The Mercenary Sea: Interview With Symons, Reynolds, and Brosseau

Kel Symons, Mathew Reynolds, and Pat Brosseau tell us about the best high adventure comic on the market: The Mercenary Sea.

The creators of The Mercenary Sea from Image Comics, writer Kel Symons and artist Mathew Reynolds, could have gotten lost in their toy box, so drunk on nostalgia that they forgot to do anything but dream that they were fleeing a boulder, knocking out a bad guy, or sprinting across a rope bridge. Instead, the pair took what they needed from the fertile past — a little Indiana Jones, a little Firefly — while crafting a fresh adventure story that has teased us with fantastical things and heroic poses while choosing a more deliberate narrative roll-out. 

In this interview with Symons, Reynolds, and letterer Pat Brosseau, we touch on the teased mission to find the mythic island of Koji Ra, those inspirations, introducing us to the crew of The Venture, Reynolds’ arresting art, and the virtues of the slow-brew.

Den of Geek: Take me through the creation of the book: how was it born, how has it matured, and how free are you both to veer?

Kel Symons: I was finished with my other book for Image, I Love Trouble, and looking for something else to do, when I happened across Mathew’s art on the internet. He had done these amazing black & white images of Indiana Jones on various adventures that weren’t from the movies — climbing a cliff, chased by head hunters, stalking through a chasm with a big cat watching him, ready to pounce. They were all done in silhouette — very striking. I reached out to him, we got to talking about our mutual love of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and from that we talked about other great adventure stories we grew up on: Jonny Quest, Edgar Rice Burroughs, King Kong and a dozen others.

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I asked him if he wanted to work on a comic together, and when he said yes I looked to those stories as inspiration and came back to him with the story for The Mercenary Sea (only then we were calling it Venture). He dug it, we put it up on its feet and presented it to Image, basically telling them it was Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Firefly. Image bit, and here we are, about a year and a half later. I always hoped it would be an ongoing series, and based on its reception, it seems we’re headed that way. Our plan is to put out between 8-10 issues a year, mostly long story arcs that run 6-8 issues, with a few “one-off” stories in between.

As far as veering off, there’s definitely room to expand the story beyond the ideas I have, and to explore certain characters and situations that were originally secondary to the overall arc of the series — our “mythology arc” if you’re a fan of The X-Files. But there’s only so far you can go before things veer off course from the bigger plot, so at least for the next 2 years or so, there is a linear progression for this.

Mathew Reynolds: It was born out of a huge love of ESCAPE. Escape into a wild world of danger. Places that our favorite comics and cartoons took us to. Then the movies took us there, that explosion of films in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Dirty Dozen, Hell in the Pacific, Jaws, The Black Stallion, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Further back to King Kong, but it’s a common old story, the search for a lost land with a crew of individuals. Sinbad did it right in Arabian Nights. Really it’s just me and Kel raisin’ hell and getting caught up in old combat.

Part of it is righting old wrongs in our way. Harper kicks some ass in that first book for a good cause. Like, we want to kick some ass for a good cause. All of us want to kick some ass for a good cause… that’s comics. Kel walks around with these characters in his head… he’s a good lunatic. So am I. Our team is a team of heroes, some of them are bad guys that don’t know that they are heroes yet. This whole thing was born out of a desire to be a part of the lunatic tradition of the escapist adventure story. If you stick around, you WILL see some things that might surprise you.

What drew you to The Mercenary Sea and what is it that you typically look for in a prospective project?

Pat Brosseau: Well, I had already worked with Kel on I Love Trouble and we seemed to have a good rapport. Usually I’ll take whatever is offered to me as far as projects go, but I do enjoy working on those that interest me either because of the artwork or writing or overall premise.

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Is there time to explore the character’s back-stories beyond what we learned in the debut issue? Will you use flashbacks?

Symons: Not to get too far ahead of our story, but after this first “introductory adventure” which runs 6 issues, and maybe a one-off issue or two, we will dive right back into the mythology arc with the story of how the crew came together in the first place (as I’ve mentioned, Firefly is an inspiration, for fans of that, this will be our “Out of Gas” episode). That will dovetail into the backstory of how Jack had a falling out with his old employer, Admiral Shi Tang, and ended up on the run from the Chinese government, having stolen the boat. And all of this will play against a contemporary adventure that seamlessly (I hope) blends the two timelines, making their past relevant to the present. That arc should be the bulk of our series next year.

I always forget that you guys don’t know our guys yet. Not like we do. I’ll blab too much. Spend some time with the crew, you’ll like ’em. We WILL take you to some fun places on this ride.

