Lost in the hullaballoo of Gail Simone taking over RED SONJA starting with a new issue #1 is the sterling job that writer Eric Trautmann did with the character during his run on the title. Running issues 51-75, with no fill-ins, Trautmann has the distinction of having the longest uninterrupted tenure writing the character in her history. (Mike Oeming’s run had some subs step in.)

What makes it more intriguing is how unlikely it was from the start. This is part one of a five-part look as Trautmann looks back upon his work.

MM: How did you come to pitch Sonja? Your prior work had been more espionage/action oriented stuff, even when it came to superheroes. A barbarian woman with a sword was a different move for you.

ET: The short answer is: they asked.

Joe Rybandt (my editor at Dynamite) and I had been circling each other, warily, for a couple of years. I liked a lot of Dynamite’s properties, and Joe seemed to like my writing, but I think there was reticence to ask me to do stuff for them because of my page rate at DC. They asked me to pitch a couple things—Buck Rogers was one of ’em, if I recall correctly—and none of them took.

It was an out-of-the-blue call from Joe that got me on the Red Sonja book, and he basically told me “you can do four issues of whatever you want if I can have it fast.” He did say he wanted me to do some of my so-called Checkmate stuff in Hyboria, and that was the initial hook for me. The backdrop to issue #51 is fairly geopolitical—a failed uprising in one kingdom leading to a ripple effect of responses from other kingdoms, and so on.

But yes, it was strange. I’m not a huge fan of traditional fantasy. I devoured that kind of material when I was a kid, but as I got older I lost interest. I tried three or four times to get through A Game of Thrones and failed utterly.

I still retain fondness for Robert E. Howard and the Hyborian stuff in particular, though, which is why I was intrigued at the prospect of tackling Red Sonja. It’s likely the closest I’ll ever get to getting my hands on Conan.

MM: How much of your original pitch made it into the book?

ET: All of it. I had a fairly compact four-issue pitch, and what ended up being War Season is pretty close to what I had envisioned.

MM: How long were you originally planning to be on the book?

ET: Four issues.

It was sort of like Saturday Night Live. I did my four issues and thought, “Well, that was fun,” and then Joe e-mailed me asking me “So, what’s next?” And then he kept doing that.

I could’ve gone 100 issues on that title, happily. Red Sonja was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had writing comics.

MM: You took over Sonja with issue #51, and made one immediate change: the chainmail bikini got sidelined for a chainmail tunic. Then you followed that by taking over Vampirella and moving her out of costume. Were you worried about reader reaction? What kind of relationship developed between you and the fans on the message boards?

ET: I probably should have been, in both cases, but I really wasn’t. The move to the chainmail “byrnie” was deliberate—it’s the same outfit she originally wore in her first appearance in Conan The Barbarian at Marvel. I was setting my stories before her original appearance (and calling them a “lost chapter” of the Nemedian Chronicle) so that my stuff could occupy a nice little cul de sac without treading into material that other writers had done at Dynamite and elsewhere.

In truth, no one seemed to care that I altered Sonja’s armor and attire throughout the series, whereas on Vampirella, I got hate mail. One guy called me, and I quote, “a Hitler” for daring to posit a strong, intelligent, well-dressed, thong-less vampire killer. But when it came to Sonja, the fans all shrugged and said, basically, “that’s cool.”

MM: The opening arc, War Season, introduces a fantastic supporting cast for Sonja in a group of mercenaries that are different than the norm. You flesh them out well, and the reader understands why Sonja spends time with them and has befriended them. How important was this to you in developing the book? What influenced their development? I thought that ALIENS might have been one of those influences…

ET: Huh. I never would’ve made the Aliens connection, but now that you mention it, it probably did have some influence, albeit not a conscious one.

