Welcome to another Spotlight Sunday, in which I share my thoughts on a single comic, selected by you, the reader, from the week’s purchases.
As with the inaugural post, there was something of a paucity of votes on this week’s Weigh In Wednesday post, despite the fact that I added a polling option to simplify the voting process.
There were only two votes…and one of them was mine, done as a test of the poll. My vote only counts in the event of a tie, so that means that, with one whole vote, this week’s lucky book is…
RED SONJA #8
Writer: Amy Chu
Artist: Carlos Gomez
Cover A: Mike McKone
Cover B: Ben Caldwell
Cover C: Jonboy Meyers
Cover D: Cosplay Cover
Cover E Subscription: Mel Rubi
Red Sonja is something of an oddity. She’s considered a creation of writer Robert E. Howard – who is most notable for the creation of a certain sullen-eyed, iron-thewed barbarian – but to a much greater extent, she’s the creation of Roy Thomas. While working at Marvel, the company that, at the time, had the rights to publish stories based on Howard’s creation, Thomas essentially created a pastiche of two Howard characters and placed the resulting warrior woman in the Hyborian Age so that she could be a contemporary of Conan.
In time, the licensing for Conan and related properties transferred from Marvel to Dark Horse, but Sonja followed a different path, ultimately ending up at Dynamite.
(We won’t even get into the oddness of the 1985 Red Sonja movie, starring Brigitte Nielsen and Conan himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger…who played someone who was very much like Conan, but wasn’t Conan.)
Sonja is largely known for setting the standard in non-functional armor, going off on epic adventures wearing little more than a metal bikini. As originally conceived, she was also known for an origin that involved seeing her family and village slaughtered, being brutally raped, and then granted great fighting prowess from a goddess who extracted from Sonja a vow of chastity, compelling Sonja to swear that she would only lie with a man who could defeat her in battle.
In her current incarnation, the rape/vow of chastity components have been – correctly – jettisoned, but the skimpy outfit remains.
The outfit also remains a favorite of cosplayers – and fans of cosplayers – everywhere, to the extent that Dynamite publishes a variant cover for every issue featuring a photo of a cosplayer.
Which leads to another way in which Red Sonja is odd; even with the removal of the deeply disturbing rape and chastity vow origin – essentially, the point of the character was that after being raped she would only be willing to be with someone who could rape her – the character remains very much an example of some of the worst tropes of the Strong Female Protagonist, particularly in terms of her visual design.
And yet, despite these issues – and more besides – she remains popular with female readers, and it’s clear that not everyone is picking up her comic book adventures just for the skimpy outfit.
She’s also been something of a draw for talented women who want to write her stories, such as Gail Simone – as an aside, if you’re on Twitter and you’re not following Gail Simone (@GailSimone), you’re missing out on a lot of fun – who wrote the run that preceded the current series. It was actually Gail taking over the character that got me to add Red Sonja to my pull list.
Current series writer Amy Chu (@AmyChu) continues the woman-led scripting of Sonja’s adventures, and has taken the She-Devil with a Sword in a new direction, literally pulling her into the 21st Century.
As with last week’s entry, this comic isn’t really a great jumping-on point, as it’s the second issue in a new story arc, and follows on the heels of the events of a one-shot special issue and the seven regular series issues that precede it.
So, a quick recap: back in the Hyborian Age – roughly 10,000 years ago – Sonja confronted her nemesis, the evil sorcerer Kulan Gath, and in the course of their battle found herself transported somewhere else. Not just somewhere, it turns out, but also somewhen. Specifically, modern-day New York. A confused Sonja is left struggling to make sense of her new surroundings and to find Gath and force him to return her to her home.
Even in New York, a tall redhead wearing a metal bikini, shouting gibberish, and brandishing a broadsword is going to stand out, so eventually she attracts the attention of the NYPD, and meets a police officer named Max, who is the only person who can understand her ancient tongue, claiming that it sounds like a language his mother spoke when he was a child.
In due course, it turns out that Kulan Gath, who is immortal, is living as a wealthy billionaire in the Big Apple, and Sonja isn’t the only time-tossed inhabitant of the Hyborian Age, as Max is also from the Hyborian Age, having travelled to the 21st Century as a child, and arriving several years before Sonja. All of this was news to Max – though it did explain him understanding Sonja – as is the fact that he’s a wizard. Together, he and Sonja fight against Kulan Gath, but in the course of the battle, Max falls through a portal in time and is returned to his own era, but Sonja gets left behind.
Max’s partner, however, is continuing to receive an indication of the location of Max’s phone (which went through the portal with him), and it’s showing up at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where, notably, a big project just launched, a project funded by Kulan Gath in his mortal disguise.
So, with her trusty companions, Holly and Spike, two cosplayers/Hyborian Age fangirls, Sonja, hits the road.
Along the way, as Sonja continues to learn about her new surroundings, she has an altercation with a biker gang. After the brawl, she learns that members of that gang sold drugs to the son of the owner of the bar in which Sonja was wetting her whistle, drugs that killed him, and Sonja vows to deliver vengeance.
Sonja steals a bike and hunts down the bikers, and forces one to tell her who their leader is and where said leader can be found. The gang is led by someone named La Reina, who operates out of Amarillo, Texas.
And that’s where this issue picks up, with Sonja, Holly, and Spike making their way through Texas. While stopped at a diner to recharge and to assess their plans – with Sonja’s quest for vengeance threatening to sidetrack them – some members of the gang that Sonja is waging war against spot Spike’s (uncle’s) car in the parking lot and set it on fire, which leads to a brawl, which leads to our intrepid trio cooling their heels in jail.
As luck would have it, Holly’s father is a wealthy local judge, who gets the three of them released to his custody…much to his regret, as the next morning we see that the three have hit the road in a Lamborghini that Holly “borrowed” from her daddy.
