Sometimes the problem with foreign comics lies with translation. Not so much with the way that the comic is translated from a foreign language – in this case, from French to English. There will always be issues with the resonance of phrases in one language or another, and that’s only natural. A skilled translator is able to work around issues with literal translation.
No, the problem with Dungeon Twilight is with a different kind of translation – a kind of cultural and storytelling translation problem rather than a linguistic linguistic translation.
Works from a certain culture have an approach that in significant ways reflect that culture. You know how manga just has a different pace and feel from most Western comics? How Japanese comics just have a pace, look and feel that reflect a certain cultural approach to their material? Sure there is a tremendous amount of variation in the way different creators approach their work – that’s part of what makes the arts so exciting – but no creator can really separate himself from his cultural milieu without trying extremely hard. It’s as ubiquitous as the air we breathe and is part of the reason why traveling is so thrilling. It’s a fantastic experience to live in a different cultural milieu, even for a short amount of time.
This helps explain the strange reaction I had to Dungeon Twilight. This collection of two French graphic novels from the dense and complex Dungeon saga felt like a story transported from a completely different culture from the one I live in.
Dungeon Twilight has a unusual pace and feel to it, a pace that just feels really different from most of the North American comics have. There’s an tremendous intensity to the ideas and events in this book, a kind of uncompromising density of story that sometimes threatens to leave the reader way behind in the story, desperately trying to catch up.
The approach that the creators took to this volume feels very alien to me somehow. Perhaps theirs is not a particularly French approach as it is simply a unique and surprising set of storytelling choices that result in a bizarre feeling of dislocation, as if the ground was shifting from under my feet as a reader (a totally appropriate feeling for the book, as I’ll explain in a moment). I often felt like aspects of this book were lost in translation – though I’m not sure whether that loss came from the actual translation, a cultural issue or from deliberate storytelling choices.
The world of Dungeon Twilight is an eccentric fantasy world in which floating islands in the sky are inhabited by some thoroughly bizarre creatures. One main character is a giant trouble-making red-furred rabbit named Marvin the Red, who owns an amazing suit of rocket-powered armor and who spends much of his time as a guru training a group of dinosaurs to defend one particular floating island.
Meanwhile one of the kings of dragons has a jealousy problem with his girlfriend the nymphomaniac queen. Another king is a duck who’s kind of a jerk and who is best friends with a strange lizard king called the Dust King. During the book, the main island suddenly and seemingly impulsively decides to go to war with another island. The ensuing battle includes some giant guns, some confusing dialogue and heroes flying on the backs of bats high up in the sky.
And all that odd stuff happens in just the first 48-page story in this book!
It’s all really overwhelming, as a reader. There’s only so much madcap strangeness that I found I could take before I felt completely overwhelmed. I kept trying to keep up with the first story, but so much of the narrative flows in almost arbitrary-seeming directions so much of the time that it was just hard to keep up. It was a lot like being thrust into a strange foreign country without the benefits of a good guidebook.
Thankfully the second story slows down a bit, though it’s no less wacky than the first story.
The second tale in this book is the account of the Dust King and Marvin the Red on an asteroid that keeps flipping around, constantly threatening to throw everyone on the wrong side off into space. Consequently, every person on the asteroid has to always be moving. The asteroid also has some carnivorous grass as well as some frightened bears to add strange complications for everyone on the planet.
This second story really benefits from its much tighter focus compared to the first story. The setting and its inherent complications are much easier to follow in this story, and the cleverness of the basic plot is easy to take in and fun to contemplate. What would you do if you found yourself in a bizarre place like that? The limited range of sight and the focus on just a few characters makes this story quite fun. This story loses much less in translation than the first story, because it makes fewer demands on the reader.
The art in both stories, though done by different artists, also gives the stories an eccentric feel. There’s nothing in any of the stories that seems familiar, nothing that feels much like anything you would see in the real world. Characters have a strange and abstract look that really challenges you as a reader to find a character in which to identify.
It’s not that these characters don’t have interesting personalities or quirks; instead, their appearance seems so bizarre and often so unidentifiable as something that we’re familiar with that it’s very hard to see yourself in the characters.
And perhaps it’s really that lack of identification that makes the stories in this book seem so lost in translation. The look and feel of these oddball beings is just a bit too odd to fully appreciate. Maybe a reader enjoying this story in the original French will find more to enjoy in these books than I did, but this book was just a bit hard for me to identify with.
Still, despite its flaws, I did find myself carried away to this very strange and very imaginative world. It was fun to travel from my couch to a world that required some unexpected translation.