My biggest influence was a run of Conan from the mid-to-late 1980s (the first Conan comics I read). Jim Owsley wrote them, and I thought they were magnificent. Aside from them being somewhat shocking in that, like my interpretations of Vampirella and Sonja, Conan changed his damn clothes once in a while. Val Semeiks and Geoff Isherwood had taken over for John Buscema and they showed Conan’s attire changing from the fur loincloth and blue-green tunic with some frequency. Some outfits were essentially street clothes, others were upgraded armor for larger military engagements, and so on. I loved those comics, unreservedly.

Some of War Season is an intentional homage to that run; Conan was hired as a general to teach the army of a rogue price of Koth how to fight. Along the way, the Devourer of Souls is pursuing Conan and trying to recapture an ancient weapon of terrible power… Sound familiar?

What I liked about that run was how Owsley had taken a half-dozen or so supporting characters (who had appeared off and on in the book for years) and put them together as Conan’s lieutenants. I only had four issues, though, so it was quite important to me that people would be immediately able to know the guys associating with Sonja, and would like them. I like to think that worked out all right, though Rogatino was my favorite.

One of the differences from my pitch, by the way, was that I originally intended to kill them all. Luke Lieberman (who was writing Queen Sonja at the time) suggested I leave a few alive so they could show up, older and wiser, in his book. And thus was Wurkest spared.

MM: As the story progresses, Sonja reveals more and more of her true mission as she and her men take control of a small kingdom’s army. At turns, we discover she has been withholding even from those she considers friends. You’re saying something about her character with that behavior; I’ll let you interpret that yourself. In the grander sense, who did you perceive Sonja to be, both as a warrior and as a woman?

ET: I think that Sonja’s secrecy was evident right from the outset, when she lures Conan to help her infiltrate a wizard’s tower to serve her own mission, and attempting to leave Conan to take the fall. There’s a lot of larceny and duplicity in her, but it’s the tension between that and her sense of loyalty to those she’s allowed close to her that makes her interesting, at least to me.

MM: At the end of War Season, Sonja relinquishes a weapon of terrible destructive power in the Horn of Nergal, and stands humbled. It’s a dark place to take the book and to take the character. Did you have a definitive idea of your overall arc at that point, an idea of where you wanted to go in a much grander scheme to put her on the path to perhaps a bit of redemption?

ET: By the third issue, I had a lot of ideas of where to go, and intended to try to convince Joe to let me continue. I knew I wanted to end my run with a deliberate callout to where she first appeared in Conan, to complete the “circle,” so to speak; I also had fairly general notions of things to do—”Sonja on a dragon hunt,” “Sonja in Stygia,” and “Sonja accidentally putting Strabonus on the throne of Koth” were all part of my initial notes. As it became clear that I had more or less free reign to do all of that stuff, I wrote up thumbnail descriptions and began laying in the connections I needed as I went.

MM: In #55, you cap the arc with having Sonja get her drink on and have a chat with her goddess. It read as a memorial to the supporting cast you had just slaughtered, but I also wondered if it was a bit meta – were you mourning these characters who you clearly had liked so much?

ET: There was a little bit of that, but that issue was more about resetting Sonja on a somewhat lighter path after the darkness of the prior issue. I wanted her to continue to be motivated, in part, by some guilt over what had occurred—the destruction of Persemhia, the deaths of some of her allies, the loss of the Horn of Nergal—because I was trying to do a bit of what the recent Casino Royale did so well: show all the moments that build her into the character we know.

I also wanted to invigorate the relationship with the Red Goddess a bit, because, as subsequent issues show, other gods had champions, too. I did have one large story left to tell that I never got to, where Sonja is placed in conflict with several similar champions who are intent on destroying the Red Goddess, and some of those seeds were planted in issue #55. Maybe someday I’ll get back to that one.



Rogue Element #112: My First Kiss Went a Little Like This…

By Avril Brown

Sometimes a gal’s just gotta feel good, and for someone with two thumbs and a borderline unhealthy addiction to fantasy, my pleasure comes in a variety of forms. Occasionally, the vehicle is watching certain scenes in my favorite stories. I’ve watched the final battle scene at the end of ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ more times than I can count and I still tear up at that bit of bromance between Aragorn and Boromir. “My brother, my captain, my King.” Gets me right here.

