Nobody really knows what the Spill was, but it’s terrifying. Monsters and other creatures from beyond live in the Spill Zone. Nobody goes there, except Addison — in order to care for her sister, who was badly traumatized by the Spill event, Addison goes where the monsters are and captures images on film — images that certain collectors will pay very high prices to obtain. It’s not bad work, if you can escape the monsters and the authorities.
“Spill Zone,” from First Second Books, is the comics debut of prolific YA novelist Scott Westerfeld, whose credits include the best-selling “The Uglies” series and “The Leviathan” trilogy. Joining Westerfeld is illustrator Alex Puvilland (“Templar,” “Prince of Persia”).
CBR spoke with Westerfeld about making the move to sequential art, including his favorite comics and how he learned to script a comics page, as well as the creepiness of dolls and the excitement of outlaw art.
CBR: Scott, the exact nature of the spill is left vague, although there are lots of clues and it’s obvious details about the spill will be revealed in future installments. But is it fair to say that you’re more interested in Addison’s story, and the stories of the survivors in general?
Scott Westerfeld: The Victorians used to build fake ruins in their parks, so visitors could wander around and ruminate on the impermanence of things. As goofy as that approach sounds, there is something compelling about loss and the ways people react to it.
So I guess “Spill Zone” is a combination of my own urban spelunking (i.e., climbing around in ruined buildings like a dummy) and seeing my New York friends react to 9/11. When the western world’s physical safety and certainty are ripped away, people show you who they really are.
The Spill Zone is obviously a source of anxiety for Addison – her parents were lost there, her sister traumatized. Obviously others have moved on, fled for safer ground. What keeps her tethered there?
Addison is an artist, and she’s dealing with her loss by making art. Staring into the mysteries of the zone, through a camera, is how she works through the disappearance of her family and her hometown.
The fact that sneaking into the zone is illegal makes her one of my favorite kinds of characters — an outlaw artist! She’s like a thief of images.
Okay, Vespertine is really creepy. What is it about dolls — clown dolls, no less? The doll’s connection to Addie’s sister Lexa is going to be important as the series continues, isn’t it?
Dolls are creepy in that uncanny valley way — they’re like people, but only kind of. They trigger our evolutionary reactions to children, so we want to protect and cuddle them. But they turn out to be fake, just rags and straw. I think that’s why so many dolls in horror are betrayers of their owners, stabbing you while they smile.
And yes, the more we learn about the Zone, the more we realize that Vespertine is a pretty big deal.
This first book has a great cliffhanger. How long do you envision the series running?
Just one more book for this story — honest, it will all wrap up in “SZ2.”
But maybe the broader world holds some other stories about other characters, if Alex, Hilary and I still want to tell them.
You’ve established a strong track record as a novelist. Were you always interested in writing comics?
Absolutely. I grew up reading “Daredevil” and “Green Lantern,” fell in love with all the meta-narratives of superheroes when I was a young adult, from “Watchmen” to “The Boys,” and read a ton of manga as well — “Monster,” “Twentieth Century Boys,” “Nana,” and “Death Note.” So writing comics was a thing I always wanted to do.
When I first started “Spill Zone” in 2007, I realized I didn’t know the form well enough, so I sold the graphic rights of “Uglies” and had Del Rey hire Devin Grayson to adapt that series with me. (The devil’s greatest trick was convincing someone to pay him for taking a hands-on course in comics writing.)
How did the experience of writing a comic script compare with writing prose? Is there anything specific you took from the experience that will inform your prose writing going forward?
One thing I learned from doing an illustrated teen series (“Leviathan,” with artist Keith Thompson) is that storytelling using images adds a wonderful extra layer of concerns: Are we getting enough changes in scale? Are we varying light and dark enough? Are we changing settings to reflect mood?
But doing “Spill Zone” was was more visual than an illustrated novel, because many of the scenes have very few words per page. It’s all about letting the story unfold in silence.
How was the the process of working with Alex Puvilland? Were you surprised by anything in the story as it began to unfold through Alex’s artwork?
Alex tends to draw out my script a bit, adding “silent” pages that linger on the Zone’s lurid monstrosities. As I said above, that’s a great thing for a text person to learn — you don’t have to say when you can show.
His characters are really actors. I get a lot from their faces, which makes me cut text all the time when it becomes redundant. Sometimes I even rewrite dialog to fight against a character’s expression, so you get a counter-narrative between text and image.
You’re also promoting a game-affiliated young adult survival novel, “Horizon,” right now. What can you tell us about that?
Horizon is about a group of Brooklyn kids on a robotics team who are on their way to a competition in Japan when their plane crashes.When they step from the wreckage, they find themselves stranded, at odds, and in a jungle full of strange and terrible creatures.
It’s like “Hatchet,” but geekier. Like “Lord of the Flies,” but less depressing. Like “Lost,” but the characters are lost instead of the writers.
When is the next “Spill Zone” book due? What other projects do you have in the works?
“Spill Zone 2” will be out in a year, in July 2018. That’s just after the final book in my “Zeroes” trilogy comes out. “Zeroes” is about teens with totally crappy superpowers. It’s a prose novel, but full of lurid comic book-style adventures.
It was also an experiment in co-writing, with me, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti each taking two of the six characters. It taught me how to outline at last!
“Spill Zone” is on sale now.