Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing Red Sonja 1, originally released July 17th, 2013.
Shelby: I love fantasy novels. I’m about half-way through re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series in preparation for the final book, and I’m loving every minute of it. Jordan had some interesting ideas about men and women, most of them boiling down to the fact that men and women are actually just all people, and very similar in many ways. It seems like a pretty straight-forward idea, but it’s pretty unique for a genre that may have a worse reputation than comics for its depictions of women. So a fantasy comic book with a female lead known for the least beach-appropriate swimwear in the history of bathing suits seems a risky venture in this day and age, one more likely to appear as the worst kind of dated than anything else. Luckily for us all, Red Sonja is in the ridiculously talented hands of Gail Simone, so we’ve got nothing to worry about.
Three years ago, mighty King Dimath conquered the cruel Zamarons. He discovered they had been keeping peasants alive in the dungeons to fight each other for sport; the only survivors were two women, and I bet you can’t guess who one of them was.
Jump to three years later, and our favorite chain-mail-bikini-clad gal is accosted by three robbers, whom she dispatches handily despite being a little drunk. She is “aided” by two extremely enthusiastic archers, who say they’ve come to take her to Dimath. You see, Dimath’s army has been devastated by the plague, and the Zamarons have decided to take advantage of that fact. They were on their way to destroy everything, and with a population of women, children, and artesans, Dimath needed Sonja to train them to be soldiers, so at least they’d go down fighting. The day of battle dawns, and Sonja discovers the pillaging Zamaronian army is lead by none other than Dark Annisia, her sister-in-arms from her slave-pit fighting days.
First thing, out of the gate: I want to address the bikini. We’re all familiar with the cheesecake history of women in fantasy novels, as well as the women as male fantasy object issues comics have had in the past. Simone could have put Sonja in something more realistic, more conservative. Instead, she chose to grab those stereotypes by the balls and make them her own. This Sonja isn’t the object of some male fantasy. This Sonja wears what she wants to wear and doesn’t let it stop her from being as fierce and tough as she wants to be. Simone is embracing that sexuality instead of worrying about it, putting it on display as a choice of the character instead of a choice of the viewer. She talks about it in this great interview with The Mary Sue way back when this title was announced. Personal moment for me: like every other kind of thing there is to be, it’s easy to worry about being the wrong kind of feminist. I’ve definitely found myself pondering, “Wait, how can I love pin-up culture and burlesque so much? Am I a bad feminist?” I’m not kidding, these are the worries I have. Simone has just reminded me that you don’t have to sacrifice cheesecake sexuality in order to have an empowered female character; they’re not mutually exclusive.
But enough of that serious stuff; this issue for me was mostly just a really good time. I don’t know anything about Red Sonja other than the fact that she’s Conan the Barbarian’s female counterpart, and I’m not even sure how accurate that is, so I was more than satisfied with her origin as presented here. We don’t know who or what she was before she was forced to fight for her life in the slave pits, and it probably doesn’t even matter. What matters is that she’s Red Sonja now. She’s an unstoppable fighter, crass and direct to boot, but not without mercy, as demonstrated by her encounter with the third robber. When she found out he had the plague, she left him wine and a blade to end his life, even offering to end it for him: not in a “you tried to rob me, I kill you!” way, but in a “the rest of your short life is going to be hell, can I end your misery?” way. She is not without compassion, which I think is going to be the big difference between her and Dark Annisia in the upcoming battle. I’m curious to find out what it is about Sonja, either before or after her time in the slave pit, that taught her that compassion which separates her from Annisia. How did that woman end up as the murderous general for the very people who enslaved and tortured her? Like any Simone work, this issue gives us sass and fun at the surface, but opens doors for more complex character development going forward. What did you think, Drew? Were you as satisfied as I with this introduction to Red Sonja?
Drew: Oh, this was immensely satisfying. As medieval fantasy, this thing was basically firing on all cylinders. At this point, we don’t know anything about Sonja beyond her badassery, but I think you’re absolutely right to suggest that Simone is laying the groundwork for more intensive character work down the line. Still, this issue solidly establishes Sonja as a hard-drinking force-to-be-rekoned-with a la Thor, Rooster Cogburn, and Wolverine.
That’s some badass company to keep — and it’s a credit to Simone that Sonja could believably go toe-to-toe with them — but it’s also distinctly masculine company to keep. It may be society’s problem that we associate badassery with machismo (and I can’t claim to have a better barometer — I associate machismo with being twelve years old), so I don’t want to dwell on the idea that Sonja achieves her badass status by acting like a man, but her actions do feel stereotypically masculine. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s any expectation that Sonja should be making doilies or serving tea, but it’s interesting to me that she’s instead surly and hungover.
Like Shelby, I have no history with this character, so I honestly have no idea if this is classic characterization — maybe she just is the Rooster Cogburn of Hyrkania — but I do have a lot of familiarity with Simone (er, at least recently). She’s obviously beyond reproach when it comes to resorting to masculine tropes to toughen-up characters — her Barbara Gordon is badass in a totally different way — but it’s interesting to me that this particular character-type is otherwise entirely made up of men. Sonja isn’t just adding diversity to comics shelves in general — she’s adding it very specifically to a particular character type.
That all may be fun to discuss in the comments, but it ultimately doesn’t matter in the story — Sonja is the toughest person Dimath knows, and is the only person he can think to call. I appreciate her insubordination when she refuses to call Dimath “sire” until his “last day.” It just seems like more tough-girl characterization until she finally pulls out a “sire” as she leads their unprepared army into battle.
She knows (or at least anticipates) that they will fail, but that doesn’t divert her at all from leading them all into battle.
Walter Geovani is brilliant on art duties — his layouts in particular seem to tell the story themselves. Most pages adhere to a strict grid system, but the battle scenes find him breaking from that pattern, adding an extra layer of chaos to the art. Additionally, he avoids any leering cheesecake in spite of Sonja’s outfit, giving her all of the dignity required by Simone’s characterization.
I’m hooked. This is a more thrilling first-chapeter than most fantasy novels can boast, and I can’t wait to learn more about what led Sonja to that Zamoran dungeon (or what she’s been up to since). We may not know much yet, but I’ve certainly learned enough to pique my curiosity. Bring on Dark Annisia and her fish-men!
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