We’ve been massive fans of Image Comics’ Mercenary Sea since its very first issue all the way back in February (check out our TMS review archive for further proof), so you can bet we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with co- creators Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds to talk about the creation of the series, their influences, and what to expect from The Mercenary Sea in the future.
Here’s how the conversation went;
Big Comic Page: Take us through the story of the Mercenary Sea’s inception – what brought the team together?
Kel Symons: I’d seen some of Mathew’s art on io9 – these Indiana Jones pieces he did in black and white. They were so stark and beautiful, I had to track the guy down. At that time, I was close to the release of my first comic for Image – I LOVE TROUBLE – and already thinking I wanted to do something else. Mathew and I got to talking about our mutual love for great adventure stories like RAIDERS and THE MERCENARY SEA was born out of those first conversations.
Mathew Reynolds: I had been kicking around an idea or two about a group of WW1 vets that build an armored boat and go looking for an uncharted island full of riches. That story, however was a brutal survival story. Really relentless. Not very friendly. Mens adventure magazine stuff. In some ways, very simple. Kel had some ideas in a similar direction, about a “family” of mercs on a sub. Much more human and warm, still dangerous, but maybe a bit more mature. More accessible to modern readers. In no time he came back with this whole concept. I loved it. I was hooked.
BCP: What would you say are the primary influences on the book? It’s been said before that it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Firefly (which pleases me no end, by the by), but there’s certainly more to it than that, particularly when it comes to Mat’s art!
KEL: From a story standpoint, certainly those both resonate – in fact, that was my initial pitch to Image: RAIDERS meets FIREFLY. But there’s some KING KONG in there – the tales of Koji Ra are certainly inspired by Skull Island. The films of Howard Hawks were also very inspirational – tales of tough, desperate types on some far-flung frontier trying to survive: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS top that list – any conflict and dialogue are certainly echoes that Hawksian vibe. Another big inspiration for Jack is obviously Han Solo (as Mal begat Jack, Han begat Mal). There were three novels I loved growing up: HAN SOLO’S REVENGE, HAN SOLO AT STAR’S END, and HAN SOLO AND THE LOST LEGACY – this was before the massive expanded universe was really created, and pretty much all you had between STAR WARS and EMPIRE.
MR: I read those Solo novels too. They are still my favorite Solo tales. I can see Ford and hear him in my head when I read them. There is really less Jones in the book than you might think. Much more Solo. Kel’s choice to put this guy on a sub with a family of outcasts was just too fun. Harper is obsessed with the visions of a wondrous world out of time. He needs to see it with his own eyes. I think a better comparison would be what if Han Solo was Carl Denham looking for this thing in the middle of a brutal war. There is some KELLY’S HEROES thrown in there too. The art style was really me struggling with the world of color. Issue 7 looks more like what I had intended but simply was not capable of doing in the beginning. JONNY QUEST and the FILMATION adventure cartoons of the 70’s and early 80’s play into the look.
BCP: Following on from that, what would you guys say are your favourite comic books?
KEL: I tend to read mostly non-superhero stuff, but I am a fan of Batman, Swamp Thing and Runaways (also Joss’s turn on X-Men). My favorite stuff of all time is probably Y: The Last Man, The Walking Dead, Astro City, Umbrella Academy, Fear Agent, Blacksad and I devour each volume of Darwyn Cooke’s Parker. Recent faves have been Saga and Afterlife with Archie.
MR: BLAZING COMBAT, G.I. COMBAT, SGT.ROCK, CONAN, ZORRO, G.I. JOE. I loved the X-MEN as a kid. Cooke’s work floors me. The PARKER books and his work with classic costumed heroes. I’m really into anything that takes place in a wild location. We live in cities and modern rooms…I want to be transported to someplace else. Go someplace unfamiliar.
BCP: You guys have a certain disregard for your character’s safety when it comes to the battle sequences – are you always a fan of the heroic bloodshed, or is this something that you consciously gravitated towards specifically for TMS?
MR: For me, it’s desperate survival. Sometimes you can run, sometimes you have to fight. Harper can’t stay out of trouble. He’d throw himself into roaring traffic to save someone that was trapped…he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. Most of us feel that way. Harper is not bloodthirsty, but if you bring bloodshed to him, he’ll spill blood with you.
