Countless tons of ink, both in papers, magazines and virtually online, have been spent documenting the drawn-out wars the United States has fought in the past decade. It’s a story of politicians, insurgents, innocents and soldiers on the ground. But what about those men and women when they leave the war behind and go home? In the upcoming graphic novel Shooters from Vertigo, we see that even when you leave the battlefield behind people there are still battles to be fought at home.
Eric Trautmann first conceived of this story after witnessing first-hand his brother-in-law’s life after returning from duty as a Green Beret serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq. After serving several tours, he transitioned to become a civilian military contractor and headed back overseas in a new career until his life was cut short by IED in Mossul seven years ago, Trautmann and his family continue to live in the memory of his brother-in-law, and the events of his life inspired the writer to fashion his own story of people like his relative.
Enlisting co-writer Brandon Jerwa as a independent set of eyes and artist Steve Lieber to bring the story to life, Trautmann finally sees his personal story come to fruition this month, which our Best Shots crew gave a ’10 out of 10’ advance review. Newsarama.com talked with both the writers about the story, about the real life that inspired it, and the direction it took once the two started writing.
Newsarama: Eric, this story is inspired by your brother-in-law who served in Iraq and unfortunately lost his life in battle. Can you tell us about that, and how that experience motivated you to tell this story?
Eric Trautmann: Dave was a Green Beret, and rather a good one. After several tours (Afghanistan and Iraq, predominantly), he left the military, trained up, and was employed as a military contractor. Dave was a builder — he was a master carpenter, and in civilian life built houses — and his inclination was to rebuild. He'd send letters home about how he spent more time drinking tea with local leaders than he did kicking down doors, and that was just fine with him.
When it seemed like his unit wasn't going back to Iraq, that's when he made his career change, because he felt his work just wasn't done yet. He was proud and happy to be protecting the people he felt would be the ones to get Iraq back on its feet.
As for my motivation to tell the story, it started out humbly enough. In researching private military companies for a science-fiction/espionage property I was working on for Microsoft, I became fascinated with the rapid mutation and growth of such organizations. I had an idle notion of writing a potboiler, throwaway thriller, reasoning, "hey, a contractor would be an interesting change from a detective, or spy."
When Dave left the military and went back to Iraq as a civilian contractor; that certainly altered my emotional stake in such a story. And when he was killed – by a vehicle-borne IED in Mosul in 2005 — the stakes changed considerably. The novel sat in a drawer at that point; I just could not write the damn thing.
Nrama: And how did you come to get Brandon, Steve and Vertigo involved to bring this story to life?
Trautmann: When my former editor on Checkmate, Joan Hilty, asked me to pitch her something (she'd just made the transition back over to Vertigo), she asked for military fiction or non-fiction, presumably because Pride of Baghdad had done so well for them. I pitched some stuff, to no avail. At a certain point, I asked to bring on a co-writer, Brandon (whom I'd worked with happily several times in the past), and we pitched perhaps a dozen or more other concepts. No joy.
Finally, I hesitantly brought up Shooters, in kind of a last-ditch desperate attempt to get some kind of traction with Vertigo; I'd talked to Brandon about it all beforehand, and I figured he had the appropriate emotional distance from my family to keep me honest and tackle parts I simply couldn't bear to. If you've read the book, he wrote, among other things, the memorial service. He captured perfectly how I felt, sitting there listening to them read Dave's name during the roll call. So, Brandon's contribution can not be understated here.Brandon Jerwa: That's very kind of you to say, Eric. I have to admit, I had a fair amount of trepidation going into this, for various reasons. Of course, you want to get the details right on a technical, real-world level. Those are, thankfully, fairly easy to verify in the grand scheme of things. The more difficult aspect of tackling something like this comes on the personal and emotional level. I wanted to be true to the living, breathing realities of the story, not the least of which were Eric's feelings and intentions. As Eric is always quick to point out, my job was translation, not transcription - we did write *our* story, rather than rewriting *his* story - but I tried to let Eric be the compass as much as possible without telling him directly that I was doing so.
Nrama: So the next step is enlisting artist Steve Lieber. How’d that come about?
