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Kenneth Oppel & Christopher Steininger

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Kenneth Oppel on giving Silverwing the graphic novel treatment

On the 25th anniversary of the publication of his bestselling book Silverwing, author Kenneth Oppel has teamed up with artist Christopher Steininger to create a brand-new graphic novel edition. The 1997 middle-grade novel followed the adventures of Shade, Oppel’s anthropomorphized bat-protagonist, on his journey to reconnect with his colony, and it was followed by three sequels, adapted for the theatre, and as an animated series – and now, finally, comics! 

“I see things so visually when I write, so there’s a huge, burning curiosity in me to see these things rendered.” A graphic adaptation, Oppel says, “seemed like a nice way to celebrate the book.”

Remaining remarkably faithful to the original, this new edition will not disappoint the millions of young (and old!) fans who have fallen in love with Oppel’s story over the course of its long print history. The author himself produced the script for this project. “I’ve done lots of work as a screenwriter in my previous iterations as a writer, so I was quite prepared,” Oppel says. “I tend to write in distinct scenes, so the adaptation process was really a question of compression, clarifying some things, jettisoning a few things. When I think about it I’m not sure I had to cut anything, any major segment or episode or aspect of the book. It all fit, amazingly!”

Oppel gushes about his lengthy collaboration with Saskatchewan-based artist Steininger. “I have so much admiration for Chris’s work,” he explains. “When I look at it, I see that he’s directing the characters – who knew bats could be so expressive?! They have to carry all these emotions that in the novel wrote as exposition. He has to convey them through the expression in their body language, the layout on the page, and the energy between pages, between panels. And I think really, in this visual medium, if you can’t make your pages move, you’re kind of sunk. So he was director, choreographer, acting coach, everything.”

Illustration: Christopher Steininger

In addition to his work on video games and animation, Steininger has made one previous graphic novel, Modo: Ember’s End, written by Arthur Slade. That’s where Oppel first encountered his art, and that earlier book is what landed Steininger on Oppel’s list of possible collaborators.

Working with Steininger proved doubly enriching for Oppel, as it occurred during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was amazed. [Our collaboration] kind of got me through the pandemic. I was seeing this work come in chunk by chunk through the pandemic, and it was a huge pleasure and solace to me.”

It’s easy to see the enduring appeal of an adventure story about an underdog (underbat?) finding his place in his community and world, but Oppel is understated when asked about returning to this material years later. “It’s a good little story. It holds together. It ticks along really nicely.”

“You look at your work and it’s like a continuum: you see the return to thematic material, preoccupations, big relationships, character-types. I’ve written 36-plus books now, and there are finite reserves of … any given person’s imagination. Or, at least, that’s what makes all of us so unique and wonderful. A lot of the stuff that Shade is thinking about and grappling with, I’m still writing about. I’m still writing about absent fathers, and the struggle to find out what truth is. These are universal things, but they’re things that I return to again and again. The runt character, the character who doesn’t feel right in his group, in his body, in his society.”

Silverwing is the first of a four-novel cycle, but there are no firm plans yet for graphic adaptations of the further volumes in the series. Oppel confesses eagerly from his Toronto studio that he’s very open to the possibility of more Silverwing graphic novels in the future. “It’s a lot of bats, but I’m ready!”

l to r: Christopher Steininger (Christopher Steininger) and Kenneth Oppel (Christopher Steininger)