Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing Red Sonja 3, originally released September 11th, 2013.
Shelby: Last month things were looking pretty bad for our gal Sonja. The man who was like a father to her was dead at the hands Dark Annisia, the ultimate frenemy. The people she came to defend were dead in battle or dying of the plague. Also, she was actually dying of the plague herself, and sent into exile to die alone. At least she had the promise of fever dreams of her loved ones, dead and gone; there’s always that to look forward to, I suppose.
Sonja is dying. She collapses in the forest, and dreams her father comes to her. He tells her she can let go and join her loved ones, but she says she doesn’t know how. Her hallucination goes deeper, and she remembers her first hunt with her father and brothers. When she cannot kill her quarry, a majestic white stag, her father says she is not ready for the hunt. That’s when the notice the smoke rising from their village. Her father orders her to stay, which she ignores, which only gets her to the village in time to see the marauders slay everyone there. After burying her dead, she finds she actually is ready for the hunt after all, slaying all 22 of the men who took everyone she loved from her; Red Sonja the Devil was born. She wakes up and realizes it is now time to die, so she digs herself a grave (like you do). Her incredibly cheery and loyal bodyguards show up, claiming the king’s son had discovered a cure for the plague, except it seems they are too late; their beloved mistress is dead.
What a beautiful issue. Gail Simone spins Sonja’s origin perfectly, couching it in hallucinations of her father and a mysterious white stag. I love that Sonja’s skill and power was her own, but she couldn’t use them even to feed the village until skill and power were all she had left. The marauders took everything from her; all she was left with was the ability make them pay.
Artist Walter Geovani and colorist Adriano Lucas did a superb job this issue, especially with the flashback. Lucas gives the colors a sepia wash that makes them seem like old photos. It’s a great visual cue to differentiate between Sonja’s memories from her hallucination about the white stag.
It sets a strange “what is real?” tone to the scene. The color scheme shift helps create the feeling of actually hallucinating; the talking stag colored like the rest of Sonja’s reality, instead of washed out like her memories, demonstrates just how far gone Sonja is. She knows she’s hallucinating, but she finds it comforting, like Annisia said she would, so she accepts the talking father-stag as her reality.
I’ve been really pleased with what Simone has done with this character so far. I knew nothing of Red Sonja before this reboot, but instantly appreciated Simone’s approach. In her hands, Red Sonja is independent and powerful. She does what she wants, but has a fairly strong moral compass. Even though there are moments of characters pointing out that it’s weird she behaves the way she does because she’s a woman, she still strikes me not as a well-written female character, but a well-written character who is female. It’s a fine distinction, but Simone has a way with writing women such that their gender affects their stories in a believable, realistic way. And a big round of applause for eliminating rape from Sonja’s origin story. Apparently, her original origin was very similar: maruaders, family murdered, etc. The big difference was, in the original Sonja was raped, and then prayed to a goddess who granted her the strength and skills to avenge her family. But only if she never hooked up with a guy unless he bested her in combat. Basically, she could kill as many people as she wanted, unless she slept with a dude who wasn’t better than her. There’s all sorts of nonsense in that, but Simone smoothly cuts it all out. Her Sonja has her own power, her own agency, and she is going to get the job fucking done.
Unless she’s dead, of course.
Drew: Shelby, I’m also totally new to this character, and I love that we have yet to actually pin her down. Is she a gladiator? A mercenary? A dark spirit of vengeance? I’m most interested in how different that last one is from what else we’ve seen of her character. When we first met Sonja, I compared her to the likes of Wolverine and Rooster Cogburn — effective killing machines that may still have a scrap of morality to appeal to — and while this issue effectively explains how she may have become a killer, I’m a little less certain about why she stayed a killer.
That “when called upon” becomes a bit of a sticking point for me. I can understand why Sonja might put her aversion to killing aside in the interests of self defense or even vengeance, but I don’t think this issue very effectively explains why she would continue to kill once the danger and the rage had subsided. Usually, revenge stories end once the revenge has happened. That is to say: Sonja isn’t Batman. She seems too self-interested to have any kind of lofty goal of protecting all innocents — she strikes me more as an opportunist than an idealist. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that characterization — everybody loves Han Solo — but it seems to be at cross purposes with the “revenge” explanation for how a meek-but-skilled twelve-year-old who wouldn’t hurt a fly could become an apathetic mercenary.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I disliked this origin story — Shelby is right to cite how brilliantly Simone deploys Sonja’s agency — just that there’s clearly more to her story. Before I’m drowned out in the resounding “duh” of anyone wanting to point out that this is a comic book, let me be clear: I’m simply reacting to the way this issue appears to explain how Sonja came to an adulthood of killing, when I think it only explains a specific situation in which she would kill. Obviously, there are some mitigating factors, including exactly how brutal Sonja’s world is; if it’s dangerous enough, “when called upon” might come up often enough to justify her without-a-second-thought killing of the robbers from issue one.
At any case, this issue is an incredibly effective revenge story. Making Sonja a skilled but unwilling hunter was a stroke of genius on Simone’s part, making her meekness an element of character rather than of gender. Moreover, the fact that her reluctance to kill stems from her personality rather than her ability makes her transformation all the more powerful — she wasn’t just a killer waiting for the tools, she was a pacifist forced to change because of the circumstances. Taking any goddesses out of the equation makes all of Sonja’s strength her own, and makes her transformation one of character and not of magic.
It’s interesting, I love this story, but I hesitate to embrace this issue fully because I’m unsure how it is meant to fit in the context of the series. Of course, we may not yet have that context fully fleshed out. Each issue has found Simone adding new elements to Sonja’s character — I don’t think we had seen her sense of duty and loyalty before — and I certainly expect that to continue for the next several issues. It’s a new series, and Simone is still defining the parameters; I’ll try to withhold judgement until we get more of the picture.
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