BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
With his work for with Humanoids, Paul Benjamin had lots of experience with comic books from around the world. That's just one of the things that makes him perfect to work with Marvel Comics on its Soleil line. Benjamin's adapting Valrie Mangin and Aleksa Gaji's popular Scourge of the Gods tale. He told THE PULSE this story is " ... an epic sci-fi story of battle loosely based on the real-life historic conflict between Attila the Hun and Roman general Flavius Aetius."

THE PULSE: You've worked on a lot of different genres since entering the comics field, but how did you become a part of Marvel's Soleil line with Scourge of the Gods?

PAUL BENJAMIN:
Marvel first got in touch with me about the Soleil line through my Marvel Adventures Hulk editor, Mark Paniccia. But Mark was really just checking to see if I was available so that C.B. Cebulski could contact me. My first project was the sci-fi epic Universal War One. The first volume of that series is out on shelves now and the hardcover collection hits shelves in January. I'll be working on the next volume of UW1 soon, but in the meantime, Marvel asked me to polish the translation of Scourge of the Gods.

By the way, I should probably mention that contrary to solicitations, I am NOT working on Ythaq: The Forsaken World. In fact, the talented C.B. Cebulski himself is handling that one! I'm all about Scourge of the Gods!

THE PULSE: So what is Scourge of the Gods? I'm guessing this isn't about what happens when you mix Mexican food with Thai food and rinse it all down with eggnog ....

BENJAMIN:
Uggh. I just threw up in my mouth a little. No, Scourge of the Gods is much more gory than a bad case of indigestion. It's an epic sci-fi story of battle loosely based on the real-life historic conflict between Attila the Hun and Roman general Flavius Aetius. Basically, a space faring race known as the Huns is pillaging and destroying planets in the Roman's galactic empire. The first book focuses on Attila, prince of the Huns, his father, and the Huns' high priest as they struggle over rulership of their people. But the central figure that throws them all into turmoil is a beautiful Roman girl who is sent to the Huns for sacrifice as an offering from the Romans. Her name is Flavia Aetia and the Huns believe that she is the reincarnation of their goddess, Kerka. Whether she's truly a goddess or not is uncertain, but she becomes a political pawn all the same.

THE PULSE: When something was already presented in another language, why can't it just be a straight translation? I mean, what are you doing here that a monkey or, at least, a Marvel intern couldn't do?

BENJAMIN:
Thanks, I love being compared to a monkey.


THE PULSE: It's your banana fetish.

BENJAMIN:
[laughs]

I know you're kidding. It's a totally valid question. I thought the same thing until I started reading translations at Humanoids. We had some wonderfully talented translators, many of whom were writers themselves. But their job was to create an accurate translation. Accuracy does not insure that the voice or tone of the piece will be right. Marvel could put out a direct translation, but the characters would feel flat and one-dimensional. Having a writer polish a translation gives the book more of the personality that it would have had in its original language. Also, a lot of things don't translate correctly. For example, jokes need a lot of massaging to make them feel like they are being presented in English for the first time. A direct translation might use reference points that just don't strike the same chords in English.

So having a writer give the books a once over allows Marvel to provide its readers with a much more natural experience as they read the book. They shouldn't get pulled out of the action because they can feel that they are reading a translation. They should feel like Marvel is producing brand new books, right here in the US, but with the amazing artwork and diverse storylines that are common in the European market.


THE PULSE: How do you get the translations down? I mean, how do you figure out the way to translate that local flavor so other readers will get it? 'Cause it's kind of all Greek or French or whatever to you, too, right?

BENJAMIN:
It can be a real challenge to find the right voice for the translation because a lot of the tone can get lost in the jump from one language to another. I try to look at each individual character and their arc through each issue.

In Scourge of the Gods, the High Priest gives lots of pious speeches, while Attilla is more of a gruff warrior. However, Attilla is still a prince, so he's not as gruff as the average Hun soldier.

And Flavia (who is believed to be the second coming of the Hun goddess, Kerka) is a young Roman girl, so she speaks in a more natural tone. She's not trying to be dramatic like some of the other characters.

THE PULSE: But if there's a common phrase there that we've never heard of, like our "more fun than a barrel of monkeys" (again, I'm honoring your fascination with bananas). How do you know exactly how to translate that? Do you have someone native who helps you with some of the catch phrases or things like that?

BENJAMIN:
The best way to handle idioms like that is just to figure out their meaning. Even someone raised in a far flung corner of the world could figure out that, though a real life barrel of monkeys would be both dangerous to the person opening it and horribly cruel to the monkeys inside, the phrase indicates that something fun is happening.

(I never got that one myself. "More stinky than a barrel of monkeys" would be more accurate.)

So I just have to figure out what the main thrust of the phrase is, then either come up with a similar, American idiom or just say it more plainly. And if there are places where an American idiom fits and gets across an idea in an organic, more colorful fashion, I'll insert those even if there was no such idiom in the native language.


THE PULSE: Got it. So aside from idioms, what are some of the other challenges to recreating a work like this?

BENJAMIN:
Figuring out what the translation actually means can be tough at times. If the meaning is particularly murky, I'll type the French into various web-based translators and suss out the true meaning. Worst case scenario, I'll call on friends who speak French.

I think the biggest challenge is context. I'm polishing each issue consecutively, so I don't know everything there is to know yet, even though many more volumes might exist in French.

Something that is set up in issue #1 might not be paid off until issue #2 or 3. There's no way for me to know the author's intent because I can't read those future volumes. So it's important for me to read the entire book each time before I start tweaking things Then I refer back to previous issues to make sure I'm referencing things correctly or to strike the same tone.

