New York Times best-selling author Daniel Wilson dissects the eternal meanings of good and evil in his unsettling new original graphic novel from DC Comics, Quarantine Zone. The Carnegie Mellon robotics expert and acclaimed writer of Robopocalypse and its sequel, Robogenesis, has been on an enviable creative tear lately, racking up DC projects like Earth 2: World's End and penning screenplays Alpha for Brad Pitt's Plan B and Avtomat for Fox. With this latest story-telling outburst, Wilson abandons his beloved robots and instead focuses on the deadly dilemma of a vicious virus outbreak linked to the root of all evil in human beings.
Paired with veteran artist Fernando Pasarin (Justice Society of America, Batgirl), this riveting pandemic thriller delves deep into philosophical questions of mankind's true nature, free will and the atrocities of which we're capable. Wilson and Pasarin chatted with us on prime story details and project evolution for their new graphic novel, which is spreading into comic shops on March 22.
Check out our illuminating interview and 10-page gallery preview of Quarantine Zone art courtesy of DC Comics, then tell us if this viral shocker might be worth getting hooked on.
Give us a quick fifty-cent tour through the horrid happenings of your first original graphic novel, and tell us what readers can expect?
WILSON: Quarantine Zone is a fast, action-packed and occasionally very gory trip into a world where the root of all evil has been discovered to be a virus. The population that can’t be cured has been exiled into the quarantine zone, where they are policed by quarantine zone enforcement. Our heroes will uncover the truth about what is good and what is evil in a society of absolutes.
What was the genesis of QZ and what inspirations from recent TV shows and movies like The Strain, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, or others did you incorporate into the story arc?
WILSON: DC Comics approached me with the nugget of an idea: "What if evil was a virus, and there was a cure?” From there, I built a story set in the not-so-distant future, where evil is being eliminated. As I wrote, I was thinking about historical context, like the Japanese internment camps during WWII or the creation of “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma around the turn of the last century. Humanity quarantines itself all the time for all kinds of reasons, and this is the ultimate instance of that.
How did the premise and philosophical elements of the malicious malnoro virus evolve?
WILSON: The story asks whether good can have meaning without the possibility of evil. To get there, I imagined a virus that infects the frontal lobe and affects empathy. In an interesting book called The Science of Evil, a psychologist proposes that evil can only exist with a lack of empathy — a total inability to imagine how other people feel. On the other hand, too much empathy, and you can’t separate your own well-being from other peoples’ (and you become generous to a fault). Most of us are somewhere in between, but Quarantine Zone explores the extremes.
In my other work, I often play with whether robots can have free will. And this is a cool reversal of that. Does a human being really have free will if they don’t have the ability to commit an evil act? We love to think about Asimov’s "Three Laws of Robotics” for machines, but what kind of society would we have if every person followed the first and third laws?
With the Zika Virus making headlines around the world, what makes this story such a topical lightning rod?
WILSON: I think viruses (including the Zika virus) are terrifying because it’s hard to know who is infected and whether we’re personally at risk. In the world of Quarantine Zone, the virus people fear is literally evil. Catching this virus unlocks a part of your soul that allows terrible things to happen. Can you trust yourself?
What is it about Fernando Pasarin's art that makes for a suitable match with your writing?
WILSON: The scenes that Fernando created are punctuated with hundreds of small details that come together to create a real authenticity. The Quarantine Zone is a sprawling, dirty, complicated place. Fernando has a jaw-dropping eye for detail and, my god, he must have amazing patience to do what he does.
Was there a specific style and tone you wanted when selecting the artist?
WILSON: The story is about good and evil, and how you can’t have one without the other. That metaphor is conveyed throughout by the composition of light and darkness. I love that Fernando plays a lot with black and white and shades of gray. It’s a subtle thing, but there is a rhythm of dark and light that permeates the book.
What were the biggest challenges and obstacles to overcome in developing and completing the story?
WILSON: Honestly, the mechanics of the virus are complex and mind-bending to think about. My goal is to tell a kick-ass story without getting bogged down in the details. It’s like any story that has time travel — think too hard about it and you get lost. So, my biggest challenge was to sprinkle in details on how the virus works, but keep the story moving, the action intense and the emotion high!
With the root of all evil revealed as a virus, how do the infected people and lawmen function within the walls of the Quarantine Zone?
WILSON: The world within the Quarantine Zone is mostly hidden from the outside, but there are families in there — a whole society of incurable citizens. It has basically become the Wild West, a place where there isn’t much law and civilization is tenuous. Chaos is always a moment away, because people are capable of anything.
