In "No Mercy," the Image Comics series from writer Alex de Campi and artists Carla Speed McNeil and Jenn Manley Lee, a group of privileged Princeton freshmen head to Central America expecting to build houses for charity, hang out and maybe take advantage of the lower drinking age. However, when their bus crashes over a guard rail, they are plummeted into a nightmare -- and into de Campi's delightfully twisted mind.
The series is just three issues in and already moves at a thrilling, frantic speed. Before things get too out of control, CBR News spoke with de Campi about the world she is building and destroying, the impact her own travels made on her writing and how truly awful teenagers can be (and coyotes -- they are really, really awful, too).
CBR News: Alex, what was the genesis of this idea? Was it a survival story, a story about teenagers, a story about Americans in other countries? What was the first element that clicked for you with "No Mercy?"
Alex de Campi: Many of my ideas come out of how to process personal experiences. I've travelled a lot, even as a teenager. I did an uncountable number of stupid things. By all rights, I should be dead. Now that I am old, I realize how easily I could have died. "No Mercy" is about that.
I suppose somehow it was a reaction to all the overblown bullcrap that goes on in a lot of mainstream comics. I'm fundamentally not interested in two superpowered beings fighting and one destroying, say, Mexico City or killing a bunch of henchmen. I'm more interested in the henchmen's families. How do you decide to become an evil henchman? Presumably, it pays pretty well. Y'know, most of us hate our job anyway, so you might as well be able to buy your family nice things. I'm interested in the families picking through the rubble in the destroyed city, frantic in the remains of the child's birthday party that was happening as the superbeings fought. So much is spent focusing on the instant of tragedy in comics, but not the aftermath. This is a book about the aftermath of horrific events. Also, it's a book about language and expression, and teen language fascinates me. This is a book about how we communicate now.
You and Carla do such an amazing job developing a cast of teenagers that feels very authentic. What were you like as a teen? What do you take away from your own experiences that helps inform your creative point of view?
I was an only child and I grew up in the country, so I was very poorly socialized. Smart, but so awkward. I still am pretty maladroit. I was also "invincible" in the way teenagers are. Of course, bad things happened to me but, when you are a teenager, it's like the end of the world if someone doesn't text you back, so that forms some sort of bottom limit in terms of what you think can happen to you. Likelihood of serious injury and/or death doesn't really come in to your decision-making process, as it has probably not happened to you or anyone you know. (And if it has: hugs. Teenage years are hard enough without that.) I think there's also a lot of constant reinvention you attempt as a teen, from copying a particular popular girl's lopsided smile and deliberately picking up certain slang or accents to trying on different subcultures. I reinvented myself like eight times between the ages of 14 and 22. Heck, I had a particular period of reinvention in my late 20s too that was such a mistake; it took me a long time to be comfortable in my own skin, but now I am.
I think the key to writing teenagers is that very few people are stereotypes -- and nobody is either a saint or a villain 100%. Everybody is the good guy in their own story of their life, but they make bad decisions. There's one character I adore in the book, Troy -- he's a really good egg but, at a certain point, you see him kind of ruin a friendship because he gets really pushy about something. For me, that's a really heartbreaking scene, where you're like "TROY, NO! DON'T DO IT!" but he does, because that's who he is, and you just watch the other person shrink back into themselves and close off.
You play on some really classic teen traits: a sense of immortality, a sense of invulnerability, shyness opening up to new people and a generic arrogance about life that they haven't had challenged yet. Have you had any feedback from teenagers on the series yet? Has it given them anything new to think about, especially since most things happening in "No Mercy" are fairly plausible?
We have a lot of teenage fans. I think part of it is the portrayal, of seeing the rough and smooth of teenagerdom in a book, the casual cruelty of everyday teenager encounters. Perhaps a larger part, though, is the language. There is a massive language chasm between the olds and the youngs in terms of how we express ourselves online and IRL. Though we aren't really doing anything radical in our book, we are reflecting how teens speak (via emoji, contractions, etc) generally more than most books do.
It's true! Technology is such an important part of the first issue and a defining thing for most teenagers and, as the story develops, this starts to fall away. How does the heavy presence of text, emoji, etc. define the characters and what are you communicating as it goes away?
The text and emoji are just how they communicate. In my own head, I'm not doing anything fancy here; I'm just reflecting reality and having fun with how unscripted and shallow a lot of our communication is. When it falls away, it's like taking away a security blanket. It comes back at the correct time in the book, and I use social media to deepen the tension and reflect what is happening outside the bubble of fear these kids are living in. We gradually widen the book to show how the rest of the world is reacting to the #Princeton20. It's pretty exciting and fun as hell to write.
The first three issues have been primarily focused on survival with some incredibly tense moments. What was it like plotting this out with Carla? What was important artistically in maintaining this pace?
I mostly plotted it on my own. Carla comes in with dialogue fixes and calls me on bullshit or lazy stuff. Artistically, I'd say letting it breathe is the most important; we have a fair number of splash pages in the book, which function as visual exhaust valves, like the kitten spread in #2, for example. In writing, maintaining character moments and comedy is also important. We specifically give you places to exhale. Then, immediately, we begin the fuckery again from unexpected directions.
