Dear readers, to avoid dancing around a “reveal” (which takes place only a page or two into the issue), I hereby invoke the heralded “Rite of Spoilerage.” If you’re the sort of person that can’t abide hearing anything of a revelatory nature, stop reading now, and promptly pick up The Mercenary Sea #4, either in digital or “dead tree” format. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind another example of why this series is earning its place on my pull with flying colors, then read on. We clear on the whole SPOILERS bit now? Good, good.

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I absolutely love how the bullet ricochets have different sounds. These guys LOVE their sound effects

After spending a healthy amount of the first three issues underwater, The Mercenary Sea #4 sees the Venture’s crew “going topside” to continue their rescue attempt of British spy “Top Hat” from Japanese forces. And while this issue decidedly follows Elvis’ mantra of “a little less conversation, a little more action” than the past three, Kel Symons’ taut plotting and Mathew Reynolds’ lush visuals should put The Mercenary Sea #4 on your radar of titles to pick up this week.

If that’s not enough, the cliffhanger ending to last month’s issue didn’t come across in the rhetorical “How will our boys get out of this jam?” sense, where you know the crew’s success is a non-issue. In case you forgot, Captain Jack and his crew were learning the hard way what happens when an overly confident Limey spy ends up in charge, in this case, a Commander Graham. Of course, any of you that saw Michael Fassbender’s character attempt to order drinks in Inglorious Basterdsknow these guys aren’t always “fieldwork” material.

So it’s up to The Mercenary Sea #4 to answer the age-old riddle: When does a rescue mission cease being a rescue mission? Answer: when the rescuee takes a katana to the neck. Nothing quite puts a damper on things like that. But just when I figured our ragtag band would be forced to scrub the mission on account of “Top Hat” lounging in a pool of his vital fluids, Symons pulls off a masterful twist.

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“IT’S ALMOST LIKE YOU GET OFF ON WITHHOLDING, GRAHAM.”

What if I told you that “Top Hat” wasn’t actually “the ‘Top Hat’ you’re looking for?” What if the actual Top Hat was the next individual in the queue for getting the business end of a Japanese blade? And what if “Top Hat’s” real name was actually…Evelyn? Well, I’d probably opt for “Top Hat” too. That’s right, “Top Hat” is a woman, which I’m embarrassed to say, was a possibility that never actively occurred to me. And while they certainly weren’t as numerous or well-known as their male counterparts, there were more than a handful of female spies during WWII, and it’s great to see Kel Symons cleverly defying gender role expectations of wartime occupations.

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Based on their accuracy, you’d have to wager the Japanese trained at the Stormtrooper Academy of Marksmanship and Superfluous Armor.

Of course, the fact that our spy with the Abe Lincoln moniker is a woman doesn’t change the fact that she’s seconds away from an eye (not to mention, neck) opening experience. This leads into probably the longest action sequence the Mercenary Sea has produced, which is aided by Symons’ ability to interweave snappy conversational exposition alongside mortar explosions and machine gun salvos. We’ve all read titles that use shootouts or slugfests as an “intermission” from forwarding the narrative, so its nice to get a reprieve from that entrenched storytelling faux pas.

In the ensuing firefight, Jack’s radio operator Do narrowly escapes an explosion, while the radio departs for whatever afterlife awaits pulverized electronics. No radio, no signaling the Venture to surface for extraction. Understandably, the local fishermen are only willing to lead them to the Chinese resistance fighters if Jack promises to help them rescue their women. Graham balks at the idea as a fruitless distraction from the mission at hand, while Evelyn says she’s obligated to help them, as they were sheltering her in the first place. Sure, some might say Symons is merely playing with the “by-the-book until it kills him” British soldier and the “stubborn and self-assured” British lass archetypes. However, as I posited in my last Mercenary Sea review, Symons subverts these just as frequently as he reinforces them.

On top of his “Top Hat” trickery, and the fluidly unfolding plot that results from such, Symons tackles a few other things that briefly bear mention. He finally has us interacting with characters like “Smokestack” Jackson and Do, which were largely relegated to the peripheral in past issues. And while Symons could have easily kowtowed to the average comic book reader’s demand to be “in the know” on individual’s roles on the Venture, extensive backstories, and just how the crew came together in the first place, he’s opted for a “slow burn” reveal. I, for one, am all for it.

Nothing quite breaks immersion in a book like an “explain-a-thon” or a character strictly relegated to inquiring about every single thing, so the reader doesn’t feel “left out.” Symons is a master of letting mysteries remain mysteries, all the while stringing readers along with tidbits to keep us pondering. Blink, and you might miss this issue’s allusion to the Koji Ra subplot, or a passing remark about why the Chinese aren’t too keen on Mr. Harper. One has to respect an author that, in turn, respects his readership enough not to bludgeon them over the head with information.

