Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil show ‘No Mercy’ at Image Comics

Jan. 08, 2015 | 12:00 p.m.
nomercycover Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil show No Mercy at Image Comics

"No Mercy" No. 1, written by Alex de Campi and drawn by Carla Speed McNeil, with color art by Jenn Manley Lee, will be released in the spring. (Image Comics)

nomercy1p1process Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil show No Mercy at Image Comics

A look at Carla Speed McNeil's pencil process for Page 1 of "No Mercy" No. 1. (Image Comics)

nomercy1p4process Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil show No Mercy at Image Comics

A look at Carla Speed McNeil's pencil process for Page 4 of "No Mercy" No. 1. (Image Comics)

A group of incoming Princeton freshmen heading to Central America to build schools may mean well, but they’ll find “No Mercy” abroad in Alex de Campi and Carla Speed McNeil’s new series at Image Comics.

The privileged, carefree teens are confronted with tragedy in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming land that separates them from their creature comforts. There will be blood. And emoji.

Writer De Campi (“Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight,” “Smoke/Ashes”) and Eisner- and Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning artist McNeil (“Finder”), with color artist Jenn Manley Lee (“Dicebox”), are creating eight issues (before a break and then more issues) with as many twists and turns as a narrow mountain road. “No Mercy” No. 1 is scheduled for an April release.

Hero Complex readers get an early look at the debut issue’s first six pages — and a look at two of McNeil’s penciled pages — in the gallery above or via the links below.

“No Mercy” No. 1: Cover | Page 1 | Pages 2 and 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6

Before the announcement at Thursday’s Image Expo in San Francisco that the Berkeley-based independent publisher would be their project’s home, De Campi and McNeil discussed what to expect in “No Mercy” and detailed their collaboration in an email interview with Hero Complex.

Hero Complex: What was the appeal of taking these high-achieving, privileged American kids and putting them in this particular scenario?

Alex de Campi: I spent a lot of my life overseas (Hong Kong, London, the Philippines, Latin America) and people from the U.S. have a sense of invulnerability when abroad. Like there is this magical, invisible force field of American-ness that will keep anything bad from happening to them. That gets doubled with these characters, because of course they’re teenagers. A lot of the book’s pacing and inspiration also comes from my fascination with a certain manga storytelling style, probably best seen in books like “Death Note” and “Attack on Titan.” What interests me about these books is how the reader and the characters are presented with a world which we somewhat take for granted as having certain obvious rules, and then all those rules are revealed to be mere assumptions. And many of our assumptions about the characters are also revealed to be inaccurate. The book starts with such momentum, we learn very little about the core cast … more (and contradictory) information is revealed over time, as the story progresses.

I used to joke this book was like “Lost” starring teenagers and directed by Sam Peckinpah, but that’s very misleading because 1) I’ve only ever watched one episode of “Lost” and 2) unlike “Lost” (and “AoT” and “Death Note”), it’s not going to get supernatural at any point. (Nothing against supernatural; I love me a good supernatural tale and am currently writing two — “Semiautomagic” in “Dark Horse Presents” with Jerry Ordway; and “Valentine” on Thrillbent & Comixology with Christine Larsen. But sometimes it’s also fun NOT to have any of that to rely on… to make it very Edward Albee / Paddy Chayefsky and just have it about the personalities in the room.) Also, 3) every time you describe a comic as “it’s X meets Y,” a fairy dies.

"No Mercy" No. 1, Page 1. (Image Comics)

“No Mercy” No. 1, Page 1. (Image Comics)

Carla Speed McNeil:  Oh, we’re all bad-tempered enough to wish we could take a whole line of customers standing in line at the Whole Foods, bitching into their Bluetooths about how long the line is / how stupid the other customers are / how slow the checkout clerk is and drop them into a life-or-death situation just as an antidote to their first-world problems. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t waste so much time on Twitter talking about it.

HC: Anything you can tell readers at this point about what sort of personalities they might encounter in “No Mercy”?

ADC: Their worst enemies are themselves. This is no “Battle Royale” or “Lord of the Flies,” but the kids bring a lot of their own problems with them. In a normal atmosphere, they may have been able to manage those issues, but when under an extreme level of stress? Not so much. The pace is relentless, and the cliffhangers keep coming. That’s one of the aspects I’m proudest of, is the scenes and the way they turn. Nothing is straightforward. Nearly every scene twists and turns in ways which hopefully are unexpected, yet ultimately quite natural. The book is also much more of an ensemble cast, in the way “The Walking Dead” is. The kids all have a lot of dimensions to them … they’re all complex individuals. I think everyone will find someone different to root for, although there are a few characters everyone will love to hate. And nobody is safe. Ever.

