Who Can Rescue Red Sonja? Enter Gail Simone!A comic review article by: John Yohe
Red Sonja: a strong, independent, kick-ass, sword-wielding though essentially decent-hearted and yeah, beautiful woman. Problem: no one seems to know what to do with a woman like that. She's my favorite comic book character of all time, but I never read her comic. I never read her comic because she is my favorite comic book character. Sometimes, after time has passed since the last time I tried Red Sonja: She-Devil With A Sword I think, "Well, surely it must be good by now." Then I read it, and despair, and stop. Who would have thought that Red Sonja would need rescuing? And who could rescue her?
Enter Gail Simone.
For the last ten years or so, Simone has been writing good stories for some of DC's under-represented female superhero characters—as well as some of the male ones—mostly centered around street level heroes in the Batman family, but also, notably, Wonder Woman, and more epic supergroup stories like Secret Six and Villains United. Simone's strength is dialogue, plus the ability to slip in behind the scenes scenes of characters acting like normal human beings before they fly off to kick butt, which is notable in comics, since 22 pages (and now 20 pages in DC's revamped New 52 comics) isn't a lot of room to work with. In fact, her stories pass the Bechdel Test for movies. Sure, sometimes they mention dating, but that's real conversation, and her characters are more human, and decidedly un-flat, for it. Also, they're funny, especially when Simone gets a bit meta and references Real Life comic culture. My favorite: Black Canary telling Wonder Woman that WW has been voted as having the “second best rack” in the superhero community, according to an online fan site. Wonder Woman is both horrified that people are voting on her rack at all, and angry that she came in second to Power Girl, of all (minor character) people.
Most importantly, Simone just seems to be having fun writing. I'm sure all the other writers of comics do too, but it's a sign of a good writer that her energy comes out in the stories so much. I'm not sure if she has ambitions to get epic like Alan Moore or even Brian Michael Bendis (though that would be cool) but she for sure has a sense of character-driven story, and has lifted at least two minor characters—Black Canary and Huntress—into major ones. She also did her part (better than even Ed Brubaker, one of my favorites) in making Catwoman a great character (who has, alas, gone downhill in the New 52). Another sign of a good writer is her noticeable absence when she's gone: Birds of Prey, which Simone no longer writes, is awful now. So, free from a DC exclusivity contract, she's been given a run by Dynamite Entertainment on her own Red Sonja series, titled simply Red Sonja (the main series, She-Devil With A Sword, continues to plod along) meaning Simone doesn't have to work from someone else's storyline—she can start where she wants, in this case with a younger, earlier Sonja.
The main complaint I have about Sonja is that she remains essentially flat, no matter what kind of adventures she has. To me, the main way, maybe the only way, to develop a story in which the reader knows the main character can't die is to have that character changed, usually scarred, but at least wiser, in some way, by what happens. But Sonja just keeps rambling on for decades, going through her quotas of battles, wizards, and monsters. This seems to have worked in the sense that there has always been a steady audience, who might not even want her to change, content maybe just to enjoy the artwork, but if Sonja just doesn’t really learn anything, doesn’t change or grow, she’s a main character always on the verge of being flat. I would argue that there is a potentially larger audience out there who want a more dynamic Sonja, which I think Dynamite suspects too, which, surprise, includes women, like viewers of Buffy The Vampire and Xena: Warrior Princess (both living on in comic book form) as well as readers of Catwoman, Elektra, and Bendis' intriguing Alias. That potential audience for comics has maybe always been there—all female comic readers ask is that female characters get as much complexity as the male characters. Which, sure, in some cases isn't much (like Conan) but in other cases is significant.
The first thing Simone does right is give us Sonja's childhood story. There are a couple of different origin stories in the lore, but neither is satisfying, in that Red Sonja gets her abilities through the intervention of a god(dess). That's too easy. If Conan could become kickass through life experiences, then so can Red Sonja, and that is what Simone gives us in issue #3: Sonja as a young teen learning from and surpassing her father and two older brothers in hunting. Then, like in the first Conan movie, Sonja's family is wiped out in a battle and she is sold into slavery, ending up fighting in some kind of gladiator pit for three years, where she learns weapons combat. I actually found this story more interesting than the main story, and wished it could have gone longer, so I think Simone should be given yet another Red Sonja series, like Red Sonja: Origins or something, similar to what Dark Horse has been trying with Conan.
