Interview with Eric Trautmann (from CHECKMATE)

Thanks to my review of Checkmate #21 & 22, I now can bring you an interview with writer Eric Trautmann!
I recently was contacted by Eric Trautmann, who wanted to thank me for my review of Checkmate issues #21/22. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to talk to a fully fledged comic book writer, and over a series of emails I present to you an interview with the man himself.

Josh: G'day Eric, you're speaking to the good folks of Earth's Mightiest and Comic Book Movie, so we'd first of all just like to thank you for joining us.

Eric: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

Josh: Not many people will have heard of you, as you have only really just hit the world of comic books. What were you doing before that?

Eric: Heh. Well, my first comics work came out a couple years ago -- a limited series tie-in to the videogame PERFECT DARK ZERO, called PERFECT DARK: JANUS' TEARS. That came around because, in simplest terms, I flagrantly abused my position in the entertainment licensing apparatus at Microsoft Game Studios.

I worked there for roughly eight years -- a couple years as a contractor, and six years as a full-time Microsoft guy -- and was responsible for a lot of the "creative" stuff that goes into making licensed products. I wrote story bibles for videogames, which would be used as a guide for writing, say, the HALO novels; I wrote videogame dialogue (for HALO, for the CRIMSON SKIES PC game, for MECHWARRIOR 4, and a few others); I put together "pitch" material to entice licensees to sign on; and a ton of really boring stuff that boiled down to making sure that the products were of high quality.

Before that, I was a dice-and-paper RPG designer, and for a few years was in charge of the STAR WARS Roleplaying Game, as published by West End Games.

I did a bunch of other writing and editing jobs before that, as well, but it was, for the most part, corporate stuff you wouldn't have seen.

Josh: Trundling the internet, there isn't a whole lot of information as to your past writing work, but I hear you are heavily involved in the Star Wars universe?

Eric: What? You didn't jump on "The Art of Halo," from Ballantine / Del Rey, or the "Crimson Skies" novella collection? Shame on you. ;)

Yeah, as I mentioned, I was a writer and editor on the Star Wars roleplaying game, and was involved heavily in creating "expanded universe" material. An unofficial adjunct to this job was the necessity of acting as a sort of research librarian for Star Wars material (at Lucas Licensing's, er, "request"); at the time the new Star Wars novelists (back when Bantam had the rights) were told to use WEG material as canonical, so we ended up vetting a lot of manuscripts. At one point, I was asked to go over the official Lucas Licensing "Style Guide" (a sort of encapsulation of the "visual language" of the Star Wars property, to be used by licensees when designing, for example, packaging or book covers). Mostly just verifying the lengths of starships, or Chewbacca's eye color...silly stuff, really.

In return, they sent me a Luke Skywalker "talking" pen. Heh.

Josh: You say you worked "at Lucas Licensing's, er, "request"" – why the "request"? Did they threaten you with bodily harm?

Eric: No, no. But we had a very simple mantra at West End Games. Lucas is the dog, we are the tail. So if Lucas Licensing requested anything, it was treated as the Word of God within the company.

Josh: What was it like adding to the Star Wars EU? I would give an arm and a leg – preferably my brothers – to work on that, is it as much of a dream as I imagine it is, as an aspiring author?

Eric: I was pretty young when Star Wars came out, and it affected my PROFOUNDLY. I distinctly recall a palpable ache to live in that setting. And it was a couple years later, when the first of the Brian Daley-penned spin-off novels, HAN SOLO AT STAR'S END, came out, that I knew, just KNEW, I wanted to be a writer. I loved that book, and read it to tatters. It was a great bit of universe building, since it didn't feature stormtroopers, Darth Vader, etc.

Josh: What was it like penning dialogue for the Halo franchise?

Eric: Depends on which dialogue you are referring to. Helping Eric Nylund craft "The Fall of Reach," the first HALO novel was a treat. Eric's a hell of a writer (and I actually was one of the people who more or less bullied Del Rey into using him in the first place) and a good friend, so that kind of contribution is effortless.

Working on the game itself, HALO: COMBAT EVOLVED, was a considerably less pleasant experience. The deadline pressure was enormous; my co-writer at the time, Brannon Boren, and I had just a couple days to bang out a massive amount of dialogue at the request of the game's designer, John Howard, and Bungie co-founder Jason Jones. Apparently, whoever had written the original in-mission dialogue had not done a job everyone was happy with, and they needed, essentially, a writer or writers who could work fast. We happened to be around and available, so we agreed to do it, but Bungie is VERY secretive, and, despite the fact that we operated under the same non-disclosure agreements THEY did, they can be quite mistrustful.