HC: Are there any pitfalls – e.g. genre clash and/or culture clash – in writing and drawing this kind of story that you’re trying to avoid?

CSM: Oh, probably. I’m very poorly traveled. It’s easier to put myself into the position of the overprivileged kids than of the people who live in this country. While the backgrounds of the kids are real; they’re all entering Princeton as freshmen in the fall, they’re all American. Whereas the country in which this is set is fictional but presented as equally real. All the characters get to act like people; all of them get to be horrible and beautiful and flawed and powerful in their various ways and times.

ADC: The main issue is not to trivialize the very complex mix of cultures and socio-political issues that is Central America. The kids are traveling in a made-up Central American country, but I’m trying to give it as much depth and reality as possible. It may not seem such at first, but this book is a “layers of an onion” book, and as it continues you peel down layer on layer to understand both the kids and the place they are in. I’m also writing a very diverse array of teens from a wide variety of geographic, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds in the U.S., and I know I’m not going to be 100% on point all the time with them but there are some moments and interactions I’m very pleased with.

Carla and I find books full of straight white people very dull indeed (in fact there is nothing more tedious in my mind that a comic book that is just white dudes doing stuff). So our cast of kids and the characters they meet tend to reflect our group of friends and people we admire… Also, frankly, the comic-buying audience — in fact the entertainment audience in general — is a lot more diverse than most publishers and producers give credit for, and you know what? We want everybody’s dollar.

"No Mercy" No. 1, Pages 2-3. (Image Comics)

“No Mercy” No. 1, Pages 2-3. (Image Comics)

HC: These are contemporary, wired teens, and there are emoji. Are you creating any new emoji?

ADC: There are so many emoji already! I actually want to include emoji shockface in this to express my shock at the thought that there need to be more emoji. (There are already plans IRL for pink, brown and black emoji, which is pretty cool.)

The teens end up unwired very quickly after the disaster happens, and that’s another source of major stress for them. When you’re used to grabbing your phone for everything, and then your phone is broken or out of battery or lost … how is that? How does it change the way you act? How does it affect your choices?

CSM: There’s  a ho’lotta emoji. I have no idea if any of the ones I’m drawing are new. I am trying to keep an eye on manga storytelling techniques, especially the ones I don’t use much.

HC: Alex, can you recall when you were struck by the way Carla depicts teenagers, and what stood out?

ADC: Carla’s design process is second to none. She really thinks through the characters — not only what their faces look like but body shapes, clothing styles, catchphrases / ways of speaking and how they’re reflected in go-to facial expressions, body postures and gestures … the kids look like kids, and most importantly look like individuals. They’re cute and appealing, without being a bunch of idealized bimbettes and hunks.

Carla Speed McNeil’s “No Mercy” pencil process: Page 1 | Page 4

HC: Carla, your collaborator claims you draw the best teenagers. What’s your mind-set in designing a variety of teen characters? What’s key in showing them interacting with one another?

CSM: I read a study once that the schools that have the lowest rate of bullying are the ones that have things like alphabetical seating charts and teacher-assigned project partners. The kids more readily learn to put up with each other, bend, maybe even appreciate the good qualities of people that are not their friends. The cliques are still there, but they’re not the end-all, because the kids have never had it all their own way, never been able to organize things only according to their own likes or whims, never been allowed to go all KILL THE PIG. These teenagers have had things their own way … a lot.

They’re not being pushed out of their comfort zone, they’re being loaded into cannons and fired out of it. Repeatedly. Possibly at each other. Every person who has not been tested by circumstance thinks he or she knows how he or she will react. We don’t. Even people who have been trained don’t know. These kids have not been trained. At least, not for this. What the reader will see is how they surprise themselves — in their capacity for heroism and for moral collapse.

"No Mercy" No. 1, Page 4. (Image Comics)

“No Mercy” No. 1, Page 4. (Image Comics)

HC: Alex, you’ve shown a flair for startlingly violent – and funny – storytelling in “Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight,” and you’ve written about mystery-solving teens (albeit younger than this set) in “Kat & Mouse.” Anything you’ve learned from writing those projects that has informed this one?

