Fierce and compelling: Ender’s Shadow: Battle School

I was quite impressed with Marvel’s graphic adaptation of Ender’s Game, which actually exceeded my expectations. I am equally, possibly even more, impressed with their treatment of Ender’s Shadow. Unlike Ender’s Game, I have never read the novel upon which this comic is based (or any Ender novel past the first). This is no comment on Card’s considerable skill. I have never read past Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel either. But I recognize both Ender’s Game and Dune as masterpieces of science fiction literature, certainly must reads for all aficionados of the genre, and they rank very high on my list.

Ender’s Shadow was published in 1999—fourteen years after Ender’s Game—and after the appearance of three sequels to the original novel: Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind.  However, Ender’s Shadow is unique in that, rather than being a sequel to the first book, it is a parallel work that follows another character through the same time line (and which spawned its own series of sequels as well). For a while now, an Ender’s Game movie has been in development, and the word has always been that the film would combine the events of Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow into one script. Wisely, then, Marvel has produced both comic adaptations side by side, so they can be read together, and the results work! In fact, whereas I can’t judge how Ender’s Game: Battle School would read to those uninitiated in the Enderverse, I can safely say that author Mike Carey (X-Men: Legacy, The Unwritten) and artist Sebastian Fiumara (Alan Moore’s Hypothetical Lizard, Marvel Illustrated: the Picture of Dorian Gray) have done a tremendous job of making Ender’s Shadow: Battle School a completely accessible, stand-alone work.

Ender’s Shadow tells the story of Bean, a child found homeless on the streets of Rotterdam, selected because of his off-the-charts intellect for the Battle School (despite his horribly malnourished physique). Bean is perhaps the only person in the world smarter than Ender and, as most of us know, destined to become his close companion. From horrendous circumstances, he is propelled into, well, even more horrendous circumstances, as the point of the Battle School is to produce strategists of the level of an Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte, and that’s a mandate whose goal is sought at all costs, as the stakes are no less than the future of the entire human race. But where Ender reacted to the challenges set before him by the school’s administrators (and exceeded them), Bean refuses to be analyzed, restricting his socializing with the other children, and doesn’t even touch the recreational games secretly used to model student behavior. Instead, Bean turns the tables on the school itself to study and analyze it, and, I believe (not having read the novel and Battle School comprising only the first part) actually manipulates the school’s organization and those he knows are watching him to achieve his own purposes. Without giving away too much of a spoiler, Bean is not a normal child, and was capable, from a very early age, of cold, calculating strategic thinking in a way that calls his humanity into question on the part of some characters (but never on the part of the reader, it should be said). He’s an utterly engrossing character, and a somewhat frightening one, from the moment he first appears, advising a group of urchins, plagued by bullies, to get their own bully they can control. The group leader, Poke, listens to Bean, but selects a bully that Bean feels is too smart to manage. “Kill him, Poke, or he’ll kill you. Kill him and take the next guy,” Bean says, and it’s unsettling to see such a small child proffer such cold equations (even if he’s right).

The first issue sees Bean noticed by a nun, Sister Carlotta, who has been charged by the Battle School’s General Graff to look for promising children that have arisen out of the crucible of Rotterdam’s dangerous streets. She’s actually first attracted to the bully (Achilles), drawn by a strategy he utilizes that Bean supplied. From here, she sees Bean, and realizes his intellectual potential despite his stunted physical nature. The story that follows is one of parallel investigations as it sees Bean analyzing the Battle School even as Sister Carlotta delves into Bean’s mysterious origins (and they are mysterious).

As much as I loved the sharp planes and angles of Ferry’s depiction of Ender Wiggin’s word—a brilliant extension of the grid of the Battle Room out into the surrounding universe—Fiumara’s looser, grittier, dirtier style is equally appropriate for the horrific, street urchin existence that is Bean’s Rotterdam. Also, regarding the aforementioned aspect of the way this narrative is structured as a duel investigation—as Bean investigates the Battle School, so Sister Carlotta is investigating him—this brings an elements of the mystery genre to the science fiction form.  Perhaps for this reason, there is an almost hard-boiled “noir” feel to Fiumara’s art. Elements like the cops in trench coats, cigarette butts, run-down offices with drab furniture, window blinds, dirty bathrooms, etc. —all set pieces that could just have easily been made “futuristic” as contemporary—instead evoke the traditional furniture found in the noir style. Furthermore, while Bean is so malnourished that he’s almost physically painful to look at, Fiumara manages to communicate—largely through the savage intensity of his determined gaze— a formidable appearance that is more intimidating  than pitiable. It’s quite an accomplishment, because his limbs seem almost stunted beneath that fierce face.

But if I come off as suggesting that Bean is to be feared, then let me say otherwise. For all the mystery of his birth, and the fierceness of his intellect, Bean is a very human, very sympathetic figure, and an utterly compelling one. Perhaps the best endorsement of this comic adaptation I can give is that it has me on the edge of my seat for the next installment, and, moreover, has me seriously considering picking up the Ender’s Shadow novel as well.


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