Acclaimed fantasy and sci-fi novelist V.E. Schwab, author of last year’s best-selling The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, follows that up with a graphic novel that returns to her Villains prose series. The new graphic novel ExtraOrdinary, which will be released by Titan Comics in November, introduces a new character, Charlotte, into Schwab’s epic tale of humans who gain superpowers after surviving near-death experiences.
ExtraOrdinary is set between Vicious and Vengeful, the first two volumes of the series, and Schwab plans to write a third prose novel, Victorious, to complete the trilogy. PW talked to Schwab about the new story and the challenges and rewards of returning to her older work.
Publishers Weekly: The power you gave Charlotte is a truly horrifying one: When she looks at someone’s reflection, she can vividly foresee the moment of their death. How did you come up with that?
V.E. Schwab: It’s the very first power I ever created for the Villains universe. In the first iteration of Vicious, I had as my main character a man who arrives in this city and two warring groups of people try to recruit him, the Heroes and the Villains. They're essentially gangs. This character had this ability to see deaths in reflective surfaces, and I loved that ability. The story didn't work. I ended up just stopping for a minute to write the backstories for the gang leaders, and that's where I got the Victor and Eli story which would go on to be the series. But I always was looking for someone to give this power to. The way that the powers work in this world is that they're tied to near-death experiences. You can't just give the power to anyone; you almost have to retroactively figure out the person from the power. So I had to figure out what circumstance puts Charlotte into the situation where she has a near-death experience that leads to this ability. Hence the bus crash.
It's a horrifying power, but not just that—it's a horrifying power that is so intensely visual and lends [itself] perfectly to a graphic medium. Victor, one of the main protagonists of the books, has the ability to control pain. That can be interpreted visually, but it's completely invisible. So that doesn't lend itself to a comic as well as Charlotte's power, where Enid, my incredible illustrator, can turn every reflective surface in a panel into a second set of images.
How is creating a graphic novel different from writing a novel?
It’s a completely different language for many reasons. Structurally, a novel can really be as long or as short as it needs to be. Its chapters can be as long or as short as they need to be. When you're working in comics, there's an incredible rigidity. You can play with it, but every comic issue is 22 pages, a comic arc is usually four to five issues, you don't want to have more than eight panels [on a page], you don't want every page to have the same number of panels. So you have to structure it and design it in a very different way.
How do your graphic novels fit in with your prose work?
In general, I see graphic novels as fulfilling a different strategy in my worlds than my novels do. Before ExtraOrdinary I did the Steel Prince graphic novels, and those were prequels to my Shades of Magic series. So those stories went back, while the books were going forward. With ExtraOrdinary, it sits in the in between, but it's fulfilling a different narrative purpose. It's just a way to play and make my superpowers visual in a way that I've never gotten to do before, because it is a very visual element that I've only ever been able to convey with words.
I think, perhaps the most exciting thing for me is that it's collaborative. A novel is, in many ways, a lonely creative experience. Obviously, you have your publisher and your editor in your team. But with comics, it is a true conversation between me and my artists. And the best work, I feel, gets done when I'm able to take my strengths, but also to make as much space as possible for my artists to shine.
Have you considered doing an original graphic novel, instead of a serialized comic?
Absolutely. Single issues have such a storied history that I think it's a difficult transition for comic book publishers to make, because in their mind, even though graphic novels tend to sell monumentally more, there's almost a prestige quality. I will say that I love having the variant covers that you get with having single issues. Each issue of the comic gets to have two to four covers, and those covers can be illustrated by different artists. There's definitely a legacy that makes it very fun. But I think next time I do a comic, I might try and just do it in graphic novel form instead of in single issues, because it would allow me to play a little bit with the length and the structure and be slightly less beholden to that 22 page [limit].
How does it feel to return to a story after five years? Did you change anything from the world of the original books?
The world’s landscape doesn't change. The kinds of characters I choose to focus on in that landscape change. I was 25 when I wrote Vicious, and I was a very different person at 30, when I wrote Vengeful. Vengeful is like the female rage answer to Vicious. It pivots the narrative, and it's really an exploration of autonomy and agency and taking control in a world that's constantly wresting it from you. That's the narrative I definitely felt in 2017 and 2018 that I was probably less equipped to handle in 2013. It's going to be really interesting as I work on Victorious, because I'm essentially going to have written the books at 25, 30, and 35. You change a lot as a person between those ages.
As a writer, one of the trickier things is that books become static entities, once they're finished. They are really kind of unchangeable, but the authors continue to change. We are never the same person as we were when we wrote our last book. And we're not only growing hopefully, from a craft perspective, we’re growing as humans. I will never be able to write Vicious again. If I tried now, I would be a completely different person with a completely different book. That's just the nature of having a creative career that extends past one. Your work will change. It's exciting. I'm really curious to see what 35-year-old me is going to do.