Last year, Viz announced that it would publish graphic novels based on Ben 10, the Cartoon Network show, and the third of these, Ben 10: Parallel Paradox, was published under Viz’s Perfect Square imprint in April—we ran a preview of it back then. Parallel Paradox brings back Elena Validus, a character from Ben’s past, and her story touches on issues of bullying and social norms in surprising ways for a book based on a cartoon. I talked to the writer, Joel Enos, about this story, and since he’s also the editor of Viz’s Perfect Square line, we talked a bit about that aspect of his work as well.
First of all, as an editor at Perfect Square, which books do you work on? Do you focus on a particular type of story?
In my current role as editor for the Perfect Square imprint of VIZ Media, I’m in charge of licensing, developing and editing all-ages original books and comics projects. In addition to Ben 10, I edit our ongoing Max Steel graphic novels and am doing art and prose books for our latest series, Bravest Warriors, a new project with the geniuses behind Adventure Time. I also handle some Pokémon titles and am right now working on a new manga series that we’ll be launching in the fall. All for kids (or as we say, “kids at heart”).
What do you think sets Ben 10 apart from other cartoons?
He’s a super hero who’s actually a kid. One of the reviewers of the second Ben 10 graphic novel we did, Joyrides, written by B. Clay Moore and I, hit it right when they said Ben Tennyson tries his best but also makes mistakes along the way. That’s exactly what draws me to Ben as a character. He’s a real guy, and the story in Joyrides, “Down in the Dumps” was my first attempt to show that. He can’t seem to get anything right when he’s teaching at Plumber Academy, but in the end, that’s what makes him a real hero. He struggles with normal everyday feelings. But not on this mega-watt angsty way we see with some of the bigger “grown-up” heroes sometimes. And Ben likes to have fun, hang out, and explore. At the time Man of Action created the characters, there wasn’t a lot for kids that hit that tone specifically. Everything was gritty or goofy. Ben has a sense of humor but he’s also a pure and simple super hero doing the right thing, though that’s often hard to do.
I thought the story you wrote raised some kind of deep questions, which frankly surprised me in a licensed book. How did you develop the story, and how much freedom do you have with the storylines?
Thank you! I actually don’t think that licensed books need to shy away from “deeper” thoughts. And definitely kids’ comics shouldn’t. I don’t think kids need to be hit over the head with morals or messages. But if you can raise some questions and let the kids think while they are enjoying the comics, why not? I’m all for entertainment for entertainment’s sake but the comics and books I liked when I was a kid had real struggles, and scary bad guys in them, and I think I turned out ok! There were also licensed comics I read back then that had really strong writers and storylines…especially some of the stellar licensed books Marvel was putting out at the time like ROM, or DC with the original Masters of the Universe comics.
My idea for Parallel Paradox stemmed from the show and how well the writers of the cartoon (and the live-action films) had developed my favorite character, Elena Validus, over the years. She is a true “conflicted” character in the classic sense. I wanted to bring her back into the current timeline. And I loved the idea that Rook, being unused to human emotion and struggle, wouldn’t understand why Ben would want to help this “bad” girl. That’s really what I started with and the story spun out from there. The idea that Ben still wants to help Elena after all she’s done is a real-life type story, right? And Rook is the perfect entry point for kids to ask, “Why bother?” Well, she’s your friend. Of course you bother!
Cartoon Network was very receptive to my initial pitch to bring back Elena and the struggle that would cause for Ben. And they were really open and helpful along the way to each piece of the story as I put it together. I felt like, as long as I was true to Ben & Elena as characters, Cartoon Network was really ok to trust me, which I really appreciated.
Also, our artist, Alan Brown, is phenomenal and seems to be able to read my mind about the look and feel of this whole series (and anything else we’ve worked on really). I work with a lot of incredible artists in my job but not everyone is always on the same creative wavelength. I’ve really learned to wholly appreciate that rare chemistry when you end up working with an artist who speaks your particular brand of comics “shorthand.”
Did you get to pick which characters will be involved?
I did. It was pretty great. Omniverse encompasses all past incarnations of the Ben 10 Universe, and I was able to really dig into the mythology, including some of the old parallel dimensions, so I could really toy with the timelines.
How about the villains—are they stock Ben 10 villains or do you get to invent your own?
That part’s really been amazing! I was allowed to create a few new characters that I needed for the plot. But most of the characters, especially the villains, the Incurseans and Elena, of course, are all from the Ben 10 Universe. Captain Caecilia of the Incursean fleet was a new character I created and artist Alan Brown designed. She acts as an entry for new readers to the Incurseans in this story. And Ilma and Plen were new Plumber Academy students that I created and Albert Carreres designed for “Down in the Dumps” and they show up in this story as newly minted Plumbers.
How does being an editor—and a former manga editor—inform your writing?
Editing and adapting manga has changed the way I write completely. I spent six years editing Naruto, taking it from early volumes all the way through the current storyline. That more than any series probably shaped how I see the artistry of crafting minimalist dialogue, putting together a “long” plot with hints and foreshadowing, and then giving payoff near the end of the arc. Tying a current storyline back into the mythology of past stories is a manga staple and the other writers and I definitely used that strategy for Ben. There are Easter Eggs in Parallel Paradox to almost all earlier incarnations of Ben 10. And being an editor in general just allows you to have a, shall we say, more organized approach to writing, which you need when working with someone else’s character and notes from a licensor at the same time, plus tying into a current media like TV or a film.
I was a bit reluctant to read these graphic novels at first, because I don’t watch the TV show. How do you make these books friendly to new readers who might not know the Ben 10 backstory?
It’d be interested to hear what people think actually. I think you can read Ghost Ship (the first graphic novel we did by Cory Levine) and Joyrides (the second) without knowing about Ben at all. With this third graphic novel, I did try to bring in characters, worlds and themes, even consequences of Ben’s actions from earlier storylines, into Parallel Paradox. But I did my best to explain what things were throughout the story (The Null Void and past adventures) and have newer characters (Captain Caecilia, Rook, etc.) ask the questions that new readers might want to ask so they could really get what was going on. I did a few montage style scenes as well to explain who Elena was. So if I did my job right, then new readers can jump right into this story. And long-time fans should find a lot there that will make them happy too.
Anything to add?
This whole experience of being allowed to play in just a corner of the Ben 10 Omniverse has been really rewarding as a writer. As I mentioned, I think licensed comics don’t have to be afraid to go deep and be inventive as long as they are true to the characters, world, and stay respectful to the intent of the original creators. That’s definitely something else I have learned editing manga. Sometimes you can’t translate something literally…it won’t come across. But as long as you hit what the creator was saying or getting at in the original, then you are doing the story justice. I have an incredible amount of respect for the worlds and characters, and especially the creators, artists and former writers and editors, of any series I work on.