Thu
Jul 23 2009 12:00pm

One Damn Bean: A Conversation with Mike Carey and Sebastian Fiumara

As a follow up to my review of Ender’s Shadow: Battle School, I got to talk to the writer and illustrator team behind the graphic novel. First up is author Mike Carey, the writer of such comics as Lucifer, X-Men: Legacy, and The Unwritten, as well as the Felix Castor novels.

Anders: How did it come about that you would be the one to adapt Ender’s Shadow? I assume you’d read Ender’s Game but don’t know if you’d read beyond it (though I heard you say elsewhere that Orbit sent you the complete series recently). What’s your history with the text?

Carey: Shadow was the book I was offered, and I was delighted to be in the frame. After Ender’s Game, it’s my favourite book in the sequence. For a long time that wasn’t true: Speaker for the Dead had that position: but Shadow is unique in that it passes through the events of Ender’s Game and illuminated them from a different angle. It’s a little bit like the Gus Van Sant movie, Elephant, where you pass through the events of a single day from many different characters’ point of view, seeing how their lives casually and invisibly intersect. It’s more like a jazz riff on the original novel than an actual sequel.

Anders: Do you think the fact that you wear two hats—novelist and comicbook author, two different disciplines that have overlapping skills but also unique requirements, gave you an edge in translating Ender’s Shadow from one medium to another?

Carey: Actually I think that adaptation is a different set of skill again. When you’re making something new—a story that’s your own, in any medium, prose or comics or moving image—you create the architecture as you go. Okay, you plan in advance, to a greater or lesser extent, but there are always a lot of things—a lot of important and central things—that come into the story and are woven into its fabric as you’re writing it. It’s like a spider making a web: without wanting to get overly poetic or romantic, it comes from your guts, from your own storytelling instincts, your own foibles, the cast and habits of your mind.

With an adaptation, the architecture is there, and what faces you—to begin with—is the intellectual puzzle of carrying it unscathed, intact, into another medium. Obviously that word “intact” is a very loaded one here, because it never goes through unchanged. There will inevitably be compressions, shifts of emphasis, new scenes added to bridge old ones, changes even in narrative point of view. That happens because different media aren’t—what’s the word in mathematics? They’re not isomorphic. You can’t map a novel directly onto a comic book, or either of them directly onto a movie. Sin City and Watchmen would seem to give me the lie, but even there, there are shifts of emphasis that make a huge difference. Read the original Watchmen, then watch the movie: the visual recreation is incredible, but you haven’t had the same experience. Nor—and this is the crucial point—should that be what you’re going for. You’ve already had that experience. The adaptation is of necessity a different way of telling the same story: it gets to the same end point by its own path, and obviously it’s your job as writer to find a viable path that stays true to the original.

Anders: Did you have any interaction with or feedback from Orson Scott Card?

Carey: Yeah, he commented on the scripts, and gave us lots of valuable input on specific points: coming back to that idea of viable paths, he told us some of the things that he saw as the most important factors. He’s busy with his own projects, as you’d expect, but most times, and especially at the outset, that feedback came directly. Other times, Jake Black acted as liaison and did a fantastic job of keeping everybody on the same page.

Anders: One of the things that impressed me about this narrative is the duel investigation that goes on. As Bean investigates the Battle School, so Sister Carlotta is investigating him, which brings an elements of mystery and mystery narratives to the novel, doesn’t it?

Carey: Yeah, very much so. And it’s beautiful and fiendishly clever how the second investigation plays off the first. For most of the time we’re with Bean: he’s the protagonist and we’re rooting for him as he adapts to and conquers this alien and alienating environment. But when we’re with Carlotta, we’re pulled off on a scary tangent. Who is this kid we’re cheering on? What is he? Who made him? It’s the best kind of sub-plot—the kind that’s in touch with the main plot at every point and constantly modifies how you respond to it.

Anders: In many ways, Bean is a lot more formidable than Ender, certainly more unsettling. Can you talk about what makes him such a compelling character and how you get that across in a few panels?

Carey: In some ways he’s almost a negative image of Ender. At times, anyway. With Ender we see the vulnerability first and then we see the process by which he turns himself into this leader of men. Bean seems at first to have no human weaknesses at all, so it’s never in doubt that he’ll thrive in Battle School—but gradually we’re made to see the child underneath that cold, competent persona. He is scary, you’re right: but right from the start you see why he’s had to become what he is, and crucially, you see that his coldness and efficiency, his ability to see the optimum outcome and work towards it with ruthless pragmatism, aren’t the only things about him. You stop being scared of him and you start being scared for him.

Anders: Bean’s origins on the streets of Rotterdam are very different than Ender’s background. Both have brutality and cruelty in their past, but Bean’s exceeds Ender’s, and his world is darker and grittier? He is said to be smarter than Ender, too. Leaving aside his mysterious origins, is it because he was pushed harder?

Carey: By his environment, you mean? Up to a point, yeah. H.G. Wells said, “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity.” But it’s also true that Bean’s environment wakes up something inside him that was purposely and clinically put there by Volescu. Push has to be met with push. It’s both nature and nurture, as it is with Ender, too.

