WARNING: while this comic book may take place during the events of World War II, possess an American protagonist whose jaw could dice diamonds like an onion on Top Chef, and a submarine, NO Nazis are harmed in the first three issues of The Mercenary Sea.  In fact, there’s not one goose-stepper to be found in the first place.  If that’s a “dealbreaker,” I apologize.

See, The Mercenary Sea (see what I did there?) takes place outside of the “average American’s knowledge” (three words that promise so very little) of WWII: several years before Pearl Harbor and over in the lesser-known Pacific Theater.  At this point, you’re probably staring down this “Nazi-free” series written by Kel Symons and drawn by Mathew Reynolds, and in realizing that it might have the faint potential to further your knowledge of world history…have begun a half-hearted attempt to beat that Candy Crush level instead.  Just gimme a second, please.

After all, the plot of The Mercenary Sea is relatively straightforward, at least when compared to most comic book offerings from the “big two.”  Captain Jack Harper and the crew of his submarine, the Venture, are (as the title clearly suggests) smugglers amidst the conflict in the South Pacific between the Chinese and Japanese.  And how are Mr. Harper and the Venturenauts (I lay claim to this indie band name) faring in this “high risk, high reward” trade my high school career counselor neglected to bring up?   Well, war is business, and business is…well, it’s actually quite rubbish. But that’s what happens when you’re persona non grata with both of the warring factions.  Whoops.

This...this is not a good way to make friends.  It IS a good way to fire a pistol sideways in a sleeveless black top, however.

This…this is not a good way to make friends. It IS a good way to fire a pistol sideways in a sleeveless black top, however.

Not that Cap’n Jack’s cohorts are likely to locate any viable form of employment in their respective homelands, though.  Symons has masterfully utilized that “ragtag group with nowhere to call home” trope most recently seen in such works as Firefly (which, unsurprisingly enough, Symons has listed as a direct influence on The Mercenary Sea).  Equally in line with Joss Whedon’s masterpiece, they’ve all got roles and archetypes to accompany them.

There’s the cook Jarreau, French from his red military beret to his precariously dangling cigarette, all the way down to his utterances of “Merde,” “Merci,” and “Mon Dieu,” all before the first issue closes.  Our tomboyish mechanic Sam is young, naïve, and the only woman on board, while Brit Milton Weatherborne III prefers “Doc,” and learned the hard way that “operating while intoxicated” is universally frowned upon by medical boards. Unsurprisingly, the “muscle” is African-American boxer John “Smokestack” Jackson, whose refusal to “throw” a fight has the Mafia nipping at his heels, and the reticent native islander Kevin (his real name’s unpronounceable by the Western tongue) who sports tribal tattoos and a Kukri knife with equal aplomb.  And Jack?  Well let’s just say that Captain Harper cut his teeth actively defying the Eighteenth Amendment.

That would be Kevin tossing that HUGE knife.  Actions speak louder than words, and Kevin's coming up short in the "words" department.

That would be Kevin tossing that HUGE knife. Actions speak louder than words, and Kevin’s coming up short in the “words” department.

“Why don’t you make like The Iliad, and list everybody?” you ask.

Well, the “take home” point here is that it is undeniable that Symons has constructed all of these characters as stereotypical caricatures.  However, like an intricately stacked game of Jenga, Symons has built up these roles, only to gradually chip away at our cultural/societal expectations associated with them.  Not giving too much away, there’s a scene in the first issue where the sniveling and bespectacled sonar operator Toby is confronted over his unwillingness to carry his share of the supplies.  If you rely on character tropes (especially those of Topher Grace’s similarly geeky character in Predators) to predict the direction of this scene…you’re gonna be surprised.

While I love Symon’s simultaneous reinforcement and deconstruction of archetypes within the serial genre, part of me is relieved that he hasn’t abandoned the “supernatural/treasure hunt” element so prevalent in other entries.  While Captain Harper may spend his days escorting supply frigates, all of his (very little) free time is allocated towards finding Koji Ra, that mythological city sporting “mountains of gold” and “rubies the size of a man’s fist.”

Mathew Reynolds' depiction of the legend of Koji Ra is something to behold.

Mathew Reynolds’ depiction of the legend of Koji Ra is something to behold.

