THE GREEN GOO FEUD: Rod was one of the first Trollbabe artists who’d sent me a bunch of pics out of the goodness of his heart, most of which went straight into the first version of the game. One of them captured me so thoroughly that I credit it with inspiring some of the best emotional fuel for continuing to work on the game. He followed up with some more on request, and then was one of my first choices for the strip. Working with him was pure high-octane communication: he asks X or Y, I say X, he delivers X-with-trimmings.

The Green Goo Feud story was based in part on a playtest scenario I ran at GenCon 2002 with Danielle Lewon, as credited in the strip. It led to the rule that a trollbabe can’t leave an adventure. Rod put a sort of Li’l Abner spin on it, especially in the fight scene, that worked perfectly with the surrealistic swamp Nordics. He especially enjoyed drawing the Ralfar elders; you can just tell.

You can see a little bit of the “silence” aesthetic at work in the second and third strips. In the third, not only does the hapless Ralfar fighter get bonked in the gutter between the panels, Retta’s line in the second panel is actually replying to the accusation made in the last panel of the second strip. This was where I learned how freakin’ fast these processes flow given the space limitations I’d committed to.

I also liked the way Rod used Retta’s expresssions to reinforce the flow across the three panels of the exposition strip. He really captured the processing that I was hoping to convey with her thought balloon and the dialogue. Time did neat things through that one, as I’d hoped, and it was another example of the most important thing – her actual plan – being brought into the story between the panels.

This was the first Trollbabe strip I wrote, and all I wanted it to do was introduce several elements of Retta’s personality – her tendency to meet interesting guys and miss the boat, and the wondrous, not-necessarily harmful chaos she brings to any problem.

SEX AND DEATH, WITH MUSIC: I am a James V. West fan. Not only is he talented and diligent, ever striving to hone his abilities and perfect his craft, he also follows his heart and truckles to no one. The list of praise goes on – of all the cartoonists, animators, and comics creators who’ve sat at the knee of Vaughn Bodē, including Ralph Bakshi, Wendy Pini, Frank Thorne, and Phil Foglio, James is the only one to reach deep and truly seek where Bodē’s power came from. I pore over his strips sometimes, seeking to arrive at how and why they work so well in defiance of all explanatory information.

James is also the author of the games The Pool and its sequel, The Questing Beast, which blew the lid off of the independent creative scene at the Forge in 2001. Without him, there would be no Trollbabe, no Universalis, no Primetime Adventures, no Polaris, and no My Life With Master. The community of role-playing design and play represented by The Forge, Story Games, and many other sites owes him a fantastic debt.

Regarding collaboration, James and I connect curiously, such that we finish one another’s creative “sentences” throughout a project. I provide the basics of the story, he flashes on some aspect of it, I go “and that means,” he sketches a sequence, I go “um, there, and maybe here,” and then, when looking at the strip, neither he nor I can really say who did what. It began with a series of trollbabe sketches he sent to me very early in the design of the game, most of which ended up as illustrations, and I believe that working with him on more illustrations was the first prompter that I might like writing some comic strips.

This story reached back to one of Gordon R. Dickson’s short stories, “Ancient, My Enemy,” which sank deeply into my head as a child, partly because his treatment of the issue was – as I see it – rife with contradictory tension and not quite complete as a story. I always wanted to use the element in some way which grappled harder with it and yet did not descend into some kind of Moorcockian Eternality. In this case, instead of planning where it was going, I just dove right in.

No one ever gets the title right. I swear I’ve seen about five different manglings.

I loved the fight scene. Since I wrote all the first six stories in one rapid go, I had put in many action sequences that were intended to force the reader to imagine the fill-in parts in between the panels, and was effectively flying blind in terms of how good they were. I was enthused to see this one work as well as the Green Goo bit did.

