INTERVIEW: Ask for Mercy: A World of Disquiet Brings Richard Starkings and Abigail Jill Harding’s Monster Hunters to Apocalypse 2020

Mercy being overcome by monstrous aliens

In season one of the fantasy horror comic, Ask For Mercy, mild-mannered real estate agent Mercy discovered there was far more to her potential when she is snatched into World War II to hunt Nazis and other monsters in The Key To Forever. In season two, The Heart of the Earth, the intrepid team of monster hunters are summoned by a Lakota shaman to deal with the American soldiers and other monsters intent on driving the people of the Black Hills out of their homes. On August 11, season three of the comiXology original series zooms into the not-so-distant future of 2023 and the very present 2020, where we find Mercy and the crew navigating an alien invasion apocalypse in A World of Disquiet.

Mercy being overcome by monstrous aliens

Part of Comixology’s starting lineup of original comics, Ask For Mercy challenges the heroes and monsters within and without, featuring exceptional storytelling from Richard Starkings (Elephantmen, Comicraft)  and creepy, monstrously stunning artwork from Abigail Jill Harding (aka Abz). The creative team came together to answer a few questions for WWAC, and share their unabashed love for the characters they have created and the history and monsters they get to explore.

What have you learned over the course of this series so far? Has your vision changed in terms of how the characters are developing and where the adventure is heading?

Harding: I have learned so much honestly, with this being my first comic series it has been enlightening as a co-creator as to how comics are created, how a story develops, it’s very much a collaboration, we help each other get through the mud pit of writer/artist stumbling blocks.

Starkings: Working with comiXology Originals has been a whole new learning experience for me. Although the process of putting together a comic is not dramatically different to print publication, the guided view aspect of ComiXology’s app has changed my approach to storytelling. If you’re reading Ask For Mercy on a phone or a tablet, we definitely use the progression of the story as you swipe through guided view to our advantage. I love it!Working with Abigail has been very refreshing for me as a co-creator. On Elephantmen I am very much the creator of the series and have worked with a number of different artists to bring my ideas to life. Abigail more than pulls her weight as a co-creator here and cares for the series and the characters just as much as I do. It’s very much an equal partnership.

Harding: Richard and I have discovered that our characters often seem to “write themselves,” they talk to us A LOT. Sounds mad, I know. I always enjoy tapping into the emotional side, when exploring and developing characters and how they work in relation to how the plot develops. Mercy, Ratmir, Budgie and Alizarine have goals — not always the same ones! — or are in search of something that drives them. Over the course of The Key to Forever and The Heart of the Earth I think they have become really strong.

Starkings: I agree, we talked a lot about each character before we launched season one on ComiXology and I feel that we each got to know the characters before we started developing the story. Both Ratmir and Alizarine have surprised me as our story unfurled and Budgie became much more endearing than I expected!

Harding: One often thinks “Okay how are our characters going to get round this?” or “what are they thinking about at this moment?” but when we’ve found ourselves talking about completely mundane things like Budgie’s obsession with collecting random objects, or Ratmir being offended at being called a werewolf! Recently Richard and I were taking about where exactly would Mercy go shopping for her clothes. We ultimately decided that she has very expensive taste! Details like this inform each character’s personality and traits, and in turn they become more engaging, more interesting for us, and as creators we want to know more about them!

Mercy is informed of her powers and her role by Ratmir, whom she refers to as a werewolf
Ask for Mercy Season One: The Key to Forever #3 (comiXology Originals, August 2018)

Starkings: It’s all true! We might not talk about the plot as such but I strongly believe that your plot is often dictated to you by your characters’ actions. The more time you spend developing them, the more interesting the story becomes. It was Abigail’s idea to include the White Buffalo Woman in our team and without her we would have had to go in a completely different direction for season two!

Harding: Yes, exploring Kasa’s roots was a lot of fun; we both wanted to know where she came from and what part she played in this world. Mercy is slowly starting to learn more about herself and her abilities. Once forgotten memories are slowly starting to come back, and she’s beginning to understand who she is, where she comes from and Alizarine’s role in it all.

Starkings: I very much wanted season two to be different in style and then to series one, and I proposed a Western. Reading up on White Buffalo Woman led me to the Lakota Sioux and the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Harding: In terms of where the adventure is heading, we often talk about past events impacting the present and future — action and reaction and the domino effect, past actions having repercussions for future events. Over the last 3 years I believe the series has behaved in that same manner.

Season three switches things up by venturing into the future — but not too far into the future. Why the switch in your approach to the timelines? Has the current state of the world affected your ideas for 2023?

Starkings: I can tell you with my hand on my heart that the script for the first issue, featuring the empty streets of Leeds in 2023 was sent to Abigail in January, long before lockdown was a thing! We had to decide very early on whether or not we addressed the pandemic or not. You’ll have to read the series to find out!