Another challenge is the nudity. There are often naked girls in the European graphic novels. Sometimes I have to stare at them for a long time to make sure I'm, um, capturing the tone of their nudity correctly. Yeah, that's it. I'm capturing the tone ...


THE PULSE: Yeah ... I'm sure! This is a different process than just coming up with a story on your own and being the sole person responsible, right?

BENJAMIN:
Hugely! When I come up with my own story, I can tweak things as I see fit. I can set things up and then pay them off. That's a real challenge, but it's also a lot of fun. Localizing books is a different set of challenges, but it's still a lot of fun. I get to enjoy the experience that the readers are going to have when they read the book.

For example, events unfold in Scourge of the Gods that take me by surprise. I have those moments at the end of each book where I can't wait to see what happens next. Just like the readers, I have to wait until that next translation is available.

Of course, the readers don't have to slog through the unpolished translation, so they get a much more pure experience.

But these books are a lot of fun because the talented folks who create them are thinking outside of the American box. They might have some U.S.-based influences, but they have a very different perspective. I can't imagine an American publisher taking the risk of a sweeping sci-fi retelling of the battles of Attilla the Hun and the Roman empire, but Valrie Mangin and Aleksa Gaji execute the story beautifully in Scourge of the Gods.


THE PULSE: I think some people are scared to try these translated books, for fear of really getting to love a story then never getting to see how it ultimately plays out. Are you presenting a complete story here? Is there kind of a guarantee there will be a payoff?

BENJAMIN:
Actually, I can't give a guarantee because I can't read all the books. I don't know how strong the payoff will be myself. But I know that there are another three issues of Universal War One and that the creators have already created sequels to the original series in Europe. I'm not sure how far the Scourge of the Gods series goes. That said, how different is that from an American series? The entire premise of most super hero comics is that there is no pay off. We expect the stories to continue forever and ever. Granted some storylines wrap up, but look at the last fifty years of Spider-Man and try to tell someone where to start reading and when the story is "done."

Series with clear cut beginnings and endings such as Y the Last Man are few and far between. At least with a series like Scourge of the Gods, we know that there are six complete albums in French. So odds are that we'll see all six here in the U.S..

As with any series, it's up to the fans to support it with sales so that the publisher will be likely to keep it going.

THE PULSE: What have you enjoyed the most about taking on a challenge like this?

BENJAMIN:
The books! After many years at Humanoids, I miss getting to read graphic novels that come from a different perspective. The stories are fresh and interesting with a complexity we don't often see in American comics. Plus the artists get to spend more time on each page, creating powerful visuals that really move me.

Truth is, I'm the kind of person that would be buying these books even if I weren't working on them. Being involved in producing the Marvel/Soleil books gives me a new perspective in my own writing and lets me enjoy stories that are a ton of fun for anyone interested in stories outside of (and in my case, in addition to) the capes and cowls set.


THE PULSE: Do you think it's because there aren't as many superhero comics in Europe as there are here that their comic and graphic novel works just seem to be so different?

BENJAMIN:
It's not simply a lack of superhero comics. It's an abundance of everything else. The European market never got the Seduction of the Innocent beatdown we faced in America, so their industry never got pushed into the "comics are for kids" ghetto. They've had several generations in which comics/graphic novels are read by both adults and kids.

The French call graphic novels "art books," as in "books with art in them." It's an entirely different societal point of view. And I think Europeans tend to have a greater respect for art of all kinds, even outside of comics. So comics there have evolved without restriction, thus leading to just as many genres as you have in other forms of entertainment.

Movies cover everything from sci-fi, to comedy, to romance, to action, to horror and everything in between. Superhero movies are a small fraction of the film industry's offerings. European graphic novels are much the same.


THE PULSE: Yeah, that's what I meant. When you say "comic book" or "graphic novel" in Europe, they don't think immediately "superheroes!". Do you think the US will ever get to that point?

BENJAMIN:
Exactly. I know plenty of European creators who love to read superhero comics, but that's not what they create for their own market. I think the U.S. market has been moving in that direction over the years. Especially if you include some of the home grown manga-style books we've seen in recent years.


My TOKYOPOP series Pantheon High has some superhuman elements since it is a high school for demigods, but there are no crime fighters donning tights in that book. And if you look at the growth of series like the aforementioned Y the Last Man and the popularity of Scott Pilgrim and Walking Dead, for example, you see that the market is growing here. Ed Brubaker's series Criminal would be right at home in Europe, yet it is enjoying success through Marvel's icon line.

Not every series has enjoyed such success and DC's Minx line didn't survive, but DC should be commended for giving it a shot. Publishers are taking chances and more and more of those series are finding that there is an audience that is willing to support a more European style of graphic novel. Look at DC's Vertigo line. It has grown from a small imprint to a major driver of sales in bookstores and a cash cow for DC specifically in graphic novel format.

Assuming people keep reading books (that's a whole different issue) I think that as people who grow up reading the variety of books available now become the people who make, sell and buy the books in the future, we'll see the U.S. comics market continue to embrace a wide range of genres. I look forward to being an old man many years from now with a plethora of genres from which to choose right here in America.

THE PULSE: Speaking of "plethora" ... what other projects are you working on?

BENJAMIN:
A lot of the projects I'm working on are still unannounced and therefore top secret. That said, I'm very proud of the Spider-Man: Web of Shadows video game for the Nintendo DS. I did some writing on that game and it's a lot of fun

I can't take credit for the gameplay, but the talented folks at Griptonite Games have built an incredible game. Spidey's agility and moves are just perfect. I'm also doing some work on Boom! Studios' Pixar/Disney comics. Those are a lot of fun and I'd love to come back and talk about my series once it's been announced.

I also have some Spider-Man and Hulk involvement, but we'll have to wait to talk about that some other time.





The first part of Scourge of the Gods is due in stores this January.