This is the most powerful issue of a comic you will read this month. It actually can stand alone if you haven’t read the series, because it’s that good and complete.
No Mercy features the only trans male character in a mainstream comic currently. The ONLY one. Issue 9 is a flashback that tells a pivotal part of that character’s past.
No Mercy is the story of a group of Princeton bound teens going on one of those “build schools in Central America to make yourself and your resume feel better” trips. And then their bus goes over a cliff. Literally. The series shows what happens next to each of the teens.
#9 is a flashback issue focused on the aforementioned trans male character, Sebastian. Sebastian, who we’ve known as Charlene up till this point, is twins with the abusive Chad. He introduces himself as Sebastian for the first time in issue #8. He is intentionally misgendered as Charlene by his family and others and subjected to abusive “conversion therapy” in this issue.
I’m not surprised that a series which has dedicated itself to portraying a brutally honest, diverse and realistic range of teens is the comic that finally has a transgender male character. But it is entirely fucked up that there are no other trans male characters in a mainstream comics title.
The story that Alex de Campi and Carla Speed McNeil are telling is dark and complex and the cast they have built are believable and fascinating. It would have been easy for Sebastian’s only characteristic to be that he’s “the trans one”. Instead, these characters represent a range of people who may come across as “types” but not stereotypes. No one is as standard as they may seem at first. Sebastian is bilingual, resourceful and he’s probably going to grow up to be Batman– except with evil parents as opposed to martyred parents.
This issue offers insight into a great injustice happening not only to transgender kids but all sorts of young people who society labels as “deviant”. It takes place in what’s called a “Teen Residential Treatment Center” – sometimes called a “teen boot camp”. I knew kids who were disappeared to them when I was younger and it is never ok. These centers are literally deadly. The comic shows how and why.
Groups like the ACLU regularly take on cases against these torture centers, like this one in Utah— the same state where Sebastian was confined at one point. Just as importantly, the comic also reveals why parents use them.
No Mercy digs behind the facades of both the characters we like and the characters we hate. It holds nothing back. You can’t guess what’s next and it will always be shocking yet plausible. That brutal integrity Is why I’m always on the edge of my seat when I’m reading it.
We’ve described No Mercy as a great choice for people who are turned off by the standard comics genres (like superheroes or sci-fi). I love those genres but this is a comic you can give to your friends who won’t read comics. I’d tell them this series more resembles prestige television then anything in comics but even television is rarely this diverse and honest.
This issue is a must buy, even if you aren’t reading the series (but seriously, go read the series).
I’m sure the series as a whole and this issue in particular could be triggering for some people. This month’s cover shows Sebastian’s body being forced into female clothing and misgendered, scars from self-harming visible. But I suspect the cover is actually a good trigger warning for what’s inside.
I want to salute the amazing work of art team Carla Speed McNeil and colorist Jenn Manley Lee whose use of black is devastating in this issue. The art throughout series is some of the most accessible around to non comics readers. It’s clear and communicative and believable.
Graphic Policy Radio interviewed Alex de Campi about her work when the book first came out. You can listen to her on our podcast here or get it on iTunes.
Thank you to CK Stewart https:/twitter.com/ckcucco for sharing his insight and editing my review.