Writer's Workshop #3: ERIC TRAUTMANN
How do you write? It's a simple question, but no two writers have the same answer -- but you'll find that Eric Trautmann is a writer who has answers in spades.
Working as a content developer for Microsoft -- including the megaselling series Halo -- before jumping into comics writing with DC Comics and Dynamite Entertainment, Trautmann has worked on titles ranging from Action Comics to Checkmate to Vampirella to the Mighty Crusaders.
But how do you go from the blank page and come up with stories about vampires, international intrigue and giant robot-smashing? We sat down with Trautmann for the third installment of our Writer's Workshop column, as we discussed characterization, dusting off properties for new audiences, and just how a young boy's trip to the Smithsonian led to a high-flying creative career.
Eric Trautmann: Oh, man. Well, let's see, there's the embarrassing, very-very-young-Eric story. My mom still maintains that somewhere she has the book of poetry I wrote when I was three. I read at a fairly advanced age -- I think my kindergarten report card said I had a 12th grade vocabulary or a 10th grade reading level or something like that. I read way past my age level, I just always had an aptitude for it, language was always of great interest to me. So I've experimented with all kinds of weird writing -- comics, of course, and I just kind of fell into the habit and never lost it.
But I think that the light-bulb moment for wanting to be a writer -- I was the right age for Star Wars. I was 6 or 7 years old in '77, and Star Wars, I ached to live in that setting. It was just this palpable desire to live in that world. And I remember distinctly a couple of years later when LucasFilm was dabbling in licensing, they were doing Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Dean Alan Foster, which was a wonderful book.
But there was a Brian Daily Han Solo novel, "Han Solo at Stars' End," "Han Solo's Revenge," "Han Solo and the Lost Legacy." Where I lived, I lived really rural upstate in New York -- you could walk out of parts of where I lived in be in Canada -- there was no bookstore. The nearest bookstore was in a mall 50 miles away. I remember knowing that Han Solo was coming out, and begging my parents to drive an hour out of their way. I got the first one out of the box as they were putting it on the shelves at the local Waldenbooks. Oh, actually, we were living in a different town, I take that back, that was two hours out of the way. And God love them, they did it. And I read that book, and I said "I wanna tell stories like this." And that was kind of the first "a-ha" moment, like this is what I want to do.
Years later, when I was working on Star Wars as a paper-and-dice role playing game editor and designer, it, y'know, "look who's doing it!" It was a dream come true.
Nrama: Wow, how old were you when you finally broke into that?
Trautmann: Dice-and-paper role playing? I sold my first piece my first piece as a freelancer to West End when I was like, 19. I sold my first professional piece when I was 14, to the regional interest magazine in upstate New York that paid me for the piece and then promptly closed its doors without ever really seeing an issue. Thus establishing the pattern of me utterly destroying the companies that I work for -- Sorry DC! Sorry Dynamite! Good luck with that.
Nrama: Where there any hurdles that you had to overcome, starting out? Was there any easly challenges that really took awhile for you to wrap your mind around?
And I sat down, really focused in what they wanted: a type of adventure, wanted the smuggles in a specific era of the Star Wars setting. I sat down, kind of came up with a setting, a plot, and I furiously banged it out over the course of about a week. Then realized I had written 45,000 words. It would have made a good standalone adventure, but the project was considerably smaller than that.
So then next thing I had to do, and I had to do it very quickly, because I think the deadline for this whole thing was 10 days. I'm down to four days, I'm going to spend three of those performing major surgery, just lopping off plot thread and character -- it's like everything I can think of to make it into this space I had left. I managed to do it -- it was a crash course in really how to kill your darlings.
Nrama: It's funny, you're not the first writer I've heard use that term before, "killing your darlings."
Trautmann: But you gotta. You get that in all kinds of English Lit classes, too. The self-editing process, if there's that thing, that moment, that turn of phrase, whatever, it doesn't matter how much you love it, it's not serving your story, it's got to go. And that's a really, really... well, that's probably answering your question, the hardest thing for me, even today, is to really go in there and say, "I really like that bit," and say, "no, ugh, it's not working, I gotta cut it."
I have every issue for everything I've ever written at DC or Dynamite or whoever, every issue is archived on my computer, and there's one part of that archive that's just overflow, just "here's all the stuff I didn't use." Some of it just shows up another day, or, most of it has just sat by. Checkmate, a lot of that stuff that came from Checkmate was unbelievable. I probably have four complete issues' worth of overflow material!
