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Sunday Slugfest - Red Sonja #0

Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2005
By: Keith Dallas

Writer: Michael Avon Oeming, Mike Carey
Artist: Mel Rubi

Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment





Average Rating:

Michael Deeley:
Kelvin Green:
Shawn Hill:
Shaun Manning:
Ray Tate:
Olivia Woodward:






Michael Deeley

A new series starring female barbarian Red Sonja is launched by Dynamite Entertainment. Sonja comes to a town that sacrifices people to a dark god. The townspeople try to murder her, but she slays them all. Every single person in the village, except the narrator.

I got the impression Sonja had just come from a battle with soldiers from that town. Perhaps she came seeking revenge. Maybe she wanted to permanently extinguish an enemy. Maybe she wanted to put an end to their evil religion. Whatever her reasons, she was deadly, frightening, and strong. She pays respect to fallen warriors, and puts in a good word for women. Classic warrior hero.

Sonja is beautiful, but this is irrelevant to the story. There are only a couple of panels where her appearance is “emphasized.” The art is similar to Origin and 1602; probably because all three comics have the same colorist: Richard Isanove. Rubi draws accurate anatomy, foreboding streets, sinister idols, and chaotic battles. Oeming and Carey write a classic tale of fear and anger. Kudos for crafting a solid, complete story at such a small length. We know who and what Red Sonja is. We don’t know where she comes from, what drives her, or any other details. They aren’t important; at least, not yet. All we need to know is she’s a proud, strong, and vicious warrior.

This is a great introduction to the character and the new series. It made me want to read the first issue. I wish it wasn’t so short, but what do you expect for a quarter. Overall, a great success.




Kelvin Green

I wasn’t expecting a great deal from this, so it’s all the more surprising that it managed to disappoint. Even taking into account genre conventions, this just comes across as ridiculous.

The writers are usually quite dependable, but this is absurdly shallow, even for a half-size preview comic. If this is supposed to introduce Sonja’s character, then she’s a superficial sort, because all we get from this is that she’s good at fighting. There’s much more to the character than that, and I can’t help but think that it would have been better to go into her personality and history, rather than waste time and space on a fight scene that tells us hardly more than the cover does.

That said, from the looks of the art, they’re not going for character studies and snappy plotting with this title. Again, it’s a much-mocked genre convention for the average barbarian babe to wear a chain mail bikini, but the character design here is just silly, with Sonja’s partly-exposed bumcrack taking pride of place on the first page. I thought she was a savage berzerker warrior, not a builder…

I expected there to be a certain amount of gratuitous T&A in here, but not at this level, where it borders almost on parody (check out the panel of Sonja munching on a phallic breadstick, wowser!). That said, it’s not just that aspect of the art that disappoints. The figures are routinely stiff (I’m not surprised the way she looks, fnar), and character faces are inconsistent, especially Sonja who looks literally like a different person depending on her mood, it would seem. The artist also has trouble depicting clothing, with it looking unreal and pasted on, and there are a couple of odd visual continuity errors. Even if this is intended just as a wank mag, then the art needs to be better.

It’d be naïve and foolish to expect this comic to be an exercise in feminist deconstructionism, but even so, surely the comics industry can do better than this?




Shawn Hill

Plot: It’s the Green Dragon pub scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, only no Hobbit songs and plenty of steel bikinis.

Comments: Oeming loves his mythological scale, doesn’t he? Told in first person by a troubled narrator, this outsider approach to Red Sonja preserves her mystery. It’s been ages since I’ve read anything about her (or seen the eighties movie), but I’ve always had an appreciation for her unique character design.

Which is to say, there’s nothing wrong with T&A as long as we get a story too (and preferably with equal time for the scantily clad males), and this introductory story does capture a sort of Xena vibe, sans the humor. In this tale of betrayal and retribution, Sonja seems like a warrior whom bad things happen to, and who deals justice as she sees fit. She’s in a world where might makes right, and so, as our heroine, she’s got more than enough might to frequently prevail.

She’s like the anti-Wonder Woman: all battle skills and no message of peace and harmony. Which isn’t to say that she goes looking for trouble, just that she knows what to do with it when it comes looking for her.

More can’t be said, really, at this point, as we have no hint of future goals or past history from this outsider perspective. Sonja remains an abstract concept, an intriguing anomaly. This intro issue does its job, however, as I’m planning to look for #1 in June. The art by Rubi recalls the quasi-painted look that worked so well for Kubert in Gaiman’s 1602 series for Marvel, similarly dealing with ancient days, and the cover by Land is a gorgeous fantasy.




Shaun Manning

Wherever Red Sonja goes, death follows with her. Now she’s come to Jessa’s town. Why does Jessa survive to tell the tale? Is it reward, or punishment?

