Interview: Alex de Campi

Alex De Campi, (left) and Carla Speed McNeil (right) bring No Mercy back to bookshelves this week.
Alex De Campi, (left) and Carla Speed McNeil (right) bring No Mercy back to bookshelves this week.

No Mercy returns to shelves this week with Issue #5 and we caught up with series co-writer Alex de Campi to talk about what’s next for the crew of teenagers, how she picks the winners of the emoji recaps at the end of each issue and where the story goes from here.

No Mercy is about teenagers and it could be directed at that audience, but when you’re writing it, do you think about what teenagers or people around that age might be getting out of it? Are you thinking about what people are taking from it when you write it?

No, we don’t plan it that much in terms of that it’s going to have a positive message or anything like that. I think we’re just trying to predict the casual brutality of the teenage years as accurately as possible. Whoever said the teenage years are the best years of your life, I want to find those people and punch them. Haruki Murakami also wants to find those people and punch them. So, obviously, I am correct because Haruki Murakami knows. There are moments of transcendent joy in the teenagers years, but there are also moments of great, great, great sadness. It’s a time when you are trying to figure out who you really are and you’re almost trying on different personalities and trying on different futures and most of them are a reaction to things. “I don’t want to be the girl from a small town. “I don’t want to be a girl.” “I don’t want to be like them, I want to be like these people.” It’s a really tough time for a lot of people and I think a lot of books tiptoe around that.

There’s sort of this gloss….or maybe I just had a really rough bunch of teenage years, but I’ve always taken my inspiration from directors like Sam Peckinpah who are fairly brutal. I think there’s a place for telling some real stories where things are not necessarily all got a happy message. I was talking about how much I love Steven Universe and it always has a positive happy message about how we can get together as any kind of group that defines itself as a family. We are more of a message about validating the struggle you’re going through as a teenager and saying, “yes, it’s very, very hard and you will eventually get through it.” [In the comic,] you’re not going to see the kids starting to get through it and really become themselves for probably another arc and a half.

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Right, they’re still in immediate danger right now. It’s not even about self-reflection.

Yes, and the fun thing about the book is…you know, stories are like onions, you peel the layers. Well, with No Mercy, we give you the center of the onion first. We give you the pebble in the water, and at a certain point, we reveal to you that there are a lot of things happening outside the immediate danger of the children, almost in response to that danger and the fact that they’re missing. That you only find out about much later, as the kids themselves start to find out about it.

You said at Special Edition that you were really interested in the “blame game” that people would play afterwards, once they either got back or even while they’re gone. Is that still a long way off?

We start to see the beginnings of it next arc. Issue #5 comes out in December. Next arc is 5 issues and ends with Issue #9. They’re all written, four of them are drawn. You know, people’s babies got hurt. Badly. Killed, on a school sponsored trip. Someone has to be at fault. The school knows this is coming. This is how people react. So they will be proactively working to remove culpability from themselves for it. A lot of really quite dodgy stuff starts to go on. And also you’ve got kids that functionally have PTSD now. So, what would you do if someone maimed your child?

So at some point we are going to see the kids at Princeton or maybe just dealing with what they’ve been through at home?

Right. Some don’t come back. Some come back fairly easily. Some come back but are kind of changed irrevocably. And the choices they made of how they go into Princeton are no longer the right choices. Spoiler, Gina comes back. She ends up going to college. She has very severe PTSD. Things happen to Gina before she gets back—bad things. (It’s called No Mercy.) Many of them happen in Issue #5. This isn’t written yet, not even in Issue #9. This is like Issue #12. Gina was a popular girl who was a beauty queen in her beautiful, northern Michigan town, Cherry Capitol of the World. She deliberately chose a dorm at Princeton called “The Zoo,” which is a twelve girl dormitory. It’s where the popular girls go. That is not a good environment. You know, they always have parties there, they always have boys around, it’s where all the social young Freshmen hang out.

That’s not really a good environment for a person with PTSD. And she suffers tremendously and then has the issue of being a really bad fit amongst those group of girls. Gina’s a terrible fit, but the the popular girls also don’t have a wonderful time. Based on an event that happened while I was in college…. Freshmen in college make terrible decisions—many of them relating to alcohol. There are a lot of grey areas and one of the things that happens is, one of the girls in The Zoo goes to a party, is very drunk and has sex with a guy, which is not entirely consensual. We don’t actually show any of that. That’s not our goal. But she comes home all torn up to the dorm when everyone else is asleep–except for Gina who has PTSD and isn’t sleeping–and so Gina’s dealing with this girl who’s just had this traumatic event happen and the girl not only isn’t sure whether it was consensual, she doesn’t remember what the guy looked like. She’s wasted! This happens. These things happen to a tremendously large number of women in college, often in their freshmen week.

Right, because they’re still figuring out their threshold with alcohol.

Exactly. There was a girl at my school that was known as “Peanut Butter Girl” for a year because of an event involving drunken sex and peanut butter by the pool table that she did not remember. It’s funny in comics–which is about escapism–but I’m trying to write about the things people actually go through because here are people who are going through…. and they’ll be OK. They will be changed, but they will be OK—except for the ones that die. They’re not going to be OK, they’re going to be dead. So you think, oh, they’re back in college at a nice Ivy League school, what could go wrong now? And that’s another thing, of the original 10 survivors, a lot survive and we’ll be bringing in some other students, some other teenagers and characters over the course of the book that will also sometimes not survive.

