuts April 1, what readers can expect (or won’t see coming) and how they’d fare if they were trapped in the jungle.
Newsarama: No Mercy. What's it about, and to whom is mercy not being shown?
Carla Speed McNeil: It's about a bunch of American teenagers who have never had to worry about any level of the Maslow Pyramid lower than the middle. The bottom level of that pyramid is base physical needs, and out there on the web is a version of that pyramid in which a further and presumably even more vital base need is listed: Wi-Fi.
It's that feckless attitude more than any individual that is getting the mighty bitchslap.
Alex de Campi: It's about tragedy, and how fast it happens -- how your life can totally change forever, in the space of five seconds. And about the long shadow of that, and the United States' favorite leisure activity: assigning blame. The event metastasizes into something else entirely as the book rolls onwards.
Now, some people reading this will be nodding their heads yes -- they've watched someone die, they've been in a bad accident... and others, well, those that aren't nodding? You're the lucky ones. And it's about the perceived indestructibleness of middle-class youth. You're 18! And you're invincible. But you probably should have learned Spanish in school.
Nrama: How did this book come about?
McNeil: Alex and I met at Baltimore Comic-Con, and she said "You do great teenagers. Wanna do a book?" To which I brayed approval.
de Campi: I'd been toying with this idea for a long time. I'd done a lot of travelling in my misspent youth, and lived for a long time outside the U.S. – in Hong Kong for five years, in the Philippines, Latin America, in the U.K. There was a lot of me in this book. I avoided any tragic events like those that happen to these kids, but more by luck than skill.
But there were little things that had stayed with me... the cone of silence you live in, when you don't speak the language. The attitudes of myself, and some of my friends -- the truly horrible things we did and said.
But, you know, this book is an anomaly right now in comics: there is no fantasy element. There is a heapin' helping of melodrama, but... all of this could actually happen. There are very few books on the shelves like that.
So I nursed the idea in silence for a while... and looked around at who could draw great teens, and a book where sometimes despite the big action scenes, the most dramatic thing that happens is a phone rings, or somebody tells a lie. I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams that Carla would have the interest and the time, but the fates were smiling upon me.
Nrama: What were some of the biggest influences on the book? Sam Peckinpah is mentioned in the solicitation copy.
McNeil: Unforgiven, for me. That black sense of humor is there-- even down to The Gathering Storm. The pathetic fallacy is building its thunderheads, and the weather reflects what will be William Munny's grim reversion to The Terminator, gunslinger-fashion... but while he and his friends are traveling with their embodying storm, it just mean they're getting wet and catching colds.
de Campi: There's a lot of Naoki Urasawa in this. I adore Monster, which is in some ways an exercise in serial portraiture. There is a common thread, and characters that take you through the story, but you continue to meet new ones.
It's an ensemble book, and again, there are few of those on the stands. That was something that concerned us, to be honest -- the way people's favorites are likely to change throughout the series. Even the kids you love, you won't agree with everything they do. Sometimes their choices will make you really mad. Sometimes they will disappoint you.
And of course Peckinpah... that man could direct violence. He doesn't shy away from how messy it is, and how awkward. There is a trend today to make violence into a ballet, and Sam -- he wouldn't have any of that nonsense.
Edward Albee is also a constant touchstone for me: the absurdity of everyday life; the way long-brewing frustrations explode at the most unexpected times. Terence Malick's Badlands is another story I always refer back to, especially the end.
Nrama: Tell us about the main characters we'll encounter. I've a feeling we shouldn't get too attached.
McNeil: There's Lily, whose "tea" hair-- almost black but with lighter streaks-- is loads of fun to draw. She narrates and sets the scene; it's always fun to have a snarker in charge. Her best friend is Tiffani, who always looks like a deer in the headlights trying to take one last selfie.
