THE TRAUTMANN EXIT INTERVIEW: RED SONJA PT.1
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.
END PART 1