In partnership with Dark Horse Comics, James Cameron’s Avatar made a splash at San Diego Comic-Con 2023 to promote the library edition of Avatar: The High Ground, a deluxe three-volume collection of graphic novels drawn from James Cameron’s original screenplay that’s a direct prequel to the film, Avatar: The Way of Water.
Joining Avatar.com is Sherri L. Smith, writer of Avatar: The High Ground; Corinna Bechko, writer of Avatar: Adapt or Die, a comic prequel to the first film; and Michael Heisler, who lettered both Avatar: Adapt or Die and Avatar: The High Ground, and also served as the letterer for Avatar: Tsu’tey’s Path and Avatar: The Next Shadow.
AVATAR.COM: What was the process like of adapting one of James Cameron’s screenplays and helping expand canon following the events of the first Avatar movie?
SHERRI L. SMITH: Writing for Avatar has been a really interesting deep dive into someone else’s swimming pool. For The High Ground, I had this screenplay. I did a breakdown of what this will look like as a graphic novel — what has to be condensed, what has to be expanded, and what makes sense… I was very surprised to get back these notes, written in bold, signed “JC.” A funny thing that would happen — quite often Jim’s notes to me would be, “That’s a gunship and not a this because...,” and he would give me all the science and technical detail and some story stuff. It was a lot of fun, a real back and forth, and it’s interesting to get to know somebody through their notes. Jim has built this amazing, detailed world that has a real message about loving your planet. And he knows the science behind the space travel, he knows the science behind the ecology of the worlds, and so it’s great to talk to someone who is nerding out more deeply than you could ever hope to, and try to bring some of that to the page.
CORINNA BECHKO: I was really excited to work in this amazing universe, but it was also a little bit intimidating because I know that Cameron takes so much care with everything he does. I wanted to get it right. So, I felt the weight of that, but it was actually good because it made me do a lot of research to get the tone right. Hopefully, I achieved that.
AVATAR.COM: What did that research look like?
BECHKO: Honestly, I watched the movie a lot, and I watched it with different friends because I wanted to gauge how different people reacted to different things in the story. I watched with friends who were men, women, younger, older — I even drafted my best friend’s mom to watch it with me so I could get someone from a different generation. I also did a lot of research just looking at the types of animals on Earth to get more of an idea on ecosystems. After I did all that, I tried to forget it so that it would be in my subconscious, and then I sat down and wrote the story.
AVATAR.COM: On the note of research and adaptation — Michael, could you explain for Avatar.com what the role of a letterer is, and how the process was different for writing out the Na’vi language versus English?
MICHAEL HEISLER: What [former Dark Horse editor and VP of publishing] Randy Stradley and I talked about early on was whether we wanted a completely different look from Na’vi [speech] balloons versus human balloons. He didn’t want it to be all that complicated, which I agree with because I think it is more important to be able to follow the story than to have to stop and figure out why something looks a certain way. In the movies, they traded back and forth between the Na’vi speaking English and speaking their own language. We had to make sure that we had brackets around the text to indicate that they were speaking Na’vi to each other, because it was in a sequence where it was important that the humans didn’t understand what they were saying — that they were outside of the conversation. That’s basically my contribution. Otherwise, lettering is just lettering.
AVATAR.COM: The Black World was a new element to the world of Avatar that was introduced in The High Ground. Sherri, what was the process of bringing Na’vi to space?
SMITH: In The High Ground, Jake leads some Na’vi into space to train for fighting off the RDA. One of the things we wanted to bring out more in the story is the purification rituals that Na’vi have to go through in order to detach from their mother world and touch metal — things that go against their nature.
The other thing in space that I really love is this moment where Neytiri is getting ready to put her helmet on in the shuttle, so she is in zero-G and her hair is in this giant spiral. I think in the original script it was described as looking like some sort of goddess, a goddess of war.
AVATAR.COM: One thing readers may notice while diving into Adapt or Die is how clearly you adapted Grace’s voice to the comic. Corinna, what was the approach to channeling Grace Augustine?
BECHKO: That was an interesting thing to do, because I love her! She is my favorite character. When I found out that I could have her in this book, I was so happy… I already had an idea of what she sounded like in my head, because she has such a clear, forceful personality. That is not my personality at all — I am from the South and am very polite. I work in the sciences, but I don’t have that sort of mentality where I have had to push. I had to channel how that would feel, and that was fun.
AVATAR.COM: What’s your favorite part about getting the opportunity to expand upon the Avatar universe in general?
HEISLER: To be a part of Avatar and to have Lightstorm weighing in on everything is great. I’ve always been a fan of Cameron’s work and I can’t think of any of his movies that I don’t love. Just to be able to contribute to this universe is pretty awesome.
BECHKO: I love that it is a complete world. In so many things you feel like you are stuck or stage-bound; Avatar never feels like that. So the idea that I could move into a whole world and have that canvas was amazing.
SMITH: Two great things about working in the world of Avatar. One is that being able to say to my husband, “I can’t cook dinner I have a Zoom call with Jim Cameron,” is pretty amazing — I won my marriage with this book. But another thing that really mattered to me about working on Avatar is the environmental message and the connection to the planet. That is something that I am very concerned about on our own world. Any stories we can tell that take people outside of their own baggage, but still give them what they need to bring home is really powerful, and the Na’vi let you do that.
The library edition of Avatar: The High Ground and Avatar: Adapt or Die are available for order online or at your local comic shop or bookstore. For even more of James Cameron’s Avatar comics, please visit DarkHorse.com.