Fan Expo '09: JAKE BLACK Fights ENDER'S GAME: WAR OF GIFTS

Jake Black received a terrible diagnosis earlier this year that inspired the comics industry to come together to help him.  But as 2009 comes to a close, he’ll have several things to celebrate – the end to his treatment, and the release of several new projects bearing his name, including Ender’s Game: A War of Gifts from Marvel Comics.  Just announced at Fan Expo Canada 09's Mondo Marvel panel, he'll be adapting a story from Orson Scott Card’s popular Ender series. It’s a holiday tale of Battle School, and a student who learns the holiday spirit.  Black gave us an early look at the book, and an update to his situation.

Note: Not Cover Art

Newsarama: Jake, for people who haven't read the original novella, what is the tale of A War of Gifts?

Jake Black: Without giving away too many spoilers, the basic story is that a young man has been chosen to go Battle School, where the smartest children from are being trained to battle aliens. Normally it's considered an honor, but not for Zeck Morgan, whose religion promotes pacifism.

Zeck refuses to train for war, and is angry because all religious observance is banned. When he learns that some other students are carrying out their cultural Christmastime traditions, he causes a religious revolution at the school.

Nrama: Zeck's an interesting character, and his story deals heavily with aspects of religion in a non-religious environment.  What is your take on the meaning of the story, and the issues it raises?

Black: There's a lot going on here, not only the religious revolution. I think the story, which is my favorite in the entire Ender series, tackles a lot of deeper philosophical issues relating to the nature of religious observance as well as cultural identity.

 How much is one's religion a part of personal experience? How is it balanced with cultural experience in a person's lifetime? Can the two--culture and religion--really be separated in the ways some of the characters want them to be in the story?

There aren't a lot of answers to these questions, but they are thought provoking in the book, and I love that.  

Nrama: Will this incorporate elements of Ender's Stocking or will it focus mainly on Zeck's story?

Black: Unfortunately, due to the economy of space comics requires, the Ender's Stocking portion is not included in the comic. It's a small part of the original book, and was expanded into its own short story, focusing more on Ender's family back on Earth. After talking with Jordan White, the editor on all things Ender at Marvel, we made the decision not to include it.

Nrama: What have your communications with Orson Scott Card been like?

Black: Mr. Card has been very positive and supportive of the Ender materials Marvel has been creating. He reviews everything and offers feedback. He's listed as Creative Director in the comics, and that's the perfect title for him.

These are his toys, after all, and he should be the one deciding how they are played with. I've been really fortunate to work in the Ender Universe for the last couple of years.

Nrama:  How did you come to work on this project, and what were the challenges of adapting this story?

Black: A few years ago I adapted another of Orson Scott Card's novels, Wyrms, into comics. Through that, I developed a working relationship with Mr. Card, and was hired to write not only some more comics for his online magazine "Intergalactic Medicine Show" but also The Authorized Ender Companion -- the encyclopedia of the Ender's Game universe.

By virtue of my writing that book, Mr. Card wanted me on board as a consultant on the Ender's comics. Marvel wanted to do some one shots in addition to the mainline adaptations of Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow  they were producing, and I was offered the first of these one shots-- Recruiting Valentine which actually is an original Ender's story, not an adaptation.

That was a really positive experience, and I guess Marvel liked it, because they asked me to do the next of these one shots. As we were discussing what the next one should be, they mentioned a possible December release, and War of Gifts seemed like a no brainer.

As far as the challenges, adapting a story into comics is pretty unique. I suppose it has the same challenges as adapting anything from one medium into another. I've learned a lot since first adapting Wyrms.

Back then, I was really worried about making the comic a literal translation of the book. But I've learned that that's where you can run into problems. The most important thing to do is distill the story to its main points.

Will it be different than the original source? Of course. But the adaptation needs to utilize the best storytelling devices offered in the medium. In the novels, we can get a lot more inside the characters' heads. In comics it's all visual.

So, the key becomes using the most visual portions of the story--and making sure they move the story forward. Again, there's that economy of space issue.

