No Mercy: de Campi & McNeil Deliver Teens & Trauma [Interview]

IMAGE COMICS: You're close to wrapping up the second arc, with just a couple more issues to go. What keeps you excited about this series? Have you taken more of a liking to certain characters or subplots than expected?

ALEX de CAMPI: The series is a total high-wire act, without a net. What keeps us excited is balancing all the plot threads and keeping the sense of tension as tight as we do. For example, there are about three separate mic drops in issue 8, things that we've set up all the way from the beginning but are now throwing out there like, "by the way..."

We're an unusual series as well, in that we are a true ensemble book without an obvious hero. I like all the characters (heck, I created them) but what's been a lot of fun is slowly revealing who they really are, below the way they were all trying to front in a situation full of new acquaintances. The structure of the book has worked far, far better than we ever could imagine—I basically nicked the concept from manga like Death Note and Attack on Titan, which are essentially stories about how everyone around you and the world you are in are not how you assumed when you begin the book.

IC: NO MERCY uses the lettering as an overt storytelling tool more than most comics, where the lettering is present, but neutral or invisible. How early in the creative process did you two decide to use lettering this way? What was that conversation like?

AdC: Our process just kinda happened. I letter my own books, because at first I couldn't afford to pay a letterer (to be honest, I still can't), but then it became something I fell in love with. I can do a final dialogue pass on the art, and integrate SFX so it's not just squatting on top like an unwelcome visitor. Then when we started creating NO MERCY, I learned that Carla is one of the few artists who roughs in dialogue in her pencils so she knows where to leave room. (Artists! DO THIS.) And her hand-roughed dialogue is amazing—she also tweaks and improves my scripts. Thus, the main reason the lettering in NO MERCY evolved the way it did was simply me trying to reproduce Carla's beautiful hand-lettering in the pencils.

I never look at my scripts again once I start lettering. I only look at Carla's pencils. And sure, sometimes I tweak the dialogue still further (a work of art is never finished, only abandoned) but 99% of the time, I go with Carla's edits of my dialogue. And then the crazy SFX...I'm often tired and think up something crazy/stupid and do a test version and send it to Carla and Jenn with a note going "too far?" For example, in #8 there are screengrabs of a Youtube video, and I threw an ad box at the bottom of one of them for my friend Adam's band...because it just amused me. Carla and Jenn are always like, "DO IT!!!!" Sometimes I feel they probably shouldn't encourage me the way they do.

I truly think that lettering and SFX are the great unsung glue that sticks great comics together and make them better. There is so much you can do with panel flow and guiding the reader's eye, and making them stop over a panel they might instead skip over, with clever lettering. And using balloon shapes and word size/shape to express emotion...even dumb things like how close the balloon is to the character's head can say subtle things about their power or lack of power in a situation.

IC: I thought I had a good grasp on how far the violence was going to go in this series, and then bam, an eye was plucked out. Weirdly, NO MERCY never quite becomes a full-on feel-bad comic. Do you two ever have to pull back and tone it down to keep the tone on-target, or do your ideas end up working out on the page just like they do in your head?

AdC: Carla's original draft of the eye panel was slightly more tame. I feel like we've only gone full brutal a couple times: Lily and the coyotes, and the eye scene. But we're very careful about the emotional set-up of the violent scenes, and then how we portray the violence. The violence never feels beautiful or desirable. It's not a goal. It's like it is in real life: fast and horrible and sickening. I'm very much School of Sam Peckinpah about the use of overt physical violence...I do feel that some of our actual most violent scenes are the emotionally violent ones, where it's just two people talking. There are some great examples of this in issue #9, which is probably our most hardcore issue yet, a stand-alone flashback issue.

But as for balance...I wing it, to be perfectly honest. I think if you're ever around people who are often faced with violent or terrible situations (EMTs, soldiers, etc), they often have a really inappropriate gallows humour because it's either that or go mad. We're fully aware of the absurdity of the human situation, and how most reactions are hilarious or wrong, and how sometimes the only thing you can do when stuff is terrible is tell dad jokes all night. So, y'know, in issue #8 a character in a really dangerous situation starts joking about how bad he has to take a crap. Which is...real. The human spirit is incredibly resilient, and most people will make the best of a bad situation. It's why we never end up like, I dunno, Kazuo Umezu's Drifting Classroom, which is just like, "Oh, do you not have enough sad? HERE IS MORE SAD." It's just not cool to be 24/7 gritty. Shit's hard enough IRL.

