Paul Benjamin on Universal War One

Paul Benjamin on Universal War One

If you thought Civil War was huge, wait till you read Universal War One French superstar writer Denis Bajram.

Universal War One joins Barbara Canepa and Alessandro Barbucci’s Sky Doll as part of a co-publishing venture between acclaimed French comic publisher Soleil and Marvel, which was officially announced back in January. Bajram completed the series with the release of the sixth volume in 2006 and is currently reported to be working on two sequels titled Universal War Two and Universal War Three.

The first issue of the Marvel edition is due to be in stores this week. Here’s how the solicitation describes the issue: The European best-seller – now finally presented in English! In the midst of a latent civil war between the core planets and outlying planetary settlements, an immense wall has cut our solar system in two. The black wall absorbs all light and matter, and it’s up to a band of soldiers facing courts martial to investigate the phenomenon. They’re the men and women of the Purgatory Squadron. For which crimes are they here? And can they work together long enough to stay alive once they enter... The Wall?

We spoke with Paul Benjamin about the English adaptation of the European best-seller.

Newsarama: Hi, Paul. Let's start from the beginning, shall we? How did you land this job of adapting Denis Bajram's Angoulême International Comics Festival-nominated series, Universal War One (UW1)?

Paul Benjamin: There’s nothing better for a writer than to have an editor approaching you for work instead of the other way around. In this case, it was an email from my Marvel Adventures Hulk editor Mark Paniccia putting me in touch with C.B. Cebulski. Once Mark made the introduction, C.B. coordinated bringing me on board then handed me off to my UW1 editor, Jeff Youngquist. This was right around the time the Soleil deal was announced. They asked me what genre I preferred between fantasy, sci-fi and a Japanese samurai story. That’s like asking for my three favorite flavors of ice cream – they’re all a treat! To stretch a delicious metaphor, I’d say the shades of preference between those three is parfait thin. Next thing I knew there was a PDF of lush, sci-fi artwork in my ftp folder. Denis Bajram’s pages are gorgeous in a way that most artists can’t even approach. That’s what happens when you get to spend a year making a book instead of just a month.

NRAMA: You were Managing Editor for the US division of Humanoids from 2001 to 2005. During that time, you were involved with coordinating production schedules for over 80 graphic novels, recruiting and managing relationships with writers and artists.

Denis, on the other hand, created UW1 in 1998 and had it published in "bande dessinée" format for eight years. Were you already familiar with his work during your time at Humanoids?

PB: I actually first came across Denis’ work on a visit to Lyon, France a few years after I left Humanoids. Graphic novels are much more mainstream over there and I saw his stuff while spending a blissful afternoon in a three-story coffee shop/graphic novel store. In fact, I bought so many books (some of which I edited for Humanoids but can’t get in English yet) the store gave me a free Soleil art book with images from a wide variety of artists.

NRAMA: Do you speak and read French? If yes, did you ever correspond with Denis as you were adapting his epic? If not, how does the process work with Marvel and Soleil now compared to your Humanoids days?

PB: I can say hello, goodbye and a few dirty words. Other than that, my command of French is limited to eating their cuisine and drinking their wine. At Humanoids, we had native English speakers translating the books before they came across my desk. The Humanoids translators were top notch writers and always got the scripts ninety five percent of the way there. My job was to go through and make sure things sounded more American or had more personality. It’s easy for a translator to lose track of the English sentence structure and you end up with noun/verb relationships that just don’t feel right. Sometimes they also don’t know how far to take their translations. For example, when one of our French authors wrote his Western in a formal style of French, all of the cowboys sounded like genteel scholars. I had to go through and spice it up with Western slang.

The Soleil/Marvel process cuts out the middleman. Soleil does the translations then sends them to Marvel. The translations are much rougher than the ones I used to get at Humanoids and sometimes it’s tough to suss out the true meaning of the text. But that’s where I earn my paycheck. On the Humanoids books I was editing a ton of books so we paid the translators to do a big part of what I’m doing now. But it feels great when I finally hit on the exact tone of the author’s original intent. For example, there’s a dirty joke in volume one involving a play on words that didn’t quite translate. I tweaked it for sci-fi with a reference to the planet Uranus that fits perfectly.

NRAMA: The European graphic albums have continued to be the dominant format in the European comic market, but have had little impact in the US. UW1, like Sky Doll and other Soleil titles, will be shrunk down to the standard U.S. comics pamphlet. So, is it the size that really makes all the difference when it comes to one's reading experience or has it got more to do with different cultures and values?

