Peeling Back the Secrets on the Battle School: A Conversation with Christopher Yost and Pasqual Ferry

As a follow-up to

my review

of


Ender’s Game: Battle School

, I got to talk to the brilliant writer and artist team behind the graphic novel. First up is Christopher Yost, writer of such works as Killer of Demons, X-Force, and Red Robin.

Anders: Ender’s Game is one of the most successful science fiction narratives of all time, a perennial best seller over a quarter century since its initial appearance. What do you think accounts for this success and how do you approach adapting something like that for a new medium?

Yost: Its character, first and foremost. We care about Ender Wiggin. He’s a good kid in a terrible situation, and we root for him. He’s incredibly easy to identify with… a mean older brother, bullies, etc… but above all, he’s a good kid.

In adapting the book, the goal was never to lose sight of Ender the character… obviously we want to see the Battle Room, the fights, the Formics… but if we don’t care about Ender, none of it matters.

Luckily, with comics, we get the best of both worlds. We can tells the story, and show it as well.

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

Yost: From the get-go, OSC was incredibly supportive. I think after the first few scripts came in, he felt pretty comfortable with what I was doing… which was to mostly restructure a novel that works perfectly. Ender’s Game doesn’t need restructuring. It doesn’t need new scenes, new characters… it works. It was really just a matter of structure for an episodic format.

But he was very complimentary, which of course was a relief, ha ha. I suspect the Pasqual had much more interaction with him than I did.

Anders: I suspect one of the problems with the forever-in-production Ender’s Game film is that it’s hard for Hollywood studios to understand that they both have to cast very young children and yet not lose the brutality and intensity of the narrative. It’s quite shocking in places, and yet, if they trusted in it, would produce something truly lasting. Still, reading about a young child murder another boy and seeing it are two different things. Can you talk about how you translate this to a visual medium like comic books (and the importance of doing so without compromise)?

Yost: There’s not an instance of compromise in this adaptation, with the exception of showing nudity. I’ve cut maybe one curse word. Yes, it’s a brutal story, but it doesn’t work without it. The shock for me isn’t the violence, it’s that the teachers are letting it happen. They’re using these experiences to grow Ender into who they need him to be.

It’s hard to watch, absolutely. But it’s absolutely necessary to the story. It’s not shock for the sake of shocking; it’s a window into Ender’s mind. It’s all about his character.

Anders: The advantage that novels have over comics and film is their depth and breadth, simply that you can take 400 or more pages for a story to breath and develop. You don’t have this luxury in comics, and yet, 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. But these lines don’t exist in isolation, you’ve got to pick and chose what goes in and then produce a narrative that feels like more than a sequence of snapshots lifted out of a larger work and pasted together. And you have! How on earth to you achieve this?

Yost: Upon reading Ender’s Game with an eye toward adapting it, you notice a few things. The first and foremost thing is that OSC doesn’t spend a lot of time on visuals. If any. It’s an amazing feat, in my opinion, because you walk away from the book feeling like you know exactly what everything looks like, how it works, what the people look like… but OSC gives you just enough for your mind to take it all the way.

The comic, however, is a different story. My scripts do some logistical visualization, enough to block scenes and make them work… but Pasqual Ferry has been responsible for truly creating this world in a visual sense. He’s really had the lion’s share of the work, and he’s done a truly amazing job.

Anders: Agreed. Pasqual Ferry’s artwork does a wonderful job of taking what in lesser hands could easily have degenerated into a clichéd science fiction universe and making it seem plausible and attainable, connected to our own world as something we might come to resemble. How was it working with him and was there much back and forth between you in evolving the look and feel of this future?

Yost: Early on I emailed Pasqual and we chatted about the visuals of the novel… I know he and OSC have worked together to get the visuals as he imagined them. I think this is the first time that the story has been done in any visual way.

But it was a treat. Pasqual is an amazing artist, and getting pages in from him was like a gift every day. That’s the great thing about writing comics… the pages of art coming in.

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

Yost: I think the story itself is more or less timeless. Because it’s not really about future space stations, or alien invasions. It’s about children versus adults. It’s about control. The teachers are the enemy here, not the aliens. Everything else is just window dressing.

Anders: In a similar vein, when Card wrote Ender’s Game back in 1985, we didn’t have anything like the Giant’s Drink videogame that forms the narrative within a narrative. One of the aspects of the novel that doesn’t get enough attention, IMHO, is the way it prefigures a lot of console gaming! Can you talk about this, and the way you handle these elements in the graphic novel?

Yost: There were two parts of the novel I was most excited about working on, the finale and the Giant’s Drink. It’s such a purely visual thing, and so different than the “real world” sci fi environment the book takes place in. It pulls you out of the normal.

