In the near future, love, politics, and super powers mix together for Image Comics and Skybound’s Heart Attack. Debuting November 20, this new ongoing series by writer Shawn Kittelsen (Mortal Kombat 11), Eric Zawadzki (The Dregs), and Michael Garland (Leviathan) tells the story of two super-powered teens (called Variants in this scenario) trying to survive together the harsh reality of being feared and essentially hunted.
“The theme of Heart Attack is that even when it seems like the whole world is against you, all it takes is one person reaching out their hand to you, one loving connection, to change your life,” Kittelsen explained. “And when we accept that person’s hand, when we join together instead of pulling apart, we find the strength to resist the fear and anger that's poisoning our hearts and minds.”
Newsama recently spoke to Kittelsen and talked about the new ongoing series, how he teamed up with Zawadski, the meaning behind the title, and what he plans to do with the proceeds he receives from the sales from the first twelve issues.
Newsarama: Shawn, how would you describe the world of Heart Attack?
Shawn Kittelsen: We're in Austin, Texas, in a near future where disease has been all but defeated thanks to gene-editing treatments. A victory like that should bring the country together, but when those genetically-modified patients start having genetically-variant children whose DNA is not quite human, fear and panic spread, and the basic human rights of Variants are called into question. Austin is home to the Variant rights movement, who call themselves the Freebodies, and their opposition, the Variant Crimes Unit, a paramilitary squad with the authority to arrest and imprison Variants for any reason.
Nrama: What’s the story behind the title because it seems sort of out there?
Kittelsen: Some people have asked if the title was inspired by the Demi Lovato song, which it’s not, although that song is badass. The title comes from the idea that Charlie and Jill are going to face off against these authoritarian figures, but their worst fears aren’t being arrested or kidnapped. Their worst fears are being hurt by each other, of breaking each others’ hearts. Their hearts are under attack. They might be fighting for a bigger issue like Variant rights, but in the end, it’s the personal stakes that matter most.
Nrama: Austin really isn't a city that's explored in comics. What about it that lored you to it for this?
Kittelsen: It was a fateful trip to SXSW. I'd visited Austin before, but something about seeing this big festival converging in the heart of it got me thinking about the neighborhoods where I was standing. How recently had they gentrified? Who got pushed out when that happened? I'm a history nerd, so that led me down this rabbit hole of Austin history. I had the story and the characters worked out for Heart Attack, but I was searching for a deeply divided city to set them in... and the history of Austin, among other things, is a history of racial and economic division.
Nrama: What is it about the Variants that people are afraid of? What's the supposed dangers of them?
Kittelsen: People fear that Variants will unleash PMDs, Powers of Mass Destruction. The trick is, Variants don't have PMDs. But they do have unique skills and abilities called "Variations", low-level powers that are from super. For example, our leading lady Jill has limited tactile telekinesis. She can manipulate small objects by touch, like picking a lock, but she can't lift a city bus with her mind. Variants like Jill are harmless, but the notion that they could develop PMDs is enough to sow public fear.
Nrama: Speaking of Jill, outside of her aforementioned abilities, what can you say about her and her relationship with the other main character, Charlie North?
Kittelsen: Jill produces and hosts a popular Freebodies livestream that's dedicated to the "fun" side of the Freebodies lifestyle - concerts, t-shirts, collectibles. The whole movement is funded by events and merchandise, but Jill longs to take a more active role in the fight for Variant rights. That's where she's at in our first issue. Charlie, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the Freebodies. He's running from his past, so even when he's offered a larger role in the movement, he's reluctant. Jill and Charlie are opposites in almost every way. But when they meet, they discover a powerful, spiritual connection to each other.
That connection binds them together, but it also pits their opposite personalities and competing objectives against each other.
Nrama: You're working with Eric Zawadzki, with this being his first Image title, how did you both come together for his and what was it about Eric's style that felt was right about Heart Attack?
Kittelsen: Skybound introduced me to Eric. I specifically remember checking out The Dregs, which Eric drew for Black Mask in 2017, and being blown away by his multi-panel breakdowns and the fine details he packed into every frame. What stood out most of all were the performances he imbued his characters with. His style defines and realizes our more grounded take on what it means to be a hero in the 21st century. Heart Attack is as much his as it is mine.
Nrama: How would you describe Michael Garland's colors for Heart Attack?
Kittelsen: Psychedelic neon, because a lot of the action takes place at night, or in a club, and there are trippy metaphysical bits mixed in, so everything needs a certain glow to it, and Michael delivered that glow.
Nrama: You do more licensed books, especially from video game properties, so why was this story important for you to create and tell?
Kittelsen: I started out on the licensing side at DC Comics back in the day, and I guess I've survived the last decade because I've got a knack for handling big franchises like Injustice and Mortal Kombat with care. But with those powerful franchises comes great responsibility and reverence for generations of fans. Heart Attack, on the other hand, has no fans. Yet! So it's a more personal story, emotionally reckless and told from the heart, about what it's like to fall in love with someone and put everything on the line for that connection.
Heart Attack is set in an America consumed by politics, but it's not a political drama. It's a love story.
Nrama: Seems like it could be both though.
Kittelsen: The focus is on Jill and Charlie. It’s probably more accurate for me to call it a “politically-informed love story”. We could go a whole issue without digging into the politics of their world, but we can’t go a whole issue without those two characters at the center.
Nrama: So the first three issues are solicited, but you're doing something interesting with your share of the royalties for the first 12 issues. Can you talk about that?
Kittelsen: Any money I receive from first-year print sales of #1-12, I’m donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center. This book draws upon so many themes and narratives from the movement for criminal justice reform, and it critiques the idea of ”passivists“, or activists who like to promote the image of a woke lifestyle without being willing to make the sacrifices necessary for systemic change.
I’d be a hypocrite if I drew so much from this real struggle without giving something back to the real men and women who are out there fighting on behalf of our collective rights.
It’s not enough to write about principled characters. I want to live those principles, too.