Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s No Mercy #9. Written by Alex De Campi (Sensation Comics, Grindhouse) with art by Carla Speed McNeil (Finder, Bad Houses) and colorist Jenn Manley Lee (Sensation Comics, The Endling), this issue jumps away from the main plot for a standalone story delving into the traumatic past of one of its characters. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

No Mercy began as a survival horror story starring a group of Princeton University freshmen trying to make it through the night after their tour bus flies off the side of a mountain and leaves them stranded in the Mexican desert. Since that opening arc, the series has expanded in fascinating ways. Focusing on that first night for the initial four issues allowed writer Alex De Campi, artist Carla Speed McNeil, and colorist Jenn Manley Lee to deeply immerse the reader in the trauma suffered by these confused, terrified, wounded young adults, but that’s just the inciting event for a much larger, more ambitious narrative.

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The book’s pace has accelerated dramatically since it returned from hiatus in December, allowing the creative team to take the series in a wide variety of directions away from the desert. The luckiest members of the cast have already found their way back home, but the majority of the surviving freshmen are still trapped in Mexico, enduring their own individual torment now that they’ve been separated from the group. Charlene’s suffering comes via his brother Chad, a relentless asshole who treats him like garbage and had zero respect for his struggle as a trans man forced to deny his true self. Recent events have significantly changed Charlene’s present-day situation, but for this arc’s final issue, the plot jumps to the past for a self-contained chapter detailing Charlene’s first trip to Mataguey years ago.

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No Mercy #9 is a survival horror story, but it’s about the horror of trying to survive when you’re a trans teen stripped of your agency by a family that sends you away to a prison-like environment intended to break you. When Charlene arrives at Tranquility Lodge, he quickly discovers the twisted system of rules in place to tear down his personal defenses and the primitive, humiliating methods the administration uses to remedy what it considers gender delusions, but his will is stronger than this system.

The cover image by McNeil is a powerful encapsulation of the major ideas in this issue: Charlene’s face conveys his sullen attitude while his clenched fists show his strength in the face of oppression, which takes the form of the cardboard “I AM A GIRL” sign on his chest. The way Charlene’s shirt tugs at the buttons subtly reinforces the idea that he’s trying to break through the constraining female gender identity forced on him. The Google search bar over his mouth is the final touch that brings it all together, highlighting the action that robs Charlene of his voice by putting her in this situation. It’s never made explicit that Charlene’s mother is the person typing “troubled teen programs” into Google, but it can be assumed given the context of the issue, and the cover is even more evocative after finishing the chapter and gaining an understanding of what each visual element means.

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The issue begins with Charlene’s mother preparing him for his coming out as a debutant, and Charlene’s fear of this process is clear from the very first shot of his face. He doesn’t say a word in this opening sequence, but the visuals say everything the reader needs to know about Charlene’s situation and his feelings about it. The image of Charlene sitting in front of his debutant dress conveys a load of information with details like his anxious body language, the scars on his wrists, and the black-and-white Panic! At The Disco poster hanging over the spot on the wall where his name is painted in graceful cursive.

The placement of the poster emphasizes Charlene’s need to move away from his assigned gender identity, a need that compels him to make a bold statement when he finally puts on the dress for his mother and her friends. He rips off the sleeves that were added to hide his scars, tears up the skirt, writes “FUCK YOU” in lipstick across the bodice, smears makeup across his chest and face, and haphazardly shaves his head with the razor his mother insists he use on his legs, then defiantly strolls down the stairs to mortify his waiting guests. Charlene never says a word but his emotional state is clear in every image of him, and the depth of McNeil’s character work is the main reason why she’s such a great fit for De Campi’s story.

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Jenn Manley Lee’s color palette is dominated by blue and pink, which is appropriate considering these are colors traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity, respectively. Having a blue background for the cover projects an air of masculinity that is suppressed when pink becomes the prevalent cover for the opening scene, but once Charlene finds himself in Mataguey, that blue returns to the forefront as a visual indicator that he’s still holding on to his true self despite the aggressive attacks against it. Those attacks are where the horror comes from, and as Charlene spends more time at Tranquility Lodge, he discovers the depths of the depravity that occurs behind closed doors.

Charlene’s gender shaming is very public, but the sexual abuse suffered by his one friend, a young drug addict named Phoebe, is private, only exposed when Charlene takes the initiative to find out where Phoebe has disappeared in the middle of the night. That revelation is given intense impact by the artwork, particularly in the contrast between Phoebe’s luminescent pale skin, the silhouettes of the men abusing her, and the bright red surrounding Charlene as he screams out. Phoebe’s glow is an especially interesting visual choice given how she’s depicted in her final moments as a blonde-haired shadow throwing herself off a roof, and when Charlene finds Phoebe she’s like a star going supernova, shining brightly one last time before she becomes a black hole.

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Charlene and Phoebe’s experiences are heartbreaking on their own, but they hit even harder when De Campi ends the Tranquility Lodge story with a partial list of the real deaths that have occurred at teen residential treatment centers. The list, taken from the Residential Treatment Center Abuse website, draws attention to the fact that the fictional story in these pages is rooted in a very real ongoing problem, and the final pages of the issue spotlight the mentality that allows these injustices to continue.

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Sitting with the Tranquility Lodge’s head administrator, Fred Mueller, Charlene’s parents are assured that their child is wired wrong and that they shouldn’t feel any guilt or shame about their decision to send Charlene away for intense rehabilitation. Instead, they should take comfort in finally being liberated from their fear. “Because you are afraid of her, aren’t you?” Mueller asks, and while Charlene’s parents don’t offer a verbal confirmation to his question, their silence reveals their answer. Faced with a situation they don’t understand, Charlene’s parents would rather send him away than try to comprehend what he’s going through, and the actions they take to assuage their misguided fears puts Charlene in a genuinely frightening situation. The result is an issue that puts a devastating new spin on No Mercy’s survival horror concept, offering a prime example of how the book has considerably evolved in its first year.