Red Sonja: She Devil With a Sword (Comic)

Written by Michael Avon Oeming & Mike Carey

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Forget what you know about Red Sonja. Let us wipe the slate clean and re-educate ourselves before we go any further. It’s time to begin anew with this ever so striking female from forgotten fantasy.

She was the creation of Robert E. Howard, a fantasy writer born in 1906 who committed suicide in 1936. First published at the age of 19 in the July 1925 edition of “Weird Tales”, Howard had been dabbling in the literary libation since he was 15 years old. In an all too brief span of 11 years, Howard was going to write tales that would permeate throughout time and effect even popular culture today. Best known for the creation of the character of Conan the Barbarian, he would create an entire age of spear and fangs, sword and sorcery, that would be known as the Hyborian Age.

The Hyborian Age was an era to follow the age of Atlantis. Howard had written a series of lesser known stories about an Atlantean known as Kull of Atlantis or Kull the Conqueror. Howard needed to separate the two eras, so he created a later differing age from that of Kull’s. A massive cataclysm and nearly 75,000 years separate the two eras. So detailed was the timeline and geography that Howard created for his characters to dwell within that the author was not only able to tie in actual events in human history, but was also able to directly describe where the fictional landmarks of his world coincided with their counterparts in reality.

The development of this rich, supple background and mythology allowed Howard’s imagination to not just react to it, but invited those spawned within it to develop complex and intricate lives. It’s not surprising that Robert E. Howard was acquainted with another writer of the same time who made his life writing for pulp magazines and had created just as complicated a back drop for himself; Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The two writers had numerous correspondences between each other, and Howard is known to have wrote within Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos environment, adding such titles as “The Children of the Night” and the infernal text “Unaussprechlichen Kulten”.

Howard would also write about actual historical happenings in these tales, changing only some events and characters along the way. One of these was the story “Shadow of the Vulture”, which takes the effects of Suleiman the Magnificent, a sultan in the Ottoman empire, and uses them to facilitate the motives for the fictional persons within his story. In “Shadow” we meet a warrior woman named Sonya of Rogatino. Due to her fiery red hair and matching temper, she is known as Red Sonya of Rogatino. So vivid was this secondary character that many years later, long after she should have been forgotten, she was given the chance to live again.

Sonya’s rise to fame came under the wing of Howard’s best known character, Conan. The Hyperborean Barbarian was introduced into comics in the 1970’s by Marvel comics. A series launched in 1970 as Conan The Barbarian, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. A strong title, it lasted for more than two decades and ran for 275 issues.

Twenty-three issues into the series, Roy Thomas took the story of “The Shadow of the Vulture” and adapted it to the comics form. One thing Roy did was change the spelling from Howard’s “Sonya” to the now familiar “Sonja”. He also took her from the 16th century setting of Howard’s tale to the more bestial Hyperborean age. Sonja would go on to have many more appearances within Marvel Comics titles, and in 1977 she was given her own self titled series.

One thing that has become synonymous with Sonja is her ill-advised warrior garb; the silver chain mail bikini is a hallmark of the character. Remarkably though, it was not born unto her in the medium. Barry Windsor Smith drew her with a pair of red leather shorts and a chain mail shirt that covered most of her arms. It was not until 1974’s “The Savage Sword of Conan” that she would be drawn in the itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, silver chain mail bikini at the hands of artist Estoban Maroto. This design would be flirted with over the next few years, end up proving to be most popular with the character, and ultimately becoming a undeniable part of her image.

Marvel’s grip on Sonja ended in 1995. During that reign, she battled along side Conan, possessed Mary Jane Watson’s body, and was even Wolverine’s lover! In 1998 she has an ever too brief run in Blackthorne Publishing’s Red Sonja 3-D. After that, all was kind of quiet on the Red Sonja front. That is until Dynamite started exploding.

In January of 2005, Dynamite Entertainment announced that they were going to be releasing a whole new series of Red Sonja comics. Series writer Michael Avon Oeming (teamed with Mike Carey) claimed that the new Sonja would not be “Wonder Woman with red hair. She won’t be perfect, she won’t always be nice and she won’t always do the right thing, especially in our modern terms of what is right or wrong.” It sounded like we were finally getting a return to something closer to Howard’s original heroine, and that they were tackling the subject matter with the seriousness it begged for.