One risk I knew I’d be taking, from the outset of the whole project, was to have Retta be fairly free ‘n easy about having sex. It’s a pretty 1970s idea: that “hey, I’m reasonably horny, hey, this guy doesn’t outright stink at first glance, so hey!” is an empowered view rather than some kind of slutty, low-self-esteem bid for attention. Very out of favor today.

THE BIRTHROOT BARGAIN: Ed perfectly captured what Trollbabe looks like in my head, and I love his use of line weight and shading – it creates a texture to the images that can’t be faked. His Tha is spot-on, hyper-intellectual and hyper-sensuous at the same time. He also has a way with psychedelica and sex that is very rare in comics today. There’s no outright sex in this story, but it still resonates with the meaty reality of female power and childbirth itself, both in my words (“Mooram-Ah, Mother of Many”) and plot, but also somehow in the postures, body forms, and expressions of the two main characters.

I was pretty ambitious with the little dreamquest sequence, because I didn’t want to explain it beyond Tha’s single line, and I wanted to hit key images that told the story only in combination. By ritually enacting the original hunt, Tha takes command of the “death” in their story and makes the Hunter die and the wolves live; she could just as easily have done it the other way around. I think Ed really understood what I was after and hit those images just the way they were needed. I especially like the ghost-wolves’ caution at Tha’s appearance, and then how they sweep into motion following her lead. If I remember correctly, the panel with the hunter’s skeleton and the living wolves was Ed’s idea.

The story was an instant hit, partly because Tha is right on target for modern nerd fantasies, and partly because it includes a driving, personality-rich set of inherent conflicts that beg for follow-up. Since Retta’s stories are based on wandering about and stumbling into things, they lack an obvious “stay here, find out more” element, and so it was high time the story got some of that with Tha. I knew that the troll matriarch would return for more story-time one day, too, and so that entered the dialogue.

A DAY AT THE CIRCUS: Adam was the first artist I worked with who wasn’t a Forge participant and hadn’t been part of the Trollbabe game discussions and product design. I was pretty excited by that, and also by his shading-based, fluid-looking style. It’s a shame the strips were all to be in black-and-white, because the color samples he sent were fantastic – the color actually was the picture, with the linework being kind of like a chassis. I think he carried it off with just grayscale anyway.

We didn’t manage to pull off one narrative sequence, the part where Retta gets coldcocked by the two-headed guy and then escapes from the tent. Adam insisted that my script didn’t give him room to make it work and wanted more panels or another strip, and he was probably right. I was stubborn and preserved the constraints, though, accepting that the outcome would be a little squished and hoping it would play out like the fight with Eskindar or conking the Ralfar fighter’s head. Sometimes, the heavy-framing approach worked really well, but in this case it didn’t.

In retrospect, I think it was a script flaw at a basic level – the whole sequence of “talk to Aiga, fight two-headed guy, talk to Hobwart, fight two-headed guy again, let Aiga out, Aiga kills two-headed guy” should probably have been re-thought and made less back-and-forth. And the two-headed guy was way too complicated for the whole story; someone that wacky should have a little story for his own sake. After all, Retta’s a real bad-ass – what makes this guy so tough?

If I’d recognized that and fixed it, then I think Adam could have worked with the constraint more successfully.

Boy, those last four strips, though – what I scripted and what Adam did with it, boy oh boy. Comics ecstasy.

Aiga comes off very sympathetically in this story, despite the head-ripping-off. I even toyed with the idea of making him a romantic interest for Retta later. Looking back with later stories in mind, he still doesn’t seem like such a bad guy here – I did try to write him as a little unbalanced on purpose, although it’s true, he doesn’t eat people.

HOLY TROLLERS: Probably the single most effortless Trollbabe story – James took my script and realized it through his imagination such that I wanted to see more of everybody. Fergus, Kadd, Tha herself, Witten’s Holm, and Huurch all begged for more, and I began to struggle with the potential for getting focused on setting and continuity rather than writing fun little strips. I already knew Huurch was going to be a big deal later, and so directed James’ attention to him even though he has almost no dialogue.

