By Nivea Serrao
May 03, 2017 at 10:12 AM EDT
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Spill Zone Cover
Credit: First Second

If Katniss Everdeen’s your gal, you’re going to want to meet Addison Merrit, another teen trying to make the best of her dystopic surroundings — and the character at the center of Scott Westerfeld’s new graphic novel, Spill Zone.

“She’s a young woman whose hometown and family was destroyed by a mysterious event three years ago — the Spill,” explains Westerfeld of what Addison is dealing with when readers first meet her. “Her parents were lost, and her little sister hasn’t spoken since, except for psychic conversations with her creepy doll, Vespertine.”

As a way to make ends meet, Addison relies on her photography skills as she sneaks into the Spill Zone, taking pictures of the strange phenomena and creatures she encounters in the since-quarantined area. “It’s about loss, making art, and hanging onto family,” says the best-selling author of the Uglies series. “And getting away from monsters on a motorcycle.”

With Spill Zone now in graphic novel form, EW spoke to Westerfeld about his inspirations for the series — which was illustrated by Alex Puvilland — as well as his upcoming Free Comic Book Day comic.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to explore a dystopia that featured an industrial accident?
WESTERFELD: Well, the Spill wasn’t really an industrial accident. That’s just one of the many theories. It could have been an alien visitation or a spillover from some kind of Cthulhu-world. Maybe there’s no way to know. But the story was inspired by two industrial accidents from the late 1980s. One was the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which I assume everyone knows about. The other was in Goiania, a small city in Brazil, where in 1986 some scrap thieves broke into a closed-up hospital and stole a radiotherapy unit (for zapping tumors). The thieves sold the device to a scrapyard, where the six-year-old daughter of the scrap dealer became fascinated by a strange glowing substance inside — cesium 137. She showed it off to neighbors, spreading disaster to the entire city. In the end, dozens of houses had to be torn down, and even the wing of the hospital where the victims sought treatment was contaminated. Po’town in Spill Zone is modeled on Goiania, a small city devastated by a wondrous and deadly technology that its residents couldn’t fully grasp.

We don’t often see stories of artists set in dystopias. What made you want to tell the story of an outlaw photographer?
I’ve always been interested in the transition from big-game hunting to nature photography. How people went from shooting animals and stuffing them to capturing them with cameras as if the camera was a weapon, some kind of soul-stealing machine. In my first script, I described Addison on her motorcycle as a knight on a horse, her camera as her sword. Of course, Addison is a tragic knight. She’s suffered the loss of her hometown and her parents and trying to discover what really happened on the night of the Spill. And art is, after all, a way to do work through loss, to bear witness to disaster, and to find yourself again.

How did you decide to center your story on two sisters?
Families are little micro-cultures, with their own shared language, customs, and jokes. That’s why losing your family is so devastating — it’s like your home planet has exploded. Addison and Lexa have lost everything, hometown as well as family, so all they have left is each other. That makes for a very strong bond, and it means Addison will do anything to provide for and protect her little sister.

What is the biggest threat Addison will be going up against? What lives in the Zone, or the government restrictions around it?
The classy thing would be for the humans to be the real monsters. But in Spill Zone, the monsters are the real monsters. The humans are just dickheads.

Vespertine, Lexa’s doll, seems to be possessed by a Spill-related spirit of some kind. What can you tease about that?
I tried to make the Spill Zone itself into a character. So the Zone has it’s own weird (perhaps unknowable) agenda, it’s own strange aesthetic, even a kind of personality. In a way, Vespertine give the Zone its own voice as well. Her acerbic banter is like the setting talking to us. Dolls see everything, of course, so they always know more than we think they do.

You also have a prequel, Spill Night, coming out for Free Comic Book Day. What made you want to explore that aspect of the story?
A flashback to the actual night of the Spill always seemed like a cool thing to show the reader, but there was never logical space for one in Book 1. So when Free Comic Books Day came calling, it was an opportunity to show how horrifying that night was, and to round out the backstory of the Spill without interrupting the main narrative of Addison and her sister.

How long did it take you to work on Spill Zone?
I tried my hand at writing Spill Zone for the first time in 2006 and sent the script to some comic book writer friends. They were very polite and kind but made me realize I had no idea what I was doing. So I hatched a plan to fix that. I sold the manga rights for Uglies to Del Rey Manga, on the proviso that I got to participate in writing the comic. Then the awesome Devin Grayson was hired. I outlined, she wrote, I edited, and we both saw the project through script, pencils, inks, and colors. Basically, I tricked someone into paying me to learn how to write comic books! So when I returned to Spill Zone, I had a much better idea of what I was doing.

Spill Zone is currently available for purchase, order it here. Spill Night, will be available at local comic book stores on May 6. You can read the first few pages of the graphic novel, below.

Spill Zone
Credit: First Second
Spill Zone
Credit: First Second
Spill Zone
Credit: First Second
Spill Zone
Credit: First Second
Spill Zone
Credit: First Second