[17 February 2014]
Writer Kel Symons and artist Mathew Reynolds The Mercenary Sea #1 starts off quietly, methodically. Like an 80’s action film set in some Asian or Latin American jungle, there’s an atmosphere of impending violence drifting heavily over each shot. Quite literally, guerillas in the mist. A ragtag crew ghosts through the palms, disembarking from a submarine, encountering sights not out of place at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark on some forgotten island.
As first issues go, this one quickly establishes the cast and setting, packing as much in as possible, therefore giving the reader a wide window into this world. Although initially promising, this fast start begins collapsing under the weight of the collective baggage it brings with it, namely, the devotion to hitting every predictable action/adventure cliché you can imagine.
The Mercenary Sea #1, from Image Comics, focuses on a buccaneer submarine crew prowling the South Seas in a undefined pre-World War Two period with vague nods to old cinema serials and Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
This comic is wholly conventional. There’s the gruff Buck Rogers-esque captain, a surly German navigator at home onboard a U-boat, a butter obsessed French chef, a British doctor named Doc, a black boxer from Chicago who wouldn’t throw a fight, and a few other predictable characters. Well, to call them characters would be overly generous. These are more cutouts than characters, fully paint-by-number constructions.
There are some moments of unintentional humor. When the captain, Jack Harper, is confronted in a bar (of course, it’s right after he gets into a fight) by a clear-as-possible Nick Fury analogue, a montage ensues, whereby faux-Fury recounts how much he knows about Harper’s crew. After revealing the British doctor’s formerly hidden backstory, the good doctor’s reply to Harper is: “Dear boy, why do you think I go by something as clichéd as ‘Doc?’”
Under different circumstances, or in different hands, this might be a knowing wink to the audience, a nudge that both readers and creators are in on the joke. Playing with tropes and clichés can be quite compelling and lead to interesting explorations. Not to get too theoretical but deconstructionism suits a medium like comics quite well because of the interplay between text and image. After all, anyone can appreciate the complexities of an engine but you doubly appreciate the machinery if you’ve seen it taken apart and reassembled.
But that’s not happening here. I don’t buy that Symons and Reynolds are poking at our expectation and the reader is about to undergo some postmodern theory download. It doesn’t compute because, although this is the first issue, nothing is done with the sheer mass of tropes on display.
There are whole scenes lifted from films, even. Early on, in an abundantly obvious nod to Predator, a crew member looks as if he’s about to knife Captain Harper in the back, only to reveal he’s sticking a poisonous insect off his back. What is this supposed to do other than be a reference to a beloved 80’s movie? From a storytelling perspective, these panels could have been totally blank and nothing would have changed. All I can gather is that the creators have seen Predator, set their story in a jungle, and, well, figured what the hell? Let’s just put that scene in there. No attempt is made to provide commentary or challenge reader expectations with such a blatantly cribbed sequence.
There could be something to The Mercenary Sea but, at this point, it just isn’t there. The amount of material on loan in this comic is unbearable in its current form. Maybe down the line all these overly familiar pieces could be used for unfamiliar effects. Sadly, that is nowhere here.