So, did I plan to have Aiga be the rogue in this story? Sort of. It wasn’t set in stone, but I did write the two stories practically simultaneously, and the characters’ similar build and head-collecting seemed important to me at the time. Their horns are a little different, but that’s not a big deal, as various artists depicted various characters’ horns a bit differently throughout the project.

At the time, I was actually trying to avoid continuing storylines, save the birthroot one, but I also felt it necessary to preserve some kind of identity between “Aiga the rogue” and “the rogue.” You can see the evidence of that facet of the writing process in the dialogue about whether Aiga eats humans (no) versus whether it’s a good idea to release him (possibly not); and also in Tha’s musing over her foe’s body. I didn’t really decide to retro-fit them into the same character later, so much as decide to change a strongly-suggested possibility into an acknowledged component. Also, that decision was bound up in another one, when I decided not to develop Aiga as a romantic character.

AVATAR IS PLENTY: Arguably one of the worst puns ever. I was evilly led astray by Phil Foglio’s abuse of the same word (“Avatar is better than one!”) in an old Munden’s Bar episode, so blame him.

I loved writing Rus. He’s all kinds of self-centered trouble, but not “evil” exactly, and he’s so unapologetic about it. I mean, if you had divine powers, wouldn’t you want to kick back and enjoy them? I would! I snickered out loud whenever I wrote about his worshippers and hapless would-be manipulators trying to force him into the role they wanted. The neat thing about the story, for me, is that in hooking up with Gwyneth, he might be getting more than even he can handle.

Rod really helped me with this one. As originally written, the sequence of the initial confrontation among all the characters was choppy and put Gwyneth too much into the background, so that her final choice seemed to come out of nowhere. Rod pointed out that he liked the character and needed to see that part re-written. I’d been thinking about how collaboration with Adam had stumbled over just such an issue, so made sure to go all the way back down to the story’s basic structure rather than rely on a “make it work” cosmetic fix.

The revised script delighted Rod so much that he busted out some priceless characterizations. He called the bit where Rus enthuses over his goals the Bob Crumb panel.

I really needed it to start with that Moebius-style image in the desert, too. It was structurally perfect for the first panels of the first and last strips of the story. Tha’s idea of a vacation is to meditate inside a big skeleton in the desert, and she calls Rus creepy?

DUSTY MUSTY WISDOM: This was the first of the “second series,” and it’s not much more than a joke in six strips, supporting the continuation of the birthroot story. I really departed from the fantasy genre and stuck with plain old underground cartooning, much to one reader’s horror. Sue me – I still think the “root reference” exchange is funny as hell. Also, it felt good to take one little thing and really dwell on it, detail by detail and verbal bit by bit, letting the comics medium show its stuff.

Toward that end, James Linares brought a whole new look, very welcome to me because as much as I loved Rod’s and James’ work, I wanted the Trollbabe series to feature a wide range of styles. Solid blacks are near and dear to my heart, and he nails them in every panel. One of these days, I’d like to work with him on a really old-school, gothic horror story.

He tried several sketches for the ghost, including a scholar, an animated book, and a nerd in addition to the librarian-skull we settled on. It was an interesting choice to make, because I wanted it to be light-hearted but non-standard ghost imagery, yet it was also important that it be instantly recognizable as undead.

THE NAKED HELPLESS SACRIFICE SCENE: For the whole second half of the Trollbabe project, I was in writer’s heaven. Who would imagine that little jottings would become such powerful, idiosyncratic images? Each artist was so different and yet so motivated that I considered myself very lucky.

This is sort of my Hyborian story, soaked in old gods, battles, a pulp sacrifice, and bodies all over the place. Retta’s bad-assery is on full display.

