The Song of Red Sonja
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!
NEXT MONTH: #140 Sincerely, The Sandman!
Posted on November 5, 2014, in The Dollar Box and tagged Barry Windsor-Smith, Conan, Dollar Box, Red Sonja, Roy Thomas. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.
You write that Sonja is objectified but not a sex-object. I’m curious. How is she objectified?
Hey, JCM! Thanks for reading and commenting!
I’m far from an expert in the fields of gender and sexism, and may well have used the wrong terms here, but this is what I was trying to say.
Sonja seems objectified to me in this story. To objectify someone is to treat a person as a thing without dignity. In this story, Sonja is drawn with legs up to her neck; she dances on a table top; men go wild for her and fights break out in her wake. Conan follows her around like a puppy. The set-up for this story objectifies Sonja. In this she is little different from many women that appear in Conan’s tales.
The reason I think she is not a sex object, however, is because Sonja is the center of the story, and her sexuality is just a component of her character — it is not her whole reason for being. Sonja could not be “replaced by a lamp,” to use one particular litmus test. She is an adventurer on a quest who uses her sexuality to get what she wants (in this case, it’s using Conan to get her into that treasure tower).
Sonja is a character that clearly existed before this story began, and will continue to exist after it is over — Sonja is a force of nature that blows through Conan’s life, ties him up and confuses him as few characters ever do, and then rides out of town with the treasure in hand and not another thought for our hero. In this, she is nothing at all like many other women that appear in these stories — the helpless, top-heavy princesses that exist only to be saved from the monsters and to ride off with Conan for some distant oasis in the final scene, only to be discarded and forgotten come the start of the next issue.
So, Sonja — clearly objectified in the way she is drawn and her (initial) role in the story, but more than a sex object because she has a story and a soul and doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of sexual stimulation.
What do you think?
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Reblogged this on VIVIMETALIUN.
Reblogged this on Reggie's Blog and commented:
The Song of Red Sonja
I still wish comic book were still under a dollar!
Excellent observations, Paul. This is not just my favorite Red Sonja story, but also my favorite Conan story. Everything that came after just seemed pale to me.
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I have great affection for the John Buscema years, but I agree, those early Thomas-Smith Conans were special.
When I started collecting and reading comic books, I eschewed all things Conan. I am unsure why, (perhaps because my older sister was into Conan), but all that Sword and Sorcery stuff just seemed useless and stupid to me. As I have grown, I have gotten more into Conan, but it’s your work that has set me over the edge. Next year, I am going to read all the classic Conan stuff!
I was starved for fantasy as a kid. We didn’t have much in the way of fantasy films. I devoured Tolkien and Howard, Lieber and Moorcock, Burroughs … but for comics, Conan was where it was at. I was as much a sword and sorcery fan as a comics fan and Conan hit the sweet spot for me. (I’ve never found another fantasy series, then or now, that worked so well for comics … even Roy Thomas’ work on Elric doesn’t measure up to his Conan).
Check out the Chronicles of Conan reprints series published by Dark Horse. It’s all the Marvel stuff, with beautiful reproduction superior to the original printings (especially in the case of that very detailed Barry Windsor-Smith art).
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Love Conan the Barbarian! By far my most valued and favorite comics in my collection. I especially loved the Buscema penciled issues. Also highly recommend the book series by Robert E. Howard with L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Great works!
I loved that Buscema run, too. Fans today don’t realize what a big deal Conan was at Marvel in the 1970s. It was one of their top-selling books — a bigger book than Avengers, or Iron Man or Captain America, second only to Spider-Man, really. A lost era.
Marvel ‘s best 1970s comic,no matter what those Wizard dicks think.
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