See, where Marvel’s character went awry was in the tone of the books. She went from the pulpish origins of Conan comics to the utter fanaticism of Marvel’s superhero worlds. The Hyperborean age that Sonja has been transplanted into was ruthless and bloody. Even with the ever watchful eye of the CCA overlooking the Conan series, there was a heavy handedness to the early entries, especially those that pulled from Robert E. Howard’s own tales. Sonja had been borne right out of one of those tales, but her popularity went on to ruin the mettle of the plots she would come to encounter. She went from sword slashing tales of female daring do, to the inane silliness of such cross over as the aforementioned Spiderman and Wolverine tales.

People wanted more Sonja, but what they were getting was a pallow imitation of the original form. Even the costume shows how she changed under the beckon of popularity. As the public asked to see more of Sonja, Marvel Publishing took them seriously and gave them, literally, what they wanted. This proved to not be a good thing.

Outside of the set parameters, Sonja became an item for ridicule and silliness, which was aided by the dreadful, albeit cult classic, film Red Sonja. The Bridgette Nielson vehicle went so far as to even star the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Conan rip off. Set in a shoddy representation of the Hyperborean world, it never took advantage of the context Howard created.

So where does this leave us? Sonja in a quagmire of fan admiration and company bungling, and Dynamite Entertainment promising a return to all things good about the character. The adventure, the blood, the intrigue into the world of 12,000 B.C., where savages and demi-gods war to control that which is the most precious of all resources; human lives and souls.

Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword # 0 is our first look into this new take on a very old premise. In the first few panels we get to know quite a bit about where we are, and what type of book this is going to be. The opening rendering is of Sonja’s backside, as done by artist Mel Rubi, and from it we can tell two things. The first is that we are going to be seeing Sonja in the trademark Silver Mesh Bikini. We pull out to see Sonja shapely bottom, clad in silver scales that barely cover her. However, alongside the scaled thong is a sword, sheathed and ready for use, and this brings us to the second thing that is apparent from the frames: this is a dangerous world. Darkness and death lie all around. Nature, man, and The Things That Fall In-Between have jurisdiction here. The sword is needed.

Oeming and Carey paint the page with the subtlest of narrative strokes. We get glimpses of things that will come, a harkening of the harbingers hanging hereby. A watchman pulls tight on a bow with a slight sound that makes Sonja stop, forcing the archer to relent. A woman is chained to the dead, paraded through town, and as Sonja watches we see that there is piety in the captive’s eyes. She is happy, she is chosen, and she will die for the forces that have her contained. Religion, Zealots, and those who aid them are dangerous on high. Sonja knows this and acts accordingly.

Rubi trades the warmth of the rainy, dark outdoors for the red warmth of the hearth as Sonja enters a bar. She enters a world where there are faces that appear to be friendly, there is food to be eaten and drink to be had. Her guard let down, the town reacts to her presence, and the dangers of the Hyborian age present themselves.

Mel Rubi has the reigns for the visuals over the course of the first seven issues (0-6), and during this time we get to see how he envisions the world that Sonja dwells within. The days are starkly lit, adding a bit too much light to things as we travel. The night draws the curtains in, makes us feel safer as we cannot see as much here. It is a paradox to the way light is used in reality. We tend to feel safer the more we see. This is definitely not the truth here.

Sonja #1 allows us to follow Sonja as she begins a journey that will not end for the next 5 issues. Sonja gets involved with a messenger who is attacked by a group of Zedda warriors. The Zedda are a primitive race of humans, savages, who eat and kill the more developed humans when they cross their paths. This rage against man is further fueled by the nasty habit of using Zedda captives for slaves in the larger cities. The Zedda represent the wild nature of the surrounding areas, and here the also introduce something important to the series: Blood.