There are the Wonder Twins, Charlene and Chad, who are, frankly, more dangerous to each other than most things they'll encounter. Alice and Murray, who are In Charge and have all the passports. Sister Ines, local lady who does have a pretty good handle on just how much trouble this group is in, and is pretty good with a scalpel.
Oh, and the bus! I got to make a reference to one of my favorite comic strips, Gordo, by Gus Arriola, in the name of the bus. I love the bus.
de Campi: There's one character who I had penciled in to die, but her character design was so good I kept her alive because I didn't want to see that go to waste. Now she's driven some of the most dramatic moments of the story.
There was another character I'd also slated to die but Carla accidentally left him alive and penciled in some dialogue for him in No Mercy #2, something that really needed to be said at that point. And we kept him too, and he's become incredibly important.
Those two gave me one of my favorite scenes in the book, in No Mercy #4. This book's a funny one -- it's at once incredibly tightly plotted (as any ensemble book must be), and at the same time very off the cuff.
Saying that, I think Tiffani and Lily are going to be everyone's early favorites. The revealing of the characters and their personalities and pasts is very much a slow burn -- there is one guy we aren't really going to get to know until #9 or #10. And there are big reveals about pasts in #8, which I just finished writing.
Nrama: What's your collaborative process on the book like?
McNeil: Fantastic. We all know each other, and so we can take an integrated approach. Alex writes and panics, I pencil and complain, then Alex can tinker with dialogue suggestions I make, since I include rough lettering in my pencils. I ink and hyperventilate.
Jenn Manley Lee makes everything prettier and more detailed and talks me off the roof a couple times; one or the other of us does that with Alex while she's fretting over cover graphics. We back and forth a lot at each level, but we can turn a book around in a very short time at this point.
de Campi: This is Carla and my third project, and my and Jenn's second together, after Carla did a chapter in Smoke/Ashes and we all collaborated on a My Little Pony issue. While I miss having an editor to keep our ducks in a row, we work very well as a team. We all have each other's back.
Nrama: And what's it been like working with Image?
McNeil: Faboo! Everything's been whatchacall very user-friendly. And every time I see another rack of current Image books, I think "Oooh, damn, I better redo the latest cover." Some really stylish stuff happening on Image covers these days.
de Campi: So easy. It really spoils you for other publishers. I know I'm going to make some creators cry when I say this, but it's wonderful just to be able to email our publisher Eric Stephenson and say, "I have a thing, it's about this, and it's this many issues and with this artist. Any interest?" and he's like "Sure!"
Nrama: So there’s been a lot of talk about the lack of female creators doing books from larger publishers, and the depiction of female characters in comics, and here is a book about female characters where the whole creative team is women. Obviously, this shouldn't be regarded as some sort of novelty, but I am curious as to some of your feelings about what it's like for female creators in the industry and pitching books with female-centric characters.
McNeil: Hell, my favorite survivalist writer is Laura Ingalls Wilder. That woman was funny-- she knew she was writing for children, so she toned down or eliminated from her fictionalization a lot of the tawdry, sleazy stuff she and her family encountered.
But she left in things that were just as shocking, like the time she awoke to her father shoveling snow off of the bed she and her sister were sleeping in. "Don't get up yet, you'll get wet. I killed an antelope with a human face for breakfast!"
My point is, I've always read books about women doing all kinds of things that don't involve wearing thongs, so it never occurred to me not to write and/or draw stories about such women. Increasingly, there is room in comics for individual voices, and I'm confident this will be a trend that strengthens itself and our medium in general.
de Campi: I was doing books at TokyoPOP with an all female team (including editor) in 2005... we're still talking about this? Because this industry is all full up with women, even if only a very few have been accepted into the calcified – I mean hallowed – halls of the Big Two.
Really, comics are for everyone, and are made by everyone and if you can't see that please look outside your comfort zone because you are missing out on some amazing books and it's your loss.
Nrama: You're trapped in Central America, far from civilization. How do you fare? Answer honestly.
