Like many other comic book writers and podcasters, I have been covering the announcements of the 2014 Image Expo with sheer joy. There were over fifteen titles announced from some of the industry’s biggest creators. But for some reason unbeknownst to me, Mercenary Sea was not nearly as well covered as the rest of the new roster of books. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that both the writer and the artist are as new as they come. Writer Kel Symons has one title to his credit, the surreal I Love Trouble, and newcomer artist and colorist Mathew Reynolds has one graphic novel credit to his name through Arcana publishing, Marlow. Consider that factor and the conceit that 1930s travel-and-sea-born comic books are about as niche of a market as they come, and one starts to see how the press push might not be that strong. I am here to tell you that was a mistake. What we have here is the making of a classic book that you need to keep your eyes on.
Case in point: how many comic books can you think of that open with a splash page? From the very first page, we get to feast on the amazing art and color work of Mathew Reynold’s Pacific Isles. The colors are bright and rich and deep. Something must be said about how well giving the tasks of both art and color to one person works on the page. The effect is a singular vision that is made all the more vivid with the use of in-and-out-of-focus effects. Before a single word is spoken, I am hooked on the feeling and atmosphere.
In these ongoing adventures of a late 1930s submarine crew, all of the standard players in a proper adventure tale are here: the leader; the muscle; the guy everyone calls Doc; the vaguely Russian navigator; the quiet, creepy guy who knows a lot in a pinch; a cynical Frenchman; and, of course, for good measure a twenty-year-old woman. I do not immediately know their individual stories. But their camaraderie shines through with an effortless subtlety that you don’t see that much these days in printed media. It is no easy task to convey that kind of long-lasting bond in a first volume in a series of novels, let alone the first issue of a comic book.
Again, I must comment on how brilliant the art and coloring work is in these first several pages. Not because of a lack of writing: mostly silence is necessary for this part of the journey, and it allows for a full absorption of the artist’s abilities. The darkness of the night, the silhouettes of the people, the starkness of the oranges and reds of the fires, and just how vibrant that all makes the sunrise the next day. This long stretch of silence could be considered the first act of this book. The art being the central focus. The highlight being what turns from a very cinematic confrontation between seafarers and island natives to a supply exchange that is beautiful to look at. I would argue that you don’t even need to speak English to appreciate what is happening on the panel. The art does most of the work for you. But that doesn’t stop a screening of Duck Soup and a long conversation between the men feel totally natural. This is where the dialogue finally gets to step in and show off.
The point of this massive quest is to mount a voyage in search of a fabled land called Koji Ra, a land of vast riches and monsters from a different time. While the people of the island only see these stories as tall tales someone tells to their children, this crew believes it to be real. Of course, not everyone on board the submarine believes the story, but why would they? That wouldn’t make for much of an impending conflict, now would it? There are enough personalities on this enclosed ship that it seems only natural that there would be one voice of dissent. Or reason, depending on your point of view. Either way, the ship goes from the Pacific Isles to a place called the Freeport of South Haven. Unlike the shadowy jungle, this place is full of life, color, and bad blood.
It is here that we see what you might expect from a proper swashbuckling story: barmaids, rival sailors with scores to settle, wild rumors, the search for freelance work, etc. Again, it must be said that even though we are only in the first issue of this book, the relationships between the characters are established quickly and they are established well. It all has a feeling of a 1930s or 1940s film.
Once the hook and the line are laid out for us to bite down on, the sinker comes in the form of a one-eyed American spy who propositions the crew with some rather shady work. Even though they refuse, he intimates that he knows a lot more about each one of them than they know about him. That brief exchange works as both setting up a rival character and building the histories of each of the crew mates we are just now getting to know. The entire point of coming to South Haven was to make money, so why turn this generous sum away? While the money sounds enticing, a man must have himself a code and the leader of this crew uses his best judgement to walk away from such an ominous task. The crew then sets sail on what they believe to be a much simpler job that doesn’t require them to risk their necks to earn a decent wage. Boy were they wrong.
I decided to read and review this book based on a whim. I had no previous knowledge of the creators involved, and I have only read one other book in this genre. After one issue, I am so pleasantly surprised by everything in these pages. The characters are interesting, the story is captivating, and I genuinely want to know what happens next. A good first issue either relies on the quality of the writing, the art, or the general conceit of the book. Here, all of those things work in harmony. This is what a #1 should always feel like.
It is with great pleasure that I issue my first-ever 10/10.
Mike Sains is a Staff Writer at Capeless Crusader. When he isn’t writing, he’s podcasting at various places online. When he isn’t podcasting, he’s collecting comic books, FunkoPop! figures, and vinyl records. You can hear him on Geek Girls, Nerd Boys, The Tower of Sour, and The Inverse Delirium, all available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @MikeSains.