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Red Sonja

Longbox Graveyard #90

It’s been awhile since I wrote about Conan here at Longbox Graveyard, but my Hyborian bona fides are well-established. I’ve lauded the original Barry Windsor-Smith run of Conan the Barbarian, mourned Hollywood’s many ham-handed attempts to bring the Cimmerian to the silver screen, and penned a love note to Belit, the “ultimate Marvel Comics girlfriend.” I even reviewed the Conan-inspired Fire & Ice movie here a couple weeks ago.

Conan material is starting to get thin on the ground at my secret comic book headquarters. I will review Savage Sword of Conan someday, and will take a crack at King Conan if that rumored Schwarzenegger Conan movie reboot ever gets off the ground. I’ll probably give the new Dark Horse version of Queen of the Black Coast a go someday, too. But in the meantime, I thought I’d satisfy my urges for Robert E. Howard nostalgia with a little Red Sonja. After all, she’s the She-Devil With A Sword! She has red hair! She wears a chainmail bikini! What could go wrong?

Almost everything, as it turns out.

Red Sonja #1, Frank Thorne

to the death! (or cancellation, whichever comes first)

Red Sonja was born in the pages of Conan the Barbarian #23, and won the hearts of all right-thinking Conan aficionados in the classic “Song of Red Sonja” from issue #24 (a story so good it made my Top Five Single-Issue Stories post, way back when, and is also the subject of my latest Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com). Working only from a name mentioned in passing in a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story, series scribe Roy Thomas introduced Sonja as a beautiful, fast-thinking foil to young Conan … a smart, daring, and calculating swordswoman who was pretty clearly out of Conan’s league.

Conan #24, Barry Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas

Red Sonja was a vivid and instantly-memorable character, the kind that inspired fervent fan devotion … but also the kind that likely should not have received her own book, in that few of her qualities could easily be made to stand on their own. What makes Sonja likeable is the way she plays off of Conan — how she seems clever, determined, fearless, and one step ahead of our hero. Conan knows that Sonja will betray him — and so do we — but we go along with Sonja’s schemes because she’s the right kind of crazy. She promises riches and adventure, and maybe something else besides.

When Sonja tramples Conan aside and gallops out of town on a stolen horse, we can respect her as a fellow rogue — her betrayal was inevitable, and her “I-wish-there-was-another-way” besting of our hero both elicits our sympathy and affords us a laugh in a rare ending where Conan doesn’t get the girl. Implicit in this exchange is the promise these characters will meet again — and they would, both in Conan’s own mag and Savage Sword — but Sonja would never be quite so good as she was in that first tale, and the character that walked into her own book in Marvel Presents and Red Sonja would prove a distant echo of the Sonja we’d come to know and love.

Marvel Feature #4, Frank Thorne

the series sported a couple good covers, but you know what they say about judging a book …

There’s certainly much to work with here. The Conan books were among Marvel’s most popular of their era and it would seem a small thing to walk an adolescent audience over to a series promising all the monsters and mayhem of the Hyborian Age with a little cheesecake on top. But instead of embracing the core elements of what made Conan work, Red Sonja runs from them in an ill-advised attempt to distinguish the book on its own merits. It’s like the creators set out to solve the wrong problem. The task should have been extending Conan’s magic to a second title. Instead, Red Sonja strives so hard to stand on its own that it ends up rejecting almost everything that made Conan such a romp in the first place. You can change a thing or two, but altering too many tropes at the same time leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance bound to put curious Conan readers off of the book.

Red Sonja #3, Frank Thorne

like Conan, Red Sonja scores a disposable mate at the end of some stories … and it kind of works (sometimes) … but other Conan tropes are missing from this book

The problems begin with Frank Thorne’s art, which displays a high degree of style and illustrative ambition but was as far-removed from the look of Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema on Conan as you can imagine. Thorne’s Red Sonja is almost abstract in her purity — there isn’t a wrinkle or a frown line on her, and her face is an exaggeration of wide, dark eyes and full lips that amounts to an exotic but unconventional beauty. In this, Sonja is in contrast to almost everything else in Thorne’s world, where every creature seems monstrous — gnarled, tattooed, infected, and corrupt, faces out of some south sea cannibal nightmare.

Frank Thorne, Red Sonja

everyone but Sonja has a case of the uglies in Frank Thorne’s Hybroian Age (and I’m not always certain about Sonja, either)

Thorne’s costumes, arms, and accoutrements seem more out of a fairy tale or an Arabian Nights fantasy than Howard’s Hyborian Age, and Thorne’s architecture, though sometimes ambitious, fails to evoke the wonder of a world that Buscema more effectively rendered even with rough indifference (and that Windsor-Smith laid down with manic attention to detail).