We see the Captain studying great works of fiction while seemingly charting the ship’s course. Can we gain the view that there are hints about Koji Ra in those books?

Symons: It’s less that clues to Koji Ra can be found in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Louis Stevenson or Daniel Defoe, and more that Jack is a romantic — he loves reading adventure tales. And it’s those stories that fuel his child-like imagination and desire to chase the legend of this lost island.

Reynolds: It’s his belief that something like Koji Ra might exist… it’s possible. I imagine Harper and Doc talking about ancient cultures and legends when Doc is loaded. Doc doesn’t dwell on the possibilities too much, Harper’s eating it up and all his wheels are turning. He plays his cards close though. I’m sure he considers himself a pessimist… but we all know he’s a shining light in a nasty world — it’s a front. It’s protecting his sense of true wonder and belief in exploring the unknown. He loves the notion of that exploration like Christmas morning.

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Will the hunt for Koji Ra become an all consuming pursuit at some point and will you unleash the kinds of fantastical creatures that were teased in issue 1?

Symons: Of course. I’d be an asshole not to. I won’t say it’ll be “all-consuming” but it will be the carrot that keeps Jack moving forward. But, like the shark in Jaws, we’re gonna wait a while until you see the whole thing.

Reynolds: With any luck, we’ll get there. If it’s in the cards for the book to proceed, you will see some wild things. Not Thompsons VS. dinosaurs — you’ve seen that. We’re gonna show you something else that is just as dangerous. Swamps, rivers, plains… the wild kingdom makes a solid showing.

How are you setting The Mercenary Sea apart from things like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gunga Din?

Symons: I’m not really trying to reinvent the wheel, here. This was always intended to be a solid adventure story, and that means it’s going to hit a few tropes. That’s not to say I won’t throw you a curve ball here and there, and I think there’s a good twist or two on the horizon that will keep you engaged and give this distinction. But again, it is what it is, and I’m okay with that.

Were you disappointed by Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? So were we. Feel your childhood hero went out with a fizzle instead of a bang? Yup. Were you disappointed they took Firefly off the air? Me too. Do you long for some old-school wartime adventure, back when we were fighting the “good fight?” That’s what The Mercenary Sea is supposed to be — a response to that.

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RaidersFireflyKing Kong… the films of Howard Hawks… Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, and believe me, I feel like I’m some little kid playing dress-up, clomping around in something twice my size.

But that’s part of what this is, and I’m okay with that, too.

You’ve mentioned that Jack Harper is a bit Malcolm Reynolds, a bit Han Solo, but what are you bringing to the character that is unlike those specific inspirations? Similar question with regard to the overall book: what are you doing to build on the things that inspired this story?

Symons: I think my answer to your question above about the books answers this to some degree. Jack is a dreamer, of sorts. He grew up reading classic adventure tales (much in the same way Mathew and I grew up reading them, or watching movies and tv shows boiling over with adventure) and from that emerged this fascination with stories of some fabled treasure island.

Another inspiration for Jack comes from characters of the sort played by Humprey Bogart, in Casablanca (“I stick my neck out for no one”) and To Have and Have Not. He’ll come off as somewhat gruff and grizzled – a veteran of too many wars to want to leap back into the fray.

But there’s a line in the second issue, where he refers to some “tough guy mercenary speech” he lays on a prospective employer, and another character remarks “If they only knew what a soft sell you are for lost causes and underdogs.” That describes Jack to a tee: he is the guy who says he won’t stick his neck out for anyone but himself, only he’s got this moral compass that’s always pointing to true north – and he can’t help but get involved. You’ll see this more as our first series plays out. I’m just a big believer in not front-loading every character trait and personality quirk in the first issue, saying with a bang “I’m this kinda guy and my actions and dialogue will always support that.” I’m more a slow-burn kinda guy… peel back the layers over time.

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It’s like life — unless they’re completely one-dimensional, do you really ever meet anyone and figure them out in five minutes? Know how they’ll react in any sort of situation? No. That takes time. I like to cook. I think I make a pretty mean spaghetti sauce. To get it just right, it takes all day, simmering in a pot as ingredients are added over time — maybe 8 hours or so. Now, I can probably turn out a decent sauce in an hour, hour and a half… But it’s not going to taste the same – it’s not going to be as nuanced or as flavorful. Same thing here. I’m not saying we’re some gourmet meal, the likes of which you’ve never tasted… but we’re not fast food, either.

So at the end of this first arc, will we see something in Jack that is contrary to his “ancestors” and is there a part of you that hopes to one day see someone call their character a “Jack Harper type”?