For the first time, we get a glimpse into the nastiness that is the life of a traveling warrior. We get to see the sanguine hues that will come to define the battles ahead. Yes, this Red Sonja kills. She kills messy, and she kills hard. Limbs are chopped, eyes gouged, bodies halved, and entrails are sent into flight. We get a return to the mess that had been lost for some time. Howard’s envisioning of the Hyperborean age was one of brutish battles. Neverending slaughter mixed with the desire to live to see another day were the staple in Howard’s unintentional homage to natural selection. Only the strong will survive.

After the escape from the Zedda, Sonja and her companion, a messenger from the town of Gaitha, begin their trek to the city. It is within this portion of the trip, the daytime ride, we enter a little known world of Howard’s creation. After a messenger takes a drink from a pool, he is quickly plagued by a demon, a nasty creature from the deep which erupts from his mouth in the form of a green bean stalk tentacle. It attacks Sonja, who is forced to detach the messenger’s head from his body to end the attack.

Right before he drinks, the messenger speaks of things that dwelled in the water. These things were said to be either gone or sleeping, but in either case their sudden appearance raises an interesting question. One that harks back to the very beginnings of the Hyperborean age, and to Robert E. Howard himself.

It is well known that Howard and Lovecraft were correspondents for quite a while, and that they both included items from each other’s works in their own. It has also been theorized that Conan’s travels in the Hyperborean age were in fact settled within the Lovecraft Mythos. All evidence of this has been erased with the advent of the Marvel comic and the Schwarzenegger Conan movies, which disassociated all things Hyperborean from the Lovecraft milieu.

Is Dynamite planning on returning to the first vision of this realm? We will have to wait and see, but there are other clues along the way:

Issue #2 begins with an all too welcome to the city of Gaitha, one which Sonja has to hack her way through just to end up in a dungeon with a Zedda like troll. Once that creature is dispatched, she is prepped by a slave girl (who looks like the chained girl from issue #0) for sacrifice to the god who fell from the sky, The Celestial One. In a description of the being, we get a very Lovecraftian reference:

The Celestial one come to us so many years ago. A lifetime.

But human lives are but a mayflies dance in the eyes of Heaven.

The Lord sent him to us, and the Lord sent us dreams of him to announce his coming.

This being, The Celestial One, is drawn with exquisite flowing movement by Mel Rubi. The look of the pages here is just flawless. The color is washed by the bright sun, the clothes move as if kissed by the wind, and there is not a panel of wasted motion. Too often comics use a panel as filler, but not here, each contributes to the story in an indispensable fashion.

In this issue we are introduced to the high priest to The Celestial, Fa. An old man who is not blind to the dangers posed by a god who demands blood in trade for peace, a man with an agenda, and a man who is not afraid to kill, even if it is Sonja herself.

Issue #3 starts off with some weak nighttime art by Rubi, depicting Sonja’s post sacrifice fate. In comparison the work done in the pages of issue #2, Rubi’s touches here fall flat and look unfinished. This could be due to the addition of more colorists to the comic, but there is a sketchiness that was lacking before. A jarring contrast.

Introduced here is Fa’s ultimate plan to use Sonja to free his people from the rule of The Celestial One. Also appearing is a man who looks like a cross between He-Man and Conan. Attached to Sonja as they travel on the quest to return a piece of a sacred knife now buried in Sonja’s chest. This man, Osin, is well acquainted with Sonja’s past glories. He is apt to try to see if she lives up to them. It could be an irritating tale of man versus woman here, but the story is handled with care by Oeming and Carey, who are careful not to fall into cliché or pretension.

This carries into issue #4 where a tense alliance is struck with the Zedda in order to raise an army to advance on the City of Gaitha and fell the Celestial One. As the attack beings on Gaitha, the comic begins to pull fewer and fewer of its punches. We are thrown right into the bloody mess as the violence gets worse, situations gets more complicated, and our heroes get closer and closer to the tower of the Celestial One. The comic taboos are left in limbo as the end brings up quite a quandary with the arrival of killer children.

Children? Yes, I said Kids with knives trying to end the lives of our intrepid adventurers. Here we now get to glory in the true nastiness that the tales of Sonja always had lurking just below the surface. Here is where we get to see a writer take full advantage of playing modern societal mores against historical archetypes. The Hyperborean age is replete with potentially like this. It serves as a jubilation of the most base of all human traits, murder, sex, and discovery. All of which are able to be played as violations, and here we get a tour de force.