So, we had three days to bang out some ridiculous amount of dialogue, but they wouldn't actually let us LOOK at the game (which is why some of the dialogue doesn't make total sense; I conservatively estimate we got it about 80-90% right, which I think is an accomplishment given how blind we were flying).
THAT was no fun at all.

Josh: How did you get started in the comic book world?

Eric: I've always loved comics; I've always read comics; and I've always wanted to get involved in the business.

When I moved off Halo, and onto Perfect Dark--a franchise I LOVED in its N64 incarnation--it just seemed a good fit for me to do the comics. The guys at Rare, the game's developer, liked my Halo work, and trusted me to build a lot of their backstory for PDZ, and I had edited Greg's Perfect Dark novels, so I was -- aside from Greg [Rucka] -- probably the most spun-up on the universe details than anyone else.
I asked them to let me take a crack at it, on a 16-page "minicomic" that was given away at the (if I recall correctly) 2005 E3 show; that was a sort of "proof of concept" that a comic could work, and that I could write it. The whole thing was put together in just over a month, including my learning how to letter it on the fly, hours before it was to go to press. Good times.

Once I had the sample minicomic in my hands, I then set about convincing Prima (a Microsoft licensee that I worked with on strategy guides) to do the comic, and to sweeten the pot, I had scripts in hand, and, in fact, the minicomic was really the first half of issue 1, with an alternate last page. So issue 1 was well in progress, which meant we started out WAY ahead of schedule.

And from there, it was just a matter of finishing out the series, which I had deviously plotted beforehand with a friend of mine, Jason Carl.

At that point, Greg needed a hand on Checkmate, and we'd become good friends during the Perfect Dark Checkmate2122_003novel development. He suggested me to his editor, Joan Hilty, and I sent her off the Perfect Dark comics and some of my prose stuff, and she seemed to think I was capable enough, so I was asked to write Checkmate #17.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Josh: What has it been like working with Greg Rucka?

Eric: The best possible on-the-job training imaginable. Greg is one of my dearest friends, and a consummate professional, and is, to my mind, the undisputed master of characterization in comics.
It can be intimidating, because he's GREG RUCKA, and I'm NOT, but it's really been a great experience.

Josh: Your name first appeared on Checkmate #17, and then #21 and 22, a pair of brilliant comics depicting the life of Mademoiselle Marie. These have both played out as fillers, will you be on board for any of the upcoming stories?

Eric: I started as "regular" co-writer with issue #21. I'm on until #25, and then we'll see. (And thanks for the kind words. I'm still shocked I got away with the bit with the claw hammer.)

Josh: Has DC got their paws on you for anything else?

Eric: At the moment, no, just Checkmate.

Josh: If you could write any comic at the moment, what would it be and why?

Eric: "Wide Awake"--a supernatural adventure story that Brandon Jerwa, David Messina and I are introducing in Popgun, Volume 2, and have pitched to Oni.

Josh: You're working in a bit of a nerd-dom, what with comics and Star Wars and Halo; what does your wife have to say about all of this?

Eric: My wife is the proud owner of (in my COMPLETELY UNBIASED OPINION) the best comic book store in the word, Olympic Cards and Comics, in Lacey, WA.

She's pretty much okay with it.

Josh: So, in reality, she would have probably been pretty proud of your nerd-ish accomplishments?

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. She's been terrific and supportive, and obviously, when it comes to "geekstuff", she just GETS IT.

Josh: And, because I'm out to set myself apart from the others, here's my own personal question for you (as if the above weren't…): list your top 5 favorite books of all time (note, if you don't like books, my opinion of you will drop rapidly… J).

Eric: Novels? Non-fiction? Novellas? Short stories?
In terms of fiction, probably, in no particular order:
Richard Stark's PAYBACK
James Ellroy's L.A. CONFIDENTIAL
Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON
Raymond Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP

Maybe add "Honorable Mentions" for Han Solo at Star's End by Brian Daley?

Josh: As I said at the beginning, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for your fans, we all wish you the best and hope to see your name alongside Rucka's a lot more in the future. Cheers.

Eric: Thanks! This was fun.

I want to once again express my gratitude to Eric for taking the time out to talk to me, he is a true gentlemen and I wish him nothing but the best. Make sure to look out for "Wide Awake" in Popgun, Volume 2 coming soon.

And as with many of my bigger stories here, to leave a comment - especially if you want to thank Eric - please head on over to my blog where you'll be able to leave a comment. I know both myself and Eric would love to hear from you.
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