Thursday 24 February 2011

Howard and Red Sonja are Curious Bedfellows

In hindsight, I haven't been particularly charitable to Dynamite's treatment of Red Sonja.  Even the good examples, like Eric Trautmann's War Season, have been problematic; Red Sonja vs Thulsa Doom was a mess; and I don't think there's much point in me going on about the latter's spinoff that I haven't already run into the ground. That said, perhaps I'm being too hard on them for what I perceive to be an appropriation of Howard's name for literary credibility. After all, who's to say that they're not obligated to credit Howard as the creator of Red Sonja?

In any case, Dynamite are continuing their one-shots, with a follow-up from Jen Van Meter called Break the Skin. Howard fans will know why that choice of name has piqued my interest.

This April, Red Sonja heads to new territory under the steady writing hand of Jen Van Meter in "Red Sonja: Break the Skin," Dynamite Entertainment's one-shot exploring a new section of Hyboria, a nomadic clan of horse breeders known as the Talakma and an angry ape-god plus plenty of challenges for Sonja to face.

"Talakma," eh? I'm not particularly well-versed in Eurasian horse nomadic cultures, but if anyone who is can illuminate, please do. Unless Van Meter made it up. Which is still ok, since Talakma sounds Hyrkanian enough - assuming it isn't in Aquilonia or something.

Van Meter's inspiration for the story came from one of her favorite Robert E. Howard quotes. "I'm a gamer, and I love pulpy sword-and-sorcery settings, so when Dynamite asked me if I'd be interested in writing a Red Sonja story, I only hesitated long enough to figure out my schedule," the writer told CBR News. "Once that was sorted out, I really built the story up from my favorite Robert Howard quotation, '...break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.' I find Howard's sense of his 'barbaric' characters being more honest, of more substance than 'civilized' folk, compelling, and I wanted to set up a story that let Sonja confront the same idea on her own terms."

I'd suspected the name "Break the Skin" was a reference to the famous quotation from the 1928 letter to Harold Preece, but it's good to see confirmation. It's also a good thing to see Van Meter's a Howard fan like Nelson and Trautmann, even if Dynamite's Hyborian Age is effectively an alternate universe.

Fans of the She-Devil with a Sword shouldn't get the wrong idea, though -- it's not actual human skin that Van Meter wants to break here.

Um, surely She-Devil fans would want to see human skin breaking, as Sonja lops heads and severs arteries? (Pedant mode, power down...)

"Howard's quotation made me want to have Sonja meet an apparently sophisticated, more 'civilized' community. People who, for the setting, complacently imagine themselves to be cleaner and less barbaric than Sonja and her swords-for-hire, and to have her somehow break that 'skin,' revealing the more grotesque reality on which their comfort and stability depend."

Naturally, this is nothing new in Conan, but if Dynamite's Hyborian Age can't get the details right, perhaps they can get the themes. This is a nice baby step in that direction.

This "civilized" community that Sonja deals with are Zepur, daughter of a dying chieftain, and her people, the Talakma Horsemen. While Van Meter wasn't able to say much about the Talakma's motivations in the upcoming one-shot, she did tease a bit about Sonja's role as she sees it. "I wanted to keep my focus on Sonja's role as a mercenary; she gets hired by people who can't do what she can. The Talakma Horsemen are a nomadic clan of horse breeders and traders; they've met a lot of other communities and absorbed what worked for them, and they are, by the standards of the setting, peaceful, 'civilized' people, with a high standard of living and an expectation of stability. Zepur is the daughter of their dying chieftain, and to say much more would mean spoilers aplenty."

OK, I'm a bit lost here: the Talakma are nomadic clans of horse breeders and traders. The Talakma are, by the standards of the setting, "peaceful, "civilized" people, with a high standard of living and an expectation of stability."

Is it just me, or do those things not go together? Howard's definition of civilization seems to be that of a society centred around large permanent settlements, with advanced agriculture, division of labour, a complex government, and other elements that aren't generally seen in savage, barbarian, or nomadic cultures. Or, in other words, people who live in cities. In real life, there's a great deal of overlap, but to use the term "civilized" in regards to horse nomads seems somewhat perplexing to me. This isn't a judgement on their cultures being any less rich, or their temperament any more violent, than their civilized counterparts; purely that their social structure doesn't fit with the civilized nations.

Is it possible for a horse nomad culture to be considered civilized? Can such a culture even conceive of stability, considering the fact that they're constantly on the move and at the mercy of weather, season and nature? Could they even be considered remotely as "civilized" as the Hyborians, Stygians, Turanians, Khitans, and the Golden Kingdoms? Perhaps Van Meter has some ingenious means of making such a society work, perhaps she thinks the Hyborian Age was neolithic: we'll see, I guess.