IC: Alex, what was the impetus behind including your personal memoirs at the back of the issues? What does it add to the story for you?

AdC: We had extra space, and initially I didn't want house ads. Later on, I realised things like letter columns, while fun, were a source of great stress to me, so we gave in and embraced the house ad. But I had most of the little memoir essays already written up so I kept sticking them in. People seemed to like them, though I worried I'd be judged because a lot of them are like "HI! LOOK AT MY PRIVILEGE". I'm not sure what they add to the overall story, other than an indication of where I'm coming from as a writer, and some of the things I've experienced in many years of being stupid outside the US. Issues #8 and #9 don't have memoirs in the back, because we made TOO MUCH COMIC, and it's 28 pages of story.

IC: Jenn, I see subtle things like a pink dress reflecting on marble, sunburnt characters, and more overt choices like the tail lights on a car forming their own arc as it speeds past. How do you approach the palette of NO MERCY? What kind of marks do you want to hit?

JENN MANLEY LEE: I began creating the base palette of NO MERCY by initially looking at the flora of Central America with the super vibrant flowers and subdued greens and browns. I then expanded that by looking at the textiles of the region, which also gave me inspiration in some of the color combinations. This allows the palette to remain vibrant and flexible and, while not one percent realistic, feel grounded and natural in context.

I take my color, accent, and lighting cues from the script—naturally—but also from how Alex and Carla talk about a particular scene or character, both individually and en masse. Then I endeavor to chose what colors, textures, and effects best suggest the quality of the space, the time of day, and focus of the scene. And, just as important, the emotional and physical condition of the characters as well as their personalities as best I can.

IC: Social media is an obvious influence on the storytelling here, from the usage of emoji to inclusion of services like Twitter and Skype. What's your general approach to social media in NO MERCY?

AdC: It sounds basic but we just try to be real. I'm on social media a LOT. I'm only trying to reflect how I live in the story, because I assume that teenagers are at least as much on social media as me. And, comics is a visual medium. I'm frankly amazed that other creators haven't embraced that as much as they could. Text message balloons and emoji and twitter feeds and insta pics, they work SO WELL in a visual storytelling context. It's not even that hard (she says, conveniently forgetting how long the twitter feed page of #7 took and how laying it out made me cryyyyyy). But when you hear from intelligent, rational adults that they sneakily tried to press "notifications" on the fake twitter feed I made? My work here is DONE. I love making people think a bit more about how they relate to things like social media, by how they do or do not embrace its use in our book. I think we do it in a very seamless way, that's not jarring or flashy or trying to be clever...possibly because we are people who genuinely embrace social media.

Also there really should be an Instagram filter called "Argento". Get on it, Instagram.

IC: Carla, you've covered a lot of ground in this series, from quietly emotional moments to extremely harsh action. What scene or moment has been your favorite to depict thus far? What scene has pushed you the most as an artist?

CARLA SPEED MCNEIL: Favorite Stuff You've Seen, it's probably Tiffani screaming her head off at the car that flies past her without stopping. Everything in the world has happened to her in the past day, including a death-defying free climb up the side of an extremely high cliff, and now she's up on top of the cliff, on the road, where everything first departed from the way things are supposed to go. So now everything should be returned to normal, right? At least, as normal as they ever will be again? Civilization? People are nice? People will stop and help, and Tiff will soon be whizzing down the road and able to forget the horrors of the past day? Fuck, no. Not only does the first car to come down that very scary road-runner-and-coyote highway not stop, but it roars by close enough to scare her last frayed nerve into snapping, and all the terrors of the night crystallize into fury, and Tiff unloads it all in a rich stew of invective that really is quite a lot bigger than her. That's one of the bits of dialogue—well, monologue—that I embroidered quite a bit. I got into it, poor kid... She's more out of breath after delivering that than she was climbing the cliff.

In Stuff You Haven't Seen, it's Speed Line Charlene To The Rescue in issue #9. Perfect explosion of fear and anger and courage and compassion and it all goes so horribly, crushingly wrong.

NO MERCY is available in collected editions and ongoing single issues. NO MERCY #8 is available now.