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Apocrypha Entertainment Presents:








CRIMSON YEAR

Towards the end of 2007, the character Red Sonja celebrated her 35th anniversary in comics. While she hasn’t been published on a consistent basis during that time, she does currently have the longest “running” series of any female character in mainstream comics. WONDER WOMAN rebooted. SHE-HULK is on her fourth volume. MS. MARVEL is running a few issues behind. And BIRDS OF PREY doesn’t count, as it has focused on a rotating cast.

Considering some of the more controversial aspects of the character, that she has made it this far is cause for interest and celebration. Originally, she appeared as a feminine foil and equal to Conan, and Sonja served that role well. However, what she did not serve well was any sort of real character. Essentially, she was the sum of her origin and her costume, and neither way anything to write home about.

The origin: as with far too many female characters in comics, sexual assault and abuse play a role IN Sonja’s. As a young girl, her village was attacked and pillaged by marauders, and they murdered Sonja’s family and took her virtue by force. Rescued by her Goddess, she is given a new mission and purpose in life: to become a warrior unparalleled. Now, it’s hard to argue with giving a character that has been traumatized a mission like that; God knows she deserved it. However, the caveat from the Goddess was that no man could have Sonja who could not defeat her in battle. Meaning, technically, that Sonja couldn’t experience intimacy without first re-experiencing the trauma that stole her childhood. That’s a problem.

On the flip side was her costume, which would certainly seem to invite exactly the sort of attention that someone who had experienced what Sonja had would not want. A chainmail bikini doesn’t exactly divert the eyes of the men she would have to deal with in her warrior’s world. So to call the character as created a mess of contradictions would be an understatement. It would certainly go at least some of the way in explaining why Marvel couldn’t successfully put out a consistent, long-running series with the character. Thus years passed, and enter Dynamite Entertainment.

Sensing the potential for solid sales and growth, Dynamite snapped up the Sonja license and got into the business of bringing the redheaded warrior back into the mainstream consciousness. But they also set out to fix some of the character’s design flaws.

First, write Mike Oeming took on that rather horrific outlook on intimacy. Rather than keep Sonja as someone so damaged that she would want her own rape re-enacted, a subtle distinction was made. Sonja’s pledge was shifted. To wit: it isn’t that Sonja wants someone who can beat her in a fight, it’s that she wants someone she can truly call an equal. No man who cannot match her in battle is worthy of her time, because she knows she deserves and has earned better. The promise now means that Sonja is simply a woman who has standards and who will not lower herself to be intimate with an unworthy person. Indeed, she freely and genuinely takes a lover early in the second year of the series and shows herself to be a warm and caring person with him, as normal as any other woman who has found someone she could spend her life with. It’s one of the best moments in the series to date, as it represents the complete reclamation of a very bad choice in creating Sonja’s origin.

As for the costume… for better or worse, the chainmail bikini is Sonja’s trademark. It isn’t going anywhere. And certainly, the revolving crew of cover artists that Dynamite has employed to draw attention to the series have played up the cheesecake nature of Sonja’s duds. However, the main SONJA title has done its best to blunt the edge of what the costume brings. Sonja herself has been taken to task by other women in the book, acting as sort of an audience substitute, and the character’s response is the best possible one that could apply naturally: that men are easily distractible, and that the more they focus on her assets, the easier it is for her to achieve victory over her foes. I think that’s fair enough, and again, since the costume will never go away, it works. That will never be enough for some readers, but that’s okay; you can’t please everyone. The other thing to note is that the interior art generally goes out of its way to completely avoid cheesecake shots of the lead character. Below the front cover, Red Sonja is all business.

THE ANNIVERSARY YEAR

So how has Sonja fared over the past year? Excepting SAVAGE TALES, as it technically doesn’t have her in the title, let’s take a look at the past twelve issues of the main title and every other SONJA book that shipped in-between them.

RED SONJA #17-18 are written by Mike Oeming and drawn by Mel Rubi, and feature the character fighting an uphill battle against a demigod whose followers have vexed her since issue #0. The Borat Na-Fori is only the beginning, though, as he serves to bring Kulan Gath back to the world. These two issues run the gamut for Sonja; she is overmatched by her foe, yet feels she cannot abandon the battle. She must also deal with a great personal loss, as well as develop herself as a leader and tactician. It was during this arc where we saw Sonja finally flesh out as a complete character, and while the portents for the world here are bad, the results for the reader are terrific. His is some of the best work ever done with the warrior.

Issues #19-21 are drawn by new artist Homs and find Sonja and her companions on a strikingly different mission. Fleeing at the end of the previous arc, they are now in a land ruled by animals that walk and talk like men, and they aren’t exactly welcome. The story is interesting, no question, but it also has to be called as a bit of a meander. Essentially, being away allows Kulan Gath free run to subjugate the world in Sonja’s absence and delays the inevitable meeting between the two. Taken as a short story, it works, and extra kudos go to Sonja once again being a strong enough character that she is allowed to think her way out of a situation and no resort to slicing everything in sight with her sword. But in the greater scheme of the book itself, this only serves to slow down the meta-plot.