McNeil: Poorly. I don't speak Spanish, I have a terrible sense of direction, and I haven't been camping since I was four. Basically, one migraine, and I'd be down for the count anyway. I can walk forever, but only gross luck would have me stumble across a town before I had a heat-stroke.
With my luck, it'd be one of those cocaine-farm towns that are so reassuringly prosperous-looking, but the local cartel would put me in a hole just to keep me from Tweeting about how nice it is.
de Campi: Pretty good. I speak enough Spanish to get by, and have no fear of mangling grammar and tense to get my point across. I'm older than I think I am, which is a downside, but I'm incredibly bull-headed and fairly fit, which is an upside.
You never know, though. I had 6'4" Honduran-American linebacker friends robbed at gunpoint by the drivers of vocho taxies in Mexico City. And if there was someone you would think could navigate Latin America safely, it would be a 6'4" Honduran dude who can throw a punch.
Nrama: On that note: Share the goriest details of any pre-college/during college/in general roadtrip and how messy things got. Our readers are more mature than you'd think!
McNeil: Frankly, I've never done a road trip I didn't love. I can remember a couple of Star Trek conventions I attended in college with people I'd have gladly dumped in the nearest river, but that only underscores how happy I am to travel now—now that all my friends have their fecal matter conglomerated.
de Campi: I'm actually running my gory tales of travel misadventures as essays in the back of the book. So, um, buy the book! Find out how I snuck across the Russian border. And if you have gory tales of college misadventures and/or non-US travel, please send them to me on email@example.com and I will put them in our lettercol!
Nrama: Give us the hard sell on this.
McNeil: "Read No Mercy or forever wallow in a slough of First World Problems?"
de Campi: Tired of books that take an entire trade to get to the point? Want a nice big cliffhanger or OMG moment at the end of every issue? Like watching teenagers die? Buy No Mercy. It's only $2.99, mother***er.
Nrama: Other that this, what's coming up for you two?
McNeil: Apart from many more issues of No Mercy, my own book Finder will begin serializing in the October issue of Dark Horse Presents, in glorious blazing color courtesy of No Mercy's Jenn Manley Lee. For 2015's Free Comic Book Day, I drew an eight-page Avatar: The Last Airbender comic written by Gene Luen Yang, which was a dream job.
Also dream-job is a ten-page Wonder Woman story for Sensation Comics, which I'll be working on today... Also, I have stories in Kickstarter Baron Spike Trotman's science fiction book New World and Kel McDonald's folktale anthology Cautionary Folktales and Fables: Asia Edition. Busy busy busy! Anybody who wants to keep up with me, check out my website carlaspeedmcneil.com, or check out my work-blog at patreon.com/carlaspeedmcneil.
de Campi: Archie vs Predator comes out on April 15, if you want to watch me kill more teenagers. Seriously, reserve that now because it's gonna sell out. The preorders are stounding.
#3 of my Grindhouse book's second season comes out of March 25 and it may have our best Francesco Francavilla cover yet -- it's part one of "Blood Lagoon," the return of fan-favorite female cop Garcia to stop more nasty peril affecting a small southern town.
My supernatural horror series Semiautomagic (with Jerry Ordway and Marissa Louise) is serializing in Dark Horse Presents... and you can always pick up Valentine, my digital comic with Christine Larsen, on Comixology! We have 15 fat chapters out, at a mere 99 cents each.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
McNeil: A lot of viewers broke the Internet over The Walking Dead over a perfectly normal kiss between two guys. Because survival fiction is manly and heteronormative, I guess. I'm proud to say issues from all points of the Kinsey scale will be present in No Mercy.
de Campi: Yup. This is a normal group of kids -- not "mainstream fiction normal" where they're all white and straight and able except for the one token sassy PoC friend who is also straight and able -- but real life normal.
Would they be friends after they got to college? Realistically, probably not. Could they have muddled through two weeks building a school together? Sure. Can they remain civil to each other in times of extreme stress? Nope.