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Post-Game: ‘Heart Attack' (with Shawn Kittelsen)

Comic Books

Post-Game: ‘Heart Attack’ (with Shawn Kittelsen)

A new series emphasizing the stories behind your favorite comic titles/arcs.

Welcome to another edition of Post-Game. As the title suggests, we’re aping a little NFL-inspired post-game coverage for the realm of comics, allowing a slew of creators to come in and examine their work after the fact. Through this rare instance of hindsight, we can all gain a better appreciation for our favorite stories and series and better grasp the truly nuanced creative process. And unlike with football, we promise no (excessively) wacky graphics or needlessly bulky suits.

For more from the series, check out Dennis Culver and Justin Greenwood examining Crone, Ben Fisher breaking down The Great Divide, Anthony Del Col covering Nancy Drew And The Hardy Boys: The Big Lie, David Avallone delving into Doc Savage, Phil Hester dissecting Family Tree, Jeff Parker tackling James Bond Origin and Mark Russell discussing Lone Ranger.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

Title: Heart Attack Volume No. 1 (“Against The Wall”)
Creative Team: Written by Shawn Kittelsen and with art by Eric Zawadzki and Mike Spicer.
Story Arc: The six-issue series debut.
Original Release Date: November 2019 to June 2020
Synopsis: In a world where superpowers actually exist, two strangers come together to unlock heretofore unknown abilities of their own. Their “relationship” kick-starts an adventure that questions the very nature of themselves and the political hellscape in which they call home.
AIPT’s Thoughts: From Ronnie Gorham’s review of issue #1, “Writer Shawn Kittelsen and artist Eric Zawadzki invite you to experience a romance story that takes a jab at political themes, social injustice, and the power of determination. The art is good, the pacing is just right, and it does a good job of keeping the reader’s attention.”

“Against The Wall” is available at retailers starting tomorrow, July 29. 

Post-Game: ‘Heart Attack' (with Shawn Kittelsen)

How do you feel now that this story’s been told? Is there a sense of relief, or are there any uneasy feelings? Was its creation/development a “good” experience overall?

Shawn Kittelsen: This book was conceived way back in 2013, so it’s hard to overstate how relieved I am that we’re in print. Even better, I’m proud of the final product. Jon Moisan and Sean Mackiewicz pushed me to tell a story outside of my blockbuster-y comfort zone. The result is a more intimate, personal story than I’ve written before. Then there’s Eric, who turned out to be the best partner I could ask for, and I credit him with elevating each script to its peak potential.

But while I’m proud of the story, I’m disappointed in all the ways that 2020 has paralleled the dystopian future portrayed in the book – from the global pandemic to peaceful demonstrations against racism and police brutality being met with more police brutality, it’s all too resonant. I would gladly trade that timeliness for a more just and progressive country. That’s why I’ve pledged to donate my print royalties from first-year sales to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Are you the type of artist/writer to go back and think about what worked or didn’t with a story or the overall volume? Is that process helpful at all?

Heart Attack

From issue #1. Courtesy of Image-Skybound.

SK: Yeah, I tend to constantly interrogate my own work, whether in the middle of writing or after it’s been released. A bit of my post-mortem process involves comparing my expectations to reader reactions, but the more important factors are time, distance, and objectivity. Given enough of each, I become less self-conscious, and I can engage with the story for as it exists, as a true reader, rather than as a neurotic writer, stumbling through a morass of personal doubts and hypothetical potentialities.

How do you think the overall storyline or larger aesthetic/visual identity played out now that you’re looking at it as a wholly completed project? Has that shifted at all?

SK: The visuals and overall design of the book surpassed my expectations. I suggest panel breakdowns in my scripts, but I’ve never held an artist to those breakdowns if they envision something that feels better to them. Eric took three-panel scripts and turned them into seven-panel layouts or turned six-panel scripts into 12-panel layouts, and so on. He’s given the book a completely unique pace of action and performances in ways I never would have thought to suggest.

As for the storyline itself, it shifted so majorly that I wrote two completely different sets of issues #3-6. The first version of #3-6 had a lot more super-powered action, with these big heist sequences culminating in an epic prison break. That was how I’d pitched it, and Skybound had approved that pitch and the issue outlines. But after I wrote the scripts, the editors felt like there was something special in #1-3 that got lost once the story exploded into blockbuster mode. They asked if I’d consider taking another run at the back half of the arc with a different lens. At first blush, I was non-plussed. But the longer I processed Skybound’s feedback, the more opportunities I saw to write a sharper, more relevant story. The result was this arc.