In #22-24, Sonja and her companions return to the world and begin putting together their own version of an army in order to take on Kulan Gath. However, they must first deal with zombie pirates. In the meantime, Gath has captured Sonja’s Goddess, and the two are revealed to have a long and detailed intimate history. The meta-plot begins to pick up the pace again here, which is needed, and the story itself feels tighter and better thought out. The zombie aspect of the pirates isn’t overplayed (thank god- we have enough zombie comics as it is), and Sonja once again finds herself in a position where she must use her accumulated wisdom to win the day, not her sword. Ever so quietly, Sonja has become just as clever a warrior as any other on the comics shelves. It makes her one of the more multi-dimensional characters out there.

Brian Reed joins Oeming on the writing chores for issues #25-28, and you barely take notice from a reader standpoint- the book remains astonishingly consistent. Now returned and a bit more flush with allies, Sonja begins traveling the world and discovering the extent of Kulan Gath’s evil and treachery, and she also locates what little human resistance remains. Unfortunately, she and her allies also run into one of Gath’s priests, and that gentleman is no slouch in the power department himself. The one noticeable thing about these issues is that, by nature of the plot, Sonja must get back to the sport of lopping off heads a bit more that she had over the previous six issues. Not as much time to talk and think her way out of things here. And by the end of issue twenty-eight, the final confrontation with her enemy looms, promising the resolution to a plot that’s been brewing since the book hit shelves.

Elsewhere over the past year, we got RED SONJA ANNUAL #1, written by Oeming and drawn by Stephen Sadowski. This nifty little tale tells the story of a wife and barmaid who had put up with more than enough shit over the years, both from her husband and the grabby drunk bastards who patronize their mead hall/whorehouse. However, her fate changes course when a traveling entertainer offers her what he says is an enchanted mask that would grant her the power of Sonja herself. The results are clever, and the ultimate solution the women come up with to take control of their fate is a gem. A terrific effort.

RED SONJA: VACANT SHELL is written by Rick Remender and drawn by Paul Renaud, and is easily the best looking Sonja title to hit shelves in the past year. Renaud’s work is gorgeous, and it was a real treat to see him move from covers to interiors and show off what he can do. The story itself isn’t anything special; it’s a classic “hero listens to the wrong person and is betrayed” bit, but it does get some points for showing the character to be smart enough to know when to run from a bad situation. The look of the book is also enhanced by some amazing color work by Renaud and Chris Chuckry. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve seen better on any book to ship from Dynamite.

GIANT-SIZE RED SONJA #1 is a mixed bag, but at least it’s an interesting mix. Oeming and artist Ron Adrian open the book with a short story that follows up on a plot thread from the first story arc in the main book, and while the story is fine, Adrian’s art is a muddled mess. Following that is a series of short stories and pin-ups reprinted from the Marvel-era Sonja, all re-mastered with new color. That means you get work by John Buscema, Howard Chaykin, and other greats of that era. Pretty sweet deal. None of the stories themselves are what you’d call brilliant, but the art alone (not to mention the awesome pin-ups) is enough to make me recommend buying the book.

Finally, RED SONJA: DOOM OF THE GODS #1-3 represents the first three issues (of four total) in a miniseries following up last year’s battle against Thulsa Doom. These are written by Luke Lieberman and Ethan Tyker and are drawn by Lui Antonio. DOOM starts at a distinct disadvantage, as it serves as a sequel to one of the weakest SONJA efforts Dynamite has published, and unfortunately, it doesn’t overcome its origins. What’s here is executed skillfully, but pacing is a huge problem; for a book promising a rematch with one of the character’s deadliest foes, it takes until halfway through issue three for the two to lay eyes on one another again. That makes the first two issues feel like they’re killing time to wait for the main event. Issue four could turn out to be perfectly lovely, but that won’t fix the early mistakes made in the plotting.

And there it is: a year in the life of Red Sonja… at least as far as the publishing calendar goes. What we have now is a wonderfully rounded character who uses her creativity, intelligence, and warrior skills together as a complete package, and someone who knows the value of friendship, loyalty, and intimacy. So when someone tells that that Dynamite Entertainment publishes that one book where the heroine is ludicrously violent, over-the-top, and sexually off her nut, you tell them they’re right: it’s called PAINKILLER JANE. And when someone says they want a book with a strong female lead who is more than the sum of her more obvious parts, feel free to point them towards RED SONJA. It’s perfectly safe. Scout’s honor.

Marc Mason

 



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