For the last ten years writer Stuart Gibbs has been entertaining young fans of James Bond-ish espionage stories with his Spy School novels. But as we all know, not all the young’uns like to read regular books; some prefer them to be…graphic. Which is why Gibbs has teamed up with artist Anjan Sarkar for Spy School: The Graphic Novel (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), the first in a series of comic book adaptations of his middle-grade spy novels. In the following email interview, Gibbs and Sarkar discuss how this came to be, how they came to work together, and how I’m the only one who’s ever referenced a certain young James Bond-ish movie.
Stuart Gibbs, Anjan Sarkar
I’d like to begin with background. Stuart, what is the Spy School series about, what specifically is the novel Spy School about, and when and where do both the first book and this series take place?
Stuart: The series is about a 12-year-old kid named Ben Ripley who gets recruited to the CIA’s top-secret Academy Of Espionage, and then thrust into a world full of danger and intrigue with no preparation at all. The first Spy School book starts with his recruitment, although he quickly discovers that he was actually only brought in as bait to catch a mole. So now, he has to team up with a mysterious older student named Erica Hale to find the mole and thwart their evil plans.
The series theoretically should always feel current (unless we’re in the middle of a global pandemic). The spy school itself is set in Washington D.C. but in subsequent books, the series has begun to move around the world, traveling to exotic places like the Riviera Maya, Vail, Paris and, of course, suburban New Jersey.
And how often do people say, “Oh, so it’s like that movie Agent Cody Banks“?
Stuart: Honestly, never. I think my target audience is too young to even know who Frankie Muniz is. (Although, interestingly, Harald Zwart, who directed that movie, was originally supposed to direct a comedy I wrote for 20th Century Fox back in 1997. I’d already had the idea for Spy School back then, but I don’t think we ever discussed it.)
Aside from the fact that Cody was 15, and Benjamin was 13 when the Spy School series started, how else do you think your series differs from that movie?
Stuart: If I recall correctly, in Cody Banks, Cody is really a young James Bond type, with cool secret gadgets and mad physical skills. In Spy School, I try to flip that whole trope on its head. My hero wants to be like Cody — and other suave, debonair adult spies — but he finds that real life doesn’t work the same way as the movies. He fumbles his way through his action sequences, and none of his gadgets ever work properly. But he succeeds because he’s smart; that’s his secret power.
So then what spy stories do you think had a big influence on Spy School?
Stuart: Well, the major influence would be James Bond. I came up with the idea for Spy School when I was in fourth or fifth grade after seeing my first James Bond movie — which was Moonraker. I recognize now that Moonraker is a really awful Bond movie, but at the time, I had no idea. James Bond was the coolest hero I had ever seen. My friends and I were all running around, pretending to be him — and, as a budding young writer, I wrote what we would now call fan fiction: A humorous story about James Bond’s son, Jimmy. I had Jimmy go to spy school in that story.
Over the years, I have seen pretty much spy movie ever made. And I would say that they’re all influenced by Bond — either in following the tropes (à la Cody Banks) or trying to outdo the action (à la Mission: Impossible) or trying to present a grittier version of spying (à la Jason Bourne). All of that influenced Spy School.
Ben Ripley is really just a normal human being who has been thrown into a spy movie. So there’s no better way for me to get inspired than to watch a spy movie and imagine how everything in it would go horribly wrong if I was the main character.
This interview is going to coincide with the release of Spy School: The Graphic Novel, which is a comic book version of the first Spy School book. How did this come about?
Stuart: My publisher, my editor, my agent and I were all very aware of the increasing popularity of graphic novels. So I think that everyone came to the conclusion that this would be a good idea simultaneously. I can’t remember who put it out there first, but everyone was excited to do it right from the start.
Why did you decide to write it yourself, as opposed to getting a veteran comic book writer to do it or co-write it with you?
Stuart: No one knows this story better than I do. I haven’t only written books; I’ve written plenty of screenplays and TV pilots as well. So I wanted to take a shot at doing a graphic novel. To be honest, I really just wrote a screenplay version of the book. Anjan did all the work after that, handling everything from the layout to the illustrations. He did an amazing job.
How close is this version of Spy School to the original story?
Stuart: It hews very closely to the original story — although I changed the beginning. I wanted to start with an action sequence to take advantage of the visual nature of a graphic novel. The graphic novel starts the exact same way I would start the film version.
In writing the script for Spy School: The Graphic Novel, did you ever realize that you should’ve done anything differently in the original novel?
Stuart: When I wrote the original book, I introduced some characters who become much more important to the series later on. But I didn’t know how important they would become back then. So in the graphic novel, I can at least show them visually in the story earlier than I did in the original book, building up their presence to let the readers know they’ll be important — even before they ever say a word.
The Spy School novels are middle-grade novels, as is Spy School: The Graphic Novel. But do you think someone old — say, a 53-year-old comic book lover who’s really just a big kid — would enjoy this as well?
