Throwing unprepared teenagers into horrible, life-threatening situations has been a reliable source of entertainment for at least a couple centuries now. Writer Alex De Campi and artist Carla Speed McNeil’s take on this concept has a group of privileged American teens fighting for survival in the fictitious south-of-the-border country of Mataguey. I was worried that this setup would descend into a depressing slog as the teens have one disaster upon another heaped upon them. That is kind of what happens, except that De Campi and McNeil hit the right exciting and over-the-top tone to make it a thrilling ride!
It all starts when a group of successful applicants to Princeton go on a pre-freshman trip to build schools in a foreign country. This is the first time many of them have been out of the country and their lack of social graces upon arriving in Mataguey is both cringe-worthy, and… well, cringier-worthier. After being greeted by their guide, Sister Isabel, they all pile onto a slightly run-down bus for the ten-hour ride to the building site. Things go bad once they get off the main highway and a near-miss on a cliffside route, leads to a blow-out, leads to their bus going over a cliff. A good portion of the kids survive along with Sister Isabel, only now they’re going to have to deal with coyotes when night falls. If they survive that, then maybe they’ll have the necessary skills to deal with the drug traffickers who want the stash that was being transported on the bus.
What happens to the cast in this series isn’t exactly unrealistic, but we’re definitely dealing with a heightened version of reality here. The book kicks off at a frantic pace with a lot of information about the cast and setting thrown at the reader over the first few pages, followed by the bus crash and everyone preparing to fight off the coyote menace by the end of the first issue. Things continue at that level for the rest of the volume as they fight off the coyotes and then, inevitably, begin to bicker amongst themselves as their own personal issues lead the teens to form their own cliques. They are just out of high school after all.
By not going for a fully realistic approach to these events, the experience of reading “No Mercy” takes on the feel of a thrill ride. You’re constantly on edge with anticipation as to what new, horrible thing will befall these kids, and the tension never lets up for the whole volume. There’s also plenty of humor, mostly dark, that allows the reader to catch their breath before the narrative crazy train gets rolling again. Had De Campi and McNeil screwed up their approach, this would’ve been a joyless exercise in miserabilism that likely would’ve only impressed Rick Remender. Lucky for us, they got the balance between “awful” and “exciting” just right in order to make it “awfully exciting.” *rimshot*
The story also works as well as it does due to its cast as well. There’s an incredible amount of diversity among the many characters here as they run the gamut from sensitive overachiever, anime fangirl, freegan, cutter, deaf badass, and beyond. Yes, you want to smack them for how they act while at the airport, but it’s a level of cluelessness that isn’t that far removed from reality. It’s a lot easier to sympathize with them as they cope with losing their friends in the crash, and fend off the coyotes at night. Taking on those beasts produces the expected mix of frightening screw-ups and empowering moments of cleverness you’d expect from smart people operating completely out of their element. Still, De Campi manages to have her cast come off like believable kids throughout the first volume. Which means you’ll want to hug them and smack them in equal measure, and that proves to be a surprisingly endearing combination here.
Except for Chad. Man, FUCK that guy.
He’s the one part of this book that I find actively irritating, if not downright hateful. We get our first glimpse of how much of a dick this guy is when he berates his sister Charlene because he suspects she might be talking about him to Sister Isabel in Spanish. She is, but it takes a real douche to make that kind of baseless assumption. He then goes on to berate her for taking too long to find a lighter off of one of the corpses, beats on her while they’re cornered by coyotes and even offers her up to them, trolls another girl who gets picked on, and steals the cocaine out of the bus. I know people like him exist in real life, but he is such a giant asshole that I was actively rooting for his death at one specific point. While the creators get the tone just right for the majority of this volume, Chad is such a negative presence that he threatens to disrupt it all by himself. Redemption is likely too much to ask for him now. I can only hope for his death, and that he realizes what an asshole he is before he dies.
On a more positive note, McNeil is just as crucial to making the cast as interesting as they are as De Campi. All of the cast have their own distinct appearance and personality about them. That’s an impressive achievement given how large the cast is here. She’s also great with the body language and overall emoting of the characters, making their emotions vividly realized on the page. Seeing anime fangirl Tiffani mourn over her friend Kira is downright heartbreaking and really communicates how close they were before this trip. McNeil also offers up a lot of clever layouts to allow key parts of the story to really stand out. The jagged breaks between panels of the initial coyote attack really stand out, as does the strict ten-panel grid a few pages later that lets us know about one of the cast’s lip-reading skills.
I do realize that a story about awful things happening to a bunch of college freshmen isn’t going to be for everyone, no matter how well it’s realized. That’s even before you start to account for Chad. However, De Campi and McNeil serve it all up in a way that makes for an exciting, compelling read. The body count is only going to rise from here on out and those who survive are likely going to have physical and mental scars from this experience to last the rest of their lives. That may sound horrible, but their suffering is downright delicious to experience in this first volume.