Sometimes, there’s nothing like a good throwback to the pulpy adventures of yesteryear, the kind of swashbuckling, legend-seeking tales that H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs built an entire “lost world” genre out of. And The Mercenary Sea, created by writer Kel Symons and artist Mathew Reynolds, published by Image Comics, is just that: a loving homage to those square-jawed action heroes and their fearless adventures.
With the pending release of the first paperback compilation, The Mercenary Sea, Vol. 1 (which collects issues #1-6), we thought it’d be a good time for a quick chat with the auteurs of this delightful comic and to find out what whispered promises of hidden treasures compelled these men to embark on this storytelling journey, just as the legend of the lost island of Koji Ra drives their hero, Jack Harper.
PM: Tell us a little about the initial inspiration for The Mercenary Sea as well as specific works from the past that inform its aesthetic.
KS: The initial inspiration for me would be Mathew’s work. I’d seen it online – his Indiana Jones adventures stuff – and reached out. We talked fantasy stories like The Land that Time Forgot and King Kong, World War II adventure movies, etc. and coming up with a project to work on. I went away for a couple weeks and came back to him with an idea about a submarine crew in the South Seas hunting for treasure while WWII was heating up in the background.
MR: Yeah, The idea of searching for an uncharted island while the whole pacific was “burning” so to speak. I had some rough ideas about a search for “caprona” or The Mysterious Island or a place like Skull Island. It was pretty grim stuff though. Kel liked the idea and then he muscled it up by about 90 percent and transformed it from a miserable survival story into something that was a little more friendly and approachable. To be honest, Kel brings a maturity to the project. It keeps me from drawing everyone armed to the teeth and fighting “monsters” all the time. Not that you won’t see that stuff in the pages of Mercenary Sea. He really makes the crew a human family with issues we can relate to as opposed to just “PASS THE AMMO! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!!!” We strike a good balance.
PM: What are your general influences as a writer and an artist? This can be from pop culture and art overall or comics specifically. Or both.
KS: From the story side of things, there are plenty of influences. I tend to draw more from film/tv than comics – that’s what I grew up on more than anything. I pitched The Mercenary Sea to Image as “Raiders meets Firefly.” But there were a lot of other predecessors in there: we often cite Howard Hawks as our spirit animal, with movies like Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not – not so shiny heroes in far-flung places trying to make a living. There’s some Jonny Quest there, for certain. As Mal Reynolds was inspired by Han Solo, so was Jack Harper – and the early adventures of Han and Chewie by Brian Daley had some influence.
MR: Basically a lot of memories from childhood and playing in the creeks and rivers with a bb gun and a canteen. Pretending that we are hunting for dinosaurs. The look was inspired by some of the Filmation cartoons from the 70s and films like Fire and Ice and American Pop. Doug Wildey’s Jonny Quest is a huge influence. I often listen to the Hoyt Curtin music for the Quest series while I work. I wanted to remind people of G.I. Combat with a little more depth.
PM: Image has really been successful with creator-owned properties. Could you talk a bit about the kind of creator/publisher relationship you’ve had with Image? What’s it like?
KS: Honestly, I’ve only ever work with Image. Don’t know how the other shops handle things, but I can say that having the freedom to do pretty much anything you want is refreshing.
MR: My experience has been exceptional. The folks that handle the nuts and bolts of our content have been patient and professional. Very approachable and supportive. I have been extremely fortunate to work with such a solid and savvy crew.
PM: What is the creative collaboration and working relationship between you two like?
KS: It works well. As with all my comic book projects, it’s a long distance relationship (I’m in L.A., Mathew’s in Texas just outside of Austin), so that’s always odd. Many is the time I just wish we could be in the same room and I can point and say: See? That’s what I’m talking about. But the Internet helps close the distance. Mathew and I have very similar backgrounds in terms of what we grew up liking (though he was probably much more into comics than I was) so that helps with developing a shorthand. I won’t say it’s always smooth-sailing. More than once we’ve gotten into heated discussions about how to approach one aspect of the book, or another. But it always gets sorted in the end.
MR: I can be pretty stubborn, so can Kel, so we butt heads from time to time (maybe three times) but there has always been give and take. In fact, if he knows I want to take a story someplace, he’ll make that happen. He’ll even set aside a sequence or two to let me run wild. I’m not sure that’s common. For the most part, ego rarely enters into it. Concern for what is best for the characters and story is always top priority.
PM: If you could cast actors to play the characters in The Mercenary Sea for a movie adaptation, who would they be?
KS: Ha. From all time, or contemporary? We’ve included in our upcoming trade volume some of the original character descriptions, most of which had some classic Hollywood stars as touchstones, so I won’t go through the whole cast. But, for me, Jack is Cary Grant – a roguish guy you want to like, but maybe can’t quite trust. If you were casting Jack today, let’s say as a TV series (because comics and television share that serialized format) I like Josh Holloway. What I just said about Grant above applies to Josh. Not quite the darkness of “Sawyer,” but a certain unprincipled flair. Maybe if you were doing a movie, I’d see Robert Downey Jr. as Jack – but he’s doing some comic book thing already, isn’t he?
MR: I think Cole Hauser would make a great Jack Harper. Would have to darken his hair but he has the swagger and the lightning.
PM: Can you discuss any upcoming plans for The Mercenary Sea? What’s next for our treasure-seeking adventurers?
KS: The series will return in November and December – a two-parter centered around Jack’s search for Koji Ra, that takes him back into war-torn China hunting for clues to its location – all tied to that trinket he got from the old fisherman in the first story arc. That quest of his will be the backbone of the series, which means we won’t be resolving it any time soon. But rest assured, it will be resolved. Then we’re back in February for a brand new story arc, this one ties Jack and the crew’s past as mercenaries sailing for the Chinese with a contemporary mission. We’ll also get to see how some of the crew came to serve on the Venture. I’ve got stories planned for the next few years, which will take us right up to the doorstep of America’s entry into WWII. Each year will be a main story arc, maybe peppered with a one-off adventure here and there.