… Red Sonja! (1977)
Not a great book by any stretch, but Red Sonja is Conan-adjacent, and it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine how Frank Thorne’s interpretation might appeal to an adolescent boy.
(I also read the recent Dynamite Red Sonja strip but don’t much remember it, sadly).
Help me build a reading list for the letter, “R!” Give me your ideas in the comments section, below!
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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!
Read my column about Red Sonja!
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The Song of Red Sonja
Yesterday I wrote about the not-so-great Red Sonja solo series from the 1970s, but this article is all about Sonja’s origins, in one of the finest single comic book issues of all time — Conan the Barbarian #24. It’s a classic tale from Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Read all about it!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) …
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Title: Red Sonja
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1975-1979
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: Marvel Feature #1-7, Red Sonja #1-15
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: D
- Own The Originals: MyComicShop.com
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #91 By Any Other Name: Sub-Mariner!