Harding: It’s surprising how current affairs can alter and inform stories. It’s a bit bizarre, the pandemic has definitely been on our minds as we work on each issue and in turn I could say it has naturally affected our ideas and perception of the world around us. I think one of my favourite things about Ask for Mercy is how we can send our characters anywhere, in any time period. It seems that Mercy has the ability to summon gateways into the past, present or future — although, actually, accurately pinpointing the right date seems to be a hit and miss affair for her right now! But Fate works in mysterious ways.

Season two was steeped in Lakota Sioux lore, for which you did quite a bit of research. What kind of research did you put into this new story and setting?

Starkings: There was a lot of research in both seasons one AND two — I have a bookshelf full of of Lakota folk tales and Nazi war crimes! It’s important, I think, to know the back story when you venture back in history. Had I not done all that research we wouldn’t have decided to resurrect President Andrew Jackson in season two, issue #3! I think that was our favorite moment in that arc, so much fun to have our heroes battling the man who drove the Indians onto reservations in the first place, Abigail was cackling as she drew him, I know that. Or I imagined that (I KNOW that!).
I actually wanted to do LESS research on this season but ended up watching every alien invasion movie or TV show I could find and then setting the story in Yorkshire meant a lot of google maps for Abz!

A monstrous woman leans over an American soldier saying "This is your last stand"
Ask for Mercy Season Two: The Heart of the Earth #4 (comiXology Originals, February 2020)

Harding: Yeah, it’s almost all alien invasion and Science Fiction this time. I love researching, though, I live by the ethic of “Learn Something New Every Day!” History is my favourite subject after Art, so looking at Literature, Mythology, Folklore is something I do on a regular basis. HG Wells’ work has definitely inspired this season for sure. There has been much listening to Jeff Wayne’s [musical version of] War of the Worlds. But as with the previous season, I feel this story is the consequence of what happened previously. If only Budgie hadn’t gone to the supermarket that ONE time!

Starkings: Abigail and I are both big fans of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds Musical and both consider that album to be the DEFINITIVE adaptation of HG Wells’ novel! I was always disappointed that the aliens in Alien never came to Earth en masse so this is our version of that kind of event happening. Only WE have SPACE WHALES and a green downpour of strange egg/pods that birth horrible creatures — and led by new monsters we call THE DEATHLESS! Abigail is having a lot of fun with them!

Harding: Yes, THE DEATHLESS — it’s a concept that I had to work on twice over because my first drawing wasn’t scary enough. So off to the Tennis court of Inspiration we went, bouncing ideas back and forth. It’s a very enjoyable and rewarding way of developing characters and stories.

How do you craft your monsters in terms of their physical design and abilities?

Harding: I love drawing scary monsters and transformations. It’s probably the core feature in my artwork, I love the process of it. Each one of our five team members have transformed into monstrous beings, and that allows us to learn more about their characters and motivations. I try and push their monstrous appearances into the more eldritch and spooky, body-horror direction.
Real life animals inspire me and when I read mythology and do a bit of research it just fuels that imagination. When I first came across Ikto’mi the Spider/Man Trickster from Sioux Lore, one of the first things I did — apart from reading the stories — was look up the spiders that inhabit America, to see if they could possibly inspire my depiction of him, especially in his spider form. The Trapdoor Spider immediately caught my attention and in turn served as a key inspiration for Iktomi’s overall design — even the mask he wears.

The Kroach are an amalgamation of wraiths I saw in a dream and the Trilobite Beetle. Insects in general have a big influence in the series. They are many and strange!

Starkings: When Abz and I first discussed working together she was indeed having crazy nightmares about strange insect beings… our Big Villain in the story of Alizarine and Mercy is, of course The Kroach… when I started on issue #1 of season one, my wife and I had just moved from California to a new house in Tennessee that had an infestation of cockroaches… that’s where the name came from!

Harding: Sometimes artwork inspires me — Budgie is a unique case here as he is inspired by the works of [Zdzisław] Beksinski and one particular artwork Richard showed me by Dariusz Zawadzki. But as I have drawn the character over the course of three years it suddenly clicked that he is actually a wild combination of an axolotl salamander and a dragon-headed caterpillar! He is child-like and innocent despite his often horrific appearance. Even his ability to take various forms and warp his body reflects on the wonderfully chaotic and powerful force of a child’s imagination. But… Budgie also loves wearing creepers, his favourite shoes.

Starkings: We love Budgie. He’s very powerful so we do have to sideline him from time to time, which was why I proposed Ask for Budgie as a bridge between seasons one and two… and as Abz pointed out earlier, it seems to be Budgie’s fault that Alizarine is in captivity and we seem to have an alien invasion in season three! He’s always well meaning though — and loyal to a fault. We can’t tell you any more now, you have to read this series, there are a lot of scares and a lot of surprises and laughs too!

We’d like to hope 2020 doesn’t actually lead to squid-like aliens and space whales invading the planet, but if it does, we hope that Mercy and her monster hunting colleagues will be there for us. In them meantime, you can catch up with Ask For Mercy Season One: The Key To Forever and Ask For Mercy Season Two: The Heart of the Earth. The first issue of season three will be available tomorrow from comiXology. Take a peek at the first issue here:

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.