I also knew that one day, the gals were going to have to show their all. But it had to be done right. These are the kind of women for whom nudity is not “being stripped” and carries neither shame nor exceptionalism. I wanted to negate, if possible, the implicit tease that can sometimes underlie depicting female heroines; there would be no glimpses or hinting. I also wanted the characters to be fully visually known by the creators and readers, devoid of superficial mystery, in order to open up the mystery of their more central decisions and roles in the story.

It was a bit problematic as I looked at my script pages. Not because of possible reactions; I was, and am beyond caring whether sex-positive feminism is even imaginable to anyone besides me in these latter days. I wanted the tits and ass not to be in sex scenes, but not in poses either. Rather, they had to be in other action scenes in which nudity made logistic sense for that particular story.

In this case, I chose to do it by putting the whole issue up-front as the satiric title, and to make the whole story about the unspoken portion of the title – the but not between “naked” and “helpless sacrifice.” Retta nude differs only from Retta clothed in having no clothes on, and in no other way.

I almost weenied out! My original script said “no full frontal,” and I changed it as we collaborated.

Colin wrote the “mad ravings” dialogue for the head cultist, quite perfectly.

The one place it falls down is that I didn’t know which of Rus’ girlfriends to use for the final character. Inge? Gwyneth? No, Inge? Crap, it went to pieces, and affected most of the following stories, as I waffled.

VENGEANCE IS MINE, SAITH THE WORM: I really pulled plot threads together on this one, pretty much for the first time. I did not necessarily think it was a good idea and am still not too sure. I knew this was my absolute baby-step effort with comics and cartooning, and I also was keenly aware of many initial plot-notions and characters were introduced in the early stages of Doonesbury, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Cerebus, and then abandoned when the real or big story took shape much later. Arguably, I might well have written Tha and Retta vignettes and developed other characters like Rus through their own stories for at least another year before attempting even to begin a story in the larger sense of the word.

I’ll cop to the fact that I retrofitted the father-son relationship, but I swear it leaped out at me when I re-read the first six stories. I mean, why was the rogue skulking around after the holy trolls anyway? I figured that since I had an “of course!” moment when I thought of it, then readers would too when they saw it. No one raised a stink about it, anyway.

The one element that I couldn’t work into the story directly was the Ancient Enemy and its music, but in my mind, the fact that Tha had finally found a father for her child was strong enough to carry that storyline in retrospect. So the looking-backward plus looking-forward content was pretty much at maximum; this is where I committed to telling a big story, and I resolved to continue doing so mainly through silences rather than explanations.

I guess one of those silences concerns why Tha was available for a romantic partnership anyway, and how mercenary that might seem. Does the birthroot ritual she learned from the ghost require a male partner? My own thinking was “yes,” not the sense of absolutely authorial certainty, but more in the sense of how I personally filled in that silence. But that then puts Tha in the sort of predatory-dating role. Where is she emotionally, with that? More silence. I liked it, but I also began to fear the possible answers in there.

At about this time, I began to have emotional reactions to my own story besides mere creative satisfaction or appreciation of my own words. In this case, I felt bad about killing the sheep after all, and also about poor Kadd. What’ll he do now? Who knows what his visions meant or didn’t mean?

As far as working on this strip was concerned, it was very fulfilling to see how Antti brought not only my current script to life, but also the pre-existing characters. I’d worked pretty hard to make it coherent, and since a lot of different character relationships were involved, I had to make sure everyone got a word in edgewise. Oskar, in particular, really shone and I decided that he was the big romantic lead. Antti went for a classic Finnish look (with the possible exception of, as he called her, “Matrix Tha”) that amplified Rod’s original story perfectly, not to mention its own shading-based, cinematic power.

I have always loved chronological integrity in comics fight scenes, such that time is passing evenly even though the panels are hopping from character to character. I’d learned a lot from previous attempts and scripted it pretty carefully. In this case, the fight between Oskar and Huurch is clearly epic, but it occurs entirely in the reader’s mind without cheating.