KEL: Yeah, I had a firm directive that this wasn’t to be just a “shoot ’em up.” To me that’s right up there with the scantily clad buxom heroines of superhero comics. No thank you. I find I sometimes have to go back and figure out an action sequence in an issue, because I’ve been focused on the story and character elements too much. But these guys live in a violent world; one that’s about to get even more so. Hard to avoid that sort of action and conflict.
BCP: One of the great joys of your book is the dialogue – do you guys pre-write the dialogue and panel structuring, or is it more a case of Pat slotting it in stuff that’s written once the art’s in place? (Or to ask it properly: full script, or ‘Marvel style?’)
KEL: It’s full script – I come from the Hollywood school of writing, so pretty much everything that’s on the page is in the script. Story is worked out well in advance. I don’t know any other way. Dialogue can change from the first draft I give to Mathew, to final lettering script for Pat, as I usually come up with better dialogue by the time the art’s delivered. Or something Mathew’s created inspires new dialogue. There’s been a recent exception to the scripts, in that Mathew wanted to craft his own action sequences, so each book now I set aside pages that I would normally script in order to let his imagination run wild. For instance, I’ll set the stage: “Jack has to escape the city in a stolen car” (something which figures into issue #7), and Mathew ran with it. I think it turned out to be some of his best, most stylish work to date.
Mathew creates panels with an eye towards how the conversation will play out. But often I’ll write a 5 panel page, but he’ll deliver 7 or 8 panels, so placement and structure changes from the original vision. Pat does a great job of keeping up, and his work really is exceptional. It was his idea to forgo traditional dialogue balloons for the more European look. As a fan of books like THE KILLER and BLACKSAD, I said go for it. Works out well, since it seems our biggest fan base is in the UK. Pat also been very helpful delivering the perfect sound effects… sometimes I know exactly what I want and can write it. Other times, I’m scratching my head and wondering how the hell a tank’s tracks would sound, or desperate for a new machine gun noise or how a plane might sound making a turn, and Pat’s there to save me.
BCP: Mat – speaking of your art, it seems to completely forgo traditional line-work in favour of a more layered approach – though I could be utterly wrong there! Care to give us insight into your process?
MR: I sit with my eyes closed for a long time until I can see something that looks interesting, cinematic. I dream about drawing this book. I can say that waking up and NOT having the panels that I just dreamed about…is a bummer. Sometimes I can recapture what I dream…sometimes what I dream is not that good so I know what NOT to do. I used to pick up a magazine dedicated to black and white photography. That always inspired me. I can assure you that I’m standing on the shoulders of other artists. I did make a conscious effort to have an original look though. There are other folks out there that do similar work. It’s just not all over the place yet. As you know I dedicate a lot of time to expressions and body language. My real interests lie in composition. Bringing something unique to the page. Many of the shots are from human eye level or even from the eye level of a child. I don’t do a lot of wacky camera angles. YET.
BCP: Historical accuracy – and twining your story in and out of actual history – is another one of our favourite aspects; were you guys experts on the relevant history before you started on this, or was there a lot of research done?
KEL: Ha! No, not really. I know a little WWII history. Used to love reading combat tales – particularly involving the air war – back in middle school. Stories of Spitfires and Mustangs and the Flying Tigers. But I am mostly stringing together real world events from what I come up with on the internet. I sure hope it’s all accurate, or at least mostly accurate. But the truth is I didn’t want history to get in the way of story. We’re not writing an instruction manual for operating a U-Boat here, or an essay on the Japanese-Sino conflict. As a great man once said: “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.”
MR: I have studied a bit on WW2 and Vietnam combat in the pacific. Frankly…if we brought you stuff that was hyper accurate…you’d be horrified. Stories of men “crawling a cracked and broken floor” so to speak. Desperately trying to hold onto their humanity. Innocence scattered to the winds. That’s not what Kel wanted here. He was right. This stuff is all much more lighthearted. Well…I say that…you will see some brutal stuff in the pages of THE MERCENARY SEA. It’s an adventure tale though, not a sobering look into the dark abyss.
BCP: So we’ve read the preview of Issue #7 (advance review to follow!), and are well aware of what’s happening next – but for those who aren’t, are there any tantalising hints you want to drop regarding how the story’s going to progress? Particularly in regard to the much referenced legend of Koji Ra?
