Exciting and unsettling: Ender’s Game: Battle School

I am frequently asked “Why hasn’t science fiction produced its own Harry Potter?” and the answer is that is it already has, and over twenty-five years ago. In fact, long before Hogwarts, the world was already celebrating a wiz kid of exceptional ability, taken from an intolerable domestic situation, and thrust into an incredibly high-pressure scholastic environment, where he would assemble a group of seemingly dysfunctional students into an ace team, all while laboring under the crushing expectation that he alone could beat the ultimate bad guy. That novel, of course, was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. And given the elements above, along with the masterful way they play out, it should come as no surprise then that Ender’s Game won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, spawned multiple sequels, became a commercial juggernaut today, and has emerged as one of the most popular and enduring works of science fiction literature of all time.

No wonder then that on the heels of their success with Stephen King’s Dark Tower comic book that Marvel comics would turn to the creative team of writer Christopher Yost (Killer of Demons, X-Force, Red Robin) and artist Pasqual Ferry (Ultimate Fantastic Four, Ultimate Iron Man) for an Ender’s Game comic book, nor that a great deal of anticipation would surround the project.

For my own part, it was very interesting to follow Ender’s Game into a new medium. I read the original novella, and listened to the audiobook  (unabridged, with an actual cast that includes Harlan Ellison of all people), and now I am experiencing Ender’s Game in comic form. Right off, I have to say it lent itself exceptionally well, perhaps better than I anticipated, and I hope that having it all story-boarded out so nicely will help Hollywood see the potential and get its act together when it comes to the Ender’s Game movie. In fact, Card himself said, “I’m thrilled because this is actually the first move of Ender’s Game into a visual medium,” and, indeed, it is true that often times it takes a visual representation of a novel for Hollywood to “see” how a novel might be visualized (this was how The Matrix was pitched to Warner Bros., for example.)

And speaking visually, one of the things that impressed me the most was the way the artist took the basic visual component of the battle room—essentially a featureless or feature-light grid—and extended that outward across the entire environment. So the Wiggin family house, Ender’s school, government offices, are all rendered with an architect’s precision and attention to detail, and become these eye-catching diagrams of planes and angles. There isn’t a lot of detail in the book to suggest what this future looks like; at least it’s loose enough that a visual representation could go in multiple directions. Fortunately, Ferry’s design for this future, which I understand he achieved in collaboration with Card himself, was gorgeous. Environments are interesting, sufficiently “futuristic,” while being utterly plausible, natural extensions of the more modern buildings and dwellings we have today. The Wiggin home looked like some of the ultra-modern houses you might see showcased on Extreme Homes on the Home & Garden channel (and not even the extreme ones), just ultra-modern, space efficient homes with lots of glass to take advantage of natural light. If I harp on this aspect of the art, it’s because more than anything else, the comic showed me how accessible, and how cinematic, Ender’s Game is, and how an Ender’s Game film should look. Science fiction is often characterized, rightly or wrongly, as a cold and alienating genre, whereas the look of this tale is one of an accessible world I wouldn’t mind living in (at least until you get to the desperation of the narrative).

As to that narrative, it translates to the graphic medium surprisingly well. It is notable how unsettling the violence is when graphically portrayed. Ender is a child, and it is one thing to read about a child beat another to death, quite another to see it. This is a harsh story, and an adult one, powerful and uncompromising. In creating the comic, Yost and Ferry have preserved this perfectly, without compromises. (The comic comes with a PARENTAL ADVISORY warning, and this is a good thing. And a good thing.) The power of the story is there on the page. And while they are covering a lot of ground in a a few pages, they seem to have it all there. Aspects like the Gaint’s Drink—a videogame crafted by the school administrators to model student behavior, with it own version of a Kobayashi Maru-esque unwinnable scenario (the novella does predate Wrath of Khan, by the way)—show how much Card himself prefigured videogaming when he originally wrote the novel. I wasn’t sure that the rules for the Battle Room were delineated clearly enough for the uninitiated, but that isn’t something I can really judge, as familiar with the original as I am. Also, the mechanics of the games aren’t what matters; it’s the dynamics of the characters. This adaptation of Ender Wiggin’s unbearable circumstances felt every bit as dramatic, painful, unsettling as the novel, and every bit as exciting. Lines like, “Knocking him down won the first fight. I needed to win all the next ones, too” contained all the power and pathos they always did.

These first five issues take us to the point where General Graff decides to issue Ender his first command position in the Battle School, and pave the way for the next installment, Ender’s Game: Command School. This is my first exposure to the works of Yost and Ferry, and, in fact, I didn’t know when I initially agreed to review the comic here for Tor.com that I wasn’t getting “the whole story” complete in one volume. It’s a measure of how utterly effective they are in this adaptation that I can hardly wait for the second part, and I will certainly check out more work from these creators. Meanwhile, I’ll be back before then with a review of Ender’s Shadow: Battle School.

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