I recently spent a vastly entertaining half hour watching someone’s compilation of the best first kisses in television and not surprisingly I’ve decided to list my own. In no particular order, the following are make out sessions that still slap a stupid grin on my face and send my heart a’racing.

Veronica Mars – Veronica and Logan

Who doesn’t love them some sloth-obsessed Kristen Bell? In the show that put her on the map and turned millions into marshmallows, Veronica Mars was a tough cookie who had one hell of a year. Her best friend was murdered, her dad fired as sheriff, her mom skipped town, her ex-boyfriend was doped up on anti-depressants and her formerly close friend Logan Echolls turned their entire high school against her, assumed the role of obligatory jackass and made her life hell. Which, of course, made their first kiss so tantalizingly steamy. Friends turned enemies turned friends turned lovers? That’s a winning combination for some hot lip locking loving, especially when it occurs after Logan swoops in to rescue Veronica from a would-be kidnapper by punching him repeatedly in the face. Turns out the ‘kidnapper’ (aka JTT from Home Improvement) was a federal agent and he just wanted a moment of Veronica’s time. After their conversation (with Logan hovering protectively outside the motel room) Veronica emerges, gives Logan a small, ‘thanks for beating up a maybe-bad guy’ peck on the lips, seems to realize what she just did and turns to escape. Uh-uh, not so fast, Mars. Logan grasps her arm, spins her about and with the music swelling in the background sets about exploring the softer side of Veronica Mars. When they part both shell-shocked teens abruptly crash back to reality, but there is some hardcore longing in their eyes as Veronica gets in her car. Thus began their epic romance, which (fingers crossed) we’ll see more of come next year when the fan-funded Veronica Mars movie hits theaters.

Vampire Diaries – Elena and Damon

I know, I never shut up about this show (which has derailed a bit, to be honest), but there are some intensely hot people that populate Mystic Falls. Vampires, werewolves, witches and doppelgangers, this tiny town seems to draw in a supernatural level of sexy. In the third season Damon Salvatore and Elena Gilbert have gotten rather close, despite her on again, off again relationship with his brother Stefan. While they have kissed a couple times before, this particular smooch makes the cut due to the fact it was the first time Elena initiated the act (the little peck she gave him when she thought he was dying doesn’t count) and it is scorchingly sexy. Plus, the foreplay is nigh unbearable in its toe-curling tension. One evening while road tripping in Colorado, Damon in all his delicious glory emerges from the motel room bathroom sans shirt (thank you Jeebus) and wanders around the room, fixing a drink and being sinfully sensual. Elena watches him from her prone position on the bed, initially feigning sleep. When Damon finally meets her gaze and realizes she’s been ogling just a tad, he lets a small smile cross his face before gracefully joining her on the bed. Brief words are exchanged (who cares) before he takes his seductively slow time in taking her hand in his, drawing his thumb gently over her flesh. Elena can’t take the heat and bolts from the room onto the balcony, where naturally our anti-hero follows. She says “Don’t,” he says “Why not?” and she finally cracks. She turns and throws herself at Damon, who eagerly helps her scratch that itch, backing her up against a pillar and worshipping her body with his mouth. Hot. Damn. Her buzzkill brother picked that moment to emerge and throw cold water all over their fire, but not before my heart rate skyrocketed.