MYSTIC CRYSTAL REVELATIONS: Here’s where the project ran into serious scheduling trouble. The first artist I worked with basically flaked out after providing a really strong first couple of strips, and then after agreeing to pinch-hit, Ed scared me by announcing that he would be working with a graphics program rather than traditional pen-and-ink. I liked his previous work so much that I was disappointed and nervous, and almost demanded that he stick with it and experiment on his own time. Then I realized that was counter to the co-creation ethic I’d started with, which is to say, it was his own time. So I bit my nails for a few weeks. It took him a while because of the new techniques, but I think the result is worth it. Not only is the Heil linework still gorgeous, but he also brought in a visual, expressionist roughness (for instance, the non-circular sun in the last panel) that is totally free from the mechanical quality a lot of people suffer with using graphics programs.

I really like hallucinogenic mushroom characters. I don’t know why. I always knew one would have to show up some time in a Trollbabe story, and it also allowed me to provide more context for Retta’s story. Since she doesn’t herself know what’s going on, in terms of the consequences of her actions, I knew I’d have to point out that something was in fact doing so, one of these days. I hated the idea of some boring monologue by some external character, though, so decided to go with more of a “vision” approach. It’s intended to be a direct sequel to Sex and Death, with Music, as well as tying into Tha’s whole story-arc for these six stories, and I think I dropped the ball a little in not directing Ed to emphasize the visual musical notes more strongly.

I’ll be first to admit that the sexual aspect of the mushroom guy’s origin was totally gratuitous as initially written. However, I decided to keep it mainly to emphasize that a lot of people lived their lives and did stuff without the trollbabes being involved, and also to contrast with Retta’s isolation at the end. To Ed’s credit, the mushroom guy doesn’t end up looking like a penis with legs, but more like a tough little swashbuckler. I felt really, really bad about killing him off. I was beginning to realize how many of the Retta stories turned out to be seriously depressing, actually.

In case you didn’t know, the title is a line from a song in Hair.

LIFE AND DEATH: Basically the sequel to “The Birthroot Bargain,” and also an object lesson in story-arc type writing. It refers backwards just fine, and it refers forwards just fine, and it connects to the Rus storyline as well … but the actual story, basically that Fergus can’t find Tha when he needs her and thus is assassinated partly through the machinations of his own wife, doesn’t quite gel.

The frustrating thing is that I almost pulled it off! In the first panel of the second strip, Fergus is supposed to be returning from Tha’s tower without having found her, with the assassin closing in on him. It would have been so easy: one caption saying “But Tha’s not there” would have done it, dammit.

Also, the story might have used more one strip to round it out between the last two, probably featuring Inge and Gwyneth in some kind of dialogue, but there’s that “constraint” thing again. Also in retrospect, I wish I’d made Inge look substantially different from Gwyneth back in Avatar is Plenty, because it was easy to mix them up in the Naked Sacrifice Scene story.

Here’s where I decreed equal-time for Trollbabe heroine nakedness. It really works for me – if you put the two nudie panels next to one another and consider the dual portrait in a thematic, “here I stand, all of me, scrutinize me if you will” way, then each character and her situation really jumps into stark relief, all virtues and flaws complete. Neither connotes apology or objectification, but rather overwhelming selfhood.

I don’t know what to say about Andrew’s work except that it’s clearly top-flight and I felt humbled to put it to my use. You can’t beat it for pure cinematic mood and internal panel composition. Every strip is worth framing, and I especially like the way he captured the tension between the two women in the forest – you can tell that they’re working together, but also that neither likes or trusts the other, invoking all the dialogue from The Birthroot Bargain without repeating it. Oh yeah, one thing: Andrew went on to do some illustrations for Sex & Sorcery, and then, at GenCon 2004, came specifically to tell me that his portfolio of work with me had landed him high-paying work, and that he considered me to have launched him as a professional artist. I feel wonderful about that.

