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AICN COMICS Q&@: Majin Fu talks with THE MERCENARY SEA writer Kel Symons!

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Q’s by Majin-Fu!

@’s by Kel Symons

MajinFu here. Kel Symons is the writer of THE MERCENARY SEA, Image Comics’s newest exercise in pulpy goodness (as well as one hell of a book) and was kind enough to take some time from his busy schedule for an interview. Included are some bonus images from THE MERCENARY SEA #3 as well as a few exclusive panels from the upcoming issue four!

MAJIN-FU(MF): Your enthusiasm for early 20th century cinema and pop culture is evident from reading THE MERCENARY SEA. What are some of your favorite movies from say the 30s and 40s, and how did they influence THE MERCENARY SEA?

KEL SYMONS (KS): Oh yes, I do love that era, especially the 40s. Two of my favorites that had a direct influence on THE MERCENARY SEA are pretty obvious: KING KONG and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. The '33 KING KONG really is an amazing adventure film - so economical in the way story and action play out scene after scene. You watch the Peter Jackson remake, and by the time they get to the island something like 50 minutes has passed; in the original film, the hero's about to rescue Fay Wray - it moves that quickly. Sure the acting can be a bit "theatrical" - but that's just an artifact of the times, as movies were still deeply rooted in the stage. I think maybe actors felt they had to be bigger than life to project themselves. But that original KING KONG is a wonderful adventure. I think the stop motion still holds up to this day (I also realize I'm probably the only one who thinks that - chalk one up for nostalgia). Certainly the legend of Koji Ra is inspired by Skull Island.

I've mentioned once that Howard Hawks was our spirit animal on THE MERCENARY SEA- I love so many of his movies, but ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is a direct antecedent for TMS. I love how many Hawks movies have these men (and quite a few women) cast off in far-flung places trying to get by - the jungles of South America, a frontier town, the Antarctic. Where you're forced to rely on yourself or fail. That ideal plays heavily in the construction of this world and its characters.

Aside from the above, I love LAURA (probably my favorite film noir), OUT OF THE PAST, THE BIG SLEEP, the wit of THE THIN MAN. MR SMITH GOES TO WASINGTON and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, for sure. There's some CASABLANCA in THE MERCENARY SEA, especially that Bogart persona of "I stick my neck out for no one" (also seen in To Have and Have Not, another Hawks influence). And you may have noted I reference CASABLANCA directly through dialogue in the first issue. CITIZEN KANE, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, ARSENIC & OLD LACE... so many great films from this era.

MF: How has your background in film and television production helped with your work in comics?

KS: It was a relatively smooth transition. I mean, there were certainly a few format change-ups I had to adapt to, but I don't recall the learning curve being all that steep. Writing is writing; story-telling is story-telling, no matter what the medium. If it's a comic book script or a movie script, you still have to deliver on engaging characters, sharp and believable dialogue, and a rousing tale.

MF: Did you have any setbacks or was it an easy transition?

KS: Probably the biggest thing I had to get used to is the fact that Image doesn't really employ story editors - there's no content control. No editorial oversight. Other than a few pointers Eric Stephenson gave me early on, and maybe a pass for typos, there's no notes from the publisher. Creator owned means exactly that - it's yours. Sink or swim. That can actually be a little scary. As a writer in Hollywood, I'm used to EVERYONE giving me their opinion on something I've written - a chorus of notes. So this was a bit of culture shock for me, when I learned I would be working without a net. In fact, it's the reason I brought Sebastian Girner aboard as a story editor on THE MERCENARY SEA- it was just good to have another professional opinion about what we were doing. As it happens he's both an Asian studies major, and speaks German - that was a happy accident, but his input has been most valuable to us.

MF: Truly a golden era for cinema, but also a time of great strife. THE MERCENARY SEA has a clear historical placement around the Sino-Japanese War. How much research did you have to do for this project? Do you think it's an integral part of writing this kind of story?

KS: Yes and no. I certainly wanted to be as accurate as possible, but I'm not really obsessed with getting everything historically correct. Which is odd, because I'm the guy who's always watching the movie and saying, "Oh, that's not the right kind of gun there" or "They didn't even have that then." I've had to temper that part of my brain because I just want to tell a good story, and sometimes strict adherence to the facts get in the way of that. I've already gotten emails from folks telling me I got the wrong U-boat when Mr. Taylor is reading through Wulf's file (to be fair, it was a typo - meant to say "UB-107" which was a WWI era boat, not "U-107" which was WWII. Oops!). But we played with the interior of the boat to make it more livable - which means it's far more spacious than any sub of that era. And can be crewed by only a few hands. I respect folks who point out these inaccuracies, though. But in the final analysis, all I can say is it's just a story, and I'll sacrifice whatever I have to in order to tell a good one. But again, I want to get it right when I can. Not doing your homework is a sign of laziness, in my opinion.

MF: What is your favorite part of the creative process? Anything you relish?

KS: Well, it's certainly nice to hold the finished book in my hands, but after I write the script, my main job - creation - is sort of done. I do oversee a lot of the production details, mostly out of necessity though: Mathew's busy working on future books, so whatever I can do to take the load off his shoulders, I will.

