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!
This week’s FOOM Friday continues my examination of FOOM #13, which was all about Conan the Barbarian.
So why am I writing about The Coming Of Galactus?
It’s all down to a quote in FOOM #13 from Roy Thomas, discussing how he felt Robert E. Howard’s Conan had already peaked before Howard’s untimely death in 1936. In effect, Roy suggested that after a certain point, there’s little sense in telling more tales about a hero:
ROY: The problem is the same thing that happened to the FANTASTIC FOUR in 1965 or 1966, with the coming of Galactus. Once you’ve fought a God, which is basically what Galactus was, how do you go back to the other stuff? And everything since then to me, or almost everything on that book — even good things that came afterwards like the Inhumans — has been ten years of a rather competent anti-climax. There are some strips that just naturally climax at a certain point and anything you do afterward can still be good and saleable and go on forever —
FOOM: But you’ve said what you have to say.
The nature of comic book publishing ensures that the stories will go on, even if it is all anti-climax … but Roy has a point. Have the Fantastic Four broken any genuinely new ground since the Galactus story, or has it all been reboots, re-imaginings, and “fresh takes” on a glorious but fast-fading past?
Did the Fantatic Four jump the cosmic shark in 1966? What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.
This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday gets right to the point! (Two of them!)
FOOM #14 was all about Conan … and it is full of insightful and even scholarly commentary about what makes this character so great. It’s also an interesting time-capsule of an era when Conan was one of Marvel’s top-selling books.
But we don’t care about that.
We only care about the nipples. Men’s nipples!
I know this is a divisive issue. To judge by the Superbowl, America hates seeing men’s nipples. I don’t know how opinions might differ in the United Kingdom, but David Warner considered men’s nipples a waste of God’s energy in Time Bandits:
Comics have a complex issue with sexuality in general, but in classic mainstream superhero comics, it’s generally come down to women having (barely covered) naughty bits, while men don’t have them at all. Contemporary comics show plenty of skin, of course, so it may be difficult to understand how the original run of Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith broke new ground by showing off shirtless heroes and scantily-clad wenches.
Even more remarkable, Windsor-Smith broke the seal on one of the more puzzling taboos in comics by having the temerity to draw nipples on men!!
yep, there’s some nipples, all right!
Why, you can practically hear the monocles popping out!
Not only did Barry blaze a trail, he even set a precedent!
Roy Thomas, from FOOM #14 (1976):
There were things for example, like having nipples on the male figure, which were not genrally done in comics before Conan and became part of it all. After Barry did them, I insisted that other artists like John Buscema and Gil Kane include them, even though they were reluctant to do so, or kept forgetting them. Sometimes I’d draw them on myself if the artist had forgotten, or have them added to a whole book not because I thought it was terribly important, but it was a consistency that kept the book being all of a piece.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of Roy Thomas drawing nipples on John Buscema or Gil Kane’s pages is obscurely delightful. It’s the professional equivalent of going through your comics as a kid and drawing mustaches (or … other things) on all the characters. It’s a scandal. It’s Nipplegate! And who was the poor intern who got their start in comics adding nipples to barbarian books at Thomas’ command?
But Thomas’ nipple continuity would go largely unnoticed, and it would be several years before comics would get its first genuine high-profile nipples-on-men controversy …
That’s right — nipples on the Bat Suits, courtesy of director Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin! It damn near toppled the Republic back in 1997.
Somehow we survived. (It chased poor Batman out of theaters for the better part of a decade, though!)
See you next week for another F.O.O.M. Friday!