Vanth was written as a character to follow up with later, pending further inspiration. I thought it would be fun to write adventures for him, and a couple of other characters, without any trollbabes in them. Andrew liked drawing him so much that he volunteered for that story sight unseen. Maybe one day.

WE ALL HAVE ISSUES: I went into this strip with a dual sense of eager anticipation and dread. The former was for Jonathan’s art, because I really dug his stickman-plus-photo stuff on his website at the time and couldn’t imagine (and wanted to see!) how it might translate to Trollbabe. The latter was for my script, because I wasn’t sure it would make it as a story.

The art paid off tenfold, through Jonathan’s excellent models including himself as Rus, which is actually a little bit disturbing, as he seems to be relishing the role so much, and also through his compositions of my script. I think it elevates the whole project to a new level, wholly fulfilling my ambitions to let a whole range of comics art shine.

As for the story, the final result was kind of the opposite of Life and Death: the local story worked but the arc-stuff was weak. Writing Rus was still effortless and the first strip, hell, the first panel, still makes me laugh out loud. Retta and Rus were a match made in heaven on a good day and in hell on a bad one, and I knew they’d have to get together sooner or later. The idea of the guy (sort of) rejected by Retta ending up really tight with Tha, and the guy so definitely rejected by Tha (sort of) ending up with Retta, was rock-solid. It also made sense to me that Retta would decide to back off, and to think a little about the relationship, rather than wandering off by default. Furthermore, I liked the way that this social situation she’d entered proved too robust for her to disrupt, for once.

However, the relationship of back-story, present-story, and future set-up was like a bucking bronco. For instance, this story was also supposed to explain Fergus’ unfortunate death as part of the maneuverings of Rus’ “worshippers,” and not only was that not made clear, but Inge had inexplicably dropped out of sight completely. Here’s where I paid for my waffling that started with The Naked Helpless Sacrifice Scene. Gwyneth sort of scared me, actually – I tried writing more about her as a whole story of its own, but it always ended up being too expositional and forced. Ultimately, I could only write her by showing her impact on things, rather than doing them.

TEA AND SYMPATHY: As I mentioned, I wrote the second six-pack of stories in one go, and didn’t make any changes except for some internal flow-issues and dialogue tweaks. So I knew all about where they were going, which was right here. For better or for worse, I’d written a story, and it’d be what it was, once drawn.

The title is taken from the song Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones.

The larger story kind of surprised me in some ways. Retta had turned out to be a more harmful source of chaos for others than I’d anticipated, and Tha surprised me in how much she resisted (as in, resisted me as author) having her drive for motherhood questioned. Very few of those they’d touched along the way had come out of it unmarred. Having the relatively non-intellectual one of the pair be the one to understand their shared situation most fully was not anticipated either. The result was a shockingly tragic ending – in silence.

I don’t really want to comment on the specific six strips in this one. For me, it fully completes the tale and in retrospect, cements many things that have gone before into a tale. I felt it deeply upon writing. If you get it, then you do, and if not, then maybe you will upon re-reading, and maybe that’s OK too. I fully acknowledge that as a first-time comics writer, I tried to create a coherent saga far, far too soon, but I’m also pleasantly surprised with the small degree to which it works.

One exception: I really liked the first strip, in which any questions about “what will happen when Tha and Retta meet” are instantly dispelled by discovering that they know each other well.

Since I knew it would be the last story, and since I felt very “done” at the time, I decided to ask the two most dedicated Trollbabe-loving artists to work together. I have always marveled at the amazing combinations of pencilling and inking talents in comics, and hoped that this story would benefit from two sources of inspiration pouring into its visuals. I asked them not to use any shading techniques, but to rely strictly on linework and stippling. I think Rod and James knocked it out of the park. Its simplicity and warmth puts everything onto the table, and to me, the words and illustrations are entirely interdependent partly because the latter are so pure.