Grey’s Anatomy – Christina and Owen

Please don’t mistake me: I’m not actually a Grey’s Anatomy fan. I caught the much-publicized season six finale and dug the drama between Sandra Oh’s character and ‘Rome’ alum Kevin McKidd, so I traced their relationship back to its origins at the beginning of season five. Military doc Owen Hunt was on leave when he was involved in a car crash, wounded but fully functional and helping to keep one of the victims alive via homemade tracheotomy using a pen and a Swiss army knife. Needless to say this was an instant turn on for surgery junkie Dr. Christina Yang, who both treated Owen’s wound and was treated by him when she ended up with an icicle in the gut later that same episode. When he finishes cleaning her up he turns to the windows, closes the blinds and looks at her. Naïve Christina didn’t know what hit her when he just stalked over and began kissing her senseless. Their passionate embrace ends when she breaks away, flustered and half-laughing, saying she doesn’t even know him. “So?” was his cheeky response, which was also his signature catch phrase throughout the episode. He smiles and takes his leave while a semi-stunned Christina sits on a gurney, watching him go with a dazed but pleased gaze.

My Life – Avril and Jesse

I’ve made out with a lot of people. A lot. I’d say more than your average chick. I’ve had first kisses that left me breathless, some with too much teeth and tongue, others sadly underwhelming and a fair number that were just meh. Jesse and I’s first kiss, however, to steal a phrase from the infamous Nora Ephron, was magic. (Feel free to vomit at any point during this paragraph) Jesse and I met on Christmas Eve while I was out for drinks with the cousins, and he gallantly offered to drive me home. We moved our flowing conversation indoors and eventually made our way over to the couch, where I learned he was rather skilled with his hands… giving back massages, you pervs. Offering a massage is akin to bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner date: it is favorable evidence that at some point, you want to make out. His hands on my neck already felt electric but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of that kiss. I felt his fingers slow and turn from kneading into caressing, he half-turned me in my seat and our lips met. With soft, slow exploration we became acquainted, and I felt something shift. It wasn’t a thunderclap or a choir-accompanied revelation, it was a subtle alignment. I knew instantly that not only was this guy a damn decent kisser with a passion to match my own, but that kissing him felt right. Did I know right then I was kissing the man I’m to spend the rest of my life with? I honestly cannot say for certain; hindsight’s 20/20 and all that, and the way I feel about him now could be influencing how I view that moment. However, I do remember thinking at that instant, ‘Oh this is going to be fun.’

“And what is a kiss, when all is done? A promise given under seal – a vow taken before the shrine of memory – a signature acknowledged – a rosy dot over the i in Loving – a secret whispered to listening lips apart – a moment made immortal, with a rush of wings unseen – a sacrament of blossoms, a new song sung by two hearts to an old, simple tune – the ring of one horizon around two souls, together, all alone!”

You said it, Monsieur Rostand. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and pucker up, people. Be they frog or prince, gent or lady, put on some cherry Chapstick and find your very own First Kiss.


Written by J. Michael Straczynski and Drawn by Tom Mandrake
Written by Daniel Freedman and Sina Grace, Drawn by Sina Grace
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Two newbies from the Image crew…

I’ve not enjoyed much of JMS’ work over the years, though his other current Image book TEN GRAND has kept me entertained. Primarily, I’ve found his work on superhero books to be his weak spot, so I didn’t expect much from SIDEKICK #1. Thus, it was a bit of a shock to me how much I enjoyed it.

SIDEKICK introduces us to Flyboy, the sidekick of the Red Cowl. Like many superhero sidekicks, Flyboy struggles to be taken seriously, even when his partner gives him credit in front of the media. So Flyboy’s life is in for a number of shocks when Red Cowl is assassinated right before his eyes, leaving him very visibly, publicly, lost. Faking crimes, extorting prostitutes, spying on his ex… Flyboy isn’t doing well, and it only looks like it’s going to get worse.

A lot of what happens here, aside from a shock cliffhanger that isn’t very shocking, is setup, creating the downward spiral for Flyboy as he moves toward rock bottom. I like the idea of putting the character through his paces like this, and that was one of the really appealing things about the book: you can see the arc developing, and it looks like it’s going to be fun to watch. Throw in that it’s drawn by Tom Mandrake, one of the great unsung artists of the last twenty-five years, and it looks absolutely fantastic. With those two things going for it, this one has my interest.

