The Story: It was just a trip, before college. Build schools in a Central American village; get to know some of the other freshmen. But after tragedy strikes, a handful of once-privileged US teens must find their way home in a cruel landscape that at best doesn’t like them, and at worst, actively wants to kill them.
The Creators: Writer Alex de Campi (Smoke/Ashes, My Little Pony, Grindhouse, Sensation Comics) and artist Carla Speed McNeil (Finder, Ashes, My Little Pony) are once again teaming up to bring a fresh and thrilling take on the adventures that force teens to grow-up, make tough choices, or suffer at the hands of fate. Comicosity’s Jessica Boyd got a chance to find out just what sort of journey the pair plans for readers with their new comic, No Mercy.
Jessica Boyd: You’re known for creating thrilling horror stories and action adventures. What lead you to applying these skills tot he world of modern, technology obsessed teenagers?
Alex de Campi: I get really bored with how caught in the past most horror is. And by how we define horror. No Mercy is definitely a horror book, but there’s nothing supernatural about it. Real life can be terrifying as heck. And the tech is a challenge. But also a way of making the story much more exciting. Because as events are happening, reaction online to those events are also happening — we slowly bring that reaction into the book, as we widen the blast zone of the tragedy, as it were. The metastazation of the tragedy online is a really exciting part of the next chunk of the story for me. Also it makes me absurdly happy to include dumb shit like annoying Facebook comment / text art and the dude who always blames Obama.
JB: When you have a story using so much technology based imagery and dialogue, as the first issue does, does that change the way you create your panel layouts?
Carla Speed McNeil: A bit– it means a more typographic approach than I would attempt ordinarily, since I am less than competent at computer lettering. Alex has been having a lot of fun with that, and it looks great.
JB: Who do you think this book is more geared toward: young adult readers or adults?
AdC: Oh, jeez… it’s not really geared towards anyone. I write for myself. I think when we try too hard to attract a particular audience that audience can smell it from a mile away. I wanted to write a book that entertained and surprised me as a reader. Does that make sense? All my books are written for me. It’s always delightful when other people then get excited about them — also somewhat unexpected. (I was thrilled by how many people “got” Grindhouse, for example). But then if people don’t like them? It’s Okay. They made me happy. And by the time they come out I’m usually so far past them in workload that it’s all sort of a distant memory anyhow. (For example, I just finished writing No Mercy #8).
JB: What did you do to wrap your mind on the modern teenager’s perspective? Did you base any of these character’s on your own personality as a teenager?
AdC: The wonderful thing about social media is it’s REALLY easy to see the perspective of a lot of teenagers, including ones you have little in common with. Sometimes that perspective is just SO much facepalm (seriously, people need to think before they tweet/facebook), but a lot of times it’s like, hey, these kids really have it together. Like, way more together than I was. So, as always, the writer’s main job is to shut up and listen… and the second job is to empathise. The really fascinating part of writing for me isn’t writing about people who are like me and are awesome, but writing about people like me who are awful and really digging down into why, and making them likeable or at least relatable. Why is the bad cop a bad cop? How can I make you like the abusive dudebro brother? And then of course the frankly scary act of writing kids who aren’t anything like me at all… but then parts of me, parts of my experiences — little shreds of feelings that stick in the corner of the mind like sand — always find my way into them.
CSM: The Internet Genie, it grants my every wish. Digging around on Twitter tells you the fashions well-heeled teens want, candid photos tell you what the subset of Princeton-bound kids like, whether it’s sneakers or makeup. The rest comes from the usual process of character creation. It starts with a schematic approach: should this character have a hard or an easy time being taken as an adult? What makes it easy, what makes it hard? How easy, how hard? It rapidly becomes an organic process.
JB: Your known for creating narratives that are interlaced with subversive… or lets face it, overt messages about gender, relationships and expectations. Solicits make a point of talking about how this is a group of privileged teens who end up lost outside their comfort zone. When writing, do you search for overt messages to interlay with your stories or does it happen organically?
AdC: The thing about listening, is if you do enough of it you see some of the messed-up ways people relate to each other on an everyday basis. Frankly, of course the white dudebro assumes the tall black kid is a football or basketball player. Of course the petite girl travelling by herself is seen as “easy”. Of course the liberal ally comes down on the side of the white girl. I don’t start off with this idea of “let’s preach!” because god, no. I’m only here to entertain you. But part of my entertaining you is an almost clinical examination of how and why people act the way they do, and some of that is ugly and uncomfortable (and some of it is really funny).
