Welcome to The Dollar Box, where I look at comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This time we travel back to the dim pre-history of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age — and the even more remote year of 1973 — for a date with a certain she-devil with a sword in issue #24 of Conan the Barbarian!
It’s The Song of Red Sonja!
Two-and-a-half years into its run, Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian had survived an early flirtation with cancellation to become an accidental masterpiece. Sales were up, awards were rolling in, and the book had been promoted to monthly status. Ably guided by writer Roy Thomas and a brilliant young artist by the name of Barry Windsor-Smith, Conan had broken through to become one of Marvel’s most popular comics.
Unfortunately, Conan was about to become a casualty of its own success. The switch to monthly publication hastened Windsor-Smith’s departure from the book. Already feeling overworked and under-paid — and recognizing that the agonizing level of detail that he packed into each page could never survive a monthly schedule — Windsor-Smith would end his signature run on Conan with this very issue.
But what an issue it was — the Song of Red Sonja might be the finest single issue in the classic Thomas/Windsor-Smith run on Conan the Barbarian.
Following as he did Robert E. Howard’s Conan chronology, Roy Thomas knew he was years away from being able to bring the great loves of Conan’s life — Valeria and Belit — into the book, but he still wanted a strong female character for the series. Inspiration struck when Thomas learned of a non-Conan story from Robert E. Howard that featured a character named “Red Sonya of Rogatine.” Working from that tale, Thomas and Windsor-Smith constructed issue #23’s “Shadow of the Vulture,” an entertaining issue notable for featuring the first appearance of the subtly-renamed Red Sonja, introduced as a mercenary soldier fighting to defend the besieged city of Makkalet.
Red Sonja’s first appearance, from Conan #23
But it would be in issue #24’s “Song of Red Sonja” that the character would steal our Hyborian hearts.
This story is remarkable in that it is so un-remarkable. It is bolted together from a series of familiar Conan scenes. There’s a tavern fight, a tall tower to climb, riches that are stolen (and that just as rapidly slip through Conan’s fingers), and of course a giant snake to slay. All in a night’s work for our favorite Cimmerian! What makes the story memorable is Sonja, a rogue of a different sort, an otherworldly beauty who is nearly Conan’s equal with a sword, and clearly a couple laps ahead when it comes to brains.
Later Red Sonja stories would make much of Sonja’s vow of chastity — and at the end of this story she does declare that no man may kiss her unless he first defeated her in battle — but in this tale Sonja seems to honor that commitment only when convenient. Distinct from the somewhat dour Red Sonja on display in her later Marvel solo series, this Sonja is full of life, dancing with abandon on a tavern table, enjoying a moonlight swim with Conan, and teasing the barbarian with her feminine whiles.
Sonja, it turns out, is leading our hero on, needing his legendary Cimmerian climbing prowess to help her scale a treasure tower, but there is still enough heat in her exchange with Conan that it doesn’t seem entirely a manipulation or a relationship of convenience. Sonja genuinely likes Conan — it’s just that she likes riches more, and when push comes to shove Sonja takes what she wants and leaves Conan in the dust, leaving the barbarian to express his frustration with a rare ending where he didn’t get the girl by slamming his fist into a wall.
The thing about Sonja — what drives this story, and makes it so memorable and fun — is that we want her to get the best of our hero. The reader can see what is coming for Conan a mile away, and the only reason Conan can’t is because he’s thinking with his loins … and because he is a barbarian, as-yet unaccustomed to civilized ways. Having your main character fail at something so mundane as trying to get the girl is a great way to humanize him, and also to point up Conan’s own simple innocence and purity of spirit — something difficult to do with a larger-than-life hero splitting skulls like melons. Conan is a legendary character, even in this youthful phase of his career, and seeing him come up second best to anyone is a rare and memorable event.
Windsor-Smith’s Sonja is a delicate-boned creature, as are nearly all of his characters. Wearing a mail shirt and short pants that show plenty of leg (Sonja’s famous “chainmail bikini” would not appear until later) Sonja is clearly objectified, but she is not a sex object. The character is too self-assured and confident to be lumped in with the dancing girls and dissolute princesses of Conan’s world. Red Sonja is the hero of her own epic, and in her world it is Conan who is just passing through.
Conan and Red Sonja would meet again, but the sparks would never quite fly so well as in this early story, which sported a cover price of fifteen cents back in the day, but which you’d be fortunate to find for less than sixty bucks today. The story is also available in Volume 4 of Dark Horse Comics’ excellent Chronicles of Conan reprint series, which may be the superior means of enjoying this story, as the more modern print technology employed by that series makes it more possible to enjoy Windsor-Smiths manic attention to detail in his art than was the case in the original printings.
Whatever the price or the form, it is well worth spending an evening with Conan the Barbarian #24 — it is a magical thing that it still feels so fresh and adventurous all these decades later, depending as it does on cliches and telegraphing an ending that only Conan couldn’t see coming. Sometimes the simplest tales are the best tales — especially when it comes to primal genres like sword and sorcery — and in the “Song of Red Sonja,” Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith (following in the tradition of Robert E. Howard) crafted a jewel richer than any of the treasure in that serpent haunted tower our two heroes raid. Like all the best tales, we’ve seen this all before, but we can’t wait to see it again.
This article originally appeared at StashMyComics.com!