I’ve loved both of Sina Grace’s Image projects to date; both L’IL DEPRESSED BOY and NOT MY BAG have been books that stepped away from the comics norm and done something different with the medium. That meant my curiosity was high regarding BURN THE ORPHANAGE: BORN TO LOSE #1. This time around, joined by co-writer Daniel Freedman, Grace dives into “fight comix.” The results are a bit of a mixed bag.

The story is pretty simple: an orphanage is burned to the ground, and a guy named Rock, who excels at beating the hell out of people, fights his way across the city to find the culprit. He’s aided and abetted by a couple of friends along the way.

That’s pretty much it.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. The idea here isn’t to create high art; it’s to give the reader a rollicking good time on the page, and the creators certainly do their best there. The pages are filled with energy, and there’s definitely some gusto to the fight sequences. Grace shows he’s more than a one-trick pony as an artist, and that’s great.

At the same time, it feels a little repetitive after a while, and I found myself wishing it was maybe a smidge deeper, because I know that both Grace and Freedman (UNDYING LOVE) are capable of that depth.

So am I complaining about the book not being what I wanted it to be? Maybe. But that’s the curse of potential, isn’t it? Still, from an objective standpoint, it’s also a perfectly fine, perfectly fun read, and you will get your money’s worth from buying it.


Rogue Element #111: Are You Ready to be Strong?

By Avril Brown

My hamstrings screech in protest as I walk, when I stretch my arms upwards I have the sensation of someone standing on my stomach and I can barely reach around to unhook my own bra. I feel awesome. Well, no, I feel like a much-loved dog toy stuck between two Boston Terriers, but it feels good to feel this shitty. I ache deep down into the filaments of my muscle tissues, and I dig it.

Ladies and gents, I’m talking about working out. Hitting the gym. Pumping iron. Whatever you want to call getting in shape and staying there, I’m in. I wasn’t always like this, but several years of dating a martial artist/swordsman/personal trainer has finally allowed me to hear the siren song of fitness. Admittedly I’m one of those lucky bastards who has always been thin (thanks for the metabolism, Mom!), but I’ve never really been fit. I played AYSO when I was a kid and almost barfed up a lung running up and down the pitch. Twice a year in high school I was filled with dread at the prospect of running my ten minute mile (and that was only if I was really feeling my Wheaties). I climbed in college for awhile but fell out of the habit junior/senior year. I’ve become more and more of an avid bicyclist the last few years but this summer baby stows her wheels as soon as the temperature dips to the forties, and in Chicago that can be six to eight months out of the year. Plus, while good cardio, biking is not a full body workout, which is what one needs to truly be fit.

When I first started working out I was as much of a pain in Jesse’s ass as he was in mine. Good lord did I bitch up a storm (still do, on occasion), and while he swears he’s had worse, I secretly wonder if I’ve made Jesse’s top five whiniest clients. Working out hurts, there’s no two ways about it, and if you’re doing it right, on some level it always will. As I was recently discussing with a work out buddy, fitness really is a lifestyle. You can set goals and meet them, but your work will never be done if you want to maintain your newfound bod.

So how does one stay motivated to get sweaty and cramped on a regular basis? There is no end in sight, you’re typically shelling out a fair amount of money to have access to a gym and all its fancy toys, and if you can afford to hire a personal trainer you’re paying some extremely well put together individual to kick your ass in ways you’ve never imagined. Where is the incentive not only to start down this path, but to make it an integral part of one’s journey?

Most people would say weight loss/management. There is a saying: “Skinny girls look good in clothes; fit girls look good naked.” While I’m on board with this philosophy, my personal drive remains as follows: I want to be strong. I want to feel physically capable of accomplishing tasks and taking care of myself, be that schlepping my bike up the El steps, moving a piece of furniture or laying out some drunk douche bag (the later has yet to happen, but I want to feel prepared in case the need arises).