And there’s so much symbolism to it, half of which I’m sure I don’t even get. It’s a place where Ender’s subconscious can be visualized, which is a rare treat.

Anders: Is Ender a hero or a monster?

Yost: Hero, through and through. The simple fact that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, the fact that he has to love his enemy to kill them, that he truly empathizes with those he hurts… he’s a good kid in a horrible situation. He’s a genius, he can be cold and calculating—even when he doesn’t realize it. It’s just a natural instinct.

But I’d take him on my side any day. He never could have done what he did had he known.

Next up is Pasqual Ferry, the wonderful artist behind such titles as Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate Iron Man.

Lou: Before this comic, when I thought of the look of Ender’s Game, the Battle Room always loomed large as a big, square, largely featureless space, a grid not dissimilar to Star Trek’s holodeck when it’s not running a program. A fantastic SF concept, but not necessarily a very interesting image, visually, at least not one that lends itself to a lot of variety. Yet, you seem to have taken this central concept, and applied it outwards beyond the Battle Room into the world at large. I love what you did with planes and angles in the Ender household, the airport, offices, everything from the way the bunk beds in Ender’s room don’t quite overlap to the sharp fold in the entrance way leading into his original school. Am I on target that this was a deliberate choice, to project the grid outwards, and can you talk more about it?

Ferry: Well, the big problem doing SF designs is that almost everything is already done; so it’s tough work do something “New.” Besides if you are more creative than functional then the backgrounds could have more importance than the history itself. And Ender’s story has a very huge emotional importance so to me the challenge was do something “real” in the way that you could see in the corners, you could recognize the gravity rules, and the functionality of the elements around, but at same time, that would have room for an imaginative design. Furthermore, there are a lot of scenarios that will be repeats along the story, so it was also important to do something that would not hurt the visuals.

Anders: SF is sometimes seen as cold and inaccessible, and yet I felt like I was looking at a world that, at least on the surface (before we get to some of the horrors underpinning its narrative), I wouldn’t mind living in. The Wiggin household looks like the sort of ultra-modern, energy efficient domicile you might see showcased on the Home & Garden channel. Very much “the future as it will be.” Making it look so plausible, so realistic, I felt went a long way to making it accessible to a contemporary reader, perhaps not one versed in SF tradition. And then, too, I felt the look you developed showed how very cinematic and filmable Ender’s Game is. So, can you tell me about coming up with a look for the future? Also, one thing I’m curious about—in our present day world, NASA may be phasing out the Space Shuttle in the relative near future, and yet the choice to make a recognizable shuttle-style ship be the vehicle that ushers Ender to the Battle School seems again to ground this narrative as something plausible and series (as opposed to the wilder fancies of a Star Wars-type space opera, for instance). Can you talk about this decision, or, if you’d rather, how similar decisions were made?

Ferry: The first design for the Space Shuttle that I did was more “futuristic,” although very much based on the current shuttles. I was investigating the new real designs of these ships and I did my own one. But Orson called saying that the shuttle would be better if it would be more near to the real [one] of our times. We could play with more “special, and modern” ships when we stayed in the Battle school. The idea was that you would be entering slowly to the “different and in some way hardmagic” world of the School.

Anders: On that, how much interaction did you have with Orson Scott Card in conceiving of these designs? Also, Ender’s Game: Battle School is being published concurrently with Ender’s Shadow: Battle School. I imagine there was some interaction between you and Sebastián Fiumara? You have very different style, but there is nonetheless a real continuity in design between the two books.

Ferry: In the beginning Orson was absolutely implicated in the designs. It was a very hand-to-hand talk about how he would like to see visuals and designs and how I could make them as good as the book descriptions were, [while making them] “comicbook functional.” It was a very intense and enjoyable experience. After the adjustment of the first issues everything start to run for itself, so I could talk with Orson several times—not always about the book. I didn’t know that Ender’s Shadow would be published at the same time as Ender’s Game. So my contact with Sebastián was very late. But with Ender’s Game being the principal book it’s obvious that he must have to continue with the designs that we did in our series; of course adding his own vision.

Anders: The scenes in the Battle Room with the various squads engaging are wonderful. In way, all the jointed armor with its smooth, carapace-like components, make the humans look very insectoid. Intentional, given who their opponents are?

Ferry: Well, I just noticed that now! No, the designs of the armor were something that Orson had very clear. Shielding, but at the same time, something that could allow movement. In the book, there are more elements there, but for the comic book we did something more stylized.

Anders: Regarding the book itself, what was your relationship to Ender’s Game before you took the project onboard? Fan, new to the work, etc…?

Ferry: I was and I am very big fan of the book. All of Ender’s saga, although the first two really left a mark on me when I was young. Love it. I have to admit that talking with Orson was a fan-dream come true—and one of the principal motives to be on the project was to make these books in images. A fantastic and incredible experience!

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