Artist Mel Rubi, along with colorists Caesar Rodriguez and Richard Isanove, provide stunning and sexy illustrations of the warrior at repose, and in action. With Red Sonja’s outfit, it’s unlikely many people will argue for this series as a feminist comic, but it is refreshing that the title character is proportioned like a real woman. Yes, a very fit (and very chesty) woman, but a woman who could actually exist. Contrast this with women in Michael Turner comics, or pretty much any depiction of Wonder Woman since the dawn of time, and the difference is immediately clear. Sonja’s not going to snap in two at the waist.

Being drawn to the series by its big-name writers (I am a particular fan of Mr. Carey’s work in Lucifer and Hellblazer), I was surprised to find the story rather pedestrian. Stranger comes to town, townspeople are faced with a choice, and choose poorly. One remains to pass on the legend. Granted, innovation is in the telling, and Carey and Oeming construct some excellent moments. Jessa’s narration is a particular strength, the rhythm of her words and status as the “all-but-one” character showing off a familiarity with the early-Medieval epic tradition.

Red Sonja #0 serves its function well, providing an introduction to the character and universe of the upcoming series, at a price that ensures anyone with the slightest interest will pick it up. It is slightly disappointing that this series did not kick off with as much energy as some of the authors’ previous books, but with such a strong team in place the world of Red Sonja should grow exponentially as her tale unfolds.




Ray Tate

Created by Robert E. Howard, Red Sonja made the plunge into comic books during the seventies and eighties. Bridgett Nielsen superbly embodied the adventurer in a lousy, lousy movie; barring Ms. Nielsen, all involved especially whomever dubbed the annoying prince should be taken out and beheaded. The movie was better than Batman Forever, but what movie isn’t?

After the classics, Red Sonja resurfaced in several awful mini-series and seemed due to make her comeback under Steve Lightle’s luscious artwork. Alas. The Cross-Plains production merely gave readers a prescient taste of things to come.

Dynamite Entertainment lives up to its name by setting the fuse to a new Red Sonja ongoing series. Judging by this specially priced first issue--only twenty-five cents--we should be seeing our reflections in Sonja’s abbreviated armor for a long time.

This special zeroth issue of Red Sonja crafts one story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It relates all the new reader needs to know about the character and does so beautifully with a natural palette of colors.

Oeming and Carey characterize Sonja differently than the incarnation under the writing reins of Bruce Jones, Roy Thomas and Frank Thorne. The characterization however matches the essence of what E. Howard wished the character to be. Consider this Sonja’s characterization an extrapolation of what the Marvel team did.

The new incarnation’s voice is strong but not lyricized, some would say burdened, by a mongrel language of antiquity. Oeming and Carey do play with sentence structure to facilitate the creation of another period, but they change the words subtly.

The period and story merge to give the reader a definite setting that could birth a character like Red Sonja. In this setting, the writers weave a nasty fable with a cruel moral that Sonja provides.

Reducing the story produces a very simple theme, but the complex trappings add meat to the bare bones and give the reader an idea of the themes he or she may encounter in succeeding issues. Within the pages, one can find the implications of old religions with evil gods the center of worship, the crazed worshippers, assassins at every corner, useless wars raged and pretty maids that are not what they seem.

In terms of artwork, Mel Rubi from Angel and colorists Caesar Rodriquez and Richard Isanove, both if I’m not mistaken Crossgen alumni, follow the daunting footsteps of Frank Thorne. Frank Thorne in many ways created the sword and sorcery incarnation of Sonja. Robert E. Howard’s source character was very different.

Thorne has his detractors and his fans, but what everybody can agree upon is that nobody illustrated Sonja like he. I am a fan of Frank Thorne’s Sonja. I still prefer Thorne’s Sonja, and I believe I always will. However, I don’t expect artists to copy each other’s styles. I never expected the John Buscema Red Sonja to be equal to Frank Thorne’s Sonja. They are two different very good if not great artists working in two very different styles.

The artists for this latest Sonja project do what counts the most. They make Sonja fierce, tough and physically imposing. When they direct her in action sequences, they turn her into a dervish of red and silver caught in freeze frame. That’s really all that matters.

You gaze upon Sonja’s beauty from afar, very, very afar. In fact, you stay out of bow and arrow range, because if she doesn’t like your ogling, she can and will kill you extremely quickly and efficiently. This is the feeling I received from Red Sonja when done correctly, and this is the feeling I received when reading the latest edition of her adventures. The new team and the new Sonja book looks like an explosive winner from Dynamite Entertainment.




Olivia Woodward

Synopsis:

It was a dark and stormy night. A stranger arrives in the dead of night. The town folk don’t take kindly to her type. But a kind barmaid makes friendly conversation to the newcomer. Yet things are not as they seem on the surface. Fire and blade cleanse the town of the corruption within.

Yes, this 15 page introductory issue makes use of all of these hackneyed stereotypes, resulting in a totally vacuous story. But the ample utilization of gratuitous T&A will please certain readers. Heck, the story starts with a wanton focus on Red Sonja’s upper butt cleavage!