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So, the nun character, Ines, is she going to go beyond what we’re seeing right now? Once we go back to the U.S. are we still going to check up on that character or are other characters going to weave in and out and new people become important.

New people become important, but mostly secondary characters. The…nine surviving kids remain the focus of the book. But, Ines remains a primary character. There are important revelations about Ines in the future. Issue #8. I always like to say it has not one but two mic drops, it actually has a third. We maintain the vice grip of tension up through Issue #9. It’s pretty awesome. The book never lets up and one of the things we took from things like Attack on Titan or Death Note or Knights of Sidonia was the Japanese voyage of discovery in a story of discovering not only that the world is not…. The A-B conflict, the kids versus the Titans, the kids versus the Gauna, the light-L conflict in Death Note almost becomes secondary to the voyage of discovery of consistently realizing that the world does not operate according to the rules that you think it does.

This was a group of people who were thrown together on a bus, who would not have been friends in real life in many circumstances. They would have been fine muddling along on this student trip, but they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen each other. You know, the kind of people you’re friends with for the first couple weeks of freshman year and then never see again. There’s a lot about them that they don’t tell each other–not out of any secret purpose–but you’re not gonna front up to someone that you have diabetes right off. You’re not gonna front up about sexuality issues. You’re not necessarily gonna front up about your school or your cutting. There’s all sorts of things that are fundamental to your character that you do not tell people when you first meet them.

For the back matter of each issue, do you deliberately choose those to be in conversation with what’s happening in the issue?

It’s hard to make them exactly in conversation because I obviously had a bunch of experiences and then opted 20 years later to write a comic. I just had room in the back and I had some really old blog posts from the early days of the internet when I wrote about my traveling. Some of them are really stupid things I’d done, like, really dumb. And I’m aware a lot of it’s about Alex and her white privilege in foreign countries and sometimes I feel bad about that, because I look back on how I was and I was kind of a jerk. I still am, but just in different ways. I didn’t want to go back and kind of whitewash my early 20-something stupidities to make myself look better to readers because that’s really not the point of No Mercy.

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It’s just the reality of being abroad, especially at a young age.

Yeah, and I just thought it would be interesting to people.

So who goes through the submissions for best emoji recap of the issue and decides who gets reprinted in the issue?

[Points to self.]

Does that take a lot of work or do you have a system now?

I’m getting a pretty good system. There are usually about four or five emoji recaps and I might actually do the Issue #5 one myself, the #1-4 emoji recap. I’m a bit specific about them. They shouldn’t try to recap every beat of the story. They should be brief and to the point. I mean, I emoji recap things in real life all the time. I did an emoji recap of Mike Richardson’s Dark Horse apology, which I was quite proud of. It’s funny to see how people use emojis. I’ve gotten 50 character emoji recaps and I’m like, “whoa!”

Do you have an idea roughly how many issues you want the story to go?

Obviously, it depends on sales. [In a lower tone] Buy my comic. Written up through #9, written the next two arcs and there will probably be two arcs after that. I always kind of saw it as having the initial 10 issues of the actual event, then 10 issues of the wider world’s reaction to the event, and then there’s 10 issues of the characters resolving themselves. The use of time is going to be interesting with it because the first three issues are like the first 24 hours, but some of the later issues will be over, like, three months.

Right, because right now it’s all terror and trauma.

Yeah, but many of the characters do have good endings. Carla [Speed] and I have talked a lot about the endings. They’re not going to be cheap endings, like the character with PTSD, her PTSD is not magically going to vanish. But she and her family redefine themselves and find ways to help her function.

To understand it better.

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To understand it better and support her. And she can be in a place where she can be functional and slowly work to get better. [sighs] The one problem with being real in comics is that they focus on action and the action almost has no consequences. Even if you do something as silly as go up and punch someone in a bar, that has tremendous long-term consequences for you and the person and possibly your police record. Beyond just giving someone a bloody nose, you have to check the box that says, “Have you ever been arrested?” on job applications and then they won’t hire you at McDonald’s. A friend of mine flipped of a policeman and told him to fuck off when he was working out of uniform after hours as a car repossesser. She had a gun. She lived in a rural area and she thought someone was stealing her car. Two guys were repossessing her car, but not in uniform and one of them then said he was a policeman even though he wasn’t working as a policeman at the time. He was working at his night job off duty. And she got charged with a felony and went to prison. She didn’t point the gun at them, she just went out with her gun because she lived in a rural area and someone was trying to steal her car and she was a woman by herself. And she she’s a trucker, but she can’t work for any of the big trucking companies because she has a felony on her record. Because one off duty policeman decided to be a jerk about someone who was having a fairly natural reaction to thinking their car was being stolen in a bad neighborhood.

Therefore, she has had to be an independent trucker her entire life, which has made life very, very difficult for her. Dumb things have incredible ramifications and comics aren’t really good at that. Comics are good at saying, “Oh, we’re all fine now. Oh, this crossover destroyed Mexico City, but we’re all fine now. And all the people in Mexico, they’ll be fine.”

They’ll just have to rebuild again.

Right. It’s like an earthquake. I want to accept the long-term ramifications of what some of these characters do yet get them in places where they are able to be themselves and the consequences of their actions and what they’ve been through doesn’t vanish, it just becomes a richer part of them. But not in a trashy, simplistic way, that insults people who are actually struggling with those issues.

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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