Eric Trautmann: Pitting the JSA Against Kobra
Eric Trautmann on JSA vs. Kobra
First off, the big battle between the JSA and Kobra has been spoiling for years, ever since Geoff Johns placed them as one of the team’s primary antagonists in the ongoing JSA series, not to mention Kobra’s meddling in international affairs as seen in Checkmate. Secondly, the miniseries marks the long-awaited major, solo outing our writer Eric Trautmann. Trautmann had worked with Checkmate writer Greg Rucka on that series prior to its cancellation, but here, he’s on his own.
We spoke with Trautmann about the coming miniseries, who Kobra is and what they’re after, and his view on the terrorist organization being a convienent analogue for al Qaeda.
Newsarama: Eric - you've been around the outer orbits of DC for a while now, and this is really your first big solo project. Can you give us a little of your background and how you got to where you are here with JSA vs. Kobra: Engines of Faith?
Eric Trautmann: Good question. I'm a little bemused I got here at all.
I've been a working writer since I was a teenager, in a number of different styles and venues: prose, dice-and-paper roleplaying games, journalism. Eventually, I was recruited by Microsoft into its then-nascent entertainment licensing apparatus, which had me working closely with game studios to develop workable stories and, for lack of a better term, "game worlds." The goal was always to push Microsoft game properties into other media -- film, tv, music, and of course, comics.
After several false starts, I managed to convince Microsoft and one of the MS game studios, Rare, into letting me write a comic series based on the Perfect Dark franchise; I'd written their story bible and edited two Perfect Dark novels (both written by Greg Rucka).
Greg and I became quite good friends, and he suggested collaborating further, which eventually turned into a fill-in issue of Checkmate (issue #17), which in turn convinced Checkmate editor Joan Hilty into bringing me on as Greg's co-writer starting with issue #21, and on through the "Castling" arc, which concluded with issue #25.
NRAMA: As you said, you've worked with Greg on your DC projects to date - how did you move from duet to solo act? Was this project something that you had pitched to DC, or DC had in the planning stages and came to you?
ET: It's a little unclear what the genesis of the project was. Back when it looked like I would be taking over Checkmate (after Greg's departure with issue #25), Joan Hilty and I had chatted about a big "Janus Directive"-style Checkmate vs. Kobra arc, which I was keen to do. Then, when it became clear that I wouldn't be taking the reins on Checkmate, I just filed the stuff away for future reference.
It wasn't until after Ivan Brandon's "Faces of Evil" one-shot that DC came back to me and said, "Hey, do you want to run with this? We know you had ideas for Kobra in Checkmate you didn't get to use."
Naturally, I said "yes." It wasn't until quite a bit later that they let slip that it was a JSA series, which came as something of a shock, albeit an enormously pleasant one.
NRAMA: Just tracing out the history of the project - the storyline, well, character, was first set up in February's Faces of Evil: Kobra by Ivan as you said. Can you get us up to date with what's going on with KOBRA, and who's leading them now?
ET: Without diving too deeply into spoiler territory, the original leader of Kobra, Jeffrey Burr had a twin brother (introduced in some wonderful old Martin Pasko/Jack Kirby tales from the 1970s). The brother, Jason, was killed way back when, but was resurrected to lead the Kobra cult in Ivan's Faces of Evil story.
NRAMA: And for those who are scratching their head at KOBRA in general - can you give a broad strokes view of who KOBRA is as an organization, and what their goals are?
ET: In general, destruction. It's an apocalypse cult formed out of a fairly serious bastardization of Hindu belief; the Kobra order seeks to bring about the "Kali Yuga," a period of utter destruction. From that destruction, a new paradise will be born. So, Jason believes to his core that destroying everything and starting over isn't just a devotional act, it's a mercy, a gift of sorts for the human race.
NRAMA: Over the course of the two Justice Society series, the JSA and Kobra have grown to be a matched protagonist/antagonist set. Why does battling an international terrorist organization match up with who the JSA is and what they're about?
ET: I think it comes down simply to a contest of beliefs. They're the Justice Society, and they'll stand foursquare against agents of chaos. The Kobra cult, on the other hand, are sort of hyper-anarchists, so the conflict there seems pretty clear.
NRAMA: With your story then, what gets the ball rolling here, and what emboldens KOBRA to think that this time is the time the plan will work, and the age of Kali Yuga will arrive?
