It doesn’t matter how or why, but if you’re different in this world, someone will hate you for it. Just ask anyone who isn’t straight, white, cisgender, native to the country they’re living in… Or, if you prefer, ask Jill and Charlie from the graphic novel Heart Attack (paperback, Kindle), in which gene therapy inadvertently leads to some people to have special abilities, and thus being the targets of bigotry from a government that fears them. In the following email interview, Heart Attack writer Shawn Kittelsen and artist Eric Zawadzki discuss how this comic book came together.
Shawn Kittelsen, Eric Zawadzki
I’d like to start with the story. So, Shawn, what is Heart Attack about, and when and where does it take place?
Shawn: Heart Attack is about finding love in a hopeless place. The story is set in a near future Austin, Texas, where revolutionary vaccines have saved the world from pandemics and disease — and given rise to a generation where some kids are born with “Variant” DNA. The government denies Variants human rights. Most Variants have special abilities, but they fall well short of superpowers. Regardless, propaganda campaigns spread fear that Variants will manifest “PMDs”: Powers Of Mass Destruction.
Our two leads, Jill and Charlie, are Variants who deal with their circumstances in opposite ways. Charlie is a loner desperate to avoid the authorities. Jill is an activist and influencer who wants to stand in the spotlight. They couldn’t be more different. But whenever they touch, they develop PMDs. Together, they could change the world. But will they ever agree on what to do with these powers?
Who came up with the idea for Heart Attack?
Shawn: I pitched the book to Sean Mackiewicz [Skybound’s Editor In Chief] and wrote the first issue back around 2013. Writing the first arc got delayed a few times by other projects. I was writing video games full time, and I was a new dad, so life was busy. But I finally found a good groove while I was working on Mortal Kombat 11, finished the first arc, and Skybound started searching for an artist. We all had high standards so getting someone that everyone agreed on wasn’t easy. Took us a couple of years to find Eric, but he was worth the wait.
I think it’s safe to say that gene therapy is probably going to go from science fiction to science fact soon, if it hasn’t already. Did you set out to write something on the cusp of possibility, and Heart Attack is what you came up with, or did you have the idea for Heart Attack‘s plot and then realize it would work really well with gene therapy?
Shawn: I always start with the characters, the emotional qualities. But once I started brainstorming that grounded take on superpowers, and how superhumans might originate, gene therapy was on my mind. CRISPR-Cas9, which is a revolutionary gene editing technology, was discovered a year or two before I pitched Heart Attack. It’s still experimental, but it has the potential to treat or cure a range of conditions and diseases, from sickle cell to muscular dystrophy to cancer. From the first time I read about it, I was fascinated. This is an incredible achievement. There’s an undeniable wish fulfillment factor to the possibility that in our lifetime, this technology could revolutionize our health and wellbeing. It wasn’t a short leap to wonder what other abilities gene editing and similar therapies could unleash.
So then where did you get the idea for this story?
Shawn: The idea sparked after I got caught up watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for the first time in years. I’m a sucker for a good romance, and I’m always thinking about superheroes, so I came away thinking about star-crossed teenagers with superhuman powers. But I didn’t want to write another story about heroes in tights and capes. Invincible, Astro City, and the Big Two [Marvel and DC] already have that well covered. I wanted to write a story that was more about our world. That took me down this other rabbit hole, “What’s my most grounded take on superpowers?” That’s what led me to elements like gene therapy, pandemics, and militarized police.
And what made you realize adding gene therapy to it would make it better?
Shawn: The grounding element. Gene therapy and all the other things drawn from the real world made it all feel so much more plausible. I wanted readers to feel like all these things could happen in their lifetime, so that they’d relate to Jill and Charlie more like actual people. Remove some of the distance between the readers and the characters.
And then Eric, what was it about Shawn’s idea that not only made you think it was a good one, and one you’d like to draw, but also one you’d be good to draw?
Eric: When I got the email about joining the team, I read the elevator pitch and my initial thought was that a superhero story outside of the Big Two is a tough sell to the comic buying audience. But after I read the first two scripts, I realized what Shawn was doing. I got excited by the idea of developing a look and storytelling style for the kind of superhero comic that you would never find at Marvel or DC. And I fell in love with all these characters that Shawn developed. First and foremost, the fantastic characters are the reason to be reading this comic.
Shawn, you’ve worked on such video games as Mortal Kombat 11 and Injustice 2, and previously wrote the comic book Mortal Kombat X. All of which had you playing with existing characters. Did that make it hard for you to create original characters for Heart Attack, or did it actually make it easy? Or more fun?
Shawn: It’s harder to create something original, all the way. When you’re working with established lore and characters, you have a foundation laid out for you to build upon. There’s no blank page. There’s a mold. You can think through all the reasons you’ve loved those worlds, all the things you’ve wanted to see more, or that you think are worthy of commentary and updating. You take that mold and pour your heart into your best version of that thing.
With an original story, there’s no mold, there’s just a blank page. You have to find the emotional anchor points, the themes that you want to develop, then start laying the foundation…only to realize you’ve laid the wrong foundation, so you crinkle that page up and start over with a new blank page, and do that until you’ve got the basis for a good story that feels authentic and worth telling.
The two approaches are satisfying in different ways. Getting to play with legendary franchises like Mortal Kombat and the DC Universe fulfills a childhood dream. These characters are formative, they’re the reason I do what I do today. Knowing I’ve made a contribution to their legacy feels great, knowing that other fans dug the work feels even better.
There’s a different vibe that comes with creating something new. It’s fulfilling to craft something in your own voice, to write straight from your heart. It’s also terrifying. You’re putting a piece of yourself out there, naked and vulnerable to criticism or neglect, without the hype of legacy to protect it. But when someone reads Heart Attack and tells me that it was special to them, I feel a different sense of connection and validation, like we’ve swapped confessions and discovered that we’re all going through similar struggles.