Trautmann: I probably do. I try to be fairly aware of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, I mean, as much as I can be. But there's a certain part of it, that, I don't know, it's almost alchemical -- the vaults of imagination don't just automatically open themselves into your brain. So a big chunk of my process, for lack of a better term, involves making sure my ass is plunked down in front of the keyboard doing something. I'm the worst about -- a couple of times, when I was co-writing with Greg Rucka on stuff, and often we'll break an issue, I'll just drive over to his house. He's just a couple hours away from me, and basically every issue of Checkmate and Action Comics we did we broke in his garage.
He sits in front of the keyboard, man, and he is hammering at those keys for hours. And me, I'm like, I'll do two pages, and then I gotta get out. I'll go walk around, I'll start the dishwasher, I'll do a load of laundry -- I have to keep moving around, and I find I have to kind of step away from the keys a little bit while I'm still kind of hot. The worst part for me, is I used to write like Greg writes -- where I was really keep going and going and going, until I ran out of gas. Then I discovered recently, refilling the tank is really hard.
So in terms of my process, I don't know -- I'm sure I do have a formula, but it's not one that I'm particularly aware of, if that makes any sense. There are guys I know, who I know well, who are very successful writers in the industry, and they are very confident that, "no, you write a comics story this way, you do this and then you do this, and this is the result." And often I find those are the comics I enjoy the least.
Greg and I work well together because we have a similar approach -- we really kind of start with the character. Constructing the scenario is not particularly difficult for me, mostly probably because of all my dice-and-paper and video game experience, that's all about scenario design. "Here's the problem." Inventing the problem is rarely an issue. For me, it's like making sure that what the character's response to that issue is genuine and honest and dramatically appropriate and entertaining. So it's a lot of time being spent thinking about how would this character deal with X, why would this character do Y, there's a lot of that that's not even on the page.
Nrama: That's funny, because you've just touched upon something I was going to ask you -- how do you approach character? Do you feel like there's specific elements of a character that you feel are really important to get inside their head? How do you go about building up a character?
So Power Girl, she's stubborn and she's determined and Mr. Terrific is very serene and concerned with doing the right thing. So those kind of obvious character traits, and for me, the next step is kind of investigating -- just in my own head -- why? What is it that drives Michael to do this? What is it that drives Power Girl to do that? And answering those questions to my own satisfaction that you know that character, so when you run them through the gauntlet of the story, their reactions are kind of obvious to you because you're in their head. And hopefully the readers will read that as authentic and kind of interesting and dramatic.
I think that's why Greg and I have become such good friends and work so well together is because he's definitely that character guy, and probably one of the weaknesses I have is that aspect of it and that's why I work so hard at it, where plot is a little easier for me. We'd get into these discussions when we were breaking an issue of Checkmate, and he's like, "here's a character's arc, and she's going to feel this and learn this, and this is going to change, and this'll be great," and I'm like, "yeah, who gets blown up? What's going to get shot?" (Laughter) That's really important! We've had that discussion so many times. Which is why I think our work dovetails really well, we each have these nice areas of overlap in the approach character, but in terms of story construction we really balance each other out really nicely. It's a happy circumstance that we do, so that's why I'm glad we enjoy doing it. It's really fun!
Nrama: Going back a little bit, you were saying that creating the scenarios is easy. How do you balance that out, and say "this is a really cool sequence," or say "this sequence might be a little too much?" How do you lay these sorts of things down in an organic way without taking away from the story behind it?
Trautmann: You know, that's kind of interesting. Some of it is trial-and-error -- I've got pages and pages and pages of overflow, and those typically tended to be action sequences that ran too long. I think probably my biggest issue is I'll come up with a high concept for what the threat is. When we were doing Action Comics -- I don't know if you read those issues that Greg and I did -- I got pulled on kind of late, it was well into the "World Without A Superman" and the "World of New Krypton," and it was kind of an issue of "hey, we need to maintain momentum, can you help us out?" So I said, sure, you're going to tell me what it is you want -- and what ended up happening was, like, "what do you want to do?" And I was like, "uh, I don't know. Kryptonian supervillain wants to build his alien god in a test-tube."
And that's how we gave the high concept. And everyone said, "that sounds fantastic. Evil scientist Jax-Ur making an evil clone of Rao that's stomping around Earth." That's a cool Superman universe plot. And when time came to sit down and write it, there was this moment of, "oh God, what have I done? I have to execute on this now, oh shit!" But those are good moments, those are sort of the high-wire moments you want. If you're not scaring yourself, if you're not out of your comfort zone, you're probably doing not doing it right.
