Alex de Campi and Carla Speed McNeil Show ‘No Mercy’ in New Image Series [Interview]
Writer Alex de Campi and artist Carla Speed McNeil have teamed up to create the Image book No Mercy, about a group of teenagers from the U.S. who go to Central America on a school trip and things go horribly, horribly wrong.
The story is brutal and unforgiving, but also at times touching and funny. With lots of psychological terror, a diverse cast, and a pair of great creators at the wheel, the book sounds right up our alley, so we spoke with de Campi and McNeil to find out what readers can expect from No Mercy.
CA: What’s the basic plot of No Mercy?
Alex de Campi: Buncha kids heading to Princeton in the fall for college sign up for a university-sponsored service trip to build schools in Central America. A bad thing happens, and most of them die. Things get worse from there.
Carla Speed McNeil: A long time ago I saw an inside-cover recap "last issue" thing that was entirely sound effects and screams. It told the gist of the story pretty well! We could do that.
ADC: Don't encourage me. Also, have I mentioned my idea for the all-emoji issue?
CA: What can you tell us about the cast when the story starts?
ADC: They're a pretty random and disparate group --- from all over the US, from all sorts of racial, cultural and economic backgrounds. A cross-section of normal American kids. They haven't had much opportunity to talk to each other, or get to know each other, on the way over.
None of them are any obvious stereotypes... It's not like, "here's the nerd, here's the jock...". Some of them have quite obvious interests or characteristics that seem to define them, but they're all complex human beings with a fairly wide range of likes and dislikes.
I think my favourite character is probably issue #1's narrator, Lily --- a snarky, tea-haired Korean-American girl from Anaheim. Her best friend Tiffani is fun, too... she's an anime-obsessed girl who is always texting, loves emoji and who, as Carla puts it, is feckless but not helpless. Murray, the rather right-on trip leader, is a blast to write. Poor Murray tries so hard. They're all fun. The book does a really good job of introducing them and the whole point is you learn context as you go.
ComicsAlliance: How did you two end up collaborating together?
ADC: I facebooked Carla on a whim after Igor Kordey had an unexpected schedule conflict and backed out of doing a chapter of Ashes --- the sequel to his and my IDW book Smoke. We had fun! Carla drew crocodiles and pencilled in ridiculous speech bubbles like, "Welcome to MacDonalds Can I Take Your Order?" when she sent me the pencils. I was like, "Wow, she is great."
Then we hung out a little at Baltimore Comicon one year, and while Carla is super nice and approachable I was still a little intimidated because it's like she and Colleen Doran did a ton of hard work breaking down barriers that now other women creators waltz through without even noticing they once were there... and I was like, mumble mumble, I have this teen series you draw amazing teenagers do you have an assistant or something you could suggest to draw this book mumble ulp. And Carla was like, "That sounds great! I'll draw it!"
I smiled at her, calmly said, "That would be fabulous," walked into the ladies room, shut the stall door and basically let out the biggest silent "squee!" anyone has ever let out. Unconfirmed reports of dancing also exist.
In the meantime, while we were prepping and pitching No Mercy, we did an issue of My Little Pony -- Friends Forever #1, where Jenn Manley Lee, our colorist and third horsewoman of the apocalypse, came on board. So, No Mercy is actually Carla and my third project together, and my second with Jenn.
CSM: I can find no evidence of this performance on YouTube. Reports remain unconfirmed.
CA: What was the inspiration behind No Mercy, in terms of the story?
ADC: I've spent a lot of time living outside the US --- five years in Hong Kong, a turbulent year in Manila, almost a year in Latin America, a decade in London. A lot of my writing recently has been about what happens to people when they are outside the warm and prickly embrace of their home culture.
Hong Kong is an easy place to start out as an expat, because in the 90s it was a very collegiate, party atmosphere of white people who only talked to other white people and were somewhat benignly looked down upon by the --- by and large --- much smarter and more hardworking Hong Kong Chinese. Manila was incredibly friendly and welcoming. In both places, as a white person whose grasp of the local language was minimal, you were fairly safe. Everyone knew the Chinese had the real money, not the gwailos.
But when I went to Latin America? Very different. You were a target. And hell, it wasn't even necessarily the whiteness --- [a] friend of mine who was a 6'4" ex college football player from Honduras, of medium skin tone, got held up by a tiny dude in a vocho taxi in Mexico City. Got taken round to ATMS to withdraw the limit until his card stopped working. I'm intimately aware of how the experience of a young USAian abroad teeter-totters between existing in an invisible force field of privilege, and just how terribly it can go wrong.
I think one of the things I love about No Mercy is how much it could really happen. The Iguala mass kidnapping/massacre in Mexico. Mexico! Where hordes of USAian spring breakers still encrust the beaches of Cancún yearly --- sorry, Mexico. The nun murders in Honduras. Bus drivers in Thailand high on speed so they can drive more hours and make more money, taking backpackers to Chiang Mai so they can go gawp at hill tribes and ride an elephant. Train attendants in Poland who assume because you're a single foreign female travelling by yourself you must be "up for it." The world is a dangerous place.
US teenagers are over-dramatic and consider themselves invulnerable. Let's see what happens when those teenagers meet that world.
CA: And what's the inspiration in terms of art?
CSM: I was gonna dig out my Westerns, but the Altiplano really looks not much like Hollywood back lots. It seemed important to draw inspiration from tourists' photo sets, so I've been digging through whatever's on-line... though the way Breaking Bad always managed to make the vastness of New Mexico look claustrophobic is something I bear in mind.
