Eric Trautmann, Brandon Jerwa and Steve Lieber: There are "Facts" and There are "Truths"

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

One of my favorite graphic novels of the first part of 2012 was the new Vertigo graphic novel Shooters, which tells the story of an ordinary guy who goes to Iraq with all good spirits of patriotism and optimism. What he finds in Iraq changes his life in many ways. The book never takes sides in the Iraq War and presents a really interesting and nuanced view of America's involvement in that country. I talked with co-writers Eric Trautmann and Brandon Jerwa, along with artist Steve Lieber, about their book.


Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: It's really unusual to read a comic set in Iraq these days. What inspired you to write a story that had a real world element like that?

Eric Trautmann: The genesis of the project came during my Microsoft days. I was developing material for a science fiction, not-too-distant-future property, which featured corporations with large private armies. I had looked at some of the reference material available at the time on the rise of the modern private military company, and that started me down the path. The fact that I had a family member who was both a soldier and later a contractor was part of it.

Trautmann, Jerwa, Leiber Interview - ShootersCB: Eric, how much of this book grew out of your relationship with your brother-in-law Dave?

Trautmann: Quite a bit. When the project started, it was a novel I was writing, with the "lofty" goal of creating a thriller -- escapist fare. When Dave signed on with a private military company, the novel became much more personal, and when he died, I tossed the book in a drawer. I was just too paralyzed by the weight of it.

CB: Eric, you make a comment in your introduction that you wanted to be true to Dave's real story. Did you feel the story ended up being true to him?

Trautmann: Well, there are "facts" and there are "truths." Some of the nastier stuff in what really happened was just too strong to include in the graphic novel, and some of the funnier stuff was too off-pitch or too space-intensive. 

And it is a work of fiction. Terry is not Dave, though elements of Dave's personality and certainly Terry's motivations for going back to Iraq are very much like Dave. So, I think we've told a story that deals in the truths of modern warfare, for certain, and I want to believe we've done so in a way that is respectful to his memory and also relevant and respectful to any man or woman who serves. The "facts" are there to add realism and depth to the "truths," if that makes sense.  

CB: How important was your research in helping you add realism and depth to the story?

Trautmann: Exceedingly important. I have a lot of friends in the military, and they have a kind of eye-rolling relationship to military fiction. (One friend, a Green Beret, and sniper instructor, could do an hour monologue on the filmed version of Black Hawk Down that is utterly merciless.) Getting the details as right as we could -- in addition to adding to the realism of the work -- simply limits the amount I get my chops busted. 

And I'm a detail junkie myself. It's easy enough to do the research, comparatively, so I find it frustrating when the details in such work contain obvious errors. I'm sure we've made gaffes, but they're minor, and the important stuff is right, and I'm very pleased about that. That's mostly down to Steve, who was almost impossibly conscientious about the work.

Steve Lieber: I just didn't want to look like a chump.

I'm flattered by that description, but honestly, I don't deserve it. That would entail doing what a guy like Joe Sacco does -- getting on an airplane and flying across continents to live in the places he's going to draw. What I do is less interesting: poring over websites obsessively, hitting the library, asking people who know more than I do.

CB: There are many scenes that are based on real life locations. Some I'm sure you know, like Fort Lewis, but you've probably never been to Iraq. How did you make sure the locations were true to life?

Trautmann: Lots of Google image searches, lots of talking to returning soldiers -- my wife's comic shop has a lot of customers based at Ft. Lewis/Joint Base Lewis-McChord -- and lots of help from guys who have been there. One of my Green Beret friends loaded me up with (nonclassified, of course) photos from his last several tours in Iraq. It was all down to homework, honestly, and trusting in Steve (which was not a hard leap of faith, for obvious reasons).

Lieber: For me it was Google, Google, check with Eric, check with my then-assistant Rich Ellis, who knows way, way more about military equipment than I do, go to the library, Google.

Trautmann, Jerwa, Leiber Interview - ShootersCB: I was actually surprised to hear that this story is fictional. How did you create the character of Terry to help make him seem real?

Trautmann: I'd like to think all the characters I've written seem "real." One of the things I learned working alongside Greg Rucka is how to really know the characters I'm writing. It's difficult and often painful (certainly when I'm writing a scene where a bunch of young soldiers whom I genuinely love are being torn apart in combat), but it adds so much realism to the story, be it something gritty and realistic like this or -- if I'm lucky -- in something fantastic like Flash Gordon or Vampirella.

Brandon Jerwa: All the technical research in the world will amount to nothing if the characters aren't believable. Eric and I are avid observers of the world around us; we love "people watching" and have often commented on some unwitting subject's compatibility with whatever story we can conceive for him or her. That attention to character is also wasted if you don't have the right artist, so working with Steve, who is so adept at capturing reality and technicalities, was a pretty key component of selling the realism.

I maintain that everything written in this book is true to something, or someone, that Eric and I have known in our lives.

CB: How did you make sure the situations were true to life?

Trautmann: In many cases, by repurposing real world events. The "fratricide" incident in the first act is based on a real friendly fire accident (though in reality, it was a Marine ground unit being fired on by a National Guard aircraft). There's an account of a military contractor named Wolf related late in the third act; Wolf Weiss was a real person who met a grisly end in exactly the manner described in Shooters

The rest of it is trying to put myself in the head of my characters, making sure their reactions to the situation are as real as possible, and so on. 

CB: Terry has a lot of trouble re-adjusting back to civilian life. Do many vets have problems like that?