Critique:

"This is not my story, but the story of the storm. The Red Storm…"

But T&A isn’t a problem if there’s a good story underneath it. T&A is merely a stylistic flourish that can enhance certain types of stories. The narrative mechanics that comprise the story are the things that a good writer needs to address. There are five elements to a story: the plot, characterization, the setting, mood/tone, and theme.

The plot is so pedestrian that we can find better in random Dungeons & Dragons fanfic. In fact, most fantasy roleplaying gamers will recognize the plot of this issue; it’s called the “Random Thug Encounter.” This type of story occurs during a bad gaming session, when the Game Master is tired or irritated by the players. Rather than spending the effort to design a combat encounter of quality, the GM has a band of “Random Thugs” spring out of the nowhere for no significant reason to accost the player characters, fighting to the death! In actual play, this is a slothful technique to pass time in meaningless dice rolling to provide the illusion that something of consequence has occurred at the game session. In an rpg product, this encounter design would get marked down as unimaginative, albeit utilitarian. In fiction, this plot is unacceptable; it is lazy, predictable, and tired.

The characterization is nonexistent. What do we learn of Sonja? She’s a hardcore warrior with an unflinching attitude towards victimization. Of course, the reader already knows this given the character’s appearance and even a vague understanding of the Sword & Sorcery genre of fantasy fiction. In short, this issue states the obvious. In fact, we don’t even get a visceral thrill of seeing her in significant action. The “Random Thug Encounter” comprises only twenty percent of the total narrative, a skimpy 13 panels out of 73. However, the astute reader may observe Sonja’s secret power that keeps her tiny armor flaps covering her privates, even when executing high side kicks.

So how about the setting? Again, we can find better in gamer fanfic. This is a cliché town populated by disposable assailants, “counter decrements” in gamer talk. The skull god, the implied human sacrifice, the potbellied tavern bully, and the creepy old guy in the corner are standard figures of a “counter decrement” environment. In actual game play, when a party of player characters enters such an environment, they might as well “roll for initiative” and “ready a Great Cleave.” But this is a piece of fiction! The authors don’t need to deal with annoying players or preparing an open interactive environment for unplanned exploration; they are in total control. Yet the setting is lackluster and unimaginative.

Mood is the big selling point of Sword & Sorcery stories. Within this subgenre of fantasy, things are dark, violent, and lurid. Antiheroes cut a bloody swath through the ancient, alien, and decadent lands they visit, all while fleeing their own personal demons. This issue touches all the bases of the genre, but it feels like a practice run. All the elements are there in both the written and visual narratives, but they are like ingredients for a meal, and not the meal itself. The failure to make the mood into a visceral experience lies in the pacing. Sword & Sorcery relies on frantic activity; it’s a whirlwind of fantastic intensity that pulls the reader into the narrative event. So why doesn’t this issue do so? Decompression. There is a gruesome overuse of moment-to-moment panel structure. For instance, there are three separate moments where a character “readies and returns” a weapon. There are two instances of viewpoint drift, first when Sonja’s butt cleavage is the featured subject, then later when Jessa scopes Sonja out, from bosom to boots. In fact, approximately sixty percent of this issue, nine pages out of fifteen, is wasted in lethargic panel progression. That’s the biggest failure of this issue; Sword & Sorcery can never be slow!

Appraisal:

"We thought we were in the eye of the storm…but the winds had shifted and the eye was gone!"

I love fantasy fiction. The Sword & Sorcery subgenre isn’t my favorite, but I can admire it when well done. Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Kull stories, Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea and Xiccarph, Fritz Leiber’s early Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, these are all masterpieces of the genre. Why? They contain a strong thematic focus on the unrelenting will of the protagonist as they confront the alien and the corrupt, both as exterior and interior threats. These bloodied antiheroes struggle in a sinister and wondrous world, which the reader experiences vicariously through the encounters of the protagonist. Let’s look at a quote from Leiber, from Swords and Deviltry:

"Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewel, its swords and sorceries."

This single sentence contains the core theme of Sword & Sorcery; it is a journey into mystery. The reader immerses his or her imagination into the uncanny narrative and visits an weird and wonderful world. But the reader has a tour guide who leads the imagination on this fantastic journey and reveals certain insights into human nature. Let’s look at a quote from Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s introduction to Heroic Visions:

"In all, there should be, herein, a large dose of rousing adventures with magic, action, but also heart, humanity, and vision. Some will call these violent tales, and say it’s violence for violence’s sake. Let them. The rest of us will be enriched by far, and stand in awe of the strength and splendor of our own human spirits, reflected in these gorgeous, crimson fantasies."

I love fantasy fiction. I wanted to love this issue. But thematically, it has no heart, no humanity, no vision. It is an empty emulation built out of clichés. Yes, this issue is only fifteen pages long, but that’s enough to establish a premise. This issue doesn’t, unless you count the gratuitous butt cleavage. Moreover, it isn’t merely bad plotting, empty characterization, and a throwaway setting, it violates the basic mood by using decompressed narrative techniques. This issue fails in each and every element of storytelling. This is a shamefully vacant narrative. I abhor it and definitely do not recommend it.



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