As far as some part of the process I enjoy, I guess in the writing, when a character surprises me with something, that's pretty cool. I know that sounds a little crazy: How could something I created surprise me? But it actually happens sometimes - dialogue or a scene I'm writing will go off in a new and unexpected direction. That's fun.

MF: Mathew Reynolds' work is perfectly suited to the material in THE MERCENARY SEA. How did you get him involved?

KS: Mathew was involved from the very start. Before, even. We met online after I'd seen some of his original Indiana Jones artwork, and got to talking about Raiders, which lead to discussing other favorite movies and stories, and from that, this creature that became THE MERCENARY SEA started to take shape. I went off for a week or so and came back to him with this idea of a crew of a sub tooling around the South Seas in search of treasure, all while a war was going on all around them. We started toying with it, adding and subtracting elements, until we pitched it to Image as our homage to great adventure. This story really is just for Mathew and I in some way - couple of 12 year old kids playing the woods all summer day, pretending to be explorers and adventurers. It's just that we put it all down on paper for the rest of you.

MF: Did you and Mathew ever talk about certain actors or people you had in mind for the role of certain characters in The Mercenary Sea? (For example, Captain Tono resembles Toshiro Mifune in his prime)

KS: Oh, absolutely. Tono is based on Mifune. I often wrote suggestions for how characters should look in my scripts. The Dutch missionary in books 1 & 2 I said should look a little like the actor who played Katherine Hepburn's brother in THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the great character actor Robert Morley. Kevin, our taciturn islander, is inspired by tough-guy actor Robert Tessier - the name of his character even comes from the guy he played in THE DEEP. I wanted Jack to be a little Bogie, and a little Cary Grant - but Mathew went in another, even better direction: you can see Brando in many of Jack's emotions and expressions.

MF: Really enjoying the new letter column. How do you think getting feedback from the fans impacts your work, if at all?

KS: I don't know. This is such a fan-driven medium that I certainly don't want to disappoint anybody, but this isn't writing by committee. I have a pretty clear vision for where this is all headed. Besides, I don't think you want that degree of influence... Wasn't there a rumor that the writers on Lost just combed through fan comments to come up with new plot ideas? I don't want that. Fan feedback, and critical comments in general are hard to ignore when you're up against something in the writing process, but you do have to tune that out largely. There's always going to be critics, and not everything you do is going to land with everyone, so mostly I'm just writing for myself. I'm the First Reader anyway. The harshest critic, who will say "Yup, that works" or "Ugh. This stinks!" Satisfying that guy is my biggest job.

MF: What to you made FIREFLY such a great show?

KS: FIREFLY was my first real exposure to Joss Whedon. I mean, I'd seen the BUFFY movie with Kristy Swanson, and wasn't a fan. When I learned they were doing a TV show based on it, I said "No, thank you." Had some friends who adored the show though, and I remember seeing a few episodes ("Hush" comes to mind) but I still thought "Oh, this is a kids' show - it's for teenage girls."). Then I saw FIREFLY, probably because as sci-fi it really appealed to me. Something just clicked. I suddenly had this group of "space friends" that I cared about. When the show was gone, I wanted more of that humor, more of that camaraderie. And a friend told me I should really give BUFFY a try. This was, of course, around the time of the final season, but I started watching it - obsessively. Tivoing it. Buying dvds (I'm a completist, and also feel I have to watch shows in order) Then I watched Angel. Then I went through and watched both shows all over again. Yes, I know, that all sounds pretty pathetic. But I loved it.

MF: Not at all, I think a lot of fans reach that point with stuff they enjoy.

KS: I believe FIREFLY was Whedon's best, most fully realized work. Odd to say that, given there were only 13 episodes, but that show worked like no other. Whereas the first season of BUFFY and ANGEL are sometimes clunky and still finding their footing, Firefly seemed to hit the ground running. Who knows... maybe in a way it's best that it died young, before we saw it get bloated and out of control. Sort of like all those greats who burn out by 27 - is it better thinking of them as they were, in their prime? Or do we want the Fat Elvis version, living on embers, a shadow of their former glory.

Anyway, I've often said that THE MERCENARY SEA is for folks who were disappointed by KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, or who miss FIREFLY. I think we're our own entity. Ultimately, is it's own thing. But I don't mind the comparisons to those great predecessors one bit. Keeping the FIREFLY-ness going, the next big arc will delve a little deeper into the crew's back stories, juxtaposed with a contemporary adventure that ties into their past, which I've always been saying to myself is our "Out of Gas."

MF: Now that you mention it, the young mechanic sort of reminds me of Kaylee Frye too. Finally, have you ever watched the cartoon show THE VENTURE BROTHERS? (If not, you may like it)

KS: I've seen a couple episodes, certainly. And I do like it - hell, anything that pays homage to JOHNNY QUEST is okay in my book. When Mathew did up the final logo design for THE MERCENARY SEA, I knew it was perfect - just a simple and yet elegant way to brand our identity. And I also got the distinct impression of "I don't know why, but this reminds me of THE VENTURE BROTHERS' logo. Cool!"

MF: Thank you for your time Kel!

There you have it folks! Check out issue #3 (see my review of the issue here), on sale from Image Comics now at your local comic shop.

Editing, compiling, imaging, coding, logos & cat-wrangling by Ambush Bug
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G

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