Symons: I don’t know how to answer that, actually… At least not to a point that’s “contrary” to any of the characters that came before him. I hadn’t ever thought anyone would say one day “Oh, that’s a Jack Harper kinda character.” I feel like that’s asking a father of his newborn — will he or she be great one day? Only time will tell. (But any proud papa’s gonna say: you’re damn right they will).

All characters, in my opinion, have predecessors. What’s that theory? There’s only seven stories in the world, and everything since has just been variation on them? I don’t know who came up with that number, but it’s probably close. And pretty much the same can be said of characters. I think it’s just going to come down to a matter of personal taste — will this guy speak to you? If you’re like me, or Mathew, then I think he will.

Mathew, talk to me about the art, the use of silhouettes, visual similarities to something like Jonny Quest in the character designs, the book’s unique color palette, and that hazy effect that you’re employing to provide texture. Is this hand drawn, CG, a hybrid?

Reynolds: American Pop, Jonny Quest, and some of the films of Don Bluth, all enter in here. Speaking of inspiration, the Filmation adventure stuff from the 70’s and 80’s. When Dragon’s Lair came to the corner store, it flipped me all the way over. Secret of Nimh had me paying close attention to Don Bluth and the colors he plays with. If you go to my deviant art site, you can see how I do this. Thought to pencil to computer. Toth, Bluth, Wildey, many people who’s names I don’t know inspired the look and feel. Buscema, Mignola, Williamson, Golden and a list of damn near every illustrator I’ve ever seen are an inspiration. Charles Russel and Fredrick Remington drive the covers. I have a long way to go to measure up to those guys. I love them dearly.

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How long does it take you to illustrate and color each issue and, due to time constraints, it’s usually hard for an artist to juggle as many projects in a month as a writer can — do you worry that you might get bored or get an itch to try something else over these next few years?

Reynolds: I can execute one half to a page and a half a day, depending on the content of the page.

Not concerned about boredom. This thing was tailor made for me. The only thing that was NOT tailor made for me was the guts of the sub. Fortunately, early on Kel said “Look, just make it like a cool fort in a tube, not a definitive guide for submarine construction.” So in that sense I tailored the sub to our needs. I’m chained to the drawing board 16 hours a day. That translates to 12 solid hours of execution, if you figure in meals, research and breaks, it’s manageable. I usually get out once a week to shoot pool and hoist a few at a local pool hall, this staves off total madness. It’s wild. I lay out pages in my dreams at least once a week. Sometimes that layout gets used, but it’s usually me just observing myself doing the work and it’s not always clear who is doing what on the page (in the dreams). Madness.

Pat, Kel said that you had a very specific look in mind, tell me what drove that and what you think it brings to the overall product?

Brosseau: When I first saw the artwork for Mercenary Sea it didn’t look like traditional American comic book artwork. It had an almost European feel to it and I had been toying with the idea of using a European style of lettering on a book. I think this style of lettering, where there are no black outlines around the balloons or sound effects, blends well with Mathew’s artwork because it matches his style.

How long can the book go, how far have you plotted, is there an ending in mind, and do you think that it will change over time?

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Symons: While I haven’t scripted them yet, I have enough stories and ideas for the next 30 issues or so. I can’t say for certain, and it’s always possible that some story lines will expand or contract — you have to be flexible like that. But that really takes us up to what I envisioned as the ending of this story — I mean, I know what the last panel will be.

I’m also a big believer in delivering a definite ending. I don’t want to hit what’s intended to be our denouement, and then stay too long at the party after that. Seen too many series or tv shows that do that. Please don’t make a sequel to some beloved film of mine, because we both know it’s not going to be as good as the original. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, that some movie later in a franchise turns things around, but it’s rare. I really hated the first couple of Mission: Impossible movies — occasional sparks of brilliance, but mostly silly, contrived, and they played the lowest common denominator. But then the third one came out and I’m like “Whoa… this is different… so much better than before. How’d that happen?” Same with James Bond — I thought that franchise was pretty much over and done with, then Casino Royale came along, looking all awesome and bad ass, and I’m a fan as never before.

So I know when you’ve got a hot hand, you need to play it – and I’m not even sure we’re there yet – after one issue under our belt it’s hard to tell if it’s “hot” or not. Talk to me in a few issues. But I know I don’t want to linger after wrapping things up. Believe me, everything will be concluded to satisfaction — first ours, then yours.

Gentlemen, thank you for your time!

Issue #2 of The Mercenary Sea and the second printing of issue #1 are available where fine comic books are sold. Read Jason’s review of The Mercenary Sea #1 right here! 

The Mercenary Sea #3 comes out on April 16th. Check out the preview pages!

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