Oh, also, the bus. Not the appearance of the bus, but the name of the bus, that's drawn from Gus Arriola's wonderful strip comic Gordo. On the latter end of Gordo's run, the title character drove a tour bus. The bus was kind of a Toonerville Trolley kind of thing, its wheels rarely touched the ground, and it was named "Halley's Comet." Brrm-brrm.
The kids, well, they're pure Internet Image Search, perpetually forever. Sister Ines is played by Audrey Hepburn.
CA: What can readers expect from the book?
ADC: Cliffhangers. Almost unbearable tension. Surprises. Revelations. A coke-addled coyote getting drop-kicked. Liars. Lovers. Loss. It's a series that works really well in single issues, because it's so full of suspense.
And I think it's important that people know I consider this a horror book. A lot of this book is about sheer f---ing terror. There are no supernatural elements. It doesn't go all Lord of the Flies (because Lord of the Flies already exists and it's quite good; why redo it?). But it just gets darker and tenser and messier with every issue.
CA: You’ve finished the first five issues of the book - how long is the full story?
ADC: I've finished writing up through #8, actually --- though you are correct, up through #5 is already in the can, complete and lettered. The series is probably going to be about 24 issues --- sales permitting. Three 8-issue runs. I am personally terrified of making a comic every month --- a whole new comic! Every 30 days! Insane! --- and so we work really far in advance and then I need to die for a couple months every so often.
I letter the book too, and I am the world's slowest letterer (tm) because I do a lot of hand-lettering effects... so that makes the whole production process much more onerous for me. And we can't afford an editor or a designer, so there's that. I think one of the most interesting things for me is people naturally assume the survival part of the story is the most dramatic. It's not. The real drama starts when everyone gets home. (Or, when some of them do.)
It's been really fun to write the metastasization of the tragedy, from just focusing on the kids to widening it to the media, the parents, the school... and the US' favorite leisure activity, assigning blame.
CA: The book takes multiple turns toward some pretty intense darkness. What’s the creative process like for the two of you in terms of figuring out how far to push the more shocking parts of the story?
ADC: Like I said earlier, the world is a pretty dangerous place. Shocking, dark things happen every day, often without warning or reason. When I was coming back from Image Expo after announcing No Mercy and was ten minutes away from my home, my mom had a stroke. Now I take care of her. I left my part-time job to take care of her. And all I could think was, what if it had happened a day before, while I was still in San Francisco?
While I feel sometimes comics stories get unnecessarily grim and gritty just to provoke effect and/or sales, I think you can write a realistic story that has moments of great humor, friendship, love, and levity, but also where very bad shit happens to people who don't really deserve it. Carla has been behind me 100% of the way in what we do to these poor kids... there are lines I won't cross, but I am going to push things pretty far.
CA: It seems like many of the characters have some kind of secret that they’re trying to keep from everyone else. Are any of the characters entirely reliable? What do you have planned for the characters in terms of revealing those secrets?
ADC: It's not that the kids are deliberately withholding big secrets from us or from each other. Just... college is a time of personal reinvention, and a few kids started early. Also, they are not a group of friends. They're a disparate group of kids who signed up for a service program.
None of them --- except Chad and Charlene, two siblings; and Lily and Tiffani, two best friends --- knew each other beforehand, and they haven't really talked to each other before the Terrible Event occurs. One of the kids has been conditioned that they are a lesser person, broken and inadequate, and that revealing her secret will just cause people to hate her and shame her. Another kid is fronting for love. A third, well, it's just not something that comes up in conversation.
Think about it this way. Presumably, most of us think we know our parents pretty well. But have they ever said something, told you something, that made you realize you may not know them at all? From something as stupid as finding a Black Sabbath album in their vinyl collection, to as major as finding out your mom had a miscarriage before she had you. Some s--- just doesn't come up in normal conversation. I only found out I had an aunt who sang backup for Ella Fitzgerald and died of a heroin overdose when I was like 25. Before then I had been told she was a nurse.
These kids are not going to be sitting around like, "What does your dad do? Why did you choose to go to Princeton?" And some kids are shyer about engaging strangers, and some kids are just like, "Miss me with your BS" . So the fact we get to know some of them very slowly, and there are big reveals about the kids, it actually feels quite natural to me.
CSM: Just like The Breakfast Club.
CA: The story is pretty fast-paced. How do you, as creators, keep the pace up for a story like this?
ADC: I ask myself that every month. Before I start every new issue I am convinced the muse is going to up and desert me: "Oh, this might be the boring/slow issue..." But somehow we've kept it up in the air, kept it full of twists and cliffhangers and tensions, for eight issues so far. I just sent the team my first draft of issue #8, the last issue before our break, and it has two pretty heavy duty mic drops at the end.
Having an ensemble cast helps. Starting in media res helps --- the first three issues are pretty much straight-up survival... interpersonal tensions and kids' backgrounds are things that there is just no time for while they are fighting to stay alive. The book is also simultaneously incredibly tightly plotted and totally off the cuff --- partially because I am a goddamn idiot who still doesn't understand how much story can fit into an issue of a comic. I do my rough outlines, and I'm like, "in issue 5 we'll do this, that and the other," and I get maybe 1/3 of it in the actual issue. Scenes get expanded, I write in new things that make sense in the rhythm of the moment, and I give appropriate space to moments/emotional beats.
I may not be good at much, but I am good at writing a scene that twists unexpectedly on itself two or three times. That helps. And I'm good at subtext. That helps too.
CSM: Plus there's always something that can be going on in the background. I try to bear that in mind when drawing background characters.
CA: What do you want readers to know about No Mercy?
ADC: 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. Bonus: it's only $2.99.
CSM: Plus zombies! Oh wait, no. Those are coyotes.
No Mercy #1 is on sale April 1st. Today, March 9th, marks the final cut off date for orders through comic stores.