Issue #5 runs headlong into the outcome of this standoff. Raising the quality of this is a new colorist crew that define Rubi’s drawing better than the previous few issues. The best part is that the grue-tality is reaching its apex here, and the colors just pop with each hack or the sword. A great visual feast as the world of Gaitha crumbles, and the showdown between the Celestial one begins.

The conclusion of the first story arc in Dynamite’s new Red Sonja series comes about in issue #6. Here were we get a lot of questions answered concerning who will live and die. Sacrifice is a truth in the realm of Hyboria moment to moment. There will be loss, and no victory is ever without its dark shadows. One could make the argument that the Hyperborean mentality is one of abject realism, that it is a complete meditation on the human psyche, condition, within the limited realms of the tangible. Where Lovecraft shows answers of human insignificance, Howard’s legacy is that the one is significant. The one is all that matters, and ultimately, the one, the self, is all we truly ever have.

The tale in issue #7 is entitled “The Hand of Fate”. In this stand alone story, artist Noah Salonga takes over with spare ability. The issue is besieged with lackluster art, and a story that is just too easily closed up. Like a sickly mirror image of what we have just seen as possible from the series, this one issue should serve as a warning to the minds behind the series. There is a lot of hokey plots that could be examined in the realm of Sonja. Pirates and cursed treasure is one of those that just does not fit well. I was afraid that this may be marking a downward turn, but then I realized that this was not in the hands of Oeming, but a new scribe J.T. Krul. My hopes went up when I opened the next issue.

Mel Rubi’s art and Oeming’s writing were back in issue #8 with a story called “ArrowSmith”. Here we get to see that the religious zealots did not fall with Gaitha, on the contrary, they are just as dangerous now as ever. A Hyperborean certainty as Sonja runs across their work in the ransacked city of Arrowhead. It is here that Sonja meets a mirror image of herself, a young girl who has just lost her family. It is within the deep sorrowful sleeping mind of this child that we get to see a flashback of Sonja’s youth.

The origins of Red Sonja have been told before, but not in such a gloriously beautiful manner. As a percosious child she is more of a man than her brothers, but not as much of a woman as her mother wants. We see the inner turmoil of a girl who loves and is loved by both parents, but is pulled to do what she must against what she wants.

Rubi’s hand here is articulate and steady. Lost is the sketchiness, and in its stead is a composition of contrasts. The present is colored and stark, where the flashbacks are muted in tone and deeply detailed. I find it painful to see how the hushed hues of Sonja’s past collide with a young girl who was so very full of electricity and love of life. She lives in a world where she is unaccustomed to the dangers that will come to dominate her life. Her awakening to this is poignant and wrenching.

ArrowSmith opens a new story arch that I find myself clamoring to see the continuation of. This is a retread of familiar territory, but done smartly. The parallels to the cinematic Conan are in the undercurrent of the story, but the power of the simple story plays out in pure power. It succeeds due to its ability to appeal to our understanding of the loss of innocence. Any time a dreamer is crushed it is painful. The end of a life, the end of childhood, and the painful birth of adulthood.

Red Sonja has come full circle. Borne during the life of a man who dreamed ever so deeply, read by generations in print till they were given new life in the visual medium of comics. Reborn to a life so different, and steeped in mortal threat that it forced her to evolve. The dynamics of evolution play out clearly in the stories and continuing adaptation of the character. She has gone from public to obscure and back and forth again. Red Sonja has the potential to once again reclaim her throne as a comic icon. In the able hands of Dynamite Entertainment, she is being allowed to flourish. Yet, as she does, I have but one request for her handlers…

The tease of her horrific roots, of her author’s black magic are in place. Let loose the seals, and allow her to come to face the demons that dwell within and between. In the time of blood and steel, it makes sense for the beginnings of the madness to take root and spread as darkness through out the land.

“Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.” – Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast, Weird Tales 1934

A-Men and Ia!

3 ½ out of 5

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