While this absolutely won’t surprise anyone who has read past issues, Reynolds has taken Symons’ script and supplemented it with some of the freshest art in modern comics. But beyond that, this issue made several demands of Reynolds’ work; demands that arguably fell outside those established by the first couple issues.

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Did I mention this issue has a lot of guns. I didn’t? Well…uh…it has a lot of guns. Glad we cleared that up.

I admit I wondered if Reynolds’ clean lines and serene backgrounds could capture the frenetic intensity of a full-blown battle, and charge through the panels at the machine gun pace Symons was setting. All of that doubt was cast aside when the panel zoomed in on Jack unloading on Evelyn’s would-be executioner: the ejected shells hanging in the air, the muzzle flare popping against the dark background colors, the stylized “BLAM”s alongside each successive blast. And while the previously described scene calls to mind the slow-mo showmanship of The Matrix or the Max Paynevideo games, Reynold’s style (his color work especially) creates a paradoxically beautiful depiction of war’s savage nature. Not unlike the film Dredd, there’s a strange beauty in his bullet trails that slash across panels like crisscrossing ribbons of light, or how the executioner’s exit wounds resemble the “pop” of fireworks or confetti, more than a gory mess.

Just look at the Samurai pose, and the way the hair pops in the panels. Fantastic work by Reynolds.

Equally stunning in this issue is Reynolds’ depiction of Evelyn, which epitomizes everything I admire about his character design. For starters, Reynolds’ doesn’t portray Evelyn as a ‘busty top and bikini bottoms,” instead he hones in on other physical features that allow her to easily stand out, especially given The Mercenary Sea’s tendency for muted backdrops. I’ve noticed these visual elements in other characters: Doc’s two-tone hair, Jack’s pearly whites, and Kevin’s tattoos, to name a couple. But in Evelyn’s case it’s her fantastically flowing flaxen follicles. Nothing jumps off this month’s pages like her hair, which seems to take on a life of its own in every panel, gives an added sense of motion to her movements, and lends a real cinematic feel to action sequences, which look like something out of a Japanese woodblock print. In addition, there’s something oddly poetic about Evelyn “repurposing” the iconic Japanese blade of (usually) honorable warriors, against those that would force the women of their enemies into prostitution.

But when Reynolds isn’t busy drawing scenes of oddly-mesmerizing bloodshed or semi-autonomous hair, he’s finding new ways to impress the reader. For a stylized aesthetic, Reynolds’ adherence to accuracy and detail for military garb and arms is admirable. Even for someone like myself, whose minimal knowledge of guns is restricted to movies and video games, I can still tell that Jack’s pistol is a Colt M1911 and Do uses a Thompson submachine gun. Appropriately enough, Evelyn’s Walther PPK also happens to be the weapon-of-choice for a much more famous (albeit, still fictional) British spy: James Bond. It’s these little details that immerse the reader even further, and perhaps say more about the character that uses them. Again, I know next to nothing about guns, so to the gun aficionados reading this: at least give me credit for being “close.”

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Clearly both Symons and Reynolds know that “cool guys (and girls) don’t look at explosions.”

How does The Mercenary Sea #4 stack up alongside the previous three issues? Well, exempt from the groundwork laying (which, let me be clear, was handled well and was not the “info dump” that many books still utilize) that earlier issues took part in, The Mercenary Sea #4 is able to hit the ground running from page one. The result is an issue that is decidedly more serialized than the past; starting on one cliffhanger, and ending on another. Symons’ story is now in “full-swing,” and Reynolds’ art has expanded to include some glorious splash pages and wide shots, in sync with the crew’s “shore leave” from the (appropriately) cramped and claustrophobic panels of the Venture.

If you thought this book was going to “drop off,” you’re wrong. If you thought this book was going to start “coasting,” you’re wrong. The Mercenary Sea has finally hit its stride, with issue #4 standing as a wonderful composite of the elements that made the first three issues great. If the thought of adulterated fun and stylized action has you clutching for your “comfort blanket” of crossovers, “cookie cutter” art, and the rebooting of reboots of reboots, then I’d suggest you “weigh anchor” and set sail for the fabled port of “business as usual.” As for the rest of you, join me in counting down the days to The Mercenary Sea’s fifth installment.

The Mercenary Sea can be purchased at your Local Comic Shop, on Comixology, or Image Comics (the latter of which is DRM-Free).

Overall Score
95 %

The Mercenary Sea #4 is bigger and better than its preceding issues...and that's no easy feat to accomplish! The plot rips along, free of the obligations of set-up work, and the pencils are easily the finest they've been so far.

Story/Plot 95%
Pencils 95%
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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