Thorne could turn in a decent bit of visual storytelling now and then (particularly when a page wasn’t swarming with overwritten captions) …

Marvel Feature #5, Frank Thorne

… but Thorne’s action scenes were especially weak, with his characters contorted in awkward poses, lamely clashing swords with all the conviction of a sixth-grade stage play.

Red Sonja #5, Frank Thorne

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is a broad landscape of borrowed tribes and tropes, and there’s certainly room for Thorne’s take — but there isn’t room for Thorne’s take and the more familiar Marvel impression at the same time. More than just being about two different characters, these books appear to be set in entirely different worlds.

Part of this may be down to trying to do too much, too fast. Marvel launched a fist-full of female superhero books in the mid-1970s — Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, She Hulk, and Red Sonja all date from roughly the same age. Female superheroes are tricky to market and create and it is worth noting that none of those books would succeed. Launching just one successful female solo title would have been a challenge — launching four or more in a limited period of time seems a recipe for failure, especially given that Red Sonja’s creator, Roy Thomas, would be a remote presence in the book’s first several issues.

Marvel Feature #4, Frank Thorne

Frank Thorne would also suffer with monster design, but this gorgon was a strong effort

Marvel Presents #1 is a typically thrown-together 1970s Marvel book — a reprint of a Red Sonja story from Savage Sword of Conan, and a slight but not half-bad original eight-pager by Thomas and Dick Giordano. It’s like Marvel decided to publish a Red Sonja comic but didn’t bother to tell the creators! In Marvel Presents #2, the regular team is aboard — artist Frank Thorne and writer Bruce Jones, edited by Thomas. It takes Jones and Thorne a couple issues to find their footing — the first few stories are strewn with small, densely-written panels that afford Thorne’s art little room to breathe — but while Jones’ scripts were moody and atmospheric (and began to explore Sonja’s psychology in ways later writers would ignore), his tales were undone by distracting and over-clever plot twists and “shocking” reveals that served only to throw readers out of the story.

By issue #6 of Marvel Feature — and rolling into the run of Red Sonja’s self-titled book — Roy Thomas is aboard as co-scripter with Clair Noto, but even here the old Conan magic is lacking. Maybe Thomas was taking his hands off the reins, or maybe he still felt it essential that Sonja substantially distinguish herself from the tone and characterization we’d seen in her Conan appearances he’d penned, but this Sonja is all over the place, cavorting with unicorns and entering herself in beast man Olympics because … well, I’m not sure why, frankly.

Red Sonja #1, Frank Thorne

an artful page, but we’re not in Hyboria any more

Aside from a sense of justice stemming from her own oppressive origins that leads Sonja to quickly take up the cause of the underdog, I’m not sure who Sonja really is, or why she does what she does — and that bold red-headed wench who one-upped Conan and lived to tell the tale is long gone from these stories.

As a line extension of the Conan series starring a spin-off character from a book I loved, Red Sonja pretty much fails on all counts. Probably the best way to approach these issues is to set aside all previous conceptions — about Red Sonja, about the way the Hyborian Age looks and feels, about the kinds of stories told in Conan — and evaluate the series on its own merits. But when stripped of all that makes the Conan franchise special, these Red Sonja stories are generic fantasy stories that fail to deliver. Red Sonja was just different for its own sake, not better in any way, and offering few advantages for all the pains it took to distinguish itself from its parent book. The attempt to make Sonja stand on her own in terms of psychology and tone may have seemed imperative at the time but it ultimately did both readers and the book a disservice. We would have been better off with more of the same, all the usual Conan cliches and situations, made to seem slightly different by having Red Sonja at the center of the story, but still clearly a part of the swaggering, fast-paced sword and sorcery stories that worked so well in Conan the Barbarian.

Red Sonja #6, Frank Thorne

the best single issue in this run — Red Sonja #6, with a script from ElfQuest co-creator Wendi Pini — embraced the old Conan tropes and was better for it

I wish I could say that this book was ahead of its time, and that its fearless experimentation and bold new look made it a pleasure to rediscover after all these years, but sadly this is not the case. Re-reading these books was a hard slog, like cranking an engine that stubbornly won’t turn over. In it’s favor, I better enjoyed what Frank Thorne was trying to do than when I first read these books in the 70s, and was pleased to find the stories were less exploitative than I remembered. Yes, this is a barbarian girl in chainmail, but Thorne draws the character with dignity and avoids the “broke-back” contortions common to female characters in contemporary superhero books, where every page seems a pin-up built out backwards from the heroine’s ass and boobs. And every once in awhile there is a page that almost works.

