Two Views: 'The Mercenary Sea' by Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds

A comic review article by: Taylor Lilley, John Yohe

Taylor Lilley: 3.5 stars

The mere fact that a '30s South Seas Adventure comic book is being published is a good thing, another of a growing body of breaks from the glut of capes, crime, espionage, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror (so far). It's not as out-of-left-field as it seems, something writer Kel Symons' sums up neatly in his "It's Raiders meets Firefly" elevator pitch; noble maverick and motley crew, striving toward an impossible (maybe unreal) goal against unthinkable odds. Yeah, despite the setting being novel and the cast pleasingly diverse, the overall package isn't unfamiliar. So what's new here?

The Mercenary Sea #1

Well, Matthew Reynolds is pretty new, and judging by the page above, he's News. Take a closer look at the differentiated body language, the expressiveness of the silhouettes, the pacing, and creation of atmosphere. Reynolds's jungle has depth and detail without excess, while his moonlit colour choices evoke the day-for-night trickery of old movies, the same old movies these creators list as influences. There's an even lovelier page later, depicting the legends woven around the isle of Koji Ra, replete with colours and finely textured monsters that consume the questing human silhouettes on their peripheries. Point is, Reynolds does lovely work when he's telling story, depicting the passage of time and progressing the action. But going back to that page above, check the fourth panel, the one with Jack Harper's face. That's where this comic gets weird for me.

Mercenary Sea #1

See, I can take reading a comic that's filtered through a couple guys' love for old-time, and not so old-time, adventure movies, hell, part of what I really enjoyed about this issue was the way it felt like those production stills you see with the Cowboys and Indians, or the Yanks and the Jerries, sitting around in costume, smoking between takes. The Mercenary Sea knows its influences, knows you know its influences, and acknowledges that without any smugness or In Club insularity. Kel Symons' dialoguing pulls this off well, balancing 30's turns of phrase ("Sew a button on it, will ya?") with refreshing economy (excepting a 2-page expositional segment that makes up for obviousness with brevity).  But when it comes to how the characters look? Well, it reminds me of that video game XIII, or of Archer, the TV show. Where Reynolds' backgrounds conjure texture and depth, his characters come off flat to me, creating a tension between a world I can invest in and characters that look self-consciously, deliberately two-dimensional.

Symons' dialogue flows effortlessly (anyone who read I Love Trouble knew that), and Reynolds makes delicious art, but it feels like their respective strengths are pulling in opposite directions. I hope future issues will feature fewer talking heads and more wide shots, because if this book can adopt a more widescreen cinematic approach throughout, it could better play to both creators' considerable gifts.

- Taylor Lilley

John Yohe:3 stars

Although I still love the superhero genre, Image Comics seems to be the company with the most interesting storylines in comic form right now, few of which are about superheroes.

The Mercenary Sea #1

The year is 1938, and we're in the Pacific islands somewhere, when rumblings of coming World War are already being felt in Europe, and in Asia, and where Captain James "Jack" Harper, and American, and his motley crew of "mercenaries" (including one woman, Sam, the engineer) operate a stolen German U-Boat submarine.

They're not really mercenaries, though. The crew don't want to fight, though they will fight to defend themselves. Nor do they want to get involved doing military missions for any country, though what they're actually willing to do is a little in the gray area. It's not that they're bad people, they just ended up on the wrong side of the law, and/or organized crime, in their various countries. They are smugglers and bootleggers, though they, unlike other smuggler ships in the area, have a conscience, of a sort, being against things like human trafficking, and will go out of their way to sink a rival ships to prevent it.

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The artwork is done on computer, which normally, I feel, makes for a sterile, mechanical, style, though it works OK here, making the coloring a little, literally, black and white, at first: shadows don't blend so much as end. But, that said, the cool unique visual, which I don't think could be done hand-drawn, is the backgrounds, with layers of out-of-focus silhouettes.

The mood, or visual feel, of the first part of this first issue is gray: there are blacks, there are whites, but mostly different shades of gray, which of course sets up the morality of the main characters: they're not Nazis, but they're not goodie-two-shoes Allies either. When color does appear in the black-and-white panels, it highlights not only particular details in any one scene, like fire, but also maybe more importantly, sound effects—this is the first time I've ever color used to such an interesting effect.

The Mercenary Seas #1

Almost unfortunately, the art switches to full color, which comes off as a little garish, with pinks and purples and orange, though I know that's what a real tropical island sunrise looks like. Still, I found myself wanting to stay in the gray.

The Mercenary Seas #1

Long term, Captain Jack has his eye on some mythical city which may have treasure, though we get the sense he may just be searching for the adventure, though his crew may just want to keep smuggling. Not much happens this first issue—it's more of a "get to know the characters" kind of thing. Still, they're all interesting enough, and I'm curious to see what happens next.

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