At Image Expo in San Francisco in January Alex De Campi announced a new ongoing series with artist Carla Speed McNeil: No Mercy. The comic will follow the lives of a group of teenagers after their bus plummets from the edge of a cliff during a mission trip. Alex took some time to speak with ComicBook.Com critic and reporter Chase Magnett and Comics Therapy podcaster Andrea Shockling during the Expo to explore the process and ideas behind No Mercy and other upcoming work like Archie Meets Predator.
Andrea Shockling: You are writing a new comic at Image. It is called No Mercy.
Alex De Campi: Yeah, nobody has superpowers. Nothing crazy happens other than they are involved in a horrible accident in the middle of nowhere where they don't speak the language and nobody gives a shit about them.
Shockling: That is pretty horrible.
De Campi: Yeah, but it's not like a meteor falls from space and they find powers. It's not science fiction. There are no other fantastical elements. My story can happen tomorrow, in real life.
Shockling: You were describing it during the announcement before the cover came up, but it doesn't look like what I was picturing and not in a bad way. I'm pulled into this because it feels approachable. I want to hear how this works.
De Campi: That's why I wanted to work with Carla [Speed McNeil] because she draws incredibly approachable teens that look like real people. It's not dark and inked and full of style. These are like hip and tortured teens. They are teens so of course they are tortured, but they are not comic book hip and tortured.
Shockling: You bring the torture with the writing?
De Campi: Yeah! Also, I think we are going to win the Eisner for most emoji in comics.
Shockling: That's a new category this year.
De Campi: There is a ton of emoji. There are tweets. There are texts.
Shockling: So it feels very relevant and now because that's who they are, right?
De Campi: We're trying to keep it as close to reality as possible. One of the things I love about writing is people not being heroic. What I love is how people would realistically react in situations where horrible things happen very quickly. When bad things happen, it's like bang! And then nothing is the same again for the rest of their lives. What is the fallout from that? Of course, some of them just don't have lives. Some of them are dead.
Shockling: Are we seeing the perspective from right after the tragedy occurs?
De Campi: There's very little backstory. The tragedy occurs in the middle of issue one.
Shockling: Got it.
De Campi: The first tragedy.
Chase Magnett: Are we also going to eventually see them recovering after the tragedy, handling this incredible trauma?
De Campi: I'm writing issue six now and at the beginning of issue seven, we're going to start getting the perspective of their parents. We're getting to the point where some of them are able to contact their parents again. We see the first parent in issue six, but the first parent who really becomes a major part of the story is in the beginning of issue seven.
We work very far in advance. We have four issues completely in the bag. The fifth is in the middle of lettering and coloring. Well, it's in the middle of coloring because I'm obviously not in the middle of lettering it.
Shockling: Are you lettering it?
De Campi: Yes. It's going to be eight issues, but we're hopefully doing a Saga type thing where there is not a conclusion at the end of the eighth issue because it is not ready for a conclusion yet. It's going to take a break and then we're going to keep working and come back with, hopefully, this many issues in the bag before we re-launch season two.
Shockling: I want to ask a pointed question about teenagers right now because it has come up with a couple other comics recently where it's hard to write for the current generation of adolescents. We're not those kids anymore. We're not teenagers. Do you worry about that?
De Campi: The creative process is one of constant worry, but I worry about everything. Rest assured, I worry about it. You cannot say anything to me that I haven't already worried about and I'm not continuing to worry about on a daily basis. Works of art are never finished; they are only abandoned. There are several teens whose backgrounds and experiences are very different from mine and not only geographically. I'm writing kids from Chicago, a town I do know sort of well. I'm writing kids who are from Washington state and I've never been to Washington. I'm writing kids whose race and sexual orientation are very, very different from my own. I'm writing kids that are going through traumas that I have never touched.
