Dynamite's Many Faces of Red Sonja

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: John Yohe

Dynamite seems to sense that there’s an audience for Red Sonja, though I’m not sure they know who that audience is. And, I don’t either. Seems like that audience could be huge, including fans of Conan, LOTR, Game of Thrones, Buffy, Xena, Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Dungeons and Dragons, Renaissance Fair and anybody who likes strong female comic book characters who can kick their asses.

Thing is, the readership for comics isn’t huge to begin with—something I have to remind myself of. Not everyone who watches Game of Thrones or LOTR, or even reads them in book form, necessarily wants to read them in comic/graphic novel form, for whatever reason. Which is too bad. One thing that would give legitimacy to Red Sonja as a character, as it has with the Avengers and Batman, and even Conan, is to finally make a good movie about her— hey, #RobertRodriguez! Where is it?!

In the meantime, this month, kind of amazingly, fans of the Red Sonja have their choice of four titles to choose from:

1. The regular She-Devil with a Sword series

2. The newer series written by Gail Simone titled simply Red Sonja

3. The more experimental series Legends of Red Sonja, featuring Simone along with contributing guest writers (all female, handpicked by her).

4. A one-shot issue called Red Sonja: Berserker, written by Nancy A. Collins.

I’ve written previously about my love for Red Sonja, and how I hoped that the new series written by Gail Simone might finally save Sonja from a long line of lame storylines. I won’t rehash my thoughts here, except to say that Simone’s first six issues, now collected as the volume Queen of Plagues, have a lot going for them, but also leave a lot to be desired. Still, I’ve hoped, maybe once Simone got comfortable with the character, she would do what she’d done to some other favorite female characters, like Catwoman, Batgirl/Oracle, and Black Canary, and give her the respect she deserves.

Instead, Simone’s Red Sonja is heading toward farce. I feared the worst when I saw a preview of one of the cover variants of issue #7, which starts a new story arc, featuring Sonja charging at the reader with....a meat cleaver??? Because, yes, Sonja is in search of the greatest chef in Hyboria.

Red Sonja

I’m not kidding.

The rest of the story is actually interesting, or at least within the realm suspending disbelief: An Egyptian-ish pharaoh/king is dying, and wants to have a going-away party but wants Sonja to find six things (one for each of the next issues) to make his party the best. In exchange, he promises to free his 1,000 slaves. If she doesn’t agree, or can’t perform all these tasks in a month, he’ll bury all the slaves alive with him. So it’s off to the swamp, to confront some bogmen who have kidnapped the chef and now force him to cook their favorite food: humans -- though only up to their refined (? bogmen) tastes -- with their favorite herbs and spices.

Red Sonja

I’m not opposed to making fun of the whole hipster foodie craze going on, like Simone is here. In fact, I’m all for that mockery. In almost any other setting/genre I’d be delighting in Simone’s parody. But not in a Red Sonja comic. I think having Red Sonja in a swamp trying to steal something from cannibal bogmen is actually a good premise. I even still like Simone’s dialogue, and the humorous touches she adds to Sonja’s personality, like her craving for wine, and “someone warm to fill my bedroll. I’m not particular. As long as they’re limber.”

But when the bogmen talk, all they talk about is eating. Or, not even the eating—cooking. For example, when Sonja wakes to two bogmen sneaking up on her, their faces are drawn with looks of horror, the first one telling her how badly she’s cooking a rabbit on a stick over a fire: “Look at this, it’s disgraceful. Too much char, slattern! It’s half burned and half raw.” Funny? Kinda. Should that moment be funny? Not at all. Or, not to me. This continues the silly side of Simone that came out in the first six issues with things like Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off fish-dudes, who served no other purpose than to look weird and out of place in Hyboria.

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For Legends of Red Sonja, Simone is listed as the main writer, and she provides the overall plot skeleton, but then hands the reins over to guest writer/artist teams for shorter tie-in stories/segments. The result is mixed, depending, not surprisingly, on the writer (and artist, a little).

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The latest issue, #4, out on February 26, feels disjointed: the story-within-a-story by Mercedes Lackey, “Jenny’s Story: Parallax,” is set up by Simone’s band of bad guys pursuing Red Sonja coming into a bar and, well, asking for her. Lackey’s story then kicks in, with Jenny the young barmaid remembering back three years past when Red Sonja rescued her. The conceit is interesting: the left-hand column of panels ‘shows’ Jenny’s version of the story, while the right-hand column shows what actually happened. But it doesn’t further the main story at all—it isn’t an answer to where Sonja is.

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The second story-within-a-story, by Marjorie Liu, “She Lives Still,” is, I think, another flashback. Once the band of bad guys learns Sonja might be hiding out in the woods, and are warned not to go, the story shifts to Sonja in the woods, but it seems to be an explanation/story about why the woods haven’t been safe for a while, rather than what’s going on in the woods right now in real time.

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Neither Lackey’s nor Liu’s stories are bad in and of themselves, but they cause the reader to constantly be jumping back and forth in time, without moving Simone’s main skeleton-story along. Perhaps a better way to present the stories would have been to just have them stand alone, and have the Legends line be just that: shorter non-connected mini-stories of Sonja, like what used to be done in some of the old Conan comics. That said, the advantage of having other writers working in collaboration with Simone is that they do keep the larger story within the realm of Hyborian believability—that is, no fish-dudes or foodie bogmen.