While Van Meter maintained her silence regarding her plans for Sonja, she was able to reveal a bit about the character's motivations as the tale progresses. "The story starts out with Sonja doing a job for the money, but her motivations shift fairly quickly," the writer said. "If you're playing a political chess game, you're tempting fate putting someone like Sonja on the board -- she's not going to be content to be your pawn and may take over the game if you're not careful. The nature of the story is that she has to play detective a little bit, too; her loyalties are shifting as she's getting better information, and that's going to complicate her reactions to the people she's meeting."

This is good. The political elements were by far the most interesting aspect of "War Season," so it's good to see more focus on the intrigue. Maybe not as subtle or complex as Howard's Machievallian character motivations in "The Phoenix on the Sword" or The Hour of the Dragon, but hey, it's better than a bunch of bad guys being bad for the sake of being bad.

"The thing about Sonja is that her context is unapologetically brutal; people kill and get killed in Hyboria, yet her status as both a warrior and a woman in that context are things you get to take a little bit for granted, which is kind of refreshing," Van Meter said of Sonja's character.

This worries me: does Van Meter mean that women warriors are "taken a little bit for granted" in the Hyborian Age? Try telling that to Valeria! There were women warriors in the Hyborian Age, yes, and they were certainly common among the Cimmerians, Nordheimr, and likely the Amazons, but they were hardly "taken for granted" among the Hyborian and Hyrkanian worlds.

While Sonja plays her game of political chess, she also has a "soul-eating avatar of an angry ape-god" to fight off. Unfortunately, Van Meter couldn't give us a name for the seething simian -- because it doesn't have one! "I don't name the god I used/made for this story," she said. "For hard-core Hyborian fans, I'm looking at the way Howard used the southern god he called Hanuman, but I'm a lot less comfortable than he was with throwing the name of a major deity from a living religion on a fiction that doesn't need it and isn't related.

The problem of Hanuman has been noted before, and I wager in today's climate where the Indian population has exploded and Indian immigration is far greater than it was in the 1930s, we should understand why Hindus might be a bit taken aback to see their deity portrayed as a malignant savage horror. To which I would respond: perhaps Hanuman simply evolved since the Hyborian Age.

Even so, the Hyborian Age is anything but "a fiction that doesn't need (a major deity from a living religion) and isn't related." The Hyborian Age is built on such a conceit! Howard specifically used the names of deities, peoples, cultures and kingdoms to tie in the Hyborian Age with modern times. Thus, Howard's Hanuman could be considered the distant ancestor of the god of Hindu religion, just as the Hyrkanians are the ancestors of the Turkic peoples - or, indeed, many "modern" deities are the evolution of those of earlier civilizations. Howard certainly didn't "throw it in" without thinking about it: it's part of a complex, persistent and clever methodology.

As I stated on the above link, Howard's recolouring of a historical deity as a bestial, monstrous terror is hardly unique in his fiction. Witness how he transforms Odin from noble patron of the Scandinavians into a veritable Lovecraftian horror that feeds upon the misery of mortals, that the ancient battles of the Aesir and Vanir of Norse Mythology have their basis in tribal wars of Nordic ancestors, and ancient Greek legends of Cimmeria and Hyperborea have a source in actuality. Then you have fictional deities like Khosatral Khel and Ollam-Onga being revealed as not the godlike, beautiful beings they pretend to be, but unearthly horrors from beyond the Outer Dark. An interesting parallel to "breaking the skin" of civilization to reveal the best within, wouldn't you say?

The only thing that makes Hanuman different from these is that he factors in a religion which is still practised today, and admittedly, I think it's a fair point. If you don't want to use the name, no problem: call it an Ape Lord or some such, or just leave it unnamed. It is true that most Hyborian deities aren't currently worshipped.  But it's unfair to presume that Howard's appropriation of Hanuman was some glib, off-hand, unimaginative use of a name snatched from a mythological dictionary without thought for the implications.

This is Van Meter's first foray into the world of Red Sonja, and while she is a fan of the character, she mentioned that she was reliant on veteran "Red Sonja" writer Eric Trautmann's recommendations of research material to re-familiarize herself with Sonja and her current status in the comic book world. "I know much more about Lovecraft than I do about Howard, but the adventure and fantasy lit of their era has always drawn me in, and I thought of myself as a fan of the character twenty years ago, at least," she said. "That said, I was surprised when I started looking at reference for this project at how much material there was out there that I'd been unaware of -- I relied pretty heavily on Eric Trautmann's gracious recommendations for catching up; he knows it all and was a really generous resource.

"I re-read some of the Howard stories and quite a lot of Sonja appearances in comics, old and new," Van Meter continued. "I really love what Eric Trautmann is doing with the character right now, and I think I leaned a little toward trying to make my Sonja feel like his does to me -- strong and intense and powerfully alive; it's fun to see what you can do with her emotional range, her sense of humor, her stubbornness, her curiosity."

Good man, Eric! One wonders exactly which Howard stories Van Meter has read in preparation for the comic: I'd guess "The Shadow of the Vulture" would be top of the list, but perhaps the Dark Agnes tales and "Red Nails" would help give her a few pointers on how Howard did warrior women best. Just a shame, from the look of the artwork, that they've gotten rid of the mail byrnie and back to the Maroto ensemble.  Ah well.