Amusingly enough, his crew won’t entertain any of Jack’s fairy tales, and a tribal chieftain’s retort to Jack speaking “the fireside tales of my elders” flips the script in a way that brought a bemused smile to my face.  As character backgrounds were gradually filled in over these first three issues, there was a sense of anxiety that perhaps The Mercenary Sea was more episodic in nature than I had thought…at least, compared to several of the canon-fueled titles I read.  However the presence of Koja Ra (be it legend or not) as an overarching narrative, along with the third issue ending on a cliffhanger, has quelled these concerns.

While some may have heard of Kel Symons from his 2012-2013 Image Comics series I Love Trouble, or his career producing such documentaries as the D&D themed The Dungeon Masters, the name Mathew Reynolds should bring a confused look to the face of even the biggest comic book “know-it-all.”  Because, as far as the eye can see (or, more accurately, as far as my repeated Googling of his name will take me) Reynolds has not previously worked with any comic book publisher.  In fact, Symons only discovered his work when io9 posted this article featuring Reynolds’ interpretation of Indiana Jones.  Even from these minimalist drawings, Reynolds’ astounding abilities surface.

Simply put, Reynolds is the perfect artist for this series, though his work certainly shares a lot of similarities with Darwyn Cooke’s (Parker, DC: The New Frontier).  Both sport a style favoring clean lines, blocky features, art deco aesthetics and a commanding understanding of light and shadow.  While I can’t get enough of his angular eyebrows and wide array of expressions, it’s Reynolds’ color work that delivers in spades.  Yes, he’s the colorist too.  Again, like Cooke, he’s perfectly comfortable working with a color palette mostly restricted to the grays, blacks and blues he’s bathed the Venture’s interiors in.  After a handful of sub-aquatic pages, the confining aesthetic takes hold, and one can’t help but feel agoraphobic alongside the crew.

This is normally where I'd make a Fifty Shades of Gray joke.  I'm better than that, however.

This is normally where I’d make a Fifty Shades of Gray joke. I’m better than that, however.

Interestingly, the majority of Reynolds’ infrequent bursts of color coincide with the crew’s flashbacks surrounding what got them into trouble, Harper’s yarns of past doomed expeditions to find Koji Ra, and the various bar brawls and shootouts they find themselves in. In a comic surrounding a trade in which a low profile is of the utmost importance, Reynolds has (consciously or not) linked brighter colors with increased visibility/danger for the crew.  In The Mercenary Sea it doesn’t matter whether it’s a “red sky at night,” or a “red sky at morning,” chances are someone should “take warning.”

Overall, The Mercenary Sea is in a league of its own.  It’s an artistically unique title that stands as a faithful homage to 1930s film serials, while at the same time subverting the harmful stereotypes these movies reinforced.  In a day and age where lengthy cross-overs and gritty realism are seen as the only way to make a buck, it’s refreshing to have a comic rise from the depths, stem the tide of melodramatic dreck, and…well…I’m all out of nautical puns.  Please do knot let my inability to string together bad jokes dissuade you from picking up this action-filled romp that isn’t afraid to be both fun and funny: the two “f-words” of modern comics.  To do otherwise would be a fate I just cannot fathom.  I lied about the puns thing.  Sorry.

The Mercenary Sea can be purchased at your Local Comic Shop, at Image Comics, or on Comixology.

Overall Score
92 %

If you've got a hankering for a sub-aquatic adventure and beautiful artwork, The Mercenary Sea delivers on both splendidly.

Writing 90%
Pencils 90%
Colors 95%

About The Author

Growing up, Nick White dreamed of a career with the Chicago Bulls. This is because he was young and stupid, and his parents were of the "you can do ANYTHING" mentality.

When he was older, and probably not a whole lot smarter, Nick purchased Alan Moore's From Hell on a whim (that in itself probably says a lot). He was astounded to find that comics were as bizarre and twisted as his beloved Twin Peaks. After that he bought Batman: The Black Mirror strictly on the cover's aesthetics (Who the hell is Scott Snyder?" he said) and hasn't looked back since. Except, of course, in situations that necessitate such.

When he's not "busy" playing Castlevania or harassing Zander about what he ought to be reading, Nick continues to work on his makeshift shrine to Jeff Lemire.

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