THE TRAUTMANN EXIT INTERVIEW: RED SONJA PT.5
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 72-75 concluded his run on the book and brought Sonja home.
MM: I think I said it at the time, and I stand by it: I think issue 72 may be the best comic you’ve ever written. Sonja gets thrown in a prison pit, seemingly a bad idea, but it turns out to be something she’s done on purpose. The real story of what she’s doing ties together every issue since you started writing the book. Let’s start simple: the genesis of the unusual prison break. Not a typical Sonja story, necessarily; where did it come from in your head?
EST: It was just one of those weird moments. I was driving somewhere, and the random thought popped into my head: “What would an insane asylum look like in the Hyborian Age?”
Once I started playing around with that, I knew I had to drop Sonja in one. And that led to the next question: “How would she end up in one?” And the next thought, “Well, obviously, she wouldn’t be taken unless she wanted to go…”
And so on, and so on.
And I knew the end was in sight, so I had to start laying in the last dangling plot threads of my run, and Wurkest was way up there at the top of the list.
MM: Continuing on 72, you mentioned previously that it was originally going to be the last issue of the series, and until the last couple of word balloons, it certainly could serve that purpose. How much of 72 changed once you knew you were going to get to 75?
EST: By the time I got to scripting, not much. The situation was a little fluid at first, so I built 72 as a “I can get off the ride here, if need be.” If you look at the last couple lines of #75, I could’ve pretty easily sent Sonja on her way to the Vilayet (just prior to her first meeting with Conan). I had the subsequent issues plotted as a “just in case.” Fortunately, I got to do ’em.
MM: So you get to 73 knowing you have one last story, and you send Sonja on a journey back to Hyrkania. Was it important thematically for you to take the character back to where she started?
EST: I thought so, yes. Others’ mileage may vary. (laughs)
And deep down, I wanted to do something similar to that lovely Barry Windsor-Smith/Roy Thomas “Cimmeria” adaptation—a picture poem. Sadly, there was no Robert E. Howard poem about Hyrkania I’m aware of, so I had to make it up.
But yes, “coming full circle” was part of my overall plan. We know the warrior Sonja grows into—tough, smart, brave, passionate, and so on—and I had spent several issues showing her early rough edges sanding down into the Sonja we know, so as part of my promise to myself to put all the toys back in the box in the condition I’d found them, putting her back on home ground just seemed…right.
MM: Of course, it’s never that simple; once again, there’s treasure, danger, and a couple of seriously bad guys on her tail. We see the return of her doppleganger, Khala, and you introduce the torturer Omaju, who is quite an unpleasant fellow. What made these two the right villains to finish off your run?
EST: (laughs) Well, Khala was still out there… I had to do something with that character.
I’m not sure where Omaju came from. I had been doing some reading on the Inquisition not too long ago, and that certainly colored the characterization of him. He just seemed appropriately Howardian to me, and I needed someone vile and awful enough that he’d outlived his usefulness to his masters, and thus provided an on-ramp for Sonja’s story here, where — because she’s an outlander, if she kills Omaju, there’s no political blowback on Prince Yezdigerd. Once I knew roughly what I needed, I sort of created him on the page, as it were. I didn’t do my normal routine of writing detailed character bios of my major supporting cast—Omaju was just “born” bad.
MM: In the end, you use her final fight with Khala to demonstrate growth in Sonja’s character. Was that a deliberate choice made to wrap up the series?
EST: It was, very much so. Khala just worked thematically—she’s all the bad stuff in Sonja, laid bare. And she gave Sonja a hell of a time in their first outing. But, some tough months had passed, Sonja had faced a lot of her own, well, we’ll call them “issues” (in a move sure to make REH roll in his grave), and I wanted Khala to be illustrative of how far Sonja’s come through all these trials.
And there’s an almost touching quality, I hope, to how Sonja treats Khala at the end—it’s almost sisterly, a callback to Sonja’s earlier taunt in their first encounter: “I’m a Hyrkanian and my only sister is steel.”
MM: The final panel puts a bow on it, and suddenly you’re done. As you back away from the keyboard that day, how are you feeling?
EST: Pleased, but also really, really sad. I was pretty depressed about it for a couple weeks after.
MM: Did you say what you wanted to say about the character? How would you assess your overall run with the character?
EST: I said some of what I wanted to say about Sonja, absolutely. But not all. I’ve said elsewhere that I could happily write Sonja for 100 issues and not get bored with her.
As for self-assessment… that’s tough. I feel like I wrote the character to the best of my ability, and was always mindful of honoring what came before, not going out of my way to blow it all up. As a reader, I hate that, which is a major reason why my run is all “prequel.”
I would like to think that my run will inform subsequent runs, but that’s mostly ego, I suspect. In the cold, harsh light of day, the book didn’t perform well during my tenure, and I have a firm belief that my issues will likely be forgotten. That didn’t improve my mood when I stepped away from the keyboard, I’m afraid.
But that’s not atypical. I’m like most writers, who are simultaneously convinced they’re the right person for the job, while secretly believing I just suck so much. (laughs)
MM: You left some stories untold. Have you repurposed some of that material in your other work? Or is it still in your head, and someday maybe you’ll get the opportunity to write those stories?
EST: I haven’t repurposed those ideas, no. They’re in a largely Hyborian context, so doing so would require some pretty massive revision to a point that it would just be silly. I’d love to come back, but I suspect that should that opportunity arise, the landscape will be very different—I wouldn’t be able to just pick up where I left off, so those stories won’t see the light of day in the way I intended.
MM: If you could say one thing to those who were with you for the run, what would it be?
EST: Thank you. It meant a lot to me, as my Vampirella run was being pilloried (for basically doing the same kind of character work I was doing on Sonja), to hear from people who appreciated and liked the effort I made on Red Sonja. I hope I did her — and you — proud.