While creating naturalistic dialogue might be one of the challenges in writing Red Sonja, Van Meter has certainly had experience with another -- writing strong female characters. But according to the writer, her experience writing female leads in her creator owned "Hopeless Savages," Marvel's "Black Cat" and DC's "Liberty Belle and Hourman" co-features doesn't really inform her interpretation of Sonja. "The Hopeless Savages are a different experience, because they're mine. If I don't like something about their world, I can change it so long as I can make a good story out of it. When I'm working on work-for-hire characters -- male or female -- the first step there is to look not at changing the character to suit my needs as finding a story I want to tell about the strengths I see already present in the character. I'm not sure I would say my experiences with writing Belle or Black Cat informed Sonja in any particular way, since those were very different stories about very different people; if anything, my take on Sonja shares more with my experience writing 'Black Lightning: Year One' and 'Cinnamon: El Ciclo,' which had grittier settings, though this is less grim."

A good outlook, to be sure, and Van Meter's past credentials and reputation for creating strong female characters is a great sign. The fact that Van Meter is a woman adds tremendously to that.  Even though I hold no stock in the belief that men can't write females and women can't write males (if they can write aliens, gods, animals and inanimate objects I think they can slip into someone else's chromosomes), it's undeniable that women have a subtle but profoundly different outlook from men, just as black people have different outlooks from white people.  It would be very interesting to see what she makes of a character many have accused of being sexist, misogynistic or shameless pandering - myself among those critics.

Overall, I'm interested in seeing where Red Sonja: Break the Skin is going, despite my many - many - problems with the character, universe and series.  The fact of the matter is that even though Sonja was not a Howard creation, the use of the Hyborian Age means that people will be making comparisons, allusions and criticisms of Howard's fiction. This will be addressed in another upcoming post, where I detail exactly why Red Sonja bothers me so much. For now, though, let's enjoy the Nostalgia Critic's appraisal of that timeless masterpiece of fantasy cinema adapted from the original Robert E. Howard Red Sonja novel.Whatever Ms Van Meter does, it can't be worse than that. It just can't.

Best of luck, Ms Van Meter!


  1. I thought the Dynamite Red Sonja series was basically Volume 4 following the old Marvel series.. so that would have it set more or less in the same universe as the Marvel series.. or if nothing else in the same universe as the 6 novels..

    or am I totally mis remembering things?

  2. I think that's what they're going for, before they started putting in Thor, Odin and Loki in the Hyborian Age...

  3. well that oddly almost makes a bizzare sort of sense.. since Ymir is a Hyborean Age God.. and he was the one that the ones you mention replace..

    It could be an interesting angle honestly.. to subvert that hole bit from Snorri's edda about the "Aseir" coming from 'Asia' and being great cheiftans and the indigenous populations worshiping them..

    but I doubt they would put that much effort into it.. Red Sonja more or less post Roy Thomas has always been more about the T&A than about the writing..

  4. I'm sorry. The whole thing sounded good until I saw the sample page. I just can't take a story seriously that has a woman fighting with sword against spears while wearing a bikini. It doesn't matter how good she looks doing it.

    So all the high-minded ideas about "breaking the skin" of civilization, the political chess game -- all that sounded intriguing but the visuals (and I know that I'm the pot calling the kettle black here, I have been just as guilty of perpetuating such images) tripped my intellectual gag reflex.

    I hope the comic does well and all, but I won't be chacking it out.

  5. Online sources say the rights-holders for Sonja used Paradox for owning the rights to Howard's Sonya. Then the two parties paid each other $1 and now Paradox doesn't have the rights to Sonya anymore.

    No Shadow of the Vulture adaptation in Dark Horse comics, no team-up with Agnes or Kane (though I doubt the chronology allows for that)... it's a shame, they could have had the original and the derivative versions out side by side. Sonja helps the literary reputation of Conan/Howard little with the mail bikini, sexual baggage, etc.

  6. "Used" should be "sued".

    Also, I wonder why Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword (anyone else feel the Freudian implications go too far when directly projected onto the author?) didn't adapt "Sword Woman" directly, but only showed it as backstory flashbacks.

  7. If REH had lived longer what direction I wonder would he have taken with Son(y)ja? Would she have been a space filler for my old Savage Conans or have a mantle of books of her own? I WONDER!

  8. I never liked red sonja even when i thought this version was the howard version. when i found out the facts a few years back that it is loosely inspired from a howard story(to my relief), it's strictly non entity that only adds to the misconceptions about howards work, though intentions may have been good at its genesis.-Mario

  9. I think Sonja as written by Roy Thomas when she was just an occasional guest star in the Conan book was fairly decent.. but she of course also wore real armor at the time..

    It just got silly once they introduced the whole chainmail bikini thing.. her continuity, comics wise, is a total charlie foxtrot too..