Part love story, part Fight Club, Oni Press’ upcoming Heartthrob, debuting April 13, tells the story of two people, essentially sharing the same heart. Writer Christopher Sebela (BOOM!’s Dead Letters) joins with artists Robert Wilson IV (Bitch Planet), and Nick Filardi (Helheim) have created this offbeat and unconventional love story centers around a young woman, Callie, who undergoes a heart transplant, but whose life slowly starts to change and not necessarily for the better.
A funny, charismatic, and handsome con man that turns her world inside out and gives Callie a new lease on life...by becoming the country’s greatest bank robber. Heartthrob is one of the weirdest romance tales imaginable, so Newsarama talked to the creative team to see if they can explain the story further and how the spirit of 1970’s influences and moves this story along. Oni Press also provided Newsarama with an exclusive advanced first look at Heartthrob and the exclusive reveal of the Emerald City Comic Con variant by Babs Tarr and Fried Pies Comics variant by Wilson himself, which is an homage to David Bowie’s Heroes album.
On whether or not if the book is either a love story with crime elements sprinkled in or vice versa, Sebela said it’s more of the former.
“It’s definitely a love story centering around crime,” he said, “It started as a crime book, but once Callie and Mercer became fleshed out, the story of them falling in love and what spills out of that became way more interesting, so I just flipped everything around in my head.
Sebela talked about that if readers wanted a crime book, Heartthrob will scratch that itch, as well as the people looking for a romance book. “For the weird mutants like us who want both, they’re going to be super happy.”
“Yeah, the romance and relationship drama definitely comes first for me,” Wilson added. “It's the heart of the book, the crime part is the structure.”
Expanding on the two main characters, Callie and Mercer, Sebela opened up more about Callie’s troubled medical past that kick starts the book. “Callie is our main character and she was born with congenital heart defects, which can severely affect your quality of life growing up. But for Callie it was worse because she had overprotective parents who tried to protect her from everything in the world, so she had to sit out on a lot of things because it wouldn’t be healthy according to their (somewhat justifiable) paranoia about her health.” Things eventually got better for Callie, as she got a heart transplant and a clean bill of health, but suddenly she starts to feel a change in herself. “She starts developing new tastes, swearing more, being more aggressive and less tolerant of the stasis her life has become.”
“Mercer is our mystery man,” Sebela explains. “He shows up once Callie has started to change and he encourages her to roll with it, while he pops in and out of her life. There’s an instant connection between the two of them, one of those love at first sight kind of deals. But Mercer isn’t really a knight in shining armor. He’s a thief, a con man, a crook and he wants a partner in crime to help him pull off all these jobs he’s done his homework on and blueprinted in his head.”
Sebela also mentions the details of Callie’s life and why somebody like Mercer could potentially mean more to Callie than she realizes. “Callie’s life is full of mostly throwaway people, as far as she’s concerned. She works for an insurance company where she’s dating her co-worker, Barry. He’s not ideal boyfriend material and the both of them kind of regard each other as ‘you’ll do for now’ companions.” Her current employer mess things up for Callie upon her return from her operation and finds herself almost worst than before. “All her friends are people she drinks with, bar friends. She lives in a town she wasn’t born in, a place she never intended to settle down in, so, when the book starts, she’s pretty lonely.”
Talking with Wilson, who has been on the independent scene for some time now, about how he ended up working with Sebela and Filardi on Heartthrob, it came down to a few factors.
“Working with Christopher and Nick is really the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I was already friends with Chris, and I feel like we really see eye to eye on a lot of things that are important for collaborators to agree on and we're basically polar opposite on other things and I think that provides a nice juxtaposition. He takes me to story places that I wouldn't be inclined to go on my own and I think I probably produce things that are similarly surprising to Chris.”
Sebela and Wilson elaborated on what made them work and what Wilson meant by being polar opposites.
“I think Robert and I are pretty opposite in terms of disposition and outlook,” Sebela said. “I’m definitely the grim one of the team, while Robert is possibly one of the most upbeat people I’ve ever met. So I’m sending him scripts where some kind of dark stuff happens, some messed up things, maybe some jaded, blinkered views of people and events. Then the pages Robert sends back are all through his lens, which thankfully drains a lot of my bleakness and injects a lot of love and brightness and complicated feelings in its place. Every time I see Robert's pages there’s that shock to it of this is what I wrote but it’s not, it’s a weird melding of the two of us, maybe using our best qualities, maybe some bad and some good. That’s what makes this book special for me, being able to collaborate with a friend and getting to see how they think on a deeper level, if that makes sense.”
“I think it’s impossible to be completely on the same wavelength on all fronts with your friends or collaborators and it’s the differences that really make comics sing for me,” he continued, “to see what people can make when they all put their different-shaped heads together.”
“Chris also tends to write really dense, fast pace scripts,” Wilson added, “whereas I tend to naturally gravitate towards decompression. It's made me look for ways to fit more into the pages than I'm used to without losing what I like in my own art.”
One the biggest factors that came into play in making this decision for Wilson was how Oni wanted to handle publishing the book. “I also can't downplay the fact that Oni was willing to commit to a long form story and basically no one else is doing that right now. Oni is absolutely behind us and the book and that is huge for me.”
Colorist Nick Filardi has been very prolific in the last few years gaining work from Oni, Dark Horse, and DC. When talking to Filardi about his color scheme over Wilson’s sequentials, he talked about working in some “color hints” for readers and what his approach is for the series.
