Spill Zone is the first original graphic novel by best-selling novelist Scott Westerfeld. It’s the first in a planned series of books, which sets up characters and themes in a fascinating, genre-busting narrative. The spill zone of the title is a town that has been shut down in the aftermath of some kind of disaster. Think Chernobyl or Fukushima, except that this isn’t a reactor meltdown or natural disaster. Something happened here that not only wiped out most of the town’s population, but also twisted the boundaries of reality and perception.
Now the town is in permanent lockdown, surrounded by military roadblocks, so no-one can get in or out. No-one, that is, except for Addison Merritt, the protagonist of the story, who knows some unguarded tracks through the woods.
Addison is one of only a few survivors of the disaster. Orphaned when her hospital-worker parents were caught up in the disaster, she now lives in a cabin on the perimeter of the lock-down zone, caring for her little sister Lexa, who has barely spoken a word since their parents disappeared. Addison has no traditional means of income but she has found a market for photographs of the spill zone, so she sneaks in to take photos she can sell on.
On the first visit into the zone that we make with Addison, you can see why these photos sell. The place is awash with colour, as if someone found an unlimited supply of paint and decided to cover the whole town with it. Then there are the strange, hovering shapes and odd, localised winds, which draw objects to them like magnets, arranging and spinning them in helixes, lemniscates and cyclones. The cats, dogs and rats of the town survived the accident but have changed: the rats arrange small objects into towers; the cats seem to be able to speak; and the dogs are even scarier still. There’s also the question of what happened to all the people. It’s not safe in the town, and Addison is risking everything each time she visits.
Alex Puvilland’s art is a perfect canvas for this strange mix of colour and chaos. While it starts dark and monochromatic, during the night in the outside world where the story starts, it explodes into colour when we enter the spill zone. His vivid, vibrant illustrations leap out of the page, bringing a solidity to Westerfeld’s kaleidoscopic vision, while his human characters remain grounded and believable.
Meanwhile, the writing is wonderful. Addison has a feisty, fiery, teenage courage that we haven’t seen written this well in a female protagonist since The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen. The story grows organically, building twists and surprises as it goes, unravelling one thing while revealing another tangled knot beneath the surface. It doesn’t end here, though – in buying this book you’re committing to invest in what comes in the future, as you’ll be as desperate as we are to see how this fascinating story plays out.