Nrama: You're obviously very passionate about the Enderverse.  What do Ender and the series mean to you, personally, and why do you think it has such a fan base?

Black: I think the Ender books and stories are very human. They represent the strength of the human spirit, but also the inner struggle each person faces between light and dark. That is what has attracted its fan base, I think--the connection to these very human, flawed characters.

We're all human. We all face the dilemmas of fate, fortune, and future. And we all deal with consequences--intended and unintended--in our lives. Ender and his peers are just relatable.

Nrama: Any plans to adapt other Ender works in the future?

Black: I would love to do more. 

Nrama: Tell us about your artist on the book.

Black: His name is Dan Panosian. I've never worked with him before, but from what I've seen of his stuff, he's got crazy good talent! War of Gifts is going to look fantastic!

Nrama: What else do you have coming up?

Black: Well, the Authorized Ender Companion hits stores on November 10. I've also got some indie comics coming from a couple indie companies and DC in the next couple of months.

There's an as-yet-unannounced Marvel Adventures story coming up, too. And Cartoon Network is airing episodes I wrote of animated series Chaotic and Ben 10: Alien Force in the not too distant future, too.

Nrama: Jake, you’ve been very open about your ongoing battle with cancer, which has provoked a groundswell of support from the industry. How your treatment's going?

Black: Back in March, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma--a form of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. Since then, I've been undergoing chemotherapy. The treatments have been pretty harsh on my body, but they are doing the job.

I had a scan recently that showed the cancer has stopped growing, and is reacting to the poisonous treatments. It's really positive. I am scheduled to finish chemo at the end of September, and then add a regimen of radiation therapy to finish killing the cancer.

By about Thanksgiving, the treatments should all be finished.

Nrama: Congratulations, Jake!  Now, there have been some fundraising efforts -- how have those been going?

Black: Cancer sucks. But through this experience, I've seen a lot of kindness in people. The fundraising efforts have been amazing. They've primarily come from Mirage, the company that owns and publishes the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I've done several TMNT comics over the years, and worked closely with the artists in that studio. They created a couple of prints and some shirts that were sold at San Diego and Toronto as well as ninjaturtles.com.

Especially cool was a piece of art created by TMNT creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman--the first art they'd done together in a decade. These efforts have been really positive, and I am beyond grateful for them. Cancer is expensive.

Nrama: How has your experience affected the way you approach your creative work?

Black: It's so cliché, but the main thing I've learned through this process is to appreciate every day and everything you have. As such I have a greater appreciation for the opportunities for creative work. Just enjoying the ride, whether in the creative process or life itself.

I guess a more direct affect, though, has been on an issue of Tales of the TMNT I wrote recently, which will be out in March, I think, where the Ninja Turtles fight an alien cancer. It's a pretty fun issue, and I wrote it a little tongue in cheek about the cancer experience.

Given the hugely complicated issues surrounding the health care debate, and further given what organizations such as the HERO Initiative have done to help freelancers who have limited or no health insurance, what would you like to see happen with the U.S. health care system?

I love the HERO Initiative. Just before I was diagnosed, I was invited to write a short story for a comic anthology Ronin Studios in Canada was putting together to raise funds for HERO. (Not to be confused with HERO Comics...) That issue should be released any time now, and since my diagnosis, I've become really proud of it.

Freelancing is a pretty tough gig, especially when one needs medical aid. It's great to have an organization that watches out for the pioneers that made it possible for me to have all I do in my career.

I'm always impressed, too, with how the industry as a whole comes together to help their own. I saw it with Michael Turner, and have such respect for Gail Simone's efforts on behalf of John Ostrander.

As far as health care in the United States, I have my opinions, as everyone does, but I don't have any answers. I love passion. Few issues are as hot button/passionate as health care. I think the most important thing is that people keep caring about the issue. Apathy will not solve anything. I hope people keep fighting for their views and opinions as passionately as they have.

Nrama: Anything you'd like to say to our readers out there in general?

Black: Thanks for having me!

Ender’s Game: A War of Gifts gets unwrapped this December.

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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