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Friday, May 8, 2015

Comics Spotlight Review: No Mercy #2

When I was young, one of the first books I ever fell in love with - I, and many others my age, I suspect - was Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. The story followed a young boy who, trapped alone in the Canadian wilderness, had to learn to survive. David's journey was difficult, with Paulsen really selling the danger, the hunger, the fear of the journey in a way that other, similar stories at the time rarely did. Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil, and Jenn Manley Lee's newly-launched Image title No Mercy is reminiscent to Hatchet in the specifics, stranding seemingly-helpless young teenagers in the wild with little likelihood of rescue they don't forge themselves, but the they push the material into significantly more intense territory. As Hatchet ditched the tropical vacation narrative of being stranded in the wild to emphasize the struggle to find food and shelter, de Campi adds in drugs, animal attacks, bullying, and much more. It's rare to read a book with so apt a title as No Mercy, but this comic is not fucking around.

No Mercy #1 followed a group of Princeton hopefuls who had volunteered to build houses in South America for the summer as one last, hopeful resume-booster. Aside from a single, chilling flash-forward - the best use of the device I've seen in comics in ages - early in the issue, there was little clue as to what fantastical fate awaited these kids. When the reveal came, it was stunning in its mundanity: A severe car accident stranded them in the wilderness in a foreign country. I legitimately can't remember the last time I read a monthly comic without any supernatural elements whatsoever, so I was charmed despite the issue's slow pace. But No Mercy #2 picks up where that issue left off, and is far more of a statement of purpose. After the crash, the group tends to their wounded and plays to survive the night - build a fire, stay warm, the basics. Half the group is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Two members make a worrying discovery about their late guide. And scavenger coyotes smell blood and easy prey, and circle the camp - hence the issue's eye-catching cover - waiting for their moment to strike. The problems the group faces thus far are simple, but don't confuse 'simple' with 'easy'.

Carla Speed McNeil and Jenn Manley Lee make for an incredibly strong art team. The characters are physically distinctive, easy to recognize at a glance and full of visual personality. McNeil has a deft hand at using the page layout to enhance the mood - the coyote attack is brutal, with chaotic panels and jagged gutters, which return to normal as the kids fight off the attack. Meanwhile, Lee has the tough task of coloring an issue that takes place almost entirely at night. Her work is restrained, dimmed colors barely holding off thick, inky blacks, giving us a hint of what is waiting in the darkness but never letting us get comfortable. Lee and McNeill were solid in the introductory debut issue, but here they show that they can control the mood and tension of the story's rougher elements with style to spare.

After a modestly-paced debut, No Mercy #2 is an in-your-face follow-up, deftly combining character-building with intense moments of survival drama. Writer Alex de Campi's first issue was a little showier, introducing us to a ton of characters and moving fluidly from conversation to conversation, often in the same panel. Here, de Campi steps back a bit to get into the meat of the story. The conversation is terse, punctuated by nakedly emotional outbursts. The pacing is relentless as problem after problem appears. But even as the plot takes over, de Campi keeps the focus firmly on her characters. Perhaps the issue's most moving moment - and most visually stunning sequence - features a young girl mourning her best friend the only way she knows how, before bleakly jerking us back to the real world.

Teen drama can be frustrating - as adults looking back, we recognize that not everything is the end-of-the-world scenario we once imagined it was, so watching others treat it as such can grate. But that also gives it stakes, right? The characters care so deeply and understand so little, it's hard not to empathize, and de Campi takes horrifying advantage of that tendency, even as her deft character work and McNeil's earthy, human designs make you ache at what they're going through - and what's to come. No Mercy #2 is quick, brutal survival fiction at its best.

No Mercy #2 was written by Alex de Campi, illustrated by Carla Speed McNeil, and colored by Jenn Manley Lee. Published by Image Comics, No Mercy #2 was released on May 6th with a cover price of $2.99.
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