So, are there any writers who had a big influence on Heart Attack but not on anything else you’ve written?
Shawn: I worked for the media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff as his editorial assistant right after college, and learned so much from him. He’s the reason I have a career. I was a big fan of his, sent him an email about how much I appreciated his work and offered to help him any way I could, and miracle of miracles, he wrote back. Later on, it was his recommendation to DC Comics that got me my first job working on video games. I’ve been applying the things I learned from Rushkoff throughout my career, but Heart Attack is the first thing I’ve written that feels truly Rushkoffian. The dynamics of the Freebodies movement, the media narratives woven between the chapters, and the way the book ends, all of those were inspired by conversations with Rushkoff or from reading his books like Media Virus, Coercion, Life Inc., and Team Human.
How about non-literary influences; was Heart Attack influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Shawn: I could cite a looong list but Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was a big one. Other flicks like The Battle Of Algiers, Say Anything, and Do The Right Thing inspired different aspects of the story. The British TV shows Misfits and Skins were influential in how I thought about the tone and grounding the world. Music was also a big influence. I have eclectic musical taste, from rap to rock to classical to K-pop. The character of Gospel Gary was inspired by Killer Mike. “Clarity” by Zedd and Foxes was on repeat while I broke the story. And the title of the book was inspired by listening to the Demi Lovato song of the same name. The way Demi belts that chorus…powerful!
And then Eric, what artists do you consider to be the biggest influences on how you drew Heart Attack?
Eric: It’s been over five years since I started the project, so it’s a little fuzzy for me, but I think I was very inspired by early ’90s Chris Bachelo page designs. Especially his collaborations with Neil Gaiman. I also drew a lot of inspiration from Tyler Boss’ work at the time. I liked the rhythm he created with the amount of panels he was putting on every page. And how he handled the storytelling for the back and forth dialogue between characters. It was just so different from most mainstream comics at the time and it was so fun to read.
And were you also influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Eric: I’ve always been very influenced by movies. I think my discovery of DVD director commentaries in my teenage years is the entire reason I try to come up with a unique storytelling style for every new project I start. Discovering that every shot in a movie should have an intention was a big deal for me as a storyteller in those formative years. Though I can’t think of any specific movies that influenced my work on Heart Attack.
So Eric, how collaborative was Shawn when it came to Heart Attack‘s art? Did he make any big, and good, suggestions?
Eric: Shawn has always been a very generous collaborator. On every project I send detailed layouts to the team and I can’t think of any time where Shawn asked me to change something. When I joined the project, I think there were already five or six scripts completed. But Shawn was adamant that he wanted this project to be just as much my vision as his. All I can say is that we just gelled perfectly. Around that time, I had worked on two or three projects in a row that heavily relied on captions, so it was honestly a breath of fresh air to work on something that was very dialogue focused. I reveled the opportunity to focus on acting and pacing with this fantastic cast of characters.
Similarly, Shawn, did Eric suggest anything for the story? Or do something in the art that made you change something about the story or characters?
Shawn: Eric designed the look of every character based on minimal briefs, he brought them to life. He took the script for every chapter and made it his own. I’ve never been precious about my panel breakdowns, they’re just suggestions. Eric found more interesting and stimulating ways to lay out the action, he’d go deeper and more nuanced into the character performances and the beats between lines. When I made my lettering pass over the scripts, I’d find that he took a six-panel page and turned it into a twelve-panel page. Sometimes I’d cut dialogue from a panel because it was no longer necessary — Eric had already drawn everything that the story had to say.
Now, in the time between when I sent you these questions, and now, it was announced that Fuji TV is making a live action TV show based on Heart Attack. They won’t, but if the producers did ask you for casting suggestions, who would you suggest?
Shawn: I don’t want to jinx any of the Fuji TV casting with my own wish list of Japanese actors and J-pop stars. But if we were looking at an American adaptation, [Wednesday’s] Jenna Ortega would be a dream as Jill. For Charlie, I’d cast someone like Isaak Presley, who starred in Stuck In The Middle with Jenna Ortega, coincidentally.
So, is there anything else people need to know about Heart Attack?
Shawn: If you support the book, I’ll be donating portions of any royalties earned from the first printing to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that fights for equal justice and combats hates groups, as well as the American Heart Association, which fights to reduce disability and death related to cardiovascular disease. In a twisted bit of irony, I had an actual, life-changing heart attack at the end of 2022, so the title of the book has taken on a whole new meaning to me.
Glad you’re feeling better.
Finally, if someone enjoys Heart Attack, Shawn, what comic that someone else wrote and drew would you each suggest they check out?
Shawn: Check out House Of El Volumes 1-3 by Claudia Gray and Eric. That series has so many of my favorite things all in one package: Eric’s art, Superman lore, love in times of tragedy. I might be biased because Eric worked on it, but as a Superman fanboy, I loved it. Maybe one of these days Eric and I will get to work on something Superman-related together. (You hear that, DC editors? Call me!)
If you want another story about revolutionary activists, but you want to check out something utterly fantastic after the realistic action in Heart Attack, read The Invisibles series by Grant Morrison and a murderer’s row of brilliant artists. Grant Morrison was so far ahead of their time. The Invisibles turns 30 next year but it still has something new to say today.
Eric: I wish Shawn would write more comics so that I could recommend those! I know he’s happy working in games, but his comic voice is so unique that I think the industry could use more from him.
Otherwise, I have to recommend 20th Century Men from Deniz Camp, Stipan Morian, and Aditya Bidikar. I don’t use the term masterpiece often, but this comic is definitely that.