Meanwhile, to my surprise, the regular series, Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword, ended with issue #80. I haven't been a fan, and have not kept up with it, but at least the long-time writer Eric Trautmann didn't put Sonja in farcical situations. That said, his dialogue sounded flat, his characters felt flat—not so much Sonja maybe, but the gang of guy friends he's given her—they all just get along great, no tension, and despite their different ethnicities, seem interchangeable—somewhere between Star Trek-ian ‘redshirts' and main characters, but I didn't ever get a sense that any of them was going to die, or even question why they were following Sonja around to the far reaches of Hyboria. I didn't get a sense of their personalities, period. Which leaves me wanting Simone's subtle humor in that respect. And, Simone at least gives us other women characters. (Note: Trautmann did not finish the series. Brandon Jerwa is credited, though a Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword Omnibus Volume 4 featuring Trautmann's writing is apparently coming soon.)

I'd hoped that the new 'one-shot' by writer Nancy Collins, Red Sonja: Berserker, might be Dynamite's way of offering yet another version, or style, or combination, of a Red Sonja that I could like.

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And it’s OK. Berserker isn’t a farce, and it’s got some Sonja badassery. It’s also got a little cuteness: At the beginning of the story, Sonja rescues a cute little orphan baby polar bear cub, which stays with her a while, helping her hunt, while she hides out in the snow-covered wilderness for a couple years. And, dammit, I confess I’m actually ok with this. I shouldn’t be, but I just like seeing another (unexpected I guess) side of Sonja, one that kinda likes the idea of having a pet. And, you know, if you’re Red Sonja, you don’t settle for a dog, or a cat. You get a bear.

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The story after that is fairly predictable—or, at least, the big plot ‘surprise,’ isn’t. Though I do love the end, which I will try not to spoil here, except to say that it’s, finally, Red Sonja fighting the power. THIS is what she should be doing. So maybe, maybe, Collins gets it. My hope is that Dynamite is vetting Collins to take over one of the main Red Sonja lines. Though, who knows? Done right, maybe there’s enough readers to handle four Red Sonja lines! (Maybe even five: There was supposed to be a Conan/Red Sonja Dark Horse/Dynamite collaboration featuring Simone and now-former Conan writer Brian Wood) But that may be wishful thinking on my part.

What do I mean by “done right”? Well, my take on Red Sonja is that she’s the contemporary of Conan. That is, her Hyboria is the Robert E. Howard Hyboria in which Conan runs around. And although I thought I only always wanted Red Sonja to be a stoic loner like Conan, I do love Gail Simone’s slight touches of humor, making Sonja not just a badass, but kind of a smartass too. If I could combine Simone’s sense of character with Trautmann’s sense of staying true to the Howard world, I think I would finally be content. Collins and some of the writers featured in the Legends series seem to offer that.

Red Sonja

A good example of Red Sonja done right can be found in the Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword Omnibus Volume 1. The first six issues that Dynamite ever did featuring Sonja, written by Michael Avon Oeming, feature a good, serious, swords and sorcery adventure while also raising questions about the effectiveness of violence, and war, and most especially, organized religion. In fact, Oeming sets up Sonja's distrust of corrupt religious leaders as a potentially interesting on-going theme—which has since been forgotten by, or doesn't seem to interest, any recent creative teams.

But, on the other hand, who am I? Am I the target audience anymore? This seems to be the question for a lot of comics companies, and readers, especially fans of the Big Two superhero genre. Some of us have been readers for decades and have certain characters (like Sonja and Conan, though of course they’re not super-heroes) ingrained in our minds. Younger readers just coming into this world may not know who Robert E. Howard is, or care, nor care that foodie bogmen seem a little silly to us oldtimers, as long as Red Sonja is just a badass role model. Dynamite doesn’t have quite the problem DC and Marvel have in balancing older versus younger and older readers, but I can’t help thinking newer readers of Red Sonja, male and female, young and old, will like her better without the threat of John Cleese from the old Monty Python skits appearing and saying, “Right! Stop it! That’s much too silly!” (And even that joke is for older readers.)

To end on a side note: The one new development I like in both Collins’ and Simone’s stories is seeing Red Sonja fully clothed, at least for the beginning pages. Note to Dynamite editors: She looks fine that way. Meaning she looks just as badass and attractive as in the scale-mail bikini. Actually, in the splash page of Red Sonja #7, by artist Walter Giovani and colorist Adriano Lucas, she looks amazing, all decked out in leather armor (not a catwoman suit either) with weapons galore, and a dead rabbit on her belt. But as I learned recently in http://another article/interview with Gail Simone here on Comics Bulletin, Simone picked a bunch of female artists to do alternate covers, and even encouraged them to dress Sonja however they wanted, and they all chose to draw her in the scale mail bikini. So, again, who am I to argue with women about how to portray a woman?

Red Sonja

Another note to Dynamite editors: it’s ok to have other women characters, both good and bad. I think I can speak for Red Sonja’s audience, all of us, men and women, young and old, straight and lesbian and in between, that we all like seeing lots of strong badass Hyborian women interacting with each other.

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