Three years ago, an unexplained event turned Poughkeepsie into a contaminated nuclear site of monumental proportions. The government fenced off the entire city and placed troopers along Route 9D to keep everyone out of the meltdown area. No entry, no photos, no survivors. Spill Zone is a graphic novel that follows Addison and Lexa Merrit, a pair of sisters orphaned by the accident, as Addison makes secret, nocturnal trips into the spill zone to take pictures.
These pictures eventually land in the hands of a collector, who sets out to find the daredevil willing to break into the contaminated city. The collector offers Addison a million dollars if she's willing to go into the spill zone and retrieve a device from a hospital deep in the meltdown. Initially hesitant, Addison does what any struggling millennial will do when faced with a ridiculous sum of money; she says "screw it," accepts the offer, and bikes into the heart of the spill, going inside the very building where her parents were working the night of the accident.
There's another mystery surrounding Addison's younger sister, Lexa, and her Raggedy Anne doll that has, quite literally, a life of her own. While Lexa managed to escape the spill, she hasn't spoken since the day of the accident. It may come as no surprise that her doll, Vespertine, has a lot to say.
Addison's clandestine visits to this Lovecraftian city are chillingly familiar. The creators of this dystopian Poughkeepsie know what the city looks like (Westerfield is a Vassar grad), and readers will recognize signs for the Ice House, the exterior of the Hudson River State Hospital, the facade of Poughkeepsie Elementary, and the Hoe Bowl off the Dutchess Turnpike. Even New Paltz dive bar Snug Harbor is recognizable in a few flashback panels, where Addison is shooting pool as the spill occurs across the river.
There are a few noticeable changes to the landscape. Poughkeepsie is suddenly as mountainous as Beacon, and something that could be the Indian Point nuclear reactor is moved within view of Mid-Hudson Bridge. The Hudson River State Hospital is a working medical hospital, and no longer a decrepit, abandoned asylum. The mix of the familiar and unfamiliar is even more obvious once we're in the zone itself—a strange place where birds fly in figure eight patterns and the swings on the playground never stop.
One of the best reasons to read a graphic novel is also the most obvious—you get to see exactly what the characters see. In a sci-fi/fantasy story, the reader can easily get bogged down in intricate descriptions of supernatural events, chimeric creatures, and split-second emotions. Spill Zone does not allow the audience time to slow down. The action is not mired in explanation of monsters, and we see them instantly, bizarrely made and strangely formed. While the reader can pause to look over the vibrant, acid-colored illustrations, it's not until you've gone a few pages forward first, just to make sure Addison has escaped from the spill zone safely.
We are allowed to listen in on Addison's internal narrative without forcing a character who is portrayed as serious and introverted to indulge in cheesy "Dear Diary" dialogue. The incredible visuals also give the reader spooky hints without pushing Addison to see these clues herself. Spill Zone is an intimate look into Addison's mind, while still keeping the mystery of the accident intact. In the beginning, she warns the reader not to look into the eyes of the reanimated floating corpses that hang in streets and delis. While Addison looks away, we get static panels that render glowing eyes and slack-jawed expressions clearly.
Spill Zone is the first installment in a series of graphic novels, and at the end of the story we are left with more questions than answers, but eager for the next episode. The writing is effective, and benefits from not being laden with descriptions of otherworldly surroundings, instead leaving tight action sequences and nuanced environmental detail in the hands of a talented illustrator. Addison is a heroine we can invest in, who goes for the shot even when faced with demons. Even when the demons seem to know her name.