Stuart: I really do think that they would enjoy it. As an author, I try not to write down to my readers, because I know that 1) They’ll appreciate that and 2) There’s a good chance that their parents or grandparents might be reading these books with them and I want the entire family to enjoy them. So I’m always trying to write a book that I would enjoy reading, even though I’m an adult — with the idea being that other adults would like it, too.
Moving on to the art, when it came to the artist who’d illustrate Spy School: The Graphic Novel, did you pick Anjan or did someone else pick him?
Stuart: Simon & Schuster brought Anjan to my attention. I believe that it was Lucy Cummins who suggested him. Lucy is my art director and my cover designer, and she is amazingly talented and incredibly funny. (If you want to enjoy her humor for yourself, follow her on Twitter: @lucyruth. She’s brilliant.) So my thought was basically that, if Lucy thought Anjan was the right person for the job, then he was the right person. That said, I did really like the sample art of Anjan’s that I saw, and thought that he had exactly the kind of visual style I was hoping for.
So, Anjan, how familiar were you with the Spy School novels before you signed on to this adaptation?
Anjan: I live in the UK, and the novels haven’t been published here, so I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of them until Simon & Schuster got in touch about the opportunity.
And then what made you think that this was not only something you’d want to do, but something that would work for your art style?
Anjan: I read Stuart’s script and loved the smart humor and complex plot. It’s also full of great action sequences that I knew would be fun to draw. Initially, as way of a sample, I was asked to design the main character and roughly block out one of the action scenes from the script. Stuart and the publishing team were happy with the scene, but felt the character looked too young, so we spent some time going back and forth trying to get the character right. I’d mostly worked on books for younger readers until Spy School, so I was more used to drawing characters around 8 years or younger. Luckily, Stuart and everyone gave me a chance to get it right. There’s a lot of humor and reaction to humor going on in the script, I think my illustration style is well-suited to this, and Stuart’s sense of humor struck a chord with me, so that helped.
Did the fact that Stuart was writing the script for his own book’s adaptation make things easier or more difficult?
Anjan: Stuart’s script made it much easier. Working directly from the book would have added an extra task to what was already a huge undertaking (280 pages of color illustrations). I think if the script had been written by a less experienced writer it may have caused some problems, but of course, Stuart knows what he’s doing, so it was fairly straightforward to translate the script dialogue and directions into panels. It’s actually great fun to sketch the layouts from a well-written script because you can immediately see the comic taking shape — I love this stage of the process.
So Stuart, is the plan that you and Anjan will adapt other books in the Spy School series?
Stuart: Oh, we are definitely doing more books. Anjan is already at work on adapting the second book in the series, Spy Camp, which ought to come out a year from now, February 2023. I would love it if Anjan would adapt every book in the series.
Have you also considered doing adaptations of any of your other books?
Stuart: I would love to have every single book that I’ve written be adapted for graphic novels. This whole process has been a joy — and I know my readers would love to see the graphic novels as well.
In a somewhat similar vein, has there been any interest in turning the Spy School series into some movies or a TV show or maybe a game?
Stuart: Spy School has actually been optioned twice already, once for TV and once for film, although both times, things have fallen apart — which sadly is exceptionally common in the film and TV business. So my agents are in process of trying to get the series set up yet again. I wrote the screenplay for the movie version and I’m proud of it, so at the moment, I’d love for the movie version to get made — but if someone was willing to turn it into a TV series — or a game — I certainly wouldn’t say no.
Do you think doing the Spy School: The Graphic Novel changed your perspective on this? Like, do you now think Spy School should be a cartoon where before you thought it should be live action, maybe with Frankie Muniz and Hilary Duff playing Benjamin’s parents…
Stuart: Oh, I had always envisioned Spy School as a movie from the very beginning. Although an animated version with Frankie and Hilary would be awesome.
Finally, if someone enjoys Spy School: The Graphic Novel, what spy comic book would each of you recommend they read while waiting for Spy Camp: The Graphic Novel to come out?
Stuart: I’m not sure if there is another spy comic book for middle grade — which is one of the reasons I think my publisher was so excited to do the Spy School graphic novel. However, when I was a kid, I loved Batman comics — and Batman is really the James Bond of superheroes. After all, he has no superpowers. He just has great physical skills and cool gadgets and a keen intellect. A lot of what Batman does in the comics is technically espionage. The comics certainly got a lot darker in the mid-’80s but I was able to track down some treasuries of old Batman comics for my son when he was little and we both enjoyed them (although some of the stories, especially from the mid-’60s, can get pretty trippy.)
And while I’m at it, every kid should do a deep dive on Gary Larsen’s The Far Side and Bill Watterson’s Calvin And Hobbes. Neither is a graphic novel, per se, but they’re both brilliant and hilarious and were incredibly influential on me.
Anjan: I haven’t actually read this, but there’s a manga series called Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo, which I keep coming across when looking for reference images. It’s about a male spy who must assemble a fake family to undertake a mission. It sounds great.