We also get a couple of scenes of Max back in the Hyborian Age, where he’s made some friends of his own, and is off on a quest to find his way back to New York.
The other thing we learn in this issue is that Sonja is on the FBI’s radar as the result of her involvement in what they’re calling a “terrorist event” in New York (the battle with Kulan Gath), and because of the decapitated body of a member of the biker gang.
This is a sub-plot that remains a bit unclear; when we last saw Sonja interacting with that gang member – he’s the one who told her where to find the leader of their gang – his head was still comfortably attached to his shoulders, but at the end of the issue, the FBI was on the scene of his murder. It’s unclear whether Sonja killed him, as we didn’t see it happen, and killing him would be a bit out of character, as he was defeated and had told her what she wanted to know. It’s possible that she killed him for his role in the death of the bar owner’s son, but that sort of straight-up execution just doesn’t sit quite right. If she didn’t kill him, the obvious question of who did arises, which is why I suspect that someone else was involved, as it provides another plot thread, an idea that’s amplified by the final page reveal of the dead biker that adds a certain gravity and significance indicative of something bigger.
Overall, it wasn’t a terribly exciting issue, and I’m finding the role that coincidence plays in the plot to be a bit much, even in a sword and sorcery story featuring a buxom, bikini-clad warrior woman from the ancient past.
Speaking of bikini-clad, presumably, setting the story in the present provides an opportunity for Sonja to wear clothing made from additional materials, and that simply has additional material, but despite ditching the mail bikini, it’s apparently impossible to ditch the male gaze, so she continues to dress as though her life is a never-ending Maxim photoshoot.
This might be less of an issue, and would be in keeping with Sonja’s characterization over the years, but Holly and Spike opt for much the same style, and it is something of a distraction.
In contrast to Gail Simone’s run, in which Sonja was presented as someone who was completely uninhibited with a lust for life who was as far from the chaste Sonja of old as possible, Chu’s interpretation, so far, has been largely sexless. Yes, other people think she’s sexy, but she has evinced no particular interest in the pursuit of pleasure (beyond some heavy drinking).
Not that wearing revealing clothes equates to being promiscuous, but it just seems odd (which is a word that keeps popping up), and, again, is distracting. Chu’s Sonja isn’t inhibited, exactly, but she seems more pragmatic and blunt than anything else. I suppose it’s a subtle difference, but it’s one I’ve noticed.
Ultimately, I suspect, and am only speculating here, that there are certain editorial requirements, or at least a tacit understanding on the part of the artist, about how Sonja dresses, and delivering what the fans want on that front.
In terms of the art, Carlos Gomez has a style that is reminiscent of much of what was prevalent in the ‘90s. Specifically, it’s like something you might see from rising artists who rushed in to fill the void at Marvel after the Image exodus. It’s not bad, certainly, but, perhaps fittingly for the current storyline, it does seem a bit displaced in time.
The storytelling is a bit uneven – it’s well-executed in a scene set at the FBI headquarters, but in the action sequences there’s a too-rapid escalation from mundane multi-panel sequences of relative calm to explosive full-page action shots, in which, really, there’s isn’t that much action.
One final sticking point I have is the attempt at social commentary that seems a bit too tacked-on. To be clear, I’m not complaining about the presence of social commentary, but I’d prefer that it flow a bit more organically, or barring that, actually addressed rather than simply expressed.
As presented, the complaints about “Big Pharma,” immigration, gender inequality, and the criminal justice system expressed by Spike just fall kind of flat, and rather than being an informed, passionate advocate for progressive values, Spikes comes across as a parody, the kind of extreme, insufferable straw-liberal that audiences are conditioned to hate. It’s just…odd. Additionally, the one aspect of it that might have led to some narrative pay-off – a woman in the cell with Sonja and company overhears Sonja’s musings, in response to Spike’s comment about drugs, that these women might know something about the biker gang’s leader, and begins to offer information, but is cut off by the arrival of Holly’s father – is just dropped.
I’ve actually been on the fence about continuing with this series. I had originally had Red Sonja added to my pull list specifically because of Gail Simone taking the helm, but with Gail gone, I’ve kind of lost interest, and have only continued with it out of habit, and because the comic shop keeps auto-adding anything Sonja-related.
I’ll probably give it to the end of this story arc, and then see whether I want to continue. I like Sonja a lot, but like I said, she’s odd, and, with the exception of Gail’s run, I honestly like the idea of her more than I like most of her stories.
One of the fun aspects of the current run, though, is the standard fish-out-of-water story – which we get two of, between Sonja in the present and Max in the past – and seeing Sonja adapt to her surroundings. I mean, Sonja as bad-ass biker? Sonja trying out a gun but rejecting it for what she knows? It all works, but isn’t quite enough to make up for the other areas in which the story kind of drags.
So we’ll see what happens.
Red Sonja Volume 1: Queen of Plagues – Collecting the start of Gail Simone’s tales of the She-Devil with a Sword.
Frank Thorne’s Red Sonja Art Edition – Celebrate the seminal work of legendary fantasy illustrator Frank Thorne with this gorgeous hardcover collection, presenting for the first time the actual storyboard artwork from his complete 1976 run of swords-and-sorcery icon Red Sonja’s appearances in the Marvel Feature comic book series. Scanned in high-resolution color and printed at original size, Frank Thorne’s Red Sonja Art Edition preserves every detail of the artist’s meticulous skill and hard work, while simultaneously presenting a complete storyline for the enjoyment of longtime She-Devil fans.
Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death – Before Red Sonja, Amy Chu wrote the adventures of another, very different redhead.
That’s it for this Spotlight Sunday! Check back – and vote – on the next Weigh In Wednesday!