ADC: The main thing I learned from “Grindhouse” is that boobs and gore sells really well. As a corollary to that, if something is tagged exploitation, then mainstream audiences suddenly become very excited about buying books with female leads and a fair amount of nonwhite and/or queer content. There is still a lot of startling violence in “No Mercy,” both physical and emotional, and a lot of humor … it’s not exploitation in the way “Grindhouse” was, in terms of the in-your-face sexualization of that series, but my work always has strong elements of unexpected violence / horror, and humor in it. Some of it is almost absurdist, but you have to make room for the absurd in fiction as there’s nothing so absurd as fact. Working on horror series at Dark Horse also honed my ability to have a sense of dread always permeating through a story, like, you know there’s going to be a jump-scare or something going horribly wrong at some point, you just don’t know when, or how.

And fundamentally I just love writing teens. Every project where I’ve been able to do teens, from the forthcoming “Archie vs. Predator” miniseries I’m doing (out the same month as “No Mercy”), tackling a splatterverse version of the famous Riverdale crew, and “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll” (“Grindhouse” No. 7-8, my teen summer camp slasher from last year), to “Kat & Mousefor Tokyopop all those years ago, just makes me so happy. Teen life is so dramatic, and minor choices feel like they have the entire fate of the world hanging upon them. And people very much are still discovering who they are, with added layers of posturing and poor decision-making on top of that … and teens in a disaster/survival situation? Jeez. Just … just …. so much material….

"No Mercy" No. 1, Page 5. (Image Comics)

“No Mercy” No. 1, Page 5. (Image Comics)

HC: Carla, are you finding new challenges in drawing this project? Anything you’re trying to do differently?

CSM: Trying to improve my linework so that it looks its best in color is a perpetual challenge. And I always say, “This time, on this project, I’m gonna slow down, be more careful, do more research, model more heads,” and just last month I barreled through 26 pages and a cover (and inked more than 10 pages of two other projects) in 19 days. The results were good.

ADC: The cover was the cover to Issue 5 and HOLY CATS it’s fantastic.

HC: The two of you have worked together on “Ashes” and “My Little Pony: Friends Forever.” What works about your collaboration?

ADC: One of the best things about working with Carla is the collaborativeness of the process. Fairly unusually, I letter my own books (which means I put all the word balloons and sound effects on the finished art), and ALSO unusually, Carla includes word balloons and sound effects in her pencils … and improves on them. So it’s like we’re passing the book back and forth between us and tweaking everything each time it comes through our hands. I’ve been very inspired by Carla’s hand-lettering on the pencils (and her improvements to our story) and that’s driven a lot of the more interesting lettering effects you’ll see as the tale goes on.

CSM: Every collaboration has its dips and sways. I’m an inveterate tinkerer with dialogue, and I can understand why some writers don’t permit that. Clever dialogue is the thing people repeat. But dialogue is so integral to the pacing and impact of a scene that I can’t not deal with it; I render rough dialogue on my layouts, including whatever suggestions I have as to changes in it. That way, incidentally, there’s always room for word balloons. My rough lettering is just that — rough. It’s suggestions. Since Alex does her own lettering, she can decide what to use, or whether to change it to something else entirely. I’m pretty sure she leaves out the parts where I add word balloons to attacking animals, that’s just for a laugh between us.

ADC: But I never do change it from Carla’s suggestions! They’re always really good! We’re both inveterate tweakers and second-guessers, but luckily neither of us are precious about our work, or possessive of it.

HC: Jenn Manley Lee also worked with the two of you on “Friends Forever.” Why was she right for the color art on “No Mercy”?

CSM: Jenn can do anything. I haven’t half challenged her yet.

ADC: Jenn also colors Carla’s (Eisner-winning, and L.A. Times graphic novel of the year) “Finder,” so she and Carla have a great working relationship. The relationship between line artist and color artist is very important, and if they already have a strong working camaraderie and understanding, it makes everything happen in a faster, easier and less stressful way. For me, I love the textures that Jenn brings in…

HC: Anything else you’d like readers to know at this point?

ADC:  Why am I picking on Princeton? Well, the simple answer is that I went there, as a very confused and ill-directed teen, and although the university has changed a lot since I attended (fraternities and sororities, I’m told, are now a huge thing, and there are about six major new buildings) I at least know basic layouts, patterns, and life.

Blake Hennon | Google+ | @LATHeroComplex

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