The Women of NO MERCY: Talking to Alex, Carla, and Jenn
The women of Image Comics’ NO MERCY – writer Alex de Campi, illustrator Carla Speed McNeil, and colorist Jenn Manley Lee – sat down to answer some questions about creating the series, being women in comics, and what to expect when your favorite horror series comes back to a shelf near you in December.
There’s been a lot of controversy within the comics community lately (specify). Has this shifted any feelings about working in the industry? Has this increased the difficulty of telling stories through the medium?
Carla: I don’t think so. There’s always going to be controversy.
Alex: Nah. I’d still be making comics if there wasn’t any comics industry, or if I wasn’t allowed anywhere in it. The monthly/pamphlet comic book industry has problems, and it is always a struggle to get original books out… but if you focus on being kind and doing good work (even in the face of breathtaking amounts of bullshit) you can keep on. I try to keep my exposure to comics news and comics social media limited, though. I can be on Twitter or I can write stories. The social media-ing uses up a ton of ambient energy that could be better spent chasing down monsters in the wilderness of my own imagination.
Jenn: I agree with Alex and Carla in that a) I’d be making comics no matter what and the b) there will always be controversy. There always has been controversy in all story telling arenas, along with people behaving badly and others unfairly attacked. Where that might generate new stories in response, it makes no difference in the difficulty or ease in telling them. Or, even, in audiences wanting more of them.
What drew me as a reader to No Mercy was the way that the story merged both familiar and unfamiliar themes to create something refreshing and new. What inspires you all about the genres – horror, action, drama – that you incorporate within No Mercy?
Alex: I’m a pretty bleak person and a fair amount of bad stuff has happened to me, so there’s a casual brutality in my work that perhaps isn’t there for some other writers. And a respect for the long, long shadow of consequence. (Comics has little truck with consequences, if you think about it. Actions, but no reactions. We forget our yesterdays so easily.) As I’m writing, I don’t think about the book being a hybrid of genres — there’s no balancing act, no “oh this needs more horror here” — it simply evolves naturally from me poking at the exposed nerve of “if this, then what? And then what?”
Carla: For my part, it’s style, and a visceral quality. I’ve seen plenty of John Hughes films, and plenty of Sam Peckinpah films. Give me time, I’ll work in some Del Toro!
Jenn: My color inspiration comes largely from desert flora and fauna where the bright cheerful colors signify both life and danger. I suspect that comes more from nature documentaries as much as anything though picking a specific limited palette was definitely inspired by the work of Bryan Fuller, Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers.
As the story continues to be developed, how much of yourselves do you see changing alongside the characters?
Alex: I think one thing that surprised me is how fond I’ve become of some of the most apparently shallow characters, and how I’m excited to bring out their growth and reckoning as human beings. The 17-18 years are so, so hard. Your sense of self is going through such change and flux. You don’t know who YOU are, and instead are trying on different personalities and selves like secondhand coats, while desperately navigating the vicious pecking order that any group of teens devolves into.
Carla: Well, by the time I finish the book, I will have a teenager in the house… if that isn’t to be a transformative experience, I don’t know what will.
What are some things that readers can expect in the new story arc?
Jenn: So many new lines and forms of drama in entirely different directions from each other and what’s already occurred.
Alex: One of the most enjoyable things for me about No Mercy is its slow progression outward. The first arc was the stone splashing in the water, and now we start to see the ripples radiating outwards. We’ve been only focused on the kids in immediate peril in Central America, but not we see what is going on at home in their absence. Though, of course, the kids aren’t out of peril yet. Someone is severely maimed. Someone else dies. Others, it becomes increasingly unlikely they’ll ever get home. Conversely, some are saved fairly quickly. Oh, and we meet some new kids.
Carla: Oh, a lot of things they’ve been hoping for will come to pass… just not necessarily to the people they expect them to happen to. Also there will be a fantasy cover featuring Sister Ines. Very SOUND OF MUSIC. The cover portraits are always the most fun for me.