As a writer, I think you go through many different thought processes and when you start writing, you tend to write characters that are very close to you. Some people continue to do that their whole lives; they write white dudes or whatever. That's totally fine. My journey was slightly different in that I got bored of writing characters who were like me because I'd done that. Then I was afraid of writing people who were very different because I thought friends of mine would contact me and say, "Alex, you really can't write black people." That's the white writer's terror is someone saying, "Dude, your Asian characters are nothing like, kids of an Asian background in the States. Please stop." That's a fear you live with all the time and eventually get over and no longer care about.
Part of it is listening. Writers are thieves and listeners at the best of times. I know I'm not going to get these kids one hundred percent. I'm okay with that. If I get them ninety percent, then I'm all good. I love every one of them; even the ones you are going to hate, I love. So they are written with a great deal of love and interest and care. Some of the scenes just make me super happy.
There are characters that in issue six and seven, we're getting away from a little bit. We're going to come back to them, but it makes me sad because I really want to write them because I like them so much. They are sort of vaguely in a good place right then, so we can move away from them because there are people that are moving into a worse place that we need to follow. It's an ensemble cast, so there's a lot of moving about. That's one of the reasons the first three issues only cover the first twenty-four hours.
There's a lot going on. We're also balancing a lot of people, a lot of voices, and a lot of introductions. We want to keep it so that we're not brushing by people in a way. We need time for certain events to happen and develop and the consequences of them to manifest. And then time moves faster and slower as we go on. It starts getting really interesting when some of them do or do not come home. When you think it would be over, in some ways it's only just beginning because there are all sorts of issues that come with it.
Shockling: You are clearly very invested in these characters. You say you love all the characters, and to me that's the difference between it being a caricature and a character.
De Campi: They're all pieces of you in a way. Like a writer is legion. I take little pieces of myself, but they don't all talk like me.
We spent a lot of time developing certain speech patterns. There's one character, Troy, who always hits the first syllable or word of a sentence, like that first vowel he'll hit and lengthen. There's one character and he always talks in questions. He's kind of punchy. There's one girl who's a bit of an anime lifestyler. She's so cute. I like her. I do all their voices to myself and my dogs look up at me like, "Mommy?" [Editor's Note: De Campi has been doing the voices during this section to the interviewer's great amusement] They all have different ways of talking. They're a group of kids who would not have necessarily been friends. They are all going to Princeton; they all signed up for this Community Action service program, which really exists at Princeton except it's a week and it's domestic. I'm saying it's a two-week one that is overseas.
They really do send kids out to do things like build schools in Trenton. It's a lovely thing and I'm doing horrible things with it. This is like any group of kids together who don't know each other. Maybe a couple of them would be friends later on, but they should all be able to tolerate each other for the two weeks of the service program because they are going to be pretty busy. Once a tragedy happens and it becomes a matter of survival, less so. Things start rubbing as they get tired. They have no food. They have no heavy coats. It gets really, really cold at night. They don't have flashlights. They are incredibly badly prepared. Most of the adults are dead.
It doesn't go all Lord of the Flies, because Lord of the Flies exists. It's quite good. I don't need to do that again. What I love about writing teenagers is so much of their life is drama. I'm sure you remember being a teen. There were certain things that we'd say. The world was going to legitimately end if you didn't go to a certain party or a certain person didn't talk to you. You look back on it, and you think, "That was so incredibly trivial." At the time the fate of the universe hinged on this mediocre crap. What about when it actually is fife or death? What happens?
Shockling: Take a group that is melodramatic by nature and then give them real drama.
De Campi: Some of them really rise to the occasion in unexpected ways. There's this one character that I think everyone is going to love to hate named Chad. He's a horrible, horrible person, but he's also possibly the best planner that they have and the natural leader. He wants to be a politician. Surprise. You can hate him, but you also recognize that he's probably the one making the most sense in organizing the rest of the kids.
Shockling: Is this a story that's been cooking around with you for a while?