PB: If anyone knew that answer to that, Humanoids might still be a going concern in the US market. Some readers (myself included) love the oversized, hardcover books common in Europe. However, those books come with a price point that limits their market in a country that has historically considered comics as a pamphlet. I think that shipping the Soleil titles in a US format will expand the sales in US stores. Humanoids did that with The Metabarons series before we released it as graphic novels and it was consistently one of our best-selling titles.

Ultimately, I think this is a question of values. In Europe, especially France (the largest European comics market), art and culture are put up on a pedestal. Many Americans love art, but our country as a whole doesn’t support art and artists the way Europe does. There’s a subway station in Paris that was designed by a Humanoids artist. Imagine a New York subway station with millions of dollars spent to carry off the artistic inspiration of Bryan Hitch or John Cassaday. That kind of respect has always been part of the world of French graphic novel publishing. Hopefully the current trend towards original graphic novels in the US will continue to break those barriers. I’d love to see the mainstream embrace graphic novels. Not just reprints of existing books, but brand new stories in every genre one sees in the fiction racks of the bookstore today.

NRAMA: What is the appeal of UW1 to you as a writer?

PB: The sci-fi element is the most obvious. We don’t get enough of it in US comics. Cosmic super hero books are cool, but they’re not the same as hard SF. UW1 is bursting with those sci-fi elements one expects from shows like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek. It has themes that comment on our present day politics through the lens of intergalactic war. But one of the things I fell in love with as I read it for the first time was the pacing of the story. The information in volume one really sneaks up on you. There are questions in the back of your mind about the characters and their circumstances that all come together at the end of the book. You have plenty of information about who’s who as you read the story, but you just keep getting little bits stacked on top of that foundation as the story moves forward. It’s very well done.

NRAMA: Basically, UW1 is the story of a vast interplanetary war. How would you compare it to other interstellar war stories told in series like Star Wars, Babylon 5, Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, etc?

PB: I think it compares best with Battlestar Galactica (one of my favorite shows) in that it focuses on a military fleet stationed near Saturn. Like in BSG, we’re focused on the pilots who fly the smaller ships on missions as well as on the Admiral who runs the fleet. There’s also a lot of fantastic human interaction and character development that is central to the plot. However, it’s also like Star Trek in that there’s a scientific anomaly that kicks everything into high gear and there’s lots of hard sci-fi geeking out to do over the technical side of the real world scientific theories involved.

NRAMA: Is humanity really facing extinction in UW1?

PB: It’s hard to tell. I’ve only read the first two volumes and we haven’t seen a lot of the universe beyond the fleet. As far as I can tell most of humanity is doing okay. They’re spread out across the solar system. However, things may be very different thanks to the actions of our main characters and the war they’re fighting.

NRAMA: Who are these men and women of the Purgatory Squadron?

PB: I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll try to vague this up a bit. The Purgatory Squadron is the dirty dozen (or dirty seven as the case may be) of Earth’s Third Fleet. They’re a group of pilots and scientists who are all facing court martial. Instead of leaving them to rot in a cell, they’ve been put to work. One’s a coward, another’s a hotshot. One’s a misanthrope, another just refuses to follow morally objectionable orders. There are all deep, rich characters, but you’ll have to read the book to learn more about them.

NRAMA: And what is The Wall?

PB: The Wall is what kicks off this whole story. It’s a wall of blackness that seems to stretch from Uranus to Saturn, effectively cutting the solar system in half. Nothing can get through it, not even light. This is a problem for the government of Earth because there’s a different ruling party in charge on Uranus. Imagine if China created a dome that cut off half the world from the other half. You can imagine Western governments would be a little concerned.

NRAMA: Despite the last story published in June 2006, Denis is reportedly working on UW2 and UW3. For you personally, what do you hope to see in the upcoming volumes?

PB: I haven’t even gotten to read half of the current volumes! I have no idea what Denis is working on for the sequels, but I’m very excited to be getting the translation to volume three in the next few days. By the time this interview hits the web, I might have found out what’s next for the Purgatory Squadron and whether or not one of my favorite members is still alive!

NRAMA: Finally, why do you think UW1 would appeal to fans of Marvel comics as well as the mainstream readers in general?

PB: First, I think UW1 will appeal to anyone who likes interesting characters in incredible situations. Also, Marvel fans clearly like fantastic stories that serve as allegories for real life situations. The post Civil War Marvel universe is an extrapolation of the world in which we live. The galactic war facing Purgatory Squadron in UW1 is an interesting exploration of international politics. And there are far more mainstream readers who dig science fiction than read super hero comics. Those people are going to love getting to see Denis’ beautiful artwork depicting this fantastic tale of intergalactic war and the people caught in the middle.

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