I want you to feel that little clutch of recognition in your stomach when you reach certain points in the story. If you really understand your characters, you’re going to know that certain things are really going to rub them the wrong way. Seriously, one of the realest and most hardcore moments in this book comes from a disagreement about sharing gummy bears. Would this really have been an issue if their trip hadn’t taken a tragic and extremely stressful turn? Probably not, as that character never really would have interacted with that other character. But when you shove people together and they’re exhausted and hurt and barely know each other and there’s not enough food or water and they’re terrified? Yeah. Share your gummy bears.
JB: As far as the cast is concerned, you have a diverse group as far as gender and race are concerned. What about their personalities? Did you stick to interest group and familiar clique groupings? Or are we going to see more of a variety and cross-over amongst the kids?
AdC: The kids are really a pretty broad group. They know very little about each other, and we know very little about them, when the action starts. I’m always balancing both the reader’s assumptions about them, and their assumptions about each other. People are fun! They’re very complex creatures with a lot of varied interests. So even when someone seems to be part of a readily identifiable clique, I guarantee they are deeper than that — or, if not deeper, might have some interests or sympathies that could surprise you. I hate when kids are just drawn as “the goth” or “the metalhead” or “the weeaboo”. (or, God forbid, “the gay kid”). Our interests, background, and orientation form us, but one characteristic is not all we are.
JB: Which character is your favorite?
CSM: Favorite to draw? I designed them all to be fun for me to draw, but Kira is probably best. Fun altogether? I do love Tiffani, who is a J-Pop addict. Weird candy, emoji galore, anime, iPhones. She’s so feckless, and yet not entirely without survival skills. I’m having a good time drawing obscene sign language and freeclimbing and vicious piranha-coyotes and Tiff’s Happy Place.
AdC: Oh gosh. I love them all for different reasons. My favorite character right now? Is one you won’t meet until issue 11 or 12, a mom of one of the characters who is a failed writer and married to a book technology billionaire.
JB: You’ve made a point of saying that this story will not take “supernatural” bents. How challenging are the differences between creating “real world” plot twists compared to supernatural based twists?
AdC: I love limitations. It’s really fun when you can’t make anything happen. I guess at a certain point I decided I’d mine the limits of the possible, rather than dreaming about the impossible. The next two stories I have coming up after No Mercy are also real world stories. There is so much dramatic possibility, even in just everyday middle-class life. There is nothing so strange as fact…
My heroes are people like Edward Albee, that can have you at the edge of your seat for two hours, in a story about two couples having drinks in their living room. Or Sam Peckinpah, telling the story of obsession, madness and despair in the dying months of the Second World War. I go in phases, though. Next year I might do something crazy and futuristic — Dan McDaid and I have been wanting to do a creator-owned project together for a while, and I rather fancy doing a homage to classic Japanese space anime.
CSM: The Altiplano spans four different countries, and is a geological/climatic entity on its own. I’ve drawn from all four countries and Guatemala in researching the visuals.
JB: Is there anything you like to hide away in your art for people to discover?
CSM: Some stuff people who buy the comic will never see. I have a tendency to add word balloons to animals or inanimate objects during pencilling, things that are never intended to end up in the final version of any page. An alligator bursts up out of the water: it needs a word balloon that says WELCOME TO MCDONALDS MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER. I do sometimes post things like that on Tumblr or my Patreon blog.
JB: How is working with and writing for a familiar artist, like Carla Speed McNeil, different than writing for a new partner?
AdC: You know how closely they’re going to follow the script. You know how many panels are a few too many for them. You know how likely they are to hit deadline. You feel more comfortable IM’ing them at weird hours with possibly inadvisable ideas about characters and plotting. Carla and Jenn very much have the same sense of humor (twisted) and outlook as me, so I know my characters are in good hands, even as we do awful things to them.
JB: How has your creative relationship with Alex evolved over the course of different projects?
CSM: It’s been great right from the beginning, really. Alex and I are both compelled to tinker with dialogue. The fact that Alex letters her own books gives us the freedom to have a great back-and-forth. I include rough lettering at the pencil stage, and I can suggest changes to improve pacing or impact there. Alex can go from there, either incorporating my suggestions, reverting to her original dialogue, or going on her own inspiration. This part of the collaboration has made me immensely happy.
JB: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Comicosity readers about No Mercy?
AdC: Talk to your comic store about No Mercy — let them know you want it and are excited about it. Seriously, if you like gripping stories that leave you gasping or guessing at the end of every issue (rather than every trade), and you like watching teenagers suffer, get this book in your life.
No Mercy is available from Image Comics. The final order cutoff for issue one is Monday, March 8, 2015. You can order the first issue with Diamond Code: FEB150483 and issue 2 with Diamond Code: MAR150581.