I’m curious about the process of how No Mercy comes to life – are the art and writing done together, or is one part done before the other? Does one hold influence over the other?
Alex: I write an arc outline, and Jenn and Carla give me notes. Then I write a full issue script (once again, there’s time for feedback) — and Carla pencils it. At that point she also roughs in the dialogue (SO SO IMPORTANT, it’s a joy lettering Carla’s pages, there is always room for letters!) and tweaks/changes/improves the storytelling. I give feedback on pencils, which is almost always confined to matters of storytelling clarity. When I go back at colours to letter the book, I then letter only from Carla’s pencils — I never look back at my original script. I love lettering the book because it gives me both a last pass on dialogue, and because I can fit the letters to the page like a Savile Row suit, making sure they work in harmony with the art rather than being crapped on top.
Carla: The script gets to me, I tear it up and do whatever I want, the art gets to Jenn, and she scribbles all over it with the digital equivalent of a Sharpie, and then it goes back to Alex, who’s left to suture the whole mess back together with clever dialogue. Tadaa!
Jenn: Pretty much as Carla and Alex have described. I get all my color cues from the script and line art though there are no direct color notes for the most part. Not even for the main cast—I put it down to our general sympatico relationship as well as how strongly Alex and Carla both portray the characters that I only had to change some shirt colors and shift Tiffani’s hair color from pink to a more purple shade.
As women in comics, do you feel that your experiences shape how you both interact and create within the comics industry?
Alex: I always feel weird about this question. I’m brash and bleak and write violent thrillers, and have an androgynous name, so I think I have it easier than a lot of women. Hell, for the first six issues of Grindhouse, most of the readers thought I was a man. Because I don’t do much work for hire, I’ve also been spared a lot of trollery. But I am the Notoriously Difficult Alex de Campi, simply because twice in the past five years I’ve had to fire nonperforming artists. I always joke that if I were a guy, I’d be bold and visionary, but I’m not — so I’m notorious. Well, let them hate, so long as they fear. It has had precisely zero effect on my getting work approved. I think it’s safe to say I’m off DC and Marvel’s radar, though! (But still, I’m not sure I want to spend my limited time on this earth tacking new rooms onto the towers of others’ cities, when I have my own kingdoms to carve out of the wilderness.)
Carla: I don’t know. I’ve worked almost exclusively on creator-owned books, at which it hasn’t been an issue. I remember a guy who curled his lip at me at a book signing and asked “Are these GIRL books?” the only response is “Yes, I ovulated them earlier today.” There was no point in turning on the charm.
Jenn: I don’t think that I can escape how the experience of being a woman has shaped the way I see the world and have learned–or decided– to deal with it. And I’m sure that’s influences any comic I create or contribute to. But though my work has been examined in the light of being a woman, I really, thankfully, have not gotten any flack, pushback or attacks due to my sex or gender.
Do you think that we’re coming to a point where identity and comics won’t be so interconnected, or is identity paramount in creating and sharing our stories?
Alex: I think identity is very important, and I’d be sad if it and comics ever were divorced. Saying that, I’m strange about authorial intent — once I’ve done the book, it’s yours, and my intent isn’t worth a good goddamn. But who we are, where we come from, and what we (as big complicated bags of memories and feelings) bring to stories to make them unique? Super important. Even if we’re only listed by numbers, or write / draw anonymously. The greater the range of identities in comics creation, the more stories we have to tell, the more readers we can meaningfully connect with. Because let’s face it, a lot of readers have been surviving on thin gruel for a long time.
I’m not saying, of course, we shouldn’t write outside our identities. We absolutely should. It’s fun, and it makes you a better writer to work outside your comfort zone.
Carla: New voices and experiences in comics have never been more important, and I think more and more of those can only be good.
Jenn: I think identity, both of the storyteller and the audience will always play a part. I do think the idea of identity will get broader than it is and hopefully also more inclusive, not only in what identities are incorporated but the receptiveness of them.
For Alex specifically – I’ve seen several posts via your social media and Tumblr where you’ve addressed really important issues within the industry. How have you gained the courage to be so vocal about these issues, and what advice would you have for other people wanting to be vocal but are uncertain about doing so?