De Campi: Most of my stories have been cooking around for a while. I work very unusually for a comics writer in that I don't pitch a bunch of things; I don't really pitch at all. I start thinking about a story and writing little bits of it in my little white notebook of doom by my bed. Sooner or later I write more of it, then I have an issue, and then I write another issue. By the time I've mapped out a whole bunch of it and written three issues, I contact an artist. The artist says yes or no. Once I've got the artist, before I have art, I actually write a publisher and say, "Hey, I accidently wrote a miniseries. Carla's going to draw it. Would you mind publishing it? We haven't really gotten around to doing any art yet because we are a bit like that."
That's one of the reasons I'm publishing through Image is because Eric [Stephenson] makes it very easy for me to literally email him a paragraph. That's all I do. Kids, please don't do this if Eric doesn't know you. Don't do that. He'll be mad and not say yes. I email him a paragraph, I tell him who the artist is, and he knows that I've got a ridiculous amount of it done already. There's another thing I'm doing at Image that will come out in 2016. There are eight issues entirely written. The artist is now on board. He hasn't started yet, but it is because he's a really, really, really well-known artist and he's super busy. He's starting in August.
I've got the space in his schedule. Another series that I'm going to do be doing is a five-issue series. It'll come out later this year. I've written three issues. The only reason I haven't written the other two issues is I just have not had time. They are in my brain, like Athena in Zeus's brain ready to kick out, but I haven't had the time in front of the computer. I'm a single mom, so sometimes things don't happen as fast as I want them to.
Shockling: No Mercy is planned as an ongoing with breaks. Do you have the other stuff cooking or are you going to wait and respond to reader response? What dictates the next step after the first arc of No Mercy comes out?
De Campi: I am interested in reader response and I am hoping to have a letter column that is mostly about people traveling because I've traveled a lot. One of the reasons I'm really invested in No Mercy and the other 2016 project, which is also a sort of ex-patriot project, is I spent most of my adult, post-college life living outside the U.S. I'm very conscious of how people from the U.S. behave abroad, ex-pat life, and differing cultures. I've lived in Hong Kong for five years, the Philippines, Latin America (never Central America, but Argentina and Mexico City), and London for ten years. Now I'm in New Hampshire. This has always been a subject that has interested me.
I don't write for the reader. I write because there are very few things that interest me, but when I get interested in something, I get incredibly interested in it. I do crazy amounts of research. The autumn project is historical and I have read literally five thousand pages of research for it. I have another stack of books that I'm going into and I need to stop, but it's fascinating. I'm a perfectionist and I write for myself. I create books for myself. I am always incredibly grateful when other people find it interesting and, also, slightly surprised and confused. If people react to parts of it negatively, there is nothing I can do because it is all written. I'm not going to go back and change stuff.
The first issue comes out so quickly and we are very immediate readers and there are a ton of kids. You will make assumptions about these kids. Many of your assumptions will be wrong.
Shockling: I think that's what is so fascinating to me because with an ensemble story, people are going to have favorites.
De Campi: Yes.
Shockling: You are going to hear about those favorites.
Shockling: People some times aren't going to agree with what you do with those favorites.
De Campi: Oh, I know. I get to crying about them. It's that old saying, kill your darlings. Carla and I were a bit concerned about some things. We'd waver like, "Maybe we should do something about this. Well, nah. Screw them." There is no hero and it is funny the way people look for heroes. We had this thing in Grindhouse, one of my other series. [Editor's Note: Spoilers for the first arc of Grindhouse follow] There are two characters in the beginning of Grindhouse. There's a white male sheriff played by Nicolas Cage in the movie version and there's his one-eyed Latina deputy. In the middle of issue two the sheriff becomes infected with alien maggots and they burst out of his tummy like old school Jiffypop.
Magnett: That's a great image.
De Campi: It is. Then they go "om nom nom" on his tummy because I like to bring the stupid back. We received letters to the editor complaining that we had killed the hero.
De Campi: White dudes be looking out for white dudes.