KEL: Sure. The plan is the whole series is ultimately about Jack’s search for Koji Ra. We’ll pay that off in the end. Issue 7 and 8 play out significant clues Jack will uncover which will be the first breadcrumbs to finding it. Meanwhile, there will be different, contained story arcs each year that will all feed into that myth-arc. We’ve got about 3 more years worth of stories planned out, for a total of 35 issues, figuring 8-10 issues per year.
BCP: Linking that last part in with the question before it – how much of the legend is based on reality? There’s a part of me that wants to go following it in the Pacific!
KEL: Oh, it’s complete fantasy. Don’t go getting yourself lost in the south seas looking for it – we’d feel pretty guilty. Like I said, it’s cribbed from Skull Island and lots of other fantasy tales we enjoyed growing up, like the Land that Time Forgot, Shangri-La and The Mysterious Island.
MR: Kel is just saying that to throw you off course. He and I have a planned trip…the search for KA-JARI, the island this whole thing is based on. Pat is already out there looking for a key piece that will lead us to untold riches…with any luck…he’s already found it.
BCP: Care to name-drop each of your personal favourite characters in TMS, and why?
KEL: A real Sophie’s choice here… Can’t say I have a “favorite.” All the characters are a part of me, in a sense. I mean, I think that’s what writing is, isn’t it? I can say I like writing the banter between Jack and Wulf, or Jack and Evelyn, a lot. I also like Jarreau’s sarcasm and Doc’s dry wit. That stuff is just fun to write, and basically me chewing the scenery, I guess.
MR: That’s tough. I love them all. Kev is a favorite of mine. He’s like a silent CONAN of the pacific…with a machine gun.
BCP: Future projects! Kel: what can you tell us about Reyn, that’s coming out in January, I believe? Mat: have you got anything lined up outside of TMS? Surely you must be getting mobbed by other writers keen to work with you at this stage?
KEL: Yeah, REYN will be out on January 21st. It’s another on-going series for Image I’m doing with artist Nathan Stockman, out of Ireland (Nate came in and batted clean-up on my first Image series, I LOVE TROUBLE). We’re working with colorist Paul Little, who did I LOVE TROUBLE, too. And letterer Pat Brosseau, who obviously does THE MERCENARY SEA. It’s a swords-and-sorcery story, owing to my love of Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like the Conan stories and The Hobbit. But it’s got a bit of a western slant to it, as Reyn is a freelance swordsman, sort of like the Man with No Name from the Dollars trilogy. In fact, when Nate and I started talking about it, I said it should be like: “What if Frank Frazetta painted spaghetti westerns?” So we took that ball and ran with it. But it will have a couple change-ups to the fantasy genre I think will be fun. Hope so, anyway.
MR: I have been approached by a few folks but my heart is with THE MERCENARY SEA. Spend this much time with this group and finally start producing work that looks like what I see in my head. I’m just getting started.
BCP: Final question – any recommendations or shout-outs that you guys are reading at the moment that we should be reading too?
KEL: Aside from the aforementioned Parker graphic novels, pretty much anything Rick Remender’s working on I’ve been digging. Oh, and there’s a new sci-fi series Image has out now by Jay Faerber, COPPERHEAD, that’s very cool. A sci-fi western… and I think you know I’m already pre-programmed to enjoy that type of story, so definitely check it out.
MR: I have to go with the PARKER books. If you want some kick ass old combat comics, check out BLAZING COMBAT. It’s some of the best comic work ever done.
BCP: Thanks so much for your time, guys.
The Mercenary Sea #7 hits comic stores everywhere on Nov. 5th, but keep your eyes peeled for a special advance review right here on BigComicPage.com in the very near future.
In the meantime, make sure you like the Mercenary Sea Facebook Page, and if you’re looking to give your eyes a treat, check out Mathew Reynolds’ DeviantArt Page. Also, if you’re curious about Kel’s upcoming fantasy adventure series Reyn, make sure you’re liking the Reyn – Warden of Fate Facebook Page for all the latest news, art and other awesome stuff.
The Writer of this piece was: Ross Sweeney
Ross tweets from @Rostopher24