RED SONJA - THE TRAUTMANN EXIT INTERVIEW PT 3
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 61-66 comprised one lengthy epic tale. This is part three of a five-part look at his tenure on the book.
MM: So you get to issue 61, and Walter Geovani returns to the art chores. Looking over your tenure, it feels to me like of all the artists you worked with, he was the guy who was most simpatico with your scripts, and he delivered the goods on the page. What was your working relationship like with him? How does it compare to other artists you've worked with over the years?
EST: Walter was (and I'm sure still is) an absolute joy to work with. I was a little concerned, given the demands of “War Season,” that I'd be facing a revolt on the art front, just because there were so many scenes of huge armies clashing. I sent a mail out early on, telling Walter to let me know if he needed me to back off of some of that, and to my delight, he went the other way, asking for me to up the ante in terms of scale.
The best part was that he's also so damned fast. I was racing to stay a few scripts ahead of him, because he turned out those beautiful pages at a pace I found more than a little intimidating.
I've been lucky to work with other artists of similar work ethic and talent—Don Kramer on JSA Vs. Kobra, Marco Rudy on The Shield, and of course, Steve Lieber on Shooters all spring to mind. Not to mention guys like Daniel Indro, Patrick Berkenkotter and Edgar Salazar on other Dynamite books. Walter's just terrific, and I'd jump at the chance to work with him again. It's no accident he's the guy drawing Gail Simone's Sonja.
MM: 61-66 are your longest story on the book to date. You return to the Horn of Nergal plotline and the ramifications of your first story in the book, and the plight of the young girl Sonja left behind. Let's start by talking about story length -six issues. What did the story gain by adding more space. What were you able to add, both in plot and also in character, that a shorter version would have been missing?
EST: I'm not sure I thought about it in those terms. I just knew I had a bigger story than four issues, and plotted accordingly. There was a lot of ground that needed to be covered—some (not total, but some) redemption for Sonja after “War Season,” the glass palace in the Stygian sands, plus some Stygian politics, not to mention the demands of making sure I'd clearly delineated all the relationships in Sonja's sphere. I wanted Osric in particular to have some moments to shine, so his actions in a later arc would sting a bit. But Johndro and Barrannes also needed some room to breathe, so the reader would get to know them, too, and hopefully -- after what happened to the last batch of allies -- worry about them.
I also needed some space to play with the tone of the piece. After putting Koth behind her, issue 61 opens up pretty lighthearted. No one gets killed, stabbed, maimed, or otherwise Sonja-d. She's having some laughs, and, I hope, the audience could relax a bit so that when things get dark, the reader would have that "Oh, man, this is gonna suck..." moment. By the next issue, Sonja's not in a good space, emotionally or physically, and Azenathi, the Priestess of Bast, makes a point of slapping her in the face with the disaster at Persemhia. Without that space, the first issue of the arc wouldn't have been so lighthearted, because I wouldn't have had time to do it.
MM: Additionally, we get a new supporting cast to replace the one previously slaughtered. What were you looking for with the new crew, as opposed to what the dead ones brought to the book?
EST: I wanted them to be “echoes” of the guys Sonja lost in “War Season,” and they are, to an extent. But I also used the new cast the same way I used the original allies—a chance to cement the story in the Hyborian age. A Zingaran, an Argossean, a Brythunian and Hyrkanian, each with distinct mannerisms and customs and attire, and so forth. Plus, from early on, I knew that Johndro, my Zingaran, would be chronically seasick, which was a joke for myself—the Zingarans famously being a seafaring people. There's a whole story there, actually: what it's like for a Zingaran to hate the sea so much he becomes a mercenary in the desert kingdom of Stygia.
They had to be distinct as people, not just carbon copies of Rogatino, Wurkest, Dimitri and Valkos, but similar enough so that later on, when she's gotten through a bunch of scrapes with them, and they're all still alive, she can feel that she's repaid her debts.