Anders: Sebastián Fiumara’s artwork is a wonderful compliment to Bean’s grittier circumstances. How was it working with him and was there much back and forth?

Carey: It’s been absolutely fantastic working with Sebastián. I didn’t know his work at all until we teamed up on Shadow, and I didn’t know at all what to expect. What I got was this incredibly versatile, chameleon-like art that changes seamlessly to suit the mood and setting. The early scenes in Rotterdam are bleak and stark and totally convincing. Then when we get to Battle School he perfectly renders this futuristic, sterile, gleaming environment, so you get the difference—the spectacular extent to which Bean’s life has been redefined—but you also see that this is a different kind of jungle. His figure work is immaculate, too: he reminds me very much of Carlos Ezquerra, whose work I love.

Anders: Nothing dates like science fiction, and yet this comic feels absolutely contemporary, completely relevant. Can you comment on that?

Carey: It’s because it’s about people, not hardware—and people under the kind of pressure that either breaks you or remakes you. Like all the best sci-fi (and stealing the terms from Ursula LeGuin), it’s an incursion rather than an excursion. This is us. In the same way as when you get to the end of Apocalypto you think, “This is us.” Pre-Columbian America, a world ravaged by alien invasion, all that shifts is the metaphor.

 

Next up is artist Sebastián Fiumara, who comes to Ender’s Shadow from such works as Alan Moore’s Hypothetical Lizard,  and Marvel Illustrated: the Picture of Dorian Gray.

Anders: Regarding the source novel itself, what was your relationship to Enderverse before you took the project onboard? Fan of the series, new to the work, etc…?

Fiumara: No, I was very new. I hadn’t read the Ender books till they called me for this project.

Anders: One of the things that impressed me about this narrative is the duel investigation that goes on. As Bean investigates the Battle School, so Sister Carlotta is investigating him, which brings an elements of mystery and the trappings of a mystery narrative to the novel, doesn’t it? Does the type of story being told inform your choices as an illustrator? There’s a certain almost hard-boiled “noir” feel to it, isn’t there? Am I wrong in thinking that elements like the cops in trench coats, cigarettes, run down offices, dirty bathrooms, etc… (set pieces that could just have easily been made “futuristic”) was a deliberate attempt to play into this noir style and investigative narrative structure?

Fiumara: Yes, I’m always looking for the right way to approach artistically the story I’m working on. My storytelling, the line of the pencil and even the inking style usually change according the mood I want for the book.

In Ender’s Shadow, I used a little of “noir” language at the beginning of the story in the street of Rotterdam. I wanted it to look not excessively dark, but yes, very dirty and grit. This place is quite tough for the kids and I wanted to reflect this on the pages. And for the cops and detective (despite [the fact that] we are in the future) the typical stuffs, cigarettes, coat, etc, are a quick link to them and the noir narrative.

Anders: How much interaction did you have with Orson Scott Card in conceiving of these designs? Also, Ender’s Shadow is being published concurrently with Ender’s Game. Was there interaction between you and Pasqual Ferry? You have very different style, but there is nonetheless a real continuity in design between the two books that make them work well when read in tandem.

Fiumara: Orson Scott Card is supervising us through the editor from the start; we followed his ideas for the leading characters, places, etc. But the main designer of the book is Pasqual, I’m working with his designs for almost everything except the Bean related world.

Anders: Bean is so malnourished he’s almost physically painful to look at, and yet there is an intensity to his facial expressions that make him look formidable, intimidating rather than pitiable. Can you talk about coming up with his look? Because you have nailed it, and I won’t be able to picture him any other way ever again I’m sure.

Fiumara: Thank you! What I wanted the most for Bean was exactly that, his expression, the look in his eyes. First, Orson Scott Card sent a picture of a boy in which Bean should be based on. When I had the preliminary face for him I went back to the book; what got my attention when I read the novel was that Bean is an observer, he is a living sponge, learning, studying everything (and he is not intimidated by anyone), so the key was the look in his eyes. I wanted to focus on it.

Anders: When we get to the Battle School, your backgrounds take on sharper/cleaner lines, don’t they? Deliberate contrast to the grit and grime of Rotterdam?

Fiumara: Yes, it was intentional. These two worlds are very different from each other. Rotterdam is an unpleasant place, it is grime, old; it is the past for Bean. The school is the future, cold and clean. I thought the art needed to show that so I inked the story thinking in those contrasted feelings. And the colorist Giulia Brusco gave me a great hand with it!

Anders: Nothing dates like science fiction, and yet despite being based on an 1985 novel, this comic feels absolutely contemporary, completely relevant. Can you comment on that?

Fiumara: I think writers Chris Yost and Mike Carey did an incredible job translating this novel into the comic medium. They got a very visual and dynamic tale. Add to that Pasqual’s art. It’s just perfect. You just look at one of Ferry’s pages and you jump into the future. What he did and he’s doing is astonishing. I’m very lucky following his lead!

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