Quarantine Zone Enforcment are like a biological containment unit combined with special forces. I had a lot of fun thinking about their equipment and training. Each soldier wears cleanroom-grade armor and if they are infected, their weapons are remotely jammable. As the ultimate failsafe — each soldier carries a chunk of thermite between his or her shoulder blades that can be detonated from HQ.
How is civilian life in the "Good Zone" outside the prison depicted?
WILSON: I drew on the 1960s Cold War-era in the United States to depict the “Good Zone.” At the height of the Cold War we had amazing new technology and also an overbearing paranoia that we were being infiltrated by foreign spies. These people feel the same; their modern society looks perfect from a distance, but up close it’s seething with a constant fear of infection. Think the paranoia of a police state and the tranquility of suburbia — I went very Philip K. Dick with it!
Will there be a sequel or possible continuation of the characters found in QZ?
WILSON: It was a privilege to have the opportunity to think about this world, write the story, and see such beautiful artwork come to life. If there is a sequel or continuation, I would leap at the chance. We’ll see!
Fernando, what enticed you to do this project with Daniel, and were you familiar with his work already?
PASARIN: I’m afraid I only knew Daniel’s name and good reputation before I started working on Quarantine Zone. I read Robopocalypse when I was already working on the project, and I can guarantee that he is awesome in both mediums.
Quarantine Zone was enormously appealing to me. It meant I got to work on a lot of brand-new elements and designs, which I haven’t done in a while, and that’s always welcome. This was a refreshing project to work on just to get outside of the superhero genre. It was great to take a break from the monthly schedule, and it’s satisfying to work on a story made by one consistent creative team. And the story, itself, of course – awesome.
What were the specific elements of the Quarantine Zone story you related to most in your artwork?
PASARIN: For one, I had the chance to really work on the character acting. They all go through so many emotions and situations throughout the story. For another, I loved the chance to jump stylistically from one page to the next; from the cool, futuristic atmosphere of the world outside the Wall, to the dirty and savage streets in the Lanes, which is the contamination zone where people isolated with the Malnoro Virus are quarantined.
How is this graphic novel different from your previous work on other DC titles like Justice Society of America and Batgirl?
PASARIN: Well, first of all, this is an original story. I didn’t need to follow any visual guidelines for the settings or the characters. I just worked off some notes from Daniel’s script. Also my editor let me choose the art team that worked on the book, and all of them are great artists. I had a lot of freedom throughout every stage of the project, which was really nice.
What style and tone did you hope to integrate into the pages to tell the story in the most visceral way?
PASARIN: The first thing I did was discard some storytelling tricks and compositions that I use on the main DC Universe titles to show all the super heroic energy and action. I wanted to approach the book like a film, using normal people, with just a few of them equipped with special armor. I wanted readers of Daniel’s novels to be able to pick up Quarantine Zone and enjoy the story, even if they’re unfamiliar with the comic book format.
Did you have a specific agenda in mind when cultivating the art, and how did the process evolve? What were your inspirations?
PASARIN: From the beginning, I put my focus into making the characters as fluid and real as possible, but I also wanted to work in as many background details and other elements. I wanted to show a real world depiction of the two worlds Daniel created: The clean, high tech zone where most of the people live, and the dirty, poor and debris-filled, contaminated area of the Malnoro virus quarantine zone. Since this is an original story, I didn’t have the years of history to play off of that I had, for example, when I worked on Batgirl. Everybody knows what Gotham looks like. I made a big effort to establish both zones, make them coherent, and establish them well enough that the readers can feel that the streets and world we built are real.
About my influences for Quarantine Zone...I tried to avoid any conscious influences, as there are lots of projects in different mediums with similar environmental conditions, and I didn’t want the readers to feel that I took elements from different places. So, for the months I worked on Quarantine Zone, I put aside more creative sci-fi elements. For instance, for the technology related to the Quarantine Zone Enforcement Special Forces, I established a clear design line, and most of the time, I took real-world tech and transformed it to meet that design line.
How was it working with Daniel Wilson on this graphic novel, and what parts are you most proud of when you sit back and flip through the finished pages?
PASARIN: It was great to work with Daniel. He provided me with a high quality script, and after he and I decided on the look of some of the lead characters, he gave me complete freedom to design the pages. He was always very receptive to my ideas and complimentary when I sent him the pages.
One of the things I’m most proud of about this book is also one of the personal principal goals I had in mind in starting this months-long project; thanks to the hard work of Matt Ryan on the inks and the entire color team, we were able to make a book with a solidly consistent look. I think it will be hard for readers to see which parts we found fun, challenging or hard to accomplish.