Alex: This is tough. Shining light on the dark corners of the industry, I truly believe, helps us improve. And we need a lot of lanterns, not just mine. But there are even things I’ve shied away from RT’ing, because I was concerned about alienating work colleagues. I suppose I get away with the stuff I do because I am very specific about my place in the industry. I know what I want to do. I know the cost of speaking out. But I’ve also had a past few years in my personal life where I’ve been taken apart almost down to the molecular level, and I’ve put myself back together again, stronger and fiercer. When you’ve hit bottom and been there for a while, you’re pretty clear about what can and can’t be taken away from you. What can they take away from me? Work for hire opportunities that I don’t have to begin with? So I feel relatively confident, when confronted by a mountain of bullshit, to go “look, there’s a mountain of bullshit over there.”. Then everyone else is like “omg she mentioned the bullshit, DEFCON 5”. But I also work like a fucking demon to write great, original, creator-owned stories. Do the work. Speak truth to power. Be kind. No problem goes away if we let it stay hidden.
Are there any upcoming projects or events that you would like readers to know about?
Alex: Ack! I have three minis coming out next year, and none of them have been announced yet. Er… if you like No Mercy, consider picking up my Dark Horse books (Archie vs Predator; Grindhouse; Smoke/Ashes) or checking out Valentine, my fantasy thriller comic on Comixology.
Carla: My latest Finder story, Chase the Lady, started in DARK HORSE PRESENTS last month. This time, it’s about a penniless aristocrat who, having survived the worst coming-out party ever, has to parley her fifteen minutes into money, security, and if she’s lucky as hell, love. It’s a science fiction Edith Wharton/Downton Abbey story with gender identity issues in a science fiction setting.
Also, I’m drawing issue #9 of Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County, a horror book with a generational legacy of magic and the full weight of history, wonderful stuff.
Jenn: Well, whatever Carla’s drawing, most likely I’m coloring it!
Final question – what comics would you all recommend for both new and veteran readers?
Alex: Ooh! There are so many. Obviously, you all have to read Finder. Start with Finder: Voice; backtrack from there. I just re-read Baron & Rude’s Nexus and I have all the feels about Steve Rude’s art. While on the subject of crying over art that is better than you will ever be, Jaime Hernandez’ Locas. Naoki Urasawa’s work is very important to me; start with Pluto; move on to Monster. Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting makes me cryyyyy. What am I reading new right now? Midnighter (so hot!); One-Punch Man (love a good shonen, such a looser work than I could ever produce, like a big fun freestyle); Drifting Classroom (makes No Mercy look like a Little Golden Book). I quite like Ellis’ new James Bond. Sebela’s High Crimes made me mad, it was so good. Lawks, I’m probably forgetting a whole bunch of great books and will have Instant Regret as soon as I press “send” and they all come flooding back into my memory. Oh, I have a super soft spot for They’re Not Like Us, because it’s formally one of the most perfectly conceived comics of recent memory. (EIther that or Eric really hates doing essays / lettercols, and BROTHER.)
Carla: Let’s see… on my tottery stack by the bed, there’s Ōoku by Fumi Yoshinaga (two books out of the ten in the series, anyway), Honey by Celine Loup, Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, Batgirl from Babs Tarr and Brenden Fletcher, one of the Templar, Arizona books by Spike Trotman, and on the floor are Moebius’s Gardens of Aedena and one of the Art of Avatar Korra books (because they’re too big for the bedside table). Also Lackadaisy and Oglaf, because they’re pretty.
Jenn: My constant recommendation is American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, an incredibly enjoyable and satisfying story on so many levels. Most anything by Jaime Hernandez, in particular Love Bunglers. Also the Hereville books by Barry Deutsch, the third of which, How Mirka Caught a Fish, just hit the shelves this month.
Thank you to Alex, Carla, and Jenn for taking the time to speak with us! Issue 5 of No Mercy is out December 9, with a brand new story arc. The first volume is also currently available for purchase.