In THE SPILL ZONE with Scott Westerfeld

Spill Zone, the first volume in a series of the same name that began last year, marked Scott Westerfeld’s first foray into comics and was resoundingly well-received. The series takes place in a near-future Poughkeepsie, New York, which has been taken over by an otherworldly presence. Inside the zone, corpses float ominously, detritus suspended in the air arranges itself into beautiful compositions, and colors are sideways from normal. Addison, an enterprising photographer, makes her living by carefully trespassing in the forbidden spill zone and selling her photos of the strange things there to the highest bidder. When she gets offered one last big job, it’s hard to pass up, but it’s not as simple as it sounds (naturally), and there’s more at stake than just pay.

The second volume, The Broken Vow, out today and starred in our Spotlight on Graphic Novels, picks up right where volume one left off, finding Addison dealing with the fall-out of her most recent trip into the zone. I chatted with Westerfeld over email about the series and what it’s like to collaborate on a graphic novel.

 

SARAH HUNTER: Tell me about your inspiration for the series.

SCOTT WESTERFELD: Back in 2007, a series of photos from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone appeared online. Supposedly taken by a young woman who’d snuck past guarded checkpoints on her motorbike, they turned out to be a hoax. (She took a tour bus.) But the notion of a young artist sneaking into a lost city to capture images stuck with me. Exploring the aftermath of a dreadful event felt like an updated version of The Mummy’s Curse, but with art instead of archeology.

 

How was writing a graphic novel different from your other projects? Was it easier or harder?

Collaborative projects are both easier because you have other brains to help you [and] harder because you have to know when to leave room for the other medium to shine. Often, I’d write a lengthy passage for a character experiencing the wonders of the Zone, but then Alex would draw their expression and capture that reaction perfectly and completely. So rather than be redundant, I’d change the dialogue to “Wow.”

You have to know when to write less, smile more.

 

The visuals in the spill zone are so striking. How did you and Alex Puvilland develop that look?

Alex’s line work is already edgy and full of weird energy; the colors were the part that developed along the way. In my script, the Zone was supposed to be in color and the real world in black and white, like The Wizard of Oz. But Alex and colorist Hilary Sycamore argued that both could be in color—normal for the real world and heightened palettes for the Zone.

Hilary did extraordinary things whenever the book takes us into the Zone. Sometimes a character turns a corner and the whole palette changes. Your eye never quite adjusts, like you’re under an alien sun.

 

You seem to draw a parallel between power and art in the book: the desire for both drives people to the spill zone. Can you speak to the connection between art and power?

In my original character descriptions, I wrote that Addison on her motorcycle should be like a knight on horseback, her camera like a sword. I’ve always thought that cameras were weapons—they can both expose injustice and shred privacy. She’s in the Zone to make art, but also to fight for knowledge, like a journalist. She’s trying to solve the murder of her own town. There’s power in finding out the truth, and that’s what art is kind of for.

 

North Korea is a deeply strange, fascinating, and very timely place. What drove you to include North Korea as a major plot component?

North Korea is in many ways like the Zone itself. It’s walled off, isolated, scary, and ultimately mysterious. We outsiders use it to tell ourselves stories. So putting a second Zone in the PRK seemed like a way to talk about the Spill Zones in our own world—places where something bad happened, and reality hasn’t been the same since.

 

Has writing a graphic novel affected the way you’ve approached your subsequent prose books?

I learned a lot from Alex about pacing. He took a lot of wordless scenes and stretched them out, increasing drama and tension, creating a bigger, more echo-y space around the characters. I feel like my IMPOSTORS books will have a little more silence in them, even when there’s lots of action going on. Moments of tension can stretch out better without snappy dialogue to cut them.

 

You’ve left a few dangling loose ends at the close of the second volume. Any plans for a spin-off or sequel?

I feel like the main questions have all been resolved: We know why the Zone came to be and whose fault it all was. True, we don’t know what happens next, but we never do. But if I do tell more stories in that world, they’ll be about other characters, other places. Maybe other Zones.

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About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as senior editor at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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