Also, Simone gives us more female characters, some of whom are as badass as Red Sonja. I'm amazed this took so long to happen. Even Conan occasionally runs into other strong women in his part of Hyboria. I've got to believe this lack of other strong women was a conscious decision on the part of the various Red Sonja creative teams, maybe thinking that her uniqueness was what makes Sonja interesting to readers. But having more female characters means more opportunities for dangerous-looking half-naked babes. That alone should be argument enough for including more strong women in the stories, though doing so gives more depth to Red Sonja's story in another way: critiques of comics always include the idea of what the comic is really about. In this case, and in most of Simone's stories, I'd say Red Sonja is really about (female?) friendship. Also, maybe, romance. One thing other Sonja writers do get right was that she ‘s never a frigid ice queen. Sonja has sex, sometimes, and always with decent handsome guys that aren't idiots. She never gets involved in anything long-term, which is interesting, and we'll see if Simone goes there or not (though see below about future developments). But, Simone does give us lucky readers a wee bit of female-on-female intrigue, with Sonja's antagonist for these first issues, Annisia, catching Sonja off guard with a kiss, sending comic geeks everywhere (including me) into heart-thumping tizzies.
Alas, I just can't get behind this Red Sonja series either, at least not yet. I like it better than what's going in in She Devil With A Sword, in that at least it's fun, but the fun-ness comes at the cost of a little silliness. Simone understands the Red Sonja character: she's super badass, super serious, and without a lot of patience for the weaker people she's protecting, though one senses that she secretly likes being appreciated. In particular, I really love Sonja's snide comments, like for example when she's training her kinda clueless sidekick teen girl twins on how to fire an arrow at an actual human being: “Just think of them as fierce rabbits, ladies.” But the actual story is...not messy, so much as rushed. For one thing, there are flashbacks going on all over the place, with at least three (maybe four?) different timelines. This seems to be the cool thing to do in comics now—Simone isn't the only writer who does this—but it just doesn’t work. They end up feeling like a Family Guy episode (“This reminds me of the time I saw Mohammad in a bear suit!”). It's not confusing, just distracting, and the main timeline/story is the least interesting. I would much rather have longer linear stories of Sonja as a youngster learning to hunt, or Sonja as a captured gladiator slave . The one interesting unexpected twist (spoiler alert), Sonja contracting the plague and being outcast from the city she's trying to protect, gets resolved the very next issue, with a little riding around in the woods before the clueless twins come find her and tell her that a cure has been found. Gee, that was hard.
Simone's 'fun' style verges into silliness also with her use of an army of fishmen as the bad guys. She has a thing for half-men/half-fish, I'm not sure why, though they've appeared in her stories before (maybe her artists like to draw them?). But besides being a complete rip-off of Pirates of the Caribbean, it just feels weird in the world of Hyboria. I know, I know, in a world with snake gods, who am I to judge some fish-dudes? Maybe if they were drawn differently, in more of a Lovecraftian 'fish-eyed folk' kind of way, and/or maybe if some—or any—kind of explanation were given for them, but they just kind of appear, which goes back to my complaint of everything feeling rushed.
One good thing Simone gives Sonja, at least on a minor level, is something to fight for, in the form of a good ruler, who appreciates Sonja and even makes her a general, though (another spoiler alert) he dies pretty quickly. In story time, Sonja knows the king for three years. In terms of comic book issues, he lasts about two months. What happens in those three years? We don't know. Would make a great (linear) story, but we only get all this through flashbacks.
But yes, since Red Sonja is so kickass, isn't it about time she were taken seriously, and learned from? Isn't it time she spread her awesomeness to other women (even, again, if reluctantly)? Because isn't this also what and who Red Sonja really is? Isn't she a role model in some way? Not that I want real women going around beheading people with a swords (unless they were people I really don't like) but yes, she should be a role model as someone strong, smart and independent. Isn't she an example, as all good comic book heroes are, in the form of parable or myth, of what we need more of in the Real World?