If you were on the staff of Malibu Comics, twenty years ago today you would have found this memo in your mailbox:
That memo from Malibu Comics President Scott Rosenberg was supposed to mark the end of the beginning for Malibu, but it ended up being the beginning of the end. Founded in 1986, Malibu had made their mark for a wide-ranging black & white comics publishing slate, before launching Image Comics and later publishing the Ultraverse, but by 1994 the handwriting was on the wall: Malibu needed to sell. Narrowly surviving the comics crash of 1993, Malibu was on borrowed time, and had for months been in secret negotiations to sell to DC Comics, before Marvel got wind of the deal and swept in to grab Malibu from their rivals, a largely-defensive purchase intended to protect Marvel’s comic book market share.
Few of the optimistic predictions of the “Employee Fact Sheet” would come to pass. Marvel would file for bankruptcy in 1996, and after a brief attempt to meld the Ultraverse with the Marvel Universe, Malibu Comics would shutter in 1997.
At its height, Malibu Comics employed approximately 150 full-time employees, including a film division, an interactive division, and offices in both California and England. They also provided work for hundreds of freelance writers and artists (including your humble narrator!). Malibu’s vast library of superhero properties — including the Ultraverse — passed on to Disney when they acquired Marvel in 2009. Disney has been mum on any plans to develop Malibu’s properties for film, but that didn’t stop us from identifying “Prime” Ultraverse candidates for the big screen!
It is interesting to speculate what might have become of Malibu had their sale to DC Comics gone through. DC’s purchase of Wildstorm in 1999 shows the company was able to support an autonomous west coast publishing studio, and many of Wildstorm’s people and properties remain a vital part of DC Comics to this day.
Malibu, on the other hand, has vanished into the halls of Disney, vaulted away like something from the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is there hope for the Ultraverse in an era when unknown properties like the Guardians of the Galaxy are a box office smash?
Keep the faith, Ultraverse fans! Wilder things have happened!
One of my favorite parts of Halloween Month is the old monster movies that pop up on cable television. The American cable network TCM ran a couple horror films from Hammer Studios recently and it was fun to see them again after all these years.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) is the film that put Hammer on the map as a horror movie force in the 1950s. Universal had stopped making horror pictures a decade earlier, but Hammer found there was a whole new audience hungering for classic monster pictures, now in lurid color and promising a dollop of sex and blood. Nowadays I suppose we’d call these movies “reboots” … but by any name, Hammer’s horror pictures were a fresh new take on monster movies when they debuted, and they remain nostalgic viewing to this day.
This picture marked the first of a dozen Hammer horror films that would star Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing is in fine form here, playing the Doctor as an amoral son-of-a-bitch, while Lee is a bit less memorable in a role that gives him little more to do than flail his arms around and catch on fire, though the first appearance of Lee’s Monster still packs a punch …
The Monster’s appearance must have been startling for 1957 audiences, particularly when red, red blood gushes from that white face when the monster is shot in the head, but this Monster’s design hasn’t aged well, particularly with his pea coat and mop-head hairstyle that makes Lee look like an undead fifth Beatle.
Christopher Lee as the Monster by William Stout
The actors all deliver their lines in a crisp, British thespian style, which serves to class up the movie quite a bit, and whether through stylistic choice or limited budget, the camera rarely moves, resulting in long scenes without cuts that lends the movie the sense of a stage play. This movie can’t lay a finger on James Whale’s Frankenstein pictures, but it is still an enjoyable gothic melodrama, and necessary viewing for any horror fan if only because of the place it holds in Hammer horror history. Keep an eye out for young Melvyn Hayes as the child Victor von Frankenstein — he looks so much like a young Peter Cushing that you’d swear the filmmakers had a time machine. It is a disappointment that Christopher Lee has so little to do in this picture, but he’d get his revenge a year later when he stared opposite Cushing in what would prove his signature role in The Horror of Dracula.
Later in the week I book-ended my little film festival with one of the final Hammer horror films in 1971’s Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb.
This is a peculiar picture, slow even by the standards of mummy movies, and a bit of a cheat in that it is a mummy movie that doesn’t even really have a mummy in it! Peter Cushing was to have headlined this picture, but had to withdraw due to his wife’s illness, and his absence is keenly felt — the movie could have used his icy glare and intense delivery. But if you are patient and in the right mood, it is still fun to watch this movie unspool, with its gothic tale of a girl possessed by the spirit of an ancient Egyptian priestess.
But really, the main reason to watch this picture is for screen starlet Valerie Leon … and since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll let Bruce Timm explain why:
Valerie Leon in Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, by Bruce Timm
Halloween Month is nearly complete here at Longbox Graveyard, but there is still time to enjoy a monster mash of horror comics goodness before the big night!
… the classic Wein & Wrightson era of Swamp Thing …
… and I walked with the Walking Dead!
I also paid homage to Godzilla, the King of the Monsters; examined the very monstrous Martians of Killraven’s War of the Worlds; and even reflected a bit about the time I got to write a couple issues about Rune, the Malibu Ultraverse vampire Prince of Void!
And don’t forget my horror and science fiction-themed Pinterest Galleries: Tomb of Dracula, Swamp Thing, Mars Attacks, Science Fiction Pulp, Killraven, Ghost Rider, Monsters, Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Spectre, Godzilla, Monster Comics Covers, Hammer Horror, and Universal Movie Monsters!
Enjoy your Halloween!