“The most important thing when I started in on Heartthrob was to amplify what was making Rob's work strong,” he said. “There was so much emotion coming from the face of everyone Rob was drawing and that's where I wanted to be as well. I wanted to have you feel for the characters first and foremost. The more I messed with faces, the less it felt like a romance comic and more of a crime noir comic which isn't where we wanted to land. So when approaching the work, I was particular to keep everything working in that direction. Beyond that I wanted color to be able to give nods to the reader. After Callie receives her transplant, I saturated her skin a little more than everyone else's. Trying to make her more flush with blood, and ready to be more vibrant than her co-workers. Prep her to come alive. When she starts working more with Mercer, I wanted her clothing to mirror his. Warmer colors. Try to keep them separate from the rest of their colder surroundings like they were in on a secret that no one else knew. I'm very excited to continue with these ideas in future issues.” He mentioned that these color cues and hits are for the readers who appreciate them and rewards such readers as much as possible.
Heartthrob takes place in the 1970’s and the main motivation for that, Sebela explains is that he wanted to do it in an age where it’d be harder to get caught after a crime spree right away, as well as in a time where heart transplants were still very new and experimental, but most of the kinks of the technique dealt with. Then, the music of the era started to get involved.
“[Once] everything got tied up with Fleetwood Mac and we kind of had no choice but to do it in the late 70s. Plus I love the 70s as a time in America, there's so much hedonism coming out of the 60s, but it's heading in a much darker direction, and the sort of unflappable American optimism gets smashed up against the harsh reality of impeached presidents, gas shortages and hostage crises. Plus they had way better cars in the 70s.”
“70's cars are dope,” Wilson chimed in. “Also, my favorite Bowie stuff is coming out in that period, which has been very top of mind for me.”
So with Callie soon on the run from the law and her heart on a five-year plan, it seems that Callie’s oppositions are made quite clear, but Callie herself may be her biggest obstacle.
“Her main opposition is herself, I think,” Sebela said. “She’s spent so much of her life being told she can’t do this and she can’t do that, to the point where even she believed it. When she lashed out against that, ran away from everything she knew, she still had to sit and wait for a cure to come along. Now that she’s got the cure, she finds herself still stuck in this temporary life she’s built for herself and she has to get out of her own way and, pardon the phrase, follow her heart.”
Sebela continued. “She’s been unlucky in life, unlucky in love and now the big question mark is can she overcome all that, can she become this new person she’s envisioned all her life? Oh and also the cops, the cops are a pretty big opposition.”
If you’ve noticed on Twitter in recent years, creators have been creating their playlists that are sometimes loosely based on their current project. Whether it’s the Spider-Gwen team or Matt Fraction on Hawkeye and especially the Wicked + Divine boys, these playlists get a lot of traction and it’s another way for fan interaction. With Heartthrob taking place in the 70’s and the sound of the decade is so influential, the creators talked about their personal playlists for the project.
“I personally have a playlist which is 50% Fleetwood Mac, 25% classic rock and mellow jams from the 70s, along with some Tegan & Sara (hence Heartthrob) and Chvrches for a modern feel on things,” Sebela said. “Then some other stuff is on there that sort of signifies the times and where they’re heading. I try not to think too hard about playlists for books, whatever feels right for the mood and I can write to goes in my soundtrack.”
“I'm listening to most of the same stuff Chris is plus a ton of David Bowie's Low and Heroes which were both released the same year the story takes place in,” Wilson added.
Wilson and Filardi talked about the level of research that went into the creating of Heartthrob and how they wanted to nail the 70’s aesthetics just right.
“I do a lot of the obvious stuff, google, watching movies from the period, and so on,” Wilson said. “However, my favorite bit of research are these books that I found that compile Sears catalog fashion advertisements. Some of this stuff is so foreign to me (having been born after the story takes place) but I keep coming back to the fact that it's Sears, which is about as common and middle of the road as it gets. I get a ton of clothing reference for those books.”
Filardi mentioned his inspirations were a bit more odd. “Two pieces of the 70’s research stick in my head: First, I'm kind of a sucker for wallpaper. Of any time period for that matter. The more ornate, the better. The 1970’s had these swooping and gem like wallpapers that are going to show up quite a bit. They will be emblazoned on the page with all their orange and brown glory. Secondly, I've wanted an old van for a long time. The type of van you can airbrush your childhood dog fighting a hydra on the side of. The 70’s is kind of when vanning was at its height, so although I haven't had an opportunity yet to do some sweet van work, it will be coming and I am very prepared.”
Lastly, Sebela and Wilson talk about what song from the 70’s could encompass the story within Heartthrob. Sebela had a difficult time choosing.
“I’m torn between Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun” and Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog. Two completely different 1970s songs that both speak to the kind of book that Heartthrob is,” he explained. “The Fleetwood Mac is a large part of what this book is about, the sort of rushing thrill of falling in love and being in love and how overwhelming that can all be. All smiles and twirling. Nazareth is more of the crime aspect, the dangerous edge that Mercer brings and the turn that Callie takes, going from a wallflower to a master criminal. It’s all snarl and bravado. You probably couldn’t put these two back to back on a playlist without getting some looks, but I'm a big fan of jarring contradictions.”
Wilson was more direct with his answer. “I'd pick David Bowie's Heroes for the first arc. For me, it's simultaneously triumphant and melancholy and that's how I react to Heartthrob.”