ET: Ultimately, it's simply faith. Jason believes, utterly and completely, that he is a part of a divine apparatus, one that will produce a specific outcome. So, it isn't so much that there's a specific event that launches Kobra's new operations; it's really Jason's will to achieve his objectives at play.
And he's much more of a long-term planner than Jeffrey was, to be sure. I don't want to give too much away, because a lot of what's going on in the series speaks to not just what Kobra is doing, but why they're doing it, and more importantly, how.
What gets the ball rolling is a Kobra attack on the Brownstone, one that targets Michael Holt, Mr. Terrific. From that one terrorist act, the playing field begins to widen, and the full scope of Jason's plans begin to come into focus.
NRAMA: Technically, just from that cover to #1, yowza - now that’s a cast. 22 heroes. For a first solo project, you're certainly setting the bar pretty high. Just from the basic standpoint - how do you juggle a cast that substantial?
ET: Scotch. Lots of scotch.
I don't know how Geoff does it, honestly.
The focus is clearly on Mr. Terrific -- he's the POV character of this story, since the JSA connection to Kobra is there, as well as the Checkmate connection, since Checkmate's been in pretty heavy conflict with Kobra for some time. The rest of the JSA is there, but a lot of the series is placing Michael -- a committed atheist -- in contrast to Jason -- a true believer -- and watching the sparks fly.
NRAMA: Structure-wise, the JSA has a history of big storylines seeing the team split into smaller units and groups - something that dates back to the Golden Age - is that what you're looking at here, in terms of action and the JSA battling on multiple fronts?
ET: I'm actually trying not to do that too much; people want to see the JSA in action, and I don't want the action to spread them that far apart (though I do break off Green Lantern, Power Girl and Terrific in issue #2). Issue #3 and #4 will show a bit more emphasis on the younger players on the team, and hopefully #5 and #6 will put everyone in the field.
It is a juggling act, though, since there's just an awful lot of capes on the team.
NRAMA: With a cast this big, do you find any character easier to write than others? Who's taken a shine to you, and why?
ET: I have a real fondness for the old guard: Green Lantern, The Flash, Wildcat. Wildcat in particular is fun to write because he's got this great, old-school "I will hit this problem 'til it falls down" spirit that's tremendously fun to write. I'm also enjoying the dynamic between Michael (whom I got to know pretty well on Checkmate and Final Crisis: Resist, I think) and Kara. He used to be the boss, and he's accustomed to giving orders as a Checkmate Royal, but Power Girl is the one topkicking the JSA now, so there's some real tension forming there.
NRAMA: On the slightly more delicate front - "Faith" is in the title, Kobra is an international terrorist organization looking to bring about a new age on earth, and they've historically been played with Middle Eastern/Asian touches... it seems that there's a case that could be made that Kobra is an analogue for Militant Fundamentalist Islam or at least al Qaeda. I'm assuming this isn't something that heavy-handed?
ET: I am absolutely opposed to casting them as an al-Qaeda analogue. No one is called an "infidel," or "crusader." The source of the Kali Yuga stuff is Hindu, not from Islam, so I'm trying very hard to remain consistent with what's come before (building largely off of what Greg Rucka masterfully built in the early issues of Checkmate), but yeah, I really strongly disagree with how they've become an Islamist stand-in.
It's a fair question, and I totally "get" the attraction of using this fictional group to touch on issues of the day -- it's a tried-and-true technique, and is absolutely valid, I hasten to add. But as someone who's actually lost a family member to an actual suicide bomber, it doesn't sit well with my own tastes. I'd prefer to just talk about al-Qaeda, if we're going to talk about it.
Kobra, in the current incarnation, are true extremists, real believers to be sure, and they are willing to do horrible things to accomplish their own goals, but that's about as far as the similarities go, I think.
NRAMA: Back to the story - where are your settings? This is really world-spanning, isn't it?
ET: North America-spanning, mostly (though we do see a bit more of the global effect of Kobra by the end). Issue #1 takes place in New York, since Kobra hits the JSA on their own turf. Issue #2 is set in Metropolis. We'll also be ranging to Opal, Fawcett, and Washington, D.C., too.
NRAMA: And finally - what gets the ball rolling in issue #1? Can we get a whiff of a teaser?
ET: A big explosion.