THE TRAUTMANN EXIT INTERVIEW: RED SONJA PT.2
By Marc Mason
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.)
Issues 56-60 saw Trautmann diving into different genres with Sonja. This is part two of a five-part look at his tenure on the book.
MM: Let’s start by talking about action, specifically about writing action for Sonja. Issue 56 opens up with an action sequence that’s as good as anything you did in your run: Sonja sneaks up on a patrol of warriors looking for her, assaults the man in charge, steals his horse, beats up a bunch of guys, and then kills the rest by firing arrows into their heads while riding away. Bravura stuff. What kind of process did you go through as you wrote this sequence (and others like it)? Was it hard to keep coming up with amazing feats for her to do?
EST: I mostly wanted a scene reminding people that Hyrkanians are horse soldiers. Sonja’s adventures tend to be centered in urban areas or in lost tombs and so forth and its easy to lose sight of that element of her skill set, which is often subordinate to the “she devil with a sword” stuff. So, at that moment in the story, she’s alone, on the run, hunted by enemies on all sides—reverting to horse-fighting just seemed apropos.
Coming up with tricky situations for her to overcome was part of the fun; I don’t know if I’d call it “hard,” per se. It was just part of the gig, and a fun part at that. I never got to do some of the stuff I’d jotted down—fight over a waterfall/Hyborian water wheel construct was one I always wanted to do, but didn’t have a place to put it. On the other hand, the castle fight in this arc (where Sonja fights a mud “golem”) was a scene I had in my head early on. I briefly toyed with how to make that work in War Season, but it didn’t fit. I was happy to find a home for it later on.
Action sequences are fairly easy for me to write, I think. The hard part was not knowing my illustrator—I’d come off four great issues with Walter, and a terrific one-off with Patrick Berkenkotter, but at the time I wrote these issues, I didn’t know who my illustrator was. So it’s a bit nerve-wracking. Do I write a big horseback combat sequence and run the risk of the illustrator saying, “I, uh, hate drawing horses…”? Do I write a big clash of armies only to learn that the illustrator prefers the more introspective stuff (like Sonja and Scathách sitting in a bar)?
And there’s always the major problem in a fight scene—pacing and balance. The longer, more complicated the fight scene, the harder it is to pick the right “snapshot” for the illustrator to draw. That’s a lot of trial and error for me; usually I write a combat-heavy issue in three or four drafts before the editor even sees it. Sometimes, I’ll thumbnail out the issue for myself, crude, stick-figure breakdowns, just to make sure that I’m not asking for too much in a given panel or scene. That’s the hardest part. It’s also conclusive proof that I should never attempt to actually draw comics.
MM: 56 also touches on one of her most interesting characteristics, which is that Sonja often finds herself in “no good deed goes unpunished” situations. For a mercenary and a killer, she has a gift for siding with the underdog. How do you balance writing those personality traits?
EST: At some point, and I’m not sure when (though it probably started around this time), I started to think of Sonja as being akin to Josey Wales. She’s an archetypical warrior maiden, but at the same time, there’s the human part of her, the part that craves community, kinship, camaraderie, all that. And there’s always, as I mentioned last time, that touch of larceny to her. She’s a good person, in a bad time, and she sometimes does bad things, and its those moments of self-interest (where she’s been reckless or hurt or endangered others) that haunt her and push her to do the right thing.
So that’s the balance, I guess: she’s a thief, she kills people for money, she’s got all the reason in the world to be embittered and angry, sure… but she’s also the hero of the tale, even when she’s the reluctant hero.
MM: One thing about Red Sonja – she never has time to draw unemployment! Once again, she quickly acquires a job, this one stemming out of the conclusion of the previous arc. Obviously you need to keep the character moving, but how do you avoid making the “she gets hired to –” a bad trope?
EST: I tried to make those connections organic. She’s a mercenary, after all, and this is a setting rife with opportunities to ply her trade. In the case of this arc, I knew I wanted her to be part of the mix when Strabonus takes the throne of Koth, and with a lot of folks in Koth wanted her dead, she’s going to need cash, fast, to get the hell out of there. That made a certain amount of sense, and this time let me treat her a bit more like The Man With No Name than Josey Wales.
(Funny that, it wasn’t until you started asking me this stuff, I had never consciously thought of her in such Old West and specifically Spaghetti Western/Eastwoodian terms. Hm.)
MM: The arc in 56-59 finds her working the middle between two warring brothers. There is plenty of action (again, exquisitely choreographed) but the tone leans toward con artistry. Were you consciously choosing to play with different genres as you got deeper into the book?
EST: Not so much “genre” as emphasizing different parts of Sonja’s character. Every issue talks about her a s a thief, a reaver, a pay-soldier, a slayer of men, and so on. The first arc was much more a traditional warrior story with a fall-from-grace element; this second arc was about putting her on the road to redemption down the line, but also about showing more of the thief/caper side of her. I kept coming back to that first encounter with Conan, where she (erroneously) pegs him as a lummox that she can leave holding the bag while she skips out with the loot.