Trautmann: I think one need look no further than the front page to see that. PTSD is a genuine issue and one we're only just beginning to understand. We put young people into incredibly high-stress situations for months or years, it's bound to have some serious long-term effects, no matter how tough or brave or strong those soldiers are. I think we're in for a long, painful education. 

CB: How did you research that aspect of his story to make sure that you got it right? 

Jerwa: I read a bit about PTSD, but I deliberately avoided firsthand accounts whenever I could. I didn't want to let that color Terry's voice in any way. I tried to keep my understanding of it medical and impersonal so that I could build the character moments from a black-and-white standpoint first. On the other end of the spectrum, I did more than a little bit of self-exploration. I have long dealt with issues of anxiety and stress in my own life, so I did my best to step back and analyze my own extreme behavior: How did I feel during those moments? How did people around me react to them? And how did those reactions affect my own perception of those uncontrolled episodes?

My wife was in a terrible car accident around the time that I was writing the middle section of the book. She was hurt quite badly and had to undergo months of homebound recovery and frequent physical therapy. Those routines in Terry's life became routines in my own life, and that was a pretty difficult way of bringing a new sense of realism to the work. 

I don't want to compare my own personal issues with PTSD; I'm constantly thankful that I don't know that condition firsthand. I've seen the toll that it takes on people I care about. Humans break down for a variety of reasons; the trick in portraying that was, for me, a balancing act of the personal, the logical (and illogical), and dramatic tension. 

Trautmann, Jerwa, Leiber Interview - ShootersCB: This is a very modern sort of war comic, but one that is also pretty solidly in the tradition of some great war comics. Do you have some favorite war books or cartoonists?

Trautmann: Garth Ennis writes, hands down, the best war comics I've ever read. Dear Billy is a gut punch of a story, and his War StoriesBattlefields, Battler Brittain, War is Hell and Punisher MAX are just pitch-perfect war books. I'm a sucker for Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher, of course. And I think Steve delivered a terrific war book; I've yet to see a type of story he doesn't excel at. 

Jerwa: Meanwhile, I'm the guy that everyone knows from G.I. Joe. I've signed countless books for soldiers who love that franchise, and that's always meant a lot to me. Of course, G.I. Joe and actual military life have pretty much zero relativity, but I've heard many of those soldiers say that it's an escape for them. To do Shooters, which probably offers very little escape to those who live the life, is both nerve-wracking and a source of pride for me. Like Eric, I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Kubert war books; I like to think that we could possibly have our book displayed in the same room as those someday. 

CB: The Shield was also a paramilitary man, though a super-hero in his case. Is the military of particular interest to you guys?

Trautmann: Sure, absolutely. Writers often have themes or subject matter they're drawn to, and soldiers and soldiering is one that I find I'm fascinated with.

CB: Steve, how was it different creating a comic where every scene has many references and where many readers will notice every detail that is wrong?

Lieber: You underestimate the comics audience, or at least my paranoia about it... I'm convinced every comic I draw is like that. I always imagine my readers carrying oversized novelty magnifying glasses, wearing jeweler's loupes, using sophisticated technology to enlarge my drawings and show conclusive evidence that I blew it. 

CB: Is it really true that Eric and Brandon met at Free Comic Book Day in 2007?

Trautmann: I'm pretty sure that's where we met, yes. Brandon was signing at my wife's comic shop as a guest for FCBD. We seemed to hit it off okay (though honestly, I don't think he had that high an opinion of me at first). How we ended up working together so regularly is kind of fuzzy for me now. It sort of feels like it was inevitable. 

Jerwa: It isn't that I didn't have a high opinion of you, I just came away from that first meeting with pretty much zero read on you. It wasn't until we met for lunch a few weeks later (at my behest, and in a mall food court) to discuss a creator-owned project that we actually hit it off. Obviously, we found our way through to this partnership, because it was inevitable. I don't believe in coincidence, and my friendship with Eric is a key piece of evidence for that.

Strangely enough, that first creator-owned project has mutated slightly over the years, and we now have an entire first issue of brilliant art for it - a military-espionage-action franchise that we're going to be shopping around. 

Trautmann, Jerwa, Leiber Interview - ShootersCB: How would you assess the quality of your work on this book?

Jerwa: I think it's the best work that we've ever done. I guess you'd expect me to say that about whatever the newest project is, but this is a genuine labor of love that we've spent literally years working on. I hope that comes through for the readers.

Trautmann: I'd second that. I've been summarizing it as "a contemporary military drama, a war story for people who like war stories and -- more importantly -- for readers who don't like war stories." 

CB: You all obviously have a lot of passion for this story. Where does that passion grow from? 

Jerwa: When Eric first spoke to me about this and asked me to help him create a new story out of his original concept (and the truth that inspired it), I was pretty daunted. You don't want to screw that up, y'know? The passion came initially from feeling so honored that he trusted me with something so important to him. Actually writing the thing brought out a different kind of passion, because I think we could all sense that we were doing something with the best intentions and a sharp focus on doing it right. 

Trautmann: Very well said, Brandon. 

I tend to be passionate about everything I work on (generally to my editors' lament), because otherwise, what's the point, really? Though in this case, it deals with some subjects and situations that are very painful for me, so I felt it was very important to push myself as hard as I could. 

CB: Have any of you had your vet friends read this book? If so, what was their reaction?

Trautmann: A few have started it, a few have finished it. Thus far, the response has been strongly emotional. My father-in-law gave it high marks, so that was a sort of "victory condition" for me. Most have been moved by the book, and for that I am profoundly grateful and more than a little relieved.

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