Trautmann: As for Steve, it's a bit anticlimactic. Joan had been looking for an artist for Shooters for some time, and we'd seen samples from several artists—all talented, but nothing that had the right "feel." In the interim, I'd done some graphic design work on Greg Rucka's Question miniseries, The Five Books Of Blood, designing "excerpts" from the DCU's "Crime Bible." Steve had done these cool Gustav Doré-looking spot illustrations, and I was, essentially, "painting" a "frame" around them. In essence, I was manipulating his artwork, which was terrifying. But Steve had sent me a note telling me how much he liked what I'd done, and I finally just e-mailed him out of the blue, gave him a brief pitch on what Shooters was supposed to be, and would he be interested. About five minutes later, he shot me an e-mail that said, basically, "Sounds cool. I'm in."
Nrama: Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for the creators, tell us about the creation. How would you describe Chief Warrant Officer Terry Glass at the beginning of this?
Trautmann: Typical of many soldiers. Dedicated, professional, but not naive.
Jerwa: Terry starts off the story with a sort of...I don't want to say "satisfaction"...with his place in the world. Maybe "acceptance" is better. He has a focus and he has a function, and that's enough to get him through.
Nrama: Terry’s got a full family and a best friend named Eddie back home helping him with this. What’s that home life like?
Trautmann: At the start of our story, pretty strained. We find out through the course of Shooters that, during an earlier deployment, his wife — Patty — had asked for a trial separation, which is put on hold when Terry is wounded and sent home. At one point, they were happy, and that, to me, is the core of the tragedy in this story: Terry's choices and career carry both a physical and emotional cost. The wreckage of his marriage is part of it.
Nrama: Dig into that – what’s it like for Terry to suddenly be back home due to his injury?
Truatmann: In short, Hell.
He's a self-reliant guy, who now has to rely on others, and is suffering from both his wounds and the loss of control around him. In part, that's derived from the experience of my father-in-law (whom Terry's dad is modeled on). My father-in-law, Shep (Lt. Colonel David Shephard, retired), lost his leg to cancer a few years ago, and that was very hard to witness. His doctors told him he'd be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He uses that chair to set his mail on now.
But during his early convalescence, it was easy to sense his frustration and anger at feeling helpless, not in control of his environment. That's almost worse than death to guys like Shep, or Terry.Jerwa: When we divided up the initial workload, we agreed that Eric would draft the first section, I'd take the middle, and we'd team up for the final act. Then, we'd go back and take writing passes over each others' drafts. Since the story's "home" sections take place in Washington state (where we both live), I was able to make it a little more personal by placing Terry in my hometown of Longview. It's within a realistic proximity of Fort Lewis, and is, for many reasons, a very appropriate setting for the dramatic elements that we needed. Longview ended up being the tip of the iceberg in terms of a personal connection for me, however.
Just as I started work on my draft of the middle section, my home life was turned upside-down. My wife was in a car accident that left her very badly injured, and in fact, lucky to be alive. She spent weeks in the hospital, and then had months of recovery at home and through countless doctor's visits and physical therapy sessions. When Terry talks about the physical limitations, and the struggle of rehabilitation and physical therapy, those words are largely describing what was happening to a highly-motivated, self-sufficient person under my own roof.
Nrama: And what are his goals in life now that serving isn’t an option?
Trautmann: Find another way to control his life, and find some measure of peace, if not happiness.
Jerwa: When he starts to feel like Terry the man can't find those things, we start to see the return of Terry the soldier. Goals start to become mission objectives, and those objectives don't really have a margin of error. It turns into a pass/fail situation.
Nrama: How closely is this based on your brother-in-law, Eric, and how else did you find out how things are for returning soldiers to make this real?
Trautmann: Terry is an amalgam of several people I know, almost all soldiers or former soldiers. Much of Terry's motivation to go back as a contractor resemble Dave's, but Terry is not simply an avatar for Dave.
Nrama: Both of you are primarily known for writing franchise characters, so this is quite a departure. What’s it like doing work like this?
Trautmann: Incredibly satisfying. Don't get me wrong: I love doing the work I do. Flash Gordon is fun. The Shield was fun.
Not one moment of Shooters was fun, but I feel like this is much more "my" voice—I suspect Brandon feels the same.
Jerwa: I have to agree, for sure. I once had an editor write me a scathing rejection letter, the core point of which was, "You wrote an excellent Battlestar Galactica book. You nailed every aspect of that show in this comic, but it's a failure because I don't hear your voice in it." That's a notion I find a bit absurd, because these franchises that I've worked on for so many years don't actually require my voice. I know it's in there, and I could point it out to you if you'd like, but it's ultimately someone else's house, and I'm a guest. Shooters is the work of three creators (and two editors who won't get nearly enough credit for their part), and I think our voices come through just fine.