Were any of the kids prepared for something like this to happen? Not that you can ever really anticipate coyotes...
Nope. The character everyone likes the least is the most prepared, however, even though he makes a bad decision in #2. He's the most practical and the natural leader. And the kid who at first seems the most prepared? He will surprise you. DeShawn, who is one of our slowest-burn characters in terms of how long it takes to find out anything about him, pretty much has the best natural reaction to the situation. His choices are almost always 100%, but he doesn't front for attention or want to lead, so he doesn't really try to rally everyone around him. A shame; things might have gone better if he did. Charlene is hands-down the smartest but, for a lot of reasons, she can't get out of her own way (severe anxiety, BPD).
I love the horror exploitation film/fiction feel, which is something that exists in your previous work as well. It feels like "No Mercy" has similar elements to that: no one is safe, kids get lost left and right -- what do you get out of this as a writer? What do you want readers to get out of it?
I think actually the root of this is how much I'm inspired by Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong thriller films. That's where I learned the "sudden-left-turn, nobody is safe" scripting. Oh, and my deep and abiding love for Sam Peckinpah films. Although I'm most famous for my "Grindhouse" series (which is, obviously, an exploitation book) from Dark Horse, I've always had that element of cruelty to my writing. My default is tense and surprising, and I'm not afraid to throw in sex or nakedness. "No Mercy," however, keeps it PG on the nookie front for now. Not out of any particular desire on my part, but it would be unlikely in the extreme for anybody to be making the beast with two backs in their current situation. Perhaps that's the part of my work that feels odd for readers -- comics is all about the violence, but no heavy-duty sex or erotic elements.
In addition to the scary stuff that happens, we're also starting to see some true friendships emerge. How are you pacing the way your characters relate to each other as the story continues? And are there big character reveals that you're excited about getting to?
There are so many reveals. One of the great joys of this book, and the single reason it works so well structurally, is that these kids don't know each other at all. There is so much that does not come out in conversation when you meet someone new. Some things, of course, you may push out quick to impress them; other things, you may hide for a long time, if not forever. I stole all of this structure from manga like "Attack on Titan" and "Death Note." There's a particular structure in certain recent successful Japanese manga where there is a world, and both the characters and you discover that the rules you assumed it operated under are not, y'know, the actual rules, which in fact are very different. That's what happens in "No Mercy." As noted earlier, teens going to college are so massively in states of constant reinvention that not only do the other kids not know who a kid is, that kid probably isn't very sure what they are.
Do you feel like it's easier to sell work with prevalent female characters if there's a level of that exploitation attached to a story, even if it ends up being something entirely different?
Perhaps. I certainly have been surprised and gratified by how well "Grindhouse" has sold in our theoretically conservative comics market, in spite of being unabashedly 100% female heroes and queer people of color as leads and middle-aged Latinas kicking ass, etc. I don't think it's just the boob quotient, either. People just like an interesting, fresh-feeling story. Y'know, I put Wonder Woman briefly in a hijab in my "Sensation Comics" story (she was coming back from doing flood relief near Karachi) and Tumblr goes insane and, 200,000 notes later, it's like the most tumbled Wonder Woman story ever with almost zero negative pushback.
I think a much greater part of it is I just do not care what people think. "Will it sell?" literally never enters my decision-making process when creating characters. I have had series turned down because they star people of color, which makes me think less of certain publishers, but others picked them up swiftly. Also, you know who reads more print books than anyone else? Women. And black people. Fact.
Frankly, if people are sad because my books sometimes don't star white dudes, I refer them to the other 900 comics coming out every week. I'm not sure anyone else cares, though. I've never had anyone write me and be like, "Gee, Alex, I wish you would stop it with the wimmins." Wait, not entirely true: we had one guy write in after I killed the sheriff in "Bee Vixens from Mars," furious that the Latina deputy was actually the lead character, and I wrote him back and offered to mail him an I HEART TEJAS T-shirt. He never responded.
Takeaway: the audience is always further ahead in terms of what it will accept than what mainstream publishers think. There are still a lot of barriers to traditional publishing for a lot of people, so just because you don't see it in a bookstore doesn't mean it doesn't already exist and isn't selling a ton. Then finally something makes it through (like E.L. James' erotica, which came out of the massive, massive world of fanfic) and it sells a ton and people are like "Whoa, surprise hit!" Meanwhile, all the folks who write fanfic eyeroll so hard they can see their own brains.
If you're looking for amazing books published outside the mainstream publishing industry, I'd strongly suggest Roz Kaveney's "Rituals" series of fantasy books, which contains an awesome queer love story. Roz is the most exciting and cleverest writer I know. She does things that make me eat out my own insides in envy, and she does them effortlessly. Available on Amazon, has awful, awful book covers, just deal with that. I'd also suggest Feminista Jones' "Push the Button" as an awesome and super-erotic black BDSM love story that actually gets BDSM right.
"No Mercy" #3 is on sale now. Issue #4 is scheduled for release on July 1.