Almost.

Marvel Feature #6, Frank Thorne

As noted above, it is hard to determine how much of a hand Roy Thomas had in plotting and scripting these books, but these stories are considerably less confident and sure-footed than his Conan work. It may not always have been wise to recycle some non-Conan Robert E. Howard tale into an adventure of Conan the Barbarian (as Thomas would do time and again), but doing so at least ensured that those issues would conform to Howard’s story beats and themes, rather than the fairy tale flights of fancy that too-often are at the heart of Red Sonja.

It is a testament to the strength of the brand (and Conan’s popularity) that the book lasted as long as it did, running seven issues in Marvel Presents and fifteen more as Red Sonja before its inevitable cancellation in 1979. Marvel and the audience certainly gave this book its shot — this isn’t the case of a boldly experimental book being cut down in its prime, like Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell’s Killraven. Everyone understood exactly what this book was trying to do — and no one wanted this particular flavor of barbarian fantasy. Red Sonja is a rich concept, though, and the character would go on to star in a series of successful books from Dynamite Entertainment, with no less a luminary than fan-favorite writer Gail Simone scheduled to pen Sonja’s adventures in a new series starting in July 2013.

But by not delivering on even the basics of its genre, Marvel’s Red Sonja disappoints on almost every level. I am stopping short of giving the book a failing grade. I’ve reserved that mark for Marvel’s John Carter book, which squandered far richer source material. But Red Sonja is the very definition of a “D,” and I’m not talking about Sonja’s cup size!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #91 By Any Other Name: Sub-Mariner!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on March 6, 2013, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. One of the things your blog often does is point out the “blind spots” in my reading history. I don’t believe I have ever read a single issue of this, or even a single story that featured her. But even when that is the case (as with much of your early 70s Marvel love), I enjoy reading your posts.

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    • Thanks, Prof. In this case you may well wish to keep that Sonja-shaped blind spot squarely in your field of vision, as there is really very little to recommend this series. Issues #1 and #6 of Red Sonja are … OK … but the rest are pretty dire.

      The Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith story from Conan the Barbarian #24 i(“The Song of Red Sonja”) s definitely recommended.

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  2. I bought most of those Red Sonja issues including #1 years ago in 50 cent and Dollar Bins. For the most part I still like some of the covers and 1970s Marvel style but beyond that I’ve never actually read through an entire issue. I’ll get through the first few pages then I’m totally board or just don’t care about the story enough to keep going and I end up just looking at the panels and putting the book down.

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    • Thanks for writing and commenting … this book is definitely a case of the title character and concept being stronger than the books. Red Sonja is one of those iconic characters that many people know but few people actually follow, and the character has yet to see her “definitive” run. (I hear good things about the current series from Gail Simone and Dynamite but I’m waiting on the first trade publication to check it out.)

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  3. Red Sonja always conjures up memories of my insane older sister, and how after watching the movie, she strutted about and decided she was a “warrior born” or some nonsense. Later on, she would carve a handle into one of her bed slats and declare it her sword; she dubbed this “blade” Lady Peregrine. At my birthday party when I was in 8th grade, she brandished it and threatened my friends and I, who somehow got it away from her and tossed it out of our second story window.

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    • Damn! Wish I’d known your sister!

      Around about 1974 I could be found on a Hollywood hillside throwing my father’s sculpting hammer around, claiming to be the God of Thunder … so I get it.

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  4. Thanks for the Clair Noto pingback! Do you think Robert Rodriguez will ever get around to doing his big screen live action adaptation? They early teaser art featuring Rose McGowan looked promising …

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    • Rodriguez seems able to make a movie for about a dollar, which will might be necessary given the budget a Red Sonja movie is likely to command … and who knows? Rodriguez’s brand of grindhouse irreverence may be just what Sonja needs! I’d be more interested in seeing that picture than another Conan film at this point!

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      • Yes, me too.
        Hey, I hoped you might have something on Man-Wolf here, but when I searched nothing came up.

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        • Unfortunately I have all of one issue of Creatures on the Loose in my vast Accumulation and know very little about Man Wolf aside from thinking he has a cool name, and is the ideal subject for some slash fiction with Man Bat!

          (If you’d like to dispel the cloud of Man Wolf ignorance from my brow by guest blogging about him for Longbox Graveyard, let me know!)

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