De Campi: There was a crazy one (I think we actually printed it) that said, "I can't believe you killed Jimmy. I'm not going to read your illegal alien bimbo bulls**t" or something like that. We sent an "I heart Tejanas" t-shirt because we're a**holes and proud of it. It is in the nature of the reader because they have been trained over time to look for a hero and there is not a hero. There are several heroes, some of whom are not likeable, some of whom are very likeable, and some of whom are mysterious because you don't really get into their personalities until issue four or five.
Magnett: So you are saying they are actually human beings?
De Campi: Yeah. But people might have trouble with that. Who do they root for?
Shockling: Can you like color code it for us?
De Campi: Actually they are. You'll notice there is a color bar down the side of the opening issue with little boxes of color.
Shockling: For real?
De Campi: They correspond to characters. We add and delete them as they die.
Shockling: Right on, like a little visual graphic.
De Campi: Nobody really knows that yet and I don't think many people will. They'll ask, "Why are the squares?" and then they will work it out in issue twelve. The inside front cover has a key of names and pictures and colors. When you are presenting about a twelve-person cast, you want to make it easier for people to look back.
Magnett: You are bringing parents in around issue six. Has your experience having your daughter and raising her impacted how you emote and relate to the parents' roles in this series?
De Campi: Yes. Some of them are bad parents, though. Not all parents are good, or not all parents are good all of the time about all things. Let me put it that way because they are not bad people in their own minds. They just have their own goals, which are sometimes conflicting with things that occurred.
There are some parents that are very disapproving of their children's lifestyle choices. There are parents who are very, very angry about what has happened. There are parents that are very accepting and supportive. As a parent, you have many, many different reactions to things. You choose what you think is the right one. Not all parents are one hundred percent all of the time. I've certainly yelled at my daughter and then felt like the worst human being in the world for being an impatient jerk. Some things will be more horrible for people to read because they are parents.
Carla, who's also a parent, designed the bus the kids are traveling in and we made it an old fashioned remake, a repainted school bus because it's more horrible for us when bad things happen to school busses.
Shockling: I love the idea of building an ensemble group where they are not already friends.
De Campi: Yes, because they don't know each other very well either. They are a little bit of a mystery to each other as well the reader.
Shockling: A little bit of blank slate almost, especially after that kind of violent restart.
De Campi: Yes, but didn't you go to college? When you went to college, weren't there aspects of yourself that you presented differently because you were in college, especially if you went to college out of state or far away from your home?
De Campi: Some of the kids are already into their college reinvention process, and that is discovered as it always is. They're not necessarily how they represent themselves. It's like the bit in My Little Pony where Rarity's parents show up and they have the most hick-like, small-town country accents ever.
Magnett: Now I have to find some way to compare No Mercy to My Little Pony.
De Campi: I can compare most things to My Little Pony. In April I also have Archie Versus Predator coming out drawn by Fernando Ruiz.
Shockling: That's so rad.
De Campi: I have all the teenage books coming out in April. Fernando is doing such an amazing job. He just writes to me and goes, "It's page after page of fun things to draw, Alex." He does amazing work. It's all in the Archie style, but he's taken it and tweaked it slightly. It's very subtle. He's drawing exploitation Betty and exploitation Veronica with their clothes ripped off and stuff and it's the best thing.
Magnett: When I heard the announcement at New York Comic-Con, I thought, "Of course Archie's doing that and it's going to be amazing."
De Campi: It is going to be amazing. It is written with love though. I love the Predator franchise. I love Archie. I read three thousand pages of old Archie books to do this because I'm slightly research obsessive. We're very true to the feel of traditional Archie in terms of the personalities of the characters. We stick to the fact that they really are friends, but they are very different people. There's a lot of physical comedy. There's a lot of the traditional Archie joking around. Jughead's always hungry. Reggie's kind of a jerk, but they tolerate him because he's just a bit of a frat bro. Kevin's awesome.
Shockling: Kevin is in it?
De Campi: Kevin's in it. Come on. If they are only going to lend me the toys for four issues, I'm going to play with all of them. All of them. So if you're like, "Is so and so in Archie Meets Predator?", the answer is yes!