Scott Westerfeld is a Locus-award winning author, with a number of series of novels under his belt and I have no excuse for not having read his 'Leviathan' books. This, however, is an original graphic novel, not an adaptation from one of his existing works and that may be because it's very much a graphic novel type story and would be difficult to translate into prose.
Usually, when a town is enclosed by gates and barriers and guards, it's an 'Escape from New York' type of concept, a government cracking down on its unwanted citizens by isolating them inside their own world. Every now and again, though, it's the opposite. Something happens to make a town unsafe and those who lived there, at least those who remain alive, are evacuated and those gates and barriers and guards are in place to stop them getting back in. Think Centralia and especially think Chernobyl.
In this instance, nobody knows what happened to turn the town of Poughkeepsie in New York state into the Spill Zone of the title, but few survived to escape to safety and those who did escaped changed. None of them speak any more, for a start, even though perhaps all of them are children. What remains inside Po'town, the Leftovers of the Spill, are enough to provide some idea why. They're nightmare fodder and one of the big successes of the book is artist Alex Puvilland's ability to show us something different but still nightmarish.
One survivor is Lexa, Addison's younger sister. Addie is our protagonist, a determined young lady who is taking care of Lexa by sneaking into Po'Town on a dirt bike and taking photographs, which she's able to sell for a decent sum as high art. She's in charge because her parents were working that fateful night at the Poughkeepsie hospital and never made it out. Addie dreads the possibility of seeing them on one of her trips into the Spill Zone, as what she calls meat puppets, not the zombies you might expect but dead people with glowing eyes who float in the air as if suspended by invisible harnesses. They're freaky as all get out but they aren't the things that howl and move, all elongated limbs and tendrils of light. And, not that anyone tends to notice on account of not being there, almost manage to form words.
What Addie doesn't realise is that something of this has left the Spill Zone already and is living (if that's an appropriate word) inside her house. Lexa may not speak but she does communicate, if only with her doll, Vespertine. She does so by thinking and Vespertine thinks back, in ephemeral black speech bubbles that remind me of how Judge Death used to speak. Perhaps there are reasons for why Lexa insists that Vespertine accompany Addie on her trips into the Spill Zone that go beyond childish superstition.
This is the first in a series and it's all about setting the scene. Part of that is showing us Addie in the Spill Zone but the rest is kicking off an intriguing story and there just isn't enough space in this volume to do more than hint at where we might be going.
For a start, there's another Spill Zone, in North Korea of all places, so we have to assume that whatever caused this aberration was not a fluke. Was it a weapon? Nobody has claimed responsibility, whether a hostile state or a terrorist group. If it was an accident, we're well within coincidence territory and that never sits well. What else could it be? Alien invasion? Maybe. Maverick art installation? I like the irony but no. Whatever the cause, presumably we'll find out in future books. There isn't enough yet to shape the future but we're interested in watching that happen soon enough.
The North Koreans generate a number of further angles, which I won't go into because you deserve to experience them for yourselves and figure out your take on their possibilities for book two and beyond. However, I will mention that I particularly enjoyed one other American character, whom they hire as a sort of middle man through whom they can offer Addie large payment for the completion of a mission. She's Ms. Vandersloot, a white-haired but hardly frail lady who collects Addie's work. She's a gloriously assured character and she has a fantastic sense of humour.
I keep mentioning future books, not only because this is a series but because this story has only just been set on its way. In both literature and films, I often see the first episode defining a world and the rules that it, and the characters which populate it, follow. Often the story takes a back seat to the worldbuilding, as it does here, so that it can kick in properly in the second episode now that we know how everything works.
Westerfeld, however, is keeping his cards far closer to his chest than the average novelist or director. He throws us some bones but, in keeping with the focus on art that Addie and Ms. Vandersloot share, this is an impressionistic attempt at defining a series. He shows us what's out there, but he carefully avoids any real explanation of what it is. Instead, he just drops a few tantalising hints. To figure out what he's really up to, we have to come back for another trip into the Spill Zone.
Beyond the contents, I have to call out First Second Books for another fantastic design job. Most of what I review for the Nameless Zine is novels and, with them, I rarely get to talk about the objects as well as their content. Occasionally, there's a neat design element, like the sepia text used in Cherie Priest's 'Clockwork Century' novels, but it's a rarity. I'm far more likely to see a negative design element, often in something that was self-published.
First Second, however, put a huge amount of effort into design and it's rare that I don't pick up one of their publications and feel like it should be treasured. This is a small hardback with a weight to it, probably because of the quality of the paper, and it feels good, especially with a tactile wraparound cover. Not all books that they publish are for children (this is presumably YA), but I do envy the kids growing up today whose parents populate their shelves with First Second books. ~~ Hal C F Astell