So, that’s her, right there, in digest: she’s not a bad person, but she’s not necessarily a person you can trust because she’s always got her own interests right up front. But when the chips are down, if she’s your friend, you can depend on her.
The genre stuff I was playing with was more with the other characters in the story. On the one hand, you had a family of alchemists and scientists, but their art appeared more as magic. And they’re besieged because their rivals claim that they’re black magicians.
On the other hand, you’ve got Strabonus, practicing ancient and nasty magicks, which manifest almost as a science. I’m a little surprised that my gambit to do credible Hyborian “robots” didn’t rile up more people. I’d envisioned them a bit more like the clockwork army at the beginning of Hellboy 2, but in the end they looked way more like “robots” than I’d intended, so I had to breathe a sigh of relief that there wasn’t a lot of “Seriously, dude? ROBOTS?” in my inbox.
MM: Once again, though, Sonja seems to prevail, but in the longer game, she winds up worse for the wear. She leaves behind a situation that goes tits up after she leaves and the bad guy ultimately wins. She gives away the money she earned as well. Combined with the ending of the previous arc, Sonja’s life sort of takes on an air of futility. Is this deliberate on your part?
EST: I don’t know that I’d agree that her time in Koth was futile. She defeats her enemies, and she gets paid, and she can get the hell out of Koth. Those are all victories, and they were hard won.
But she’s also the product of a family that was murdered in front of her. Getting Constantinius (the young prince she rescues from a murderous father) clear would be the only choice she could make and still live with herself. More than anyone in that story, she knows what that feels like, and there was no one there to help her until the Red Goddess. And there’s always more money, right?
MM: Issue 60 sees you take the book in a pure-horror direction. Scorpions, scorpions everywhere! Sonja battling a priest of a scorpion god… Any particular inspiration for this one?
EST: There’s a bit of Lovecraft in there, and a tiny nod to my own elder ancient evil thing (Yag-Ath Vermellus, in Vampirella; a careful read of some of the captions will find that reference buried in there). There’s certainly precedent for a blending of Lovecraftian motifs and Hyboria, after all.
The two biggest things I wanted to do here (besides having my friend Brandon Jerwa devoured by scorpions on the page; and you know him, Marc. We’ve all wanted to do that at least once, right?) was to emphasize that gods in this setting tend to operate by proxy, and if Sonja is a goddess’ champion, then surely there would be others. And those others would be weird and dangerous.
The one big storyline I never got to was a large scale battle between several of those champions—many teaming up to destroy the Red Goddess, with only Sonja to oppose them, that sort of thing. This was the lead-off for that, which was to come after the next arc.
At some point, I decided against it because I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be on the book, and I had a bunch of plot threads I’d already established that needed to be finished up. My feeling was, if I got all the last echoes of War Season tied up, then the next big arc would be this godwar concept.
MM: The issue does set her against a villain who could be considered a kindred spirit in many ways – a servant of a god, much as she is. Really, a great villain – did you find it difficult to have Sonja kill a character that turned out to be so rich in possibilities?
EST: Nope. I didn’t have much of a problem killing off Rogatino in the first arc, either; hell, they were all originally slated to die. Besides, killing him off here meant that his successor could come looking for Sonja later. I don’t mind when characters I love die, if there’s a dramatic dividend.
I had some characters Greg Rucka and I created for Checkmate that were killed off in some DC book or other, while I was ramping up to write JSA Vs. Kobra, and the editor assumed I was angry that it had happened, and seemed kind of puzzled when I told her I didn’t care that they died. I cared more that they died off-panel, for no real good purpose. I even worked into my JSA Vs. Kobra pitch a way to expand on the deaths and use them as part of the villains’ scheme, so it would enhance that moment from the other book and help boost my villain in my book. (Ultimately rejected, of course, which is my biggest regret in that series. But I digress…) So, no, I’m not particularly precious about character death.
MM: You had now hit ten issues on the book, six more than had originally planned. At this point, where was your head as far as long-term thinking? Was the grander arc falling into place for you?
EST: Oh, definitely. At this point, I had the last arc mapped out—I knew how Wurkest and Sonja would meet again, and where, and what the exit line for me would be (with Sonja heading out into the adventure that would culminate with her first meeting with Conan). I had a good idea that it would all happen in Hyrkania, because there was something nicely symmetrical about that to me. Some of the more specific points (like the villain) came much later, but at this point the shape was definitely starting to develop.
I had already done a short series of notes about where I could go, so I knew Stygia was next, and that it would tie off some of the plot loose ends from War Season, and I knew after that, I wanted to send her off toward Khitai.
I also had a couple arcs in the Stygia section that I ended up jettisoning simply because I was running out of time to finish out the book the way I wanted to. But we can talk about that next time.
END PT 2