(Laughs) I've spent a lot of time answering your question. I've spent a long time, from a very young age studying kind of how comics work. Long before I was aware of Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art," years before Scott McCleod's "Understanding Comics," I was looking at comic book pages as a kid, and redrawing them as stick figure form just trying to figure out, how are they telling the story? Learning the tools. When I break an issue at this point I have a fairly instinctive understanding of how this'll work. I can do this in two panels, this is going to take me seven panels over a two-page spread, whatever. Kind of knowing what the tools are in the toolbox and being confident that I can utilize them as elegantly and efficiently as possible to tell the biggest, coolest story I can, without drowning everything in blood and thunder. It's kind of practice and trial-and-error.
Nrama: That's interesting that you're saying that you would break down all these comics into stick figures -- was there ever a particular "a-ha" moment, that totally made everything make sense of how you'd pace things out? Did you ever get an epiphany looking at this stuff like this?
Trautmann: There have been a few. The book, and I've written about this pretty extensively on my web site, there was a book I got when I was a kid, I was about 9, for a family vacation. My family never took vacations, we never went to Disneyland -- my parents' idea of vacation was not going to work. And they were serial collectors of hobbies -- that was my folks. My dad was a musician, and did archery, and built little plastic model kits of German World War II tanks, and my mom learned how to bake bread and do stained glass and calligraphy -- they were very artistic folks for kind of a couple of science stiffs. And I picked up on their closet liberal arts leanings, rather than their science leanings, so this vacation that they took, it's just so my parents: "We're going to colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Yes son, you can spend your summer vacation watching people make candles. Try to contain your excitement!"
But we took the train, which we had never done, and I had my own compartment on the train, and it turned out that it was on the other side of the train from my folks. We had a multiple-hour layover in Washington, D.C. each way, and we did kind of a quick beat down to the Smithsonians. So I'm having this kind of James Bond/Indiana Jones/Man of Adventure experience on the train, right? And my parents let me pick some things out of the gift shop at the Smithsonian, and I picked up this book -- the Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, which was wonderful. I still have my original copy, that's dog-eared into unreadability, and I've picked up a replacement copy since.
The editors, aside from just having amazing, amazing knowledge of the subject matter, had impeccable taste -- it had the first reprints of the Superman and Batman stuff, but it was also like my first exposure to Walt Kelly and Pogo and Jack Cole and C.C. Beck and Will Eisner -- that was the big one. And as cool as it was, this hardcover with these beautiful reproductions of comics, and they were like photo stats, you could see the original newsprint for the image, it wasn't how see reprints done today, it was really interesting. But every section had an essay on the people who created whatever you were about to read, and the Will Eisner one was the one where I kinda woke up. Because they were talking about how he was the first one to really break the format -- everything was in nine-panel boxes or whatever, and obviously his influence on the design of pages is well-documented.
But at 9, there was this moment that, "oh! Real people make these." There wasn't this comic book machine at some printer somewhere that shoots them out, people do this for a job. And there was this moment that followed it: "That could be MY job." So there was a line in that essay about Eisner about how he was breaking all the rules on how pages were created that got me sitting down and got me drawing all these stick figures -- I still occasionally do that, to this day. I'll see something I like or something that's really successful or something I really like and I'll really dissect those pages. Even now, at 40 -- I've been doing that for 30 years, basically.
Trautmann: The story; just to the extent where it picks up in the story. Fewer panels means that the feel of that page is a little decompressed, it's a little more wide open. So when I'm trying to convey distance, for example, that gives the artist more room to draw the large thing in proximity to the small thing. Like, let's say Red Sonja is fighting a giant. Big giant! Little tiny figure with Red Sonja in it. You can't put seven of those on a page, or it's just a bunch of dots. So depending on the mood I want to hit at a specific spot, I want to hit this, then it will to a certain extent, it will dictate my initial response to constructing the page layout.
Some of that is dictated as well -- I tend to think of that as camera movement. It's something I didn't realize I was doing until fairly recently, but I find myself looking back at some of my scripts and realizing like, I'm using almost camera stage direction terms -- "you're in the viewer's POV," and "the arrow was flying at the viewer." I'll find I'm describing camera motion. Even the act of turning the page is essentially a camera motion -- where you want to be dropping your big splash pages so that they're not revealed until you turn the page -- that's almost like a smash cut. Some of that is kind of dictated by, I know the kind of story I want to tell, and from Point A to Point B I need to establish this kind of mood or that kind of tone. There's no hard and fast rule, because different stories will require different things.
I found for a long time my six- and seven-panel pages were generally "people talking" pages. That was kind of a Checkmate thing. And I had a hard time with that. Checkmate was tough for me, particularly the scenes with the Royals, all the guys with the briefing room having these earnest discussions about the end of the world, and I was like, "Greg, you've got to be the one to write this, because I'm just not the guy." When it comes for the time for the world to almost be blown up, count me in.
