Writer: Michael Avon Oeming
Artists: Mel Rubi, Steve Sadowski(flashback), Brian Buccellato(c)
Rape is a brutal, heinous crime that kills the victim's personality and leaves a shell of her former self. Rape victims can recover physically from the assault, but they will never again be the same person they were before the sexual assault. They may achieve something just a sliver away from their former selves, but there will always be a facet, however tiny, of their former persona missing. Taken by the rapist.
In fiction, rape is too often depicted for titillation. It's often exploited for the purposes of showing as much skin as possible, to show a sex act and/or to complete the transformation of a female character into a mere sex object.
Most continue to think of rape as a sexual act. It's not. Rape is the perversion of sex. Rape twists a pleasurable act into a horror of misery, humiliation and pain, and of the hacks that use rape in a story so very poorly actually knew that, they might stop being so cavalier in their depiction of this very personal crime.
In comic books, rape for female characters has become almost an occupational hazard to be forgotten and forgiven by a newer audience that has developed the ability to conjure retrograde amnesia when needed. No matter how powerful or skilled a female character may be chances are some hack will still have her raped. Worse. A new trend has metastasized from the current paradigm of comic book writing. The hack will have the character retroactively raped.
The insidious technique acts two-fold. One, the assault cannot so easily be dismissed from the character's history. Even if a real writer tries to remove the assault, rationalizations can still form. A character operating in the present who says that she was never raped does not negate a retroactive assault. The hack and his loving audience can always say that she was so traumatized by the event that she blocked it from her memory. Two, the technique absolves the hack from actually taking the time to research the consequences of rape. By having a female character retroactively raped, the hack does not have to delve into the emotional turmoil the character would express nor the long often continuing therapy a victim undergoes to recover most of herself. The hack can always say, "oh, yeah. She had to go experience all that, but it's just too long to write and not important anyway." This attitude is one of the things that defines a hack.
The original Red Sonja was not a rape victim. In fact Robert E. Howard never made a point to mention her personal history. She only blazed a trail in one short story, and it wasn't even set in Conan's time. Marvel’s Red Sonja was a rape victim. Sexual assault was always part of that Sonja's origin, and it is this Red Sonja from which the current incarnation takes her inspiration. The newer, sleeker Red Sonja was we discover in this issue also raped. In previous issues, Oeming did not address whether or not the Marvel history occurred. He only gave subtextual hints. The presence of the retroactive assault in the current Red Sonja's history does not make Michael Avon Oeming a hack. Instead, this issue of Red Sonja exemplifies how rape can be depicted properly in a story.
We discover the history in Sonja's fevered memories. Oeming and guest flashback artist Steve Sadowski give the scene much greater thought and greater weight than the creators at Marvel did. First, they set the rape back even earlier. Sonja was not raped as a teen. She was raped as a child. There was no way possible that she could have fought back. So they remove the misplaced idea that a woman wants rape to happen. They remove the misplaced concept of women not being strong enough to resist an assault. As with many things, hasty generalizations lead to stereotype. Some women are strong enough to resist an assault and if they use their fear and their can and have fought off attackers. Some women are not strong enough and/or not centered enough to fight. Neither type should be lauded above the other for how they react to the crime. One should never forget that the crime should never have happened. The victim is never to blame.
Marvel depicted Sonja attempting to beat away her attackers, but the scene too easily resembles an antiquated "romantic" trope where a woman resists the advances of a lothario only to be swept away by his charms, usually after a few "you beasts." Oeming and company do not show any nudity. The Marvel depiction of the crime though at least creating empathy with the victim did display nudity. Oeming and Sadowski show the child Sonja beaten, bloody and bruised. The assault left her confused and traumatized. Whereas Marvel's Sonja was still shown to be beautiful and ironically untouched by the assault, Oeming's and Sadowski's Sonja is a mess physically and mentally.
Oeming and Sadowski depict the criminals who raped Sonja as true monsters in male form. Their casual callousness is chilling, and Oeming also draws the rape into the current plot. The two-legged vermin who raped Sonja were worshippers of the dark god Sonja currently fights. A goddess who empowers Sonja to become the She-Devil with a Sword recognized her terror. Marvel's depiction suggests that the rape was destined. In Oeming and Sadowski's scene, the goddess is not depicted as omnipotent but linked to the earth and the mortal plane. There's no idea of destiny in Oeming's and Sadowski's scene. The goddess appears to have been touched by Sonja's plight. Sonja's religion becomes her therapy. Sonja honors her goddess by destroying the cult of the dark god. It's not just about vengeance. She is her godess' champion.
While the rape serves as a gruesome centerpiece to the story, the rest of the tale also deserves scrutiny. As does Mel Rubi's fantastic illustration. Oeming picks up the current story where the previous issue evolved into an exciting cliffhanger. He satisfies the readers’ questions. From whence did the wooly mammoth come? Through answering these questions, Oeming creates a new character that acts as a kind of soul-mate to Sonja, or a very cleverly placed enemy. Oeming credits Sonja's character by showing her suspicion. Osin, however gets no favors, from either Sonja or Oeming, and he serves almost as the nice-young-man always seen in monster films: the would be love interest played by Brody in Peter Jackson's King Kong.
Rubi's influence can be seen throughout the book. His depiction of Sonja's unique face and her proportionate frame contrasts the deeply pregnant Ice Queen who bears the life of the villain. He also creates a very original look for the Dark God's army. Those expecting overly detailed armor with skulls will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the Dark God's army looks the way a heroic army is usually illustrated. Finally, Rubi and Buccellato must be applauded for the latter wide-screen scenes that vividly recall the imagery that reading Weird Tales often evoked.
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