February 13, 2014

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The Mercenary Sea 1


Written by Kel Symons
Illustrated by Matthew Reynolds
Image Comics

The challenge for any first issue of a comic is to pull you in right away and give you enough of a story to entertain but not overwhelm. Comic readers have a lot of choices, as it feels like every week brings the debut of another interesting, high-quality comic. So a first issue needs to make a splash, have a hook, something that distinguishes it from the many choices that readers have, particularly where the creators are not household names. With "The Mercenary Sea," a fun story and striking art make for a strong debut.

The Mercenary Sea is a new high-seas adventure book from Image Comics. It concerns the story of Captain Jack Harper and his band of mercenaries, runaways and rogues, as they seek adventure in the Pacific in the late 1930's. War is coming to the world, but these characters are focused on adventure and making money. Captain Harper is looking for a mysterious island, and this search brings him to a bar (where many great quests begin). Along the way, we meet Harper's crew (a colorful, slightly cliche cast of characters) and learn about the crew's back stories from a man who might be a spy and looks a lot like Nick Fury. Along with seeking the mysterious island, the crew needs to make money, so they're also in search of work, and this search brings us to the dramatic cliffhanger at the end of issue one.

The story elements, although familiar, feel fresh and interesting. It's very much an introductory issue, as we get a general sense for the characters, their motivations and the plot, but not a lot "happens." By the end of the first issue, I still don't know much about the Captain, but I know enough to want to learn more. His motley crew feels familiar, but each of them has enough personality (or someone interesting you learn about them) to give them potential beyond just being "types."

However, what will really get people's attention is the way the story is told visually. This book looks unlike almost anything I've seen in a comic, and I think it's fair to say that this style of art will not be for everybody. The characters are drawn in a stylized way in the foreground of each panel, and they look like animation cels. The backgrounds feel painted, with striking, detailed colors but little other detail. Some of the pages look like storyboards. There's great, effective use of light and shadow in this book, and the color palette changes from page to page in an atmospheric way. It's a really a beautiful book to look at, but it's not typical mainstream comic art. 

I do think that this colorful, stylized approach to the art can make it harder for the reader to get a sense that they're reading a story that takes place in the 1930's (as opposed to a book with more classically "pulpy" art), both because of the coloring choices and the relative lack of background detail. The art style feels modern, and some more visual cues might be helpful to let the reader believe they're reading a story set in the 1930's (as some of the characters also look like they belong in a modern time frame). 

Those points aside, this is a promising, enjoyable, visually distinctive debut, and I'm interested in reading more.