Comics are a medium where storytellers have complete freedom to let their imaginations go as far as they want. We've seen countless speculative futures where everything that can go wrong as seemed to, and in the graphic novel Heavy Water it's showing a world where Nazis won out in World War 2 but one man finds out how wrong it is – and finds a way to travel back in time and set things right.
Heavy Water is part of the launch titles for California-based publishing newcomer Kickstart Comics. Spiraling out of a film production company of the same name, Kickstart brings with it several talented screenwriters with innovative concepts that seem like ready-made comics. In the case of Heavy Water it's Jonathan W.C. Mills, who directed the recent punk rock documentary We Were Feared and sold a spec script back in 2008 called Inside Passage. Working with Mills on Heavy Water is artist Alberto Muriel, who illustrated A-Team: Face and Legion: Prophets for IDW.
Newsarama: When I was talking to Kickstart about Heavy Water, they described it as Saving Private Ryan meets Time Machine – how would you describe it, Jonathan?
Jonathan W.C. Mills: That’s a fairly accurate description as a logline, but Heavy Water is bigger than that. I was inspired by Maus and of course Watchmen...books that reach beyond themselves. On one hand Heavy Water is a classic heroic journey with amazing action and a sweeping historical epic. It reaches out and grabs you by the gut and makes you care about this rather quiet man who ends up making enormous sacrifices for something he isn’t sure he believes in. On the flip side is the intellectual component of the story; the time travel, which engages on a much different level; cause and effect, totalitarianism and fascism, love and sacrifice...these are just a few of the themes running through Heavy Water. At its heart this book is an action filled adventure, with some very complex and exciting intellectual underpinnings.
Nrama: So what’s the world like in Heavy Water?
Mills: There are two worlds that are explored in Heavy Water. One is the future totalitarian state run by the Nazis with a breathless efficiency. I imagined this future as a place full of bright light and open architecture; a culture built around the refutation of the very idea of privacy. To me the goal of the Nazis was to create a master race; where their imagination failed them is that even if they were to achieve a plurality of perfect physical specimens they would never, ever truly control people's minds and hearts. Entropy is found in every system and cannot be eradicated. The second world we spend time in is Norway in 1946. In that part of the book it's almost always dark and snowing, and our colorist really captured some amazing snow effects that seem to leap off the page. But the world itself is a familiar one. It's full of trees, wilderness and natural vistas not seen in the future. It roots us in the familiar and anchors the story.
Nrama: And who is the man that can change this horrific future?
Mills: Ben Haukelid is an everyman of the future. He is Neo from The Matrix; someone who is going about the grind of his life knowing that something bigger is waiting for him but unable to figure out what that ‘thing’ is. Then fate finally reveals the answer to him. What’s interesting with Ben is that he truly grows as a character through this story, he becomes someone and it was really fun, as I wrote, to see him evolve into this heroic man. I really cared about him by the end!
Nrama: You mention that Ben exists in that future where the Nazis rule it all. What's his position in society?
Mills: Ben is a mid-level bureaucrat working within the system. He wakes up, goes to work, works out, goes home. His life will be very familiar to many urban dwelling citizens right now. He's working to live and living to work and he hates it. The only thing that gives him joy is his amazing girlfriend Floria who turns out to be much more than even he bargained for. She is truly the hero of the story in many ways; she's smart, brave and passionate. Things that Ben, at least initially, isn't.
Nrama: What triggers Ben to start asking questions?
Mills: His involvement in the narrative is, at first, purely a function of fate. He is in possession of an item that is extremely important; it's a critical piece of history in a world that doesn't have any. The Nazis have destroyed it. Yet he knows nothing of the mission to change time. The link is his girlfriend, Floria, who discovers his historical secret and knows enough to act on it. Ben is not proactive, that comes only when he casts of the shadow of the time he lives in...and in that way he really starts off as an anti-hero.
Nrama: Although I think this is your first comic, it sounds made for comics – Nazis, time machines, alternate futures. How’d the idea for Heavy Water come about?
Mills: The germ of the idea came from reading Richard Rhodes' amazing book, The History of the Atomic Bomb, which is a freakishly fascinating story of how the atomic bomb came to be. Everything from that moment on was a product of an overactive imagination and a lot of ‘what if’s’...
Nrama: And how’d you go about deciding comics were something you wanted to do with this story?
Mills: I will admit that I was not a comic book reader growing up. I was a bookworm. But this story needed to be told and when the opportunity presented itself to make it as a GN it seemed like the perfect fit; it had so many terrific visual elements and yet was a compact story so I jumped at the chance to do it. Since then I've started to dip my toe in the world and have a bunch of friends who are involved with Comic Book Sundays (C.B.S.) here in Los Angeles and have a lot more experience writing comics than I do. For me, telling a story graphically just makes sense...
Nrama: Although you're new to comics, you've done a bit in film – you sold a spec script called Inside Passage as a movie, and directed the puck rock documentary We Were Feared. How'd you find yourself a writer, and what's it like to jump into comics?
Mills: I think anyone who writes professionally does it because there is very little else they are suited for. I count myself very lucky to be able to use my imagination to make a living and was very excited to have the opportunity to work with Kickstart on this book. Alberto Muriel took the words and layout and made it real on the page, which was an incredible experience for me. I do hope it’s the first of many collaborations because I believe this form of storytelling has enormous potential for me.
Nrama: Let's come back fill circle and talk about the title of this graphic novel, "Heavy Water". What does the name "Heavy Water" refer to?
Mills: Technically Heavy water is water containing a higher-than-normal proportion of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. The title refers to this water, which was a by-product of the hydro electric plan in Norway that was a key strategic goal for the Nazis...but symbolically the title is also a nod to the fact that water, and its weight, played a key role in how the story unfolded in WWII. It was a story about, and ended in, water.Will you travel in time with this story?