The big action I'm much more comfortable with, but as I've done different and more varied subject matter, I was finding that you can get some really interesting, almost rhythmic effects. It's almost like percussion. Six or seven panels on a page, if that's an action page, you don't have a lot of words, there's not a lot of captions or sound effects or stuff, you can make a really cool Hong Kong action cinema effect over the course of a page, just by these kind of staccato beats of action, you see the fist ball, you see the gun drawn, you see the look in the guy's eye -- you can get these really fast, almost strobe-light effects going, so I've been trying to play with that a bit more. Kind of like Vampirella, the second issue I'm working on now, and I'm playing around with that a lot in one sequence. Leaping, flashing, you get this color effect... but again, some of it's just down to, "it feels right."
Trautmann: In general terms, it'll vary from character to character, but I think the smartest thing to do... well, the thing I hate the most as a reader, is "oh, here's this character that I'm fond of," and now the new creative team's come on, and they clearly hated what came before, so they've gone out of their way to erase everything that came before -- like, deliberately remove it -- and put their own spin on it. I hate that. I really hate that.
One of the best examples of how to do it right is Andy Diggle's "Planet Heist" Adam Strange series that came out a couple of years ago. I must confess, I'm a huge fan of those 1950s DC sci-fi comics, and I must confess, I approached that with a lot of trepidation, because I was like, "oh God, the last thing I want is for someone to take this awesome character, he's got a fin on his head and a jetpack and an alien girlfriend and he fights pterodactyls with cavemen riding them" -- I'm like, "that's awesome, leave him alone!" I don't want to hear how you're going to make him "more relevant," or whatever. Because that invariably meant rolling back the clock and revising everything. And Diggle was great. He does these great splash pages of the cavemen and the pterodactyls and it was just like, he fully acknowledged everything that came before, and then he told this awesome story. I was, "oh, thank you God, yes, it can be done!"
When I'm approaching a character like that, I like approaching them from the standpoint of -- I've been asked that a few times from the standpoint of Vampirella, of "how are you going to fix her?" Well, it's like, "she's not broken." Starting from the assumption that she's broken, or Snapper or the Shield or the Mighty Crusaders, there's nothing wrong with them. The challenge is coming up with stories that are good enough for them. I hear that question asked a lot of Superman -- like a lot of people, you'll hear that at conventions. "How would you fix Superman?" There's nothing wrong with Superman. Mark Waid when he and Mike Wieringo did the relaunch or revamp of Fantastic Four a few years ago, in the trade paperback version there's his original pitch, and that was almost verbatim for his approach. "Yeah, we're not going to fix them -- there's nothing wrong with them." There's nothing broken here.
So the future of Vampirella, specifically, I just kind of wanted to look at the core of who that character was, and the biggest distraction that pulls you away from the things that are important about her are her costume. So one of the reasons I kind of did away with the costume temporarily -- (laughs) people are freaking out a little bit about that one -- it was like, she's more than just a costume. And the problem is, she's widely perceived as, "wow, she's a hot chick in her space thong and cosmic go-go boots" or whatever. But this is a woman who, depending on which version of the backstory you're talking about, either it was the planet Draculon or a realm in Hell or memory implants from her evil mother, it doesn't matter -- because to her, it was real. In her head, she rationally knows it was fake, but she has experienced a world being run by vampires. And the world she's on now is in danger of having that happen. And no matter what, she's not going to let that happen. That's the essence of that character. So for awhile, we're removing the distraction and saying this is what has made her important and iconic and this is why she has lasted, and then we can get back to the costume later, if you really require it. That was very important to me -- and I know it's going to be an unpopular decision, I know that -- but I think it's important. I think there was one guy who was fairly combative, saying "she is the costume." And I'm like, really? Because then anyone could wear that costume. That's not a character.
I don't know, we'll see -- this will be the test case to see if my method will work. (Laughs)
Trautmann: Actually, that had been in the canon for a long time. It's come and gone for a few times, and it was unclear to us when we started, at one point he had lost the power, he had gotten his hands cut off or something, and regrown. But Keith Giffen had brought him back for the Four Horsemen story. So when we were doing "Resist," we called Keith, we said, "wait, does he have his teleportation powers back?" "If Checkmate can grow him new hands, sure, why not?" Okay. And it served our need for the story -- we needed someone who could get in and out of the bunker. That was our window in the world, outside of the completely isolated bunker, they were taking the planet apart. That was useful to us as a plot tool, so that lets us remind folks -- he had kind of been considered a comic relief character, not anyone who should be taken seriously because he had been treated sort of poorly over the years, but when he was a new character, he was a cool kid. For the kids of that era, that was like, "that's me on the team with the Justice League." You know? So that was kind of nice to go back to that principle, that concept, like, "yeah, he's cool." He's got kind of a goofy history when you look at it from this long historical view, but in the moment of its time, he was an incredibly accessible and likeable character. Granted we didn't really do anything to him, we just used him -- his character wasn't broken, you just had to give the character something interesting to do.
