Today, Drew and Taylor are discussing Red Sonja 5, originally released November 20th, 2013.
Time makes fools of us all.
-Eric Temple Bell
Drew: I’ve seen this E.T. Bell quote thrown around quite a bit, but it becomes less alluring with its often-omitted second half: “Our only comfort is that greater shall come after us.” It’s clear that Bell is taking a historical perspective — our ideas and actions will someday be looked upon with the same bemusement that we have for the Salem witch trials — but I’ve always been more intrigued by how this plays out in my own lifetime. Time has a history of making us eat our own words, whether it’s doing something we swore we’d never do, giving up something we swore we’d always love, or just making us embarrassed about the people we used to be. A recent piece in the New York Times explained that we’re terrible at anticipating those kinds of changes — we simply can’t fathom that we’ll ever change, even though we always do. I found myself thinking about this quite a bit as I read Red Sonja 5, which finds two former friends battling on the very grounds they swore they would never return to.
The issue opens with the twins and Sonja busting their way into Patra (in spite of Sonja still being barely alive), where they meet up with Dimath’s son for his plague “curative.” It seems to mostly be giant leeches, but it also seems to work. Meanwhile, Sonja has sent word to Annisia that they will face off at the Zamoran arena, where they managed to avoid fighting each other all those years ago. As they battle, King Bazrat — the man who enslaved them and turned them into gladiators — reveals himself.
Short of revealing that Annisia is Sonja’s mother, writer Gail Simone has pitched every element of this scenario as high as it can possibly go. Not only is Sonja fighting her sister-in-arms (or possibly her former lover, Simone is just ambiguous enough with the language here), but they’re doing it exactly like they were almost forced to do against their wills three years ago, right down to the detail of having a hedonist monster watching and rubbing his hands together. It’s like they’re going to their high-school reunion, only a million times more feels (oh, and somebody will probably die).
Actually, Sonja is pretty emotional throughout the issue. When Nias wants to know how Sonja’s so strong all the time, Sonja makes her feel bad for asking.
Of course, this isn’t just idle moralizing — this lesson plays directly into the twins’ aspirations of becoming Red Sonja. Indeed, when they later suggest that they can lead the women of Patra against Annisia, they are dismissed out of hand. The point is clear: wanting to be a badass does not make you a badass AND no badass actually wants to be a badass. Still, the twins can hold their own in a fight. Maybe they’re not so bad, after all.
Sonja also gets emotional when the twins reveal Dimath’s modestly marked grave. She saw Dimath as a uniquely just ruler, as well as her own personal savior, as she recalls her and Annisia’s different reactions to being rescued from the slave pits of Zamora.
Intriguingly, issue one finds Sonja refusing to kneel or call Dimath “sire” until his “last day.” Next month’s issue promises the close to the “Queen of Plagues” arc, but I’m hoping Simone has some space to explore what happened to Sonja after this moment that would have prompted this change.
Far from getting in the way of the action, all of these emotional beats build upon one another to make for quite an emotional final battle. Of course, Simone can’t help but throw in a pretty rousing, yet entirely emotionally detached fight at the beginning of the issue, but the beating heart of this arc has been Sonja’s relationship to her past. I can’t wait to see her confront that past head-on in the next issue. Simone has always been adept with her emotional beats, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her write with so many emotional balls in play at once. Heck, she even has time for some local color about giant slugs and how mermen hate fire. This was an all-around great issue. Taylor, were you as pleased with this issue as I was?
Taylor: Honestly Drew, I’m not sure that I feel particularly strongly about this issue for good or for bad. My overwhelming feeling after reading this month’s Red Sonja is that it’s okay. It’s hard to say exactly why I feel this way, however. I guess it’s that there is no one point of the issue that I think is all that bad and there also isn’t one part I think triumphed over the others. This month’s effort seems to be a workman’s effort and I don’t mean that as a dig. If anything it should be viewed as a complement, as I think we are witnessing to a professional writer putting out some solid work without having her mojo really firing on all cylinders. This is okay – sometimes you have the fire and sometimes you don’t but the ability to still put out a decent is commendable.
Part of the reason this issue failed to really grab me in any meaningful way is that Sonja herself is oddly aloof. Usually she’s brimming full of character and has such an “in your face” personality. Here, however, whether it be intentional or not, she’s half of what we’re used to seeing. This could be due to her being infected by the plague, but even for all of her new-found frailty, she expresses an odd remorse for her chosen way of life, as you pointed out Drew. Whereas you see this as emotion playing out, I see it is hypocrisy. A few hours previous to her statement that being a bad-ass is a dark path, Sonja was busy chopping off the heads of enemy patrols and killing Mermen.
Why was she killing these dudes? Well they’re bad guys, which I suppose is a good enough reason in itself, but ostensibly she does just so she can tell some dudes that she wants to fight Annisia. It just seems like an odd turn for the Sonja character to one minute be ruthlessly chopping baddies up and the next lamenting the burden of being able to do so. Maybe if you don’t like killing people, you shouldn’t, especially when just sending a letter would affect the same ends. It’s hard for me to understand a character acting this way and it distances me from her significantly. Maybe this is an attempt to make Sonja more than a bodacious killing machine, but I feel like that’s already been accomplished in the four issues which proceeded this. I’ve always thought of this series as being character driven (much like the excellent and late Sword of Sorcery) so having the titular character lose some of her magnetism caused me to lose interest in the issue.
But where the characters fell a bit short in this issue I thought the Red Sonja universe picked up the slack a little bit. I enjoyed that we got a significant amount of Merman action and I simply loved the giant leeches used to cure Sonja of her illness.
Weird and disgusting just about sums up the image above. Leaches are a sure-fire way to ramp up the queasiness effect in an issue, which is something I’m pretty sure is accomplished by correspondingly ramping up their size. It’s just the right mix of old school (and bogus) medicine mixed with weird and familiar sights from our own world which draw me into the universe Sonja inhabits. It’s like a fun-house mirror being held up to our own medieval past. It distorts it into something at once familiar and disturbingly foreign. My guess is Sonja, once back to health in the next issue, will return to form and continue to be the focal point of both her world and our comic.
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