Van Meter "Breaks the Skin" with Red Sonja

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. 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."

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. "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."

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."

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."

"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. "And the world is a rich, heavily textured, hand-made one; for me, that lends itself to incredible visuals, and Edgar Salazar has done some really beautiful stuff with my efforts to play to that."

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. That said, my angry ape god is very angry and the pencils for those pages made my whole head come off when I saw them -- a fantastic combination of gruesome and gorgeous."

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."

For her own part, Van Meter found setting the correct tone for the dialogue between characters to be particularly challenging. "I want conversations to move in a fluid, organic way," she said. "So it was more of a challenge than usual to keep those rhythms working while bringing in the somewhat elevated vocabulary and syntax that felt right."

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."

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