Living in a large city has its dangers, most particularly if you are a woman. I read somewhere the number one fear men have leaving for a night out on the town is being humiliated or rejected. For women, that fear is being raped or otherwise assaulted. The stronger and more confident I feel in myself and the capabilities of my body, the less I feel I can be a victim. This is the primary reason Forteza Fitness offers Fighting Fit work out classes (which include a variety of strength training exercises, including boxing) in addition to knife self-defense seminars. The core message in these courses is not to take the initiative if under attack, but to use your strength and skills to escape the situation and disarm your assailant if possible.

With strength being my intention and inclination, I’ve found I am surrounded by support and inspiration in various forms. My police officer sister is one of the strongest people I know, and not because she wears a Glock and knows how to use it. She runs marathons, keeps up with a toddler and can take a taser hit like a boss. My cousin Ali has been working hard core with a personal trainer for over a year, and holy six pack does it show. She can box jump with the best of them, rock an ungodly amount of burpees, and (this is my favorite part) do a handstand pushup.

The very first comic book I ever bought featured a scene with Gambit working out on the docks. He and his delicious biceps were sweating it out doing handstand pushups before he heard a noise and did a nifty series of flips where he grabs his trademark weapon (a playing card), charges it with kinetic energy literally on the fly and lands crouched in attack mode on top of a wooden pillar. While the later I’m pretty sure is nigh impossible for a majority of people who are not a naturally flexible, trained fighter/mutant Cajun thief, I’m wicked impressed with my cousin for being able to pull a ‘Gambit on the docks,’ and have now made handstand pushups a personal fitness goal of mine.

Some of my favorite scenes in comics, television and movies are those showing the starring badass working out in one arena or another, primarily because those snippets demonstrate how that individual needs to sweat and strain nearly as much as we do to stay sharp. The X-Men are consistently hitting up the Danger Room, a highly sophisticated computer program designed to challenge and hone their fighting skills. Frank Moses, Bruce Willis’s character in ‘Red,’ is a ‘retired, extremely dangerous’ spy who still owns it, and is seen doing sit ups and hitting the heavy bag early in the morning in the first five minutes of the film. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, imbibed with supernatural Slayer strength, trains with her Watcher on the regular to expand her senses and build on her abilities.

Elena Gilbert, seemingly normal teenage girl growing up in supernatural-laden Mystic Falls on the addictive series ‘Vampire Diaries,’ decides to hit the gym and train with her vampire-hunter teacher/guardian after her vampire ex-boyfriend derails into bloodlust mode. Stefan had turned off his humanity, caring about nothing except his own personal gratification, and mocks Elena for her hope he’ll someday come around and flip the switch, once again becoming the bunny-snacking, passive vampire she originally fell for. “Do you know how pathetic that makes you?” he jeered. “No Stefan, it makes me strong,” she shot back, punctuated with a solid jab to his gut…which wouldn’t have had much of an impression, except she’d gotten strong enough to utilize the pressurized wooden stake strapped to her wrist, designed to fire with enough impact. Asshole-Stefan is left bent over and groaning with a solid object sticking out of his stomach, whilst broken-hearted, but not broken, Elena is left to stalk out of his reach.

While staying active at least in some capacity is a painful choice, it is an obvious one. Keeping your body moving is a sure way to live longer and healthier, both physically and mentally. My Nana lived until she was ninety-seven, and up until the last few years when she needed assisted living she was walking up and down the hallways of her building every day of the week (after she finished the crossword puzzle). Despite having a rather frightening brain condition involving misaligned arteries and veins, my mother continues to live her life with confidence, which includes hitting the gym multiple times a week. I recently had a neck injury which kept me out of the gym for several weeks, and now that I’m back, well, see paragraph one. Yet however arduous it is to get back in the saddle, I’m clambering onto this pony, because for me the alternative is no longer an option. It’s get back to fighting form or bust; after all, once you go buff, you never go back.