Whether this means Sonja will stop her wandering ways, I'm not sure. I wonder if all the wandering for both Sonja and Conan ultimately is what makes them feel flat. Maybe I'm arguing that Sonja should get the equivalent of her own Gotham City, where she can stay and fight for good, permanently, and a little more explicitly even if—for a good story—perhaps reluctantly at first. Again, this may have happened in the three years between flashbacks. I don't know. Long term though, maybe Red Sonja could return to defend her own country, Hyrkania. And if she thinks she has no love for it (though I don't know if that's true—either way would also make a great story!) she seems to want very much to be needed, /respected/appreciated by people—why not her homeland? Redemption!
The problem is, I guess, that Red Sonja editors, and maybe the geeks that read Red Sonja and Conan, think of Hyboria as essentially evil, with snake gods everywhere, reflecting how readers feel about the real world somehow, which is scary and Tea Party-ish and somehow (they think) beyond the control of mere mortals. But it's not, not with people like Sonja around for inspiration. I'd put her (and Conan) fighting for, or with, people fighting (against impossible odds!) for self-determination, Seven Samurai style. The thing about most comic books is that they defend the status quo: Superman fights Lex Luthor all the time, but never takes on the evil bankers, say. So, if Hyboria is a pseudo-medieval world, even helping a good king isn't going to change much for much people. Surely Red Sonja, who's seen a lot and traveled far, could figure out that evil kings aren't the problem, but that there are kings at all. Unfortunately, I guess, in Hyboria, one is lucky to get a king. It could be a lot worse: you could be ruled by a snake god who will sacrifice your daughters. Except Sonja does seem to prefer good leaders. She's consistently disappointed, of course, thus her constant moving, but she's not entirely ambiguous. I just feel that if we talk about comic book characters as mythological figures, their stories as modern day myths, then those myths should contain some kind of lesson, or moral, or truth. Should, somehow, be ways of talking about higher idea(l)s.
In doing research for this essay (which, admittedly, was all, and only, online, so who knows? My sources could all be copying from the Red Sonja wikipedia page) I learned that Red Sonja was supposedly not created by Robert E. Howard as I originally thought, but by the comic book writers of Conan at the time, Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith, back when Conan was licensed to Marvel Comics. Their Red Sonja was based on another, similar, character by Howard, called Red Sonya of Rogatino, a real world buccaneer from the 1800s. The scale mail bikini look came from artist Esteban Maroto, and has become imprinted in the psyche of all comic book reading nerds everywhere. Except, now, the credits of Red Sonja read, “Red Sonja character created by Robert E. Howard”? The power of lawyers, which seems bizarre and darkly snake god magical to me, and through which we also have the character Conan and the character Red Sonja licensed to different comic publishing companies, even though they both still wander the same Howard-created world(?!). This is crazy even just on a financial level, because Sonja and Conan's mutual attraction/rivalry, when she first appeared in the Conan comics, did, and would yet again, made for a great story. We readers know they would make a great couple, but pride and circumstances keep them apart. It's so Jane Austen-esque! This could be as big as Batman/Catwoman!
Et voilà: Dark Horse and Dynamite have come to some kind of agreement to get these two characters back together: a Conan/Red Sonja comic book team-up is in the works, pairing Gail Simone with current Conan writer (and creator of the series Northlanders) Brian Wood. I fear the worst actually, since Wood's younger Conan seems like a talkative frat boy (and now he has a family?!! A wife and children? Conan??!!) with even more moral ambiguity than the grim Conan we all know and love. Still, I'm hopeful of the potential, because Wood at least seems to have a more serious non-fish-dude understanding of Hyboria. Mix his worldview with Simone's dialogue and it might be kinda good. And, I wonder if/hope that as Gail Simone gets more invested in the character Red Sonja, and doesn't have to flashback so much to explain anything (and drops the fish-dudes) that she will settle down into a longer, linear, storyline. And, if I were the one of the producers of the supposed Red Sonja movie in the works (for years now), I'd be paying close attention to Gail Simone.