MM: You also introduce another champion of a god, much like the scorpion villain in issue sixty, in the form of Azenathi. She's the right hand of Bast, the cat goddess, and she represents a far different type of foe. You mentioned previously that you were building towards something of a "contest of pantheons" had you remained on the book - I'm curious about how you went about developing these rivals to Sonja. Why was she next in the lineup? What was her thematic purpose as a Sonja villain?
EST: Each of the “champions” she beats is a different kind of threat. Akim-Mekht, the scorpion guy (who, I realize, never got named in the issue) is a physical threat; Azenathi's approach is manipulation—using her abilities to play on Sonja's guilt. She never directly threatens Sonja; she attacks Sonja through her friends.
Ultimately, each of these champions were to individually “test” Sonja—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. A later “champion” was to cast some doubt on the Red Goddess (which would be a tie to what came “later” in her timeline, or rather, in earlier issues of Dynamite's Red Sonja if that makes sense). I really wanted to make sure my run let me do the stories I wanted to do, but wouldn't undercut or retcon other writers' take on the character.
MM: Of course, sometimes you just have to skip the subtext and skip straight to the text. Late in the book, literally a dark-mirror version of Sonja is brought into the world and our heroine is forced to do battle with her doppleganger. It flowed from the story nicely, but at the same time, it also felt like you were cutting loose and having a bit of a lark. Your take?
EST: Part of the fun of a book like Red Sonja is being able to take some shopworn concepts, dust 'em off and play. “Evil twin” isn't exactly the most original thing, but I knew it would have a thematic payoff in my later arcs, and she acts as a thematic mirror to Sonja while she's in play.
I was also moving toward setting up a recurring villain, and Khala, her doppleganger, was to be a recurring thorn in Sonja's side. I had planned on using her as the lynchpin of the contest of pantheons—Khala surely felt she deserved Sonja's role as the Red Goddess' slayer. I had originally planned on her orchestrating these attacks on Sonja, specifically to weaken her, suss out her vulnerabilities, and after killing Sonja and (she believed) gaining Sonja's abilities, would lead an attack on Scathách.
Which, you know, would end so very well for her.
MM: Sonja once again gets her hands on the Horn of Nergal, and as we knew she must, this time she uses it. What did that moment represent to you in terms of her overall character arc during your run?
EST: I liked it because she knows what she's letting loose. That damn thing represents nothing but pain and death to the user, and she blows the horn because she'd rather die than let anyone she cares about be hurt or killed. Her friends are in danger because of the ripple effect of her choices, so she knows she's responsible for them.
I loved that moment.
Plus, there's Lovecraftian and Howardian elements to that whole device, too. The magic item that carries a terrible cost. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
MM: We talked about Sonja's wardrobe in part one; in this arc she (quietly) slips back into the chainmail bikini for a bit, but not the entire time. Was there a purpose to that move, or was it just something you went with organically as part of the story?
EST: I figure it's hot in the desert?
That was my approach to “costuming” here (and in Vampirella). These aren't superheroes. They wear clothes that function best for their environment. So, when Sonja knows she's riding into a huge battle, she wears more armor. When she's traveling fast, she wears lighter armor or no armor at all.
MM: By the time this story was over, there were only nine issues left in your run. How far ahead did you know that 75 would be your last? Did you know it at any point while writing this arc?
EST: I don't recall exactly when I knew, but I'm pretty sure it was by the end of this run. I was being told that the series was going to end at issue # 72, in fact.
So, I was taking the knives to my overall outline, figuring out what I needed to get to the ending I'd planned, and that was when the “contest” storyline was jettisoned. I needed more time and space to gradually add these other champions, and I just didn't have it, so I went with smaller-in-scale but still traditional sword-and-sorcery arcs.
I think I was writing issue #70 when I learned that the run had been extended to #75 specifically to let me end in a milestone issue number, which was a really nice thing for Nick and Joe to do.
END PART 3