What kind of feedback have you received? Has any of that helped shape some of your thoughts on the larger series/story?

SK: Most of the feedback I’ve gotten from readers has affirmed the things that Skybound pointed out ahead of that “soft reboot” of the first arc. Other books do the blockbuster superpowers thing well enough. Our readers are more interested in Charlie and Jill’s relationship, and how their improbable connection challenges them in ways that superpowers can’t fix. Finding our confidence with that personal focus has influenced the direction of Volume 2. The upcoming stories go bigger than Volume 1, but not too big. The Big Two have big action covered. Heart Attack is about what happens when pummeling bad guys and blowing up city blocks can’t solve your problems.

What, if anything, surprised you about how the story or visual narrative plays out in hindsight? Is there some reaction or emotion now associated with the series that you might not have felt during the actual creative process?

SK: [Slight spoiler for issue #6 ahead] There’s a pivotal moment in #6 where a group of Freebody protesters march to the Wall along I-35 in our near-future Austin, Texas. There they are met by police in military gear, lined up high above, raining bullets and tear gas down upon the unarmed protesters.

Less than a month before #6 came out in comic shops, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests across the nation. I was checking out coverage of the protests and came across a scene in real-world Austin, Texas, where a group of Black Lives Matter protesters marched to I-35. There they were met by police in military gear, lined up high above, raining rubber bullets and tear gas upon the unarmed protesters.

I’ll never read this story I wrote the same way again. Maybe I was naïve, but Heart Attack was meant to be a warning. In 2020, it’s more like a mirror.

Post-Game: ‘Heart Attack' (with Shawn Kittelsen)

From issue #2. Courtesy of Image-Skybound.

Now that it’s finished, how would you describe the series/story to someone (what’s your best elevator pitch)? Did that change at all from before publication?

SK: Heart Attack is a story about Jill and Charlie, star-crossed teenagers who meet amid the turmoil of near-future Austin, Texas, where a genetically enhanced minority called Variants resist brutal oppression and denial of their human rights by an authoritarian police force. Together, Charlie and Jill have the power to change Austin forever. But can they live with the consequences?

Did you have any goals going into the project? Did you “complete” those in some way?

SK: My original goal for the project was to write “Romeo & Juliet” with superpowers. I don’t think I achieved that goal, per se, but I think we’ve told a different story that’s far less predictable and more interesting than I knew it would be. A goal that came out of the reboot challenge was proving I could write an original story that didn’t feel like an action tentpole. On that, mission accomplished! Finally, I wanted the book to have meaningful back-matter, to give depth and support for the story instead of just padding it. Thanks to designer Carina Taylor, Heart Attack has some of the back-matter of my dreams.

Is there anything you might do differently in writing/illustrating/coloring/etc.? Some things you wish had played out differently?

SK: I wish more people had discovered the monthly issues, and that the book hadn’t debuted right before a global pandemic that completely disrupted the direct market. Hopefully the book will find stronger legs as a trade paperback. When it comes to the work and the process that went into it? I wouldn’t change much.

Inversely, what do you think are the highlights of the story? What are the points in which you excelled as you’re looking at the whole project from a distance?

SK: For me, the highlight has been my collaboration with Eric. Seeing the way our storytelling sensibilities combined to create this book has been a highlight of my career. I am a better writer for having worked with him, and not just regarding comics. Eric’s approaches to panel-pacing and character performances has refactored the way I envision scenes when I’m writing scripts for any medium. Writing an artist whose work you genuinely admire is like writing for a cast and crew of Academy Award winners. Your game elevates through osmosis.

Do you have any final thoughts or observations on the story/series?

SK: I never thought it would take Heart Attack seven years to grow from a brainstorm in my notebook to a published collection. Now that it’s here, I’m beyond grateful for my collaboration with Eric Zawadzki and the support of everyone who’s lent their talents to the book. The story may be tragically relevant now, but hopefully, with the benefit of time and distance, it will someday serve its original purpose: a warning of injustices we can prevent, if we can summon the collective resolve to end them.

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