Nrama: I like that idea, of getting back to the character back to that moment historically.
Trautmann: That was my same approach when we were doing -- back to Checkmate -- when time came to reveal the Rooks, and we decided we were going to use Sebastian Faust. And there was a little bit of skepticism about that, when he came out in the '90s, he was almost a low-rent John Constantine. He was very '90s, the trenchcoat, the combat boots, constantly gritting his teeth. Greg and I were talking about it, and it was like, y'know, that's a reflection of who that guy is -- he's a reflection of that moment. Well, it's not the '90s anymore, so what would he do today? He'd be dressed in vintage Armani suit, and listening to all the right music and driving just the right car -- that's Sebastian Faust, he is the creature of his era, no matter what era that is. And once we kind of put it in those terms, Editorial kind of raised an eyebrow, "I don't know... how is this going ot work?" But once we put it in those terms, people said, "wow, he is actually kind of cool." I wish we had had a little bit time to do something with him, because we had a few really cool stories on deck -- maybe somebody will get back to him.
Nrama: As far as continuing to build up your skills -- how do you go about doing that? Are there any particular exercises or tactics that you've found helpful to look at your story or character at a new angle?
Nrama: Maybe I should take that last question at a different angle -- if you come to a creative obstacle or barrier or block, what do you do? I know you were saying you have to go out and take a walk before the tank gets empty, but is there anything else you do to really break through?
Trautmann: It's been a while since I've had a full-on case of Writer's Block -- that's only happened to me twice, and both times have been bad. The first time the solution was to completely uproot my existence and move somewhere else. (Laughs) Not optimal. Easy when I was 19, not so easy now. My wife would find that troublesome. "Wait, you're moving where?" The second time it happened, it was really bad. I literally could not get a useable word out, no matter what I'd do. It was months. And I finally kind of figured out, so the whole changing my environment is not an option, but maybe changing my approach is.
So -- I typically do my work at the keyboard, but if there's a situation, sometimes I'll switch to longhand, which I don't do very often. There's something, just deciding I'm not going to sit in my office in front of the keyboard, I'm going to sit out on the porch with a piece of paper and change my environment and change the physical necessities -- that's all been creating the story, typing versus writing longhand, it's usually enough to shake off some of the cobwebs. But there's been many an odd day where I was running something and running something and running something, and I've been sitting at a computer for eight hours, and I've got two pages of utter dogshit. And I'm like, "well, that's today." So you turn the computer off, you go read, watch the TV, and I'll go to sleep. And the next morning, I'll be like, "a-ha!" The subconscious processed whatever the issue was, and now I have a better approach now. And every single time inevitably it means scrapping everything I've done before and starting over. And then I write really fast!
Trautmann: I suspect that a certain expectation on the part of the would-be or aspiring author, whether it be in comics or whatever, if they bought the work and they intend to publish the work, that the publisher will promote the work. That's not going to happen. (Laughs) Not unless you're really lucky. So realizing very early on that I needed to learn to write solicitation copy -- if I don't, somebody else is going to write it, and it's going to be full of mistakes or spoilers. That's probably the biggest one -- the promotion side of it.
I mentioned before we started this conversation, this is my third conversation with Newsarama in the last week, mostly about Vampirella. It's not that Dynamite is uninterested in promoting the book, but who is going to be a bigger advocate for the book than the guy who wrote it and the guy who drew it? That's probably the biggest surprise to me -- the editors, if they're all running 40 titles, and I've got to get things into Diamond this week, they have their own process. So you say, "well, I've written this work of great beauty," that's true, but so did 30 other people, so just give me the book!
It's not pernicious or anything -- everyone is busy. Every once in awhile you'll see something that everyone agrees is special, and that's why it will get the big promotional push. It isn't as cynical as you would expect -- it's often, "hey, I'm really excited about this project." And that was surprising in a good way -- you don't, in comics, not necessarily in book publishing, in comics when you have somebody talking up a book, be it Dan DiDio or Joe Quesada or whatever, I guarantee they are genuinely excited about that project. That's kind of the neatest thing about comics -- the editors, even at the highest levels, are looking at everything. You wouldn't see that at a large prose publisher, because there's just too much volume of material for that to be feasible. So that's kind of the nicest thing about comics -- everyone involved loves it.