Catch-Up with Red Sonja – PART 1: Grab a Steed
Catch-Up with Red Sonja – PART 1
My goal this year has been to expand my comic book horizons. After years of almost exclusively reading titles published by DC, I’ve been making an effort to branch out to other publishers. Recently I reviewed Killing Red Sonja #1. I was excited for my first Red Sonja experience, and then surprised when that comic focused on another character and she wasn’t even in it. Much like Sonja the Red, I have a warrior’s spirit. I embarked on a quest to catch up on Red Sonja. Now, dear reader, I share with you the spoils from my journey through Hyrkania and beyond.
Red Sonja was created for Marvel Comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. The creative team based her on two characters from the works of Robert E. Howard, who also created Conan the Barbarian. As such, Red Sonja became intertwined with Conan when the two characters were brought into the comic book medium. Since then Red Sonja has come into her own and become one the most well known characters in comics. Even if you’ve never read one of her comics, you’ve probably seen her image. A red haired warrior carrying a sword and wearing an armored bikini. Marvel published comics featuring Red Sonja from 1973 through 1999. The rights to the character were eventually sold to Dynamite in 2005, and they brought the character into a modern era of the sword and sorcery genre. Dynamite’s Red Sonja tales will be the primary focus of this article. Lucky for those who want to experience classic Red Sonja stories, Dynamite reprinted some of these original tales in collected editions.
One of these collected editions is Further Adventures of Red Sonja. The stories in this Omnibus were printed between 1975 and 1992. Although written and drawn by various authors and artists, all these stories are set in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. This fictional epoch is a vanished age, taking place after the fall of Atlantis but before the rise of any known civilization. Red Sonja hails from the country of Hyrkania and travels across Hyboria fighting enemies and having adventures. This collected edition contains a dozen exciting stories, one of which is Red Sonja’s original origin story. After her family is slaughtered and her body forcibly defiled, Red Sonja is visited by the goddess Scáthach. Sonja is granted strength and fighting prowess so long as she never lies with a man, unless he bests her in fair combat.
Over the course of the adventures contained in this book Red Sonja faces bandits, monsters, wizards, werewolves, necromancers, and assassins. I really liked the first story in this volume, “She-Devil With A Sword” by Roy Thomas. Not only was it my actual first experience with Red Sonja, but the story had classic horror elements. Another of the stories that stood out to me was “Red Sonja Quells The Song Of The Siren” as it was the only story written by a woman. Since the issues in Further Adventures of Red Sonja were drawn by multiple artists and published across several decades, the change in art styles from story to story gave this collected edition the feel of a vignette-style action film.
Dynamite published their first Red Sonja series, titled Red Sonja: She-Devil With A Sword from 2006 to 2013. The series ran for a total of 81 issues. The issues contained in the first Omnibus were written by Michael Avon Oeming and Mike Carey with art by Mel Rubi. This Omnibus collects issues 0 through 18. The adventures within comprise the story of the Nemedian Chronicles. In the first arc, Sonja leads a rebellion to free the people of Gathia from the Celestial, the caliphate of the dark god Borat-Na Fori. Then Sonja faces off against a master hunter and a gang of bandits while tracking other followers of Borat-Na Fori. Finally, the third arc sets up the return of the sorcerer Kolan Gath, who will become Sonja’s main adversary for the next several chapters of the series.
Writers Oeming and Carey make really intelligent tie-ins to Red Sonja’s original origin throughout the entire Omnibus. Their character development builds on itself from one chapter to the next and compliments the plot development nicely. The reader also gets a strong sense of Sonja’s personality from the first chapter onward. It quickly becomes clear that she is more than just a warrior, her character has a subtle complexity. Sonja’s moral ambiguity provides a unique contrast to the obstacles she faces throughout the story. The creative team keeps Sonja’s classic bikini-armor, but the writers offer a smart explanation for this seemingly impractical garb. Sonja’s armor serves as a distraction to divert her opponent’s attention, making them that much easier to slay. The art in this book is really interesting. The page layouts contain many panels of varying sizes. Yet the pages rarely feel dialogue heavy and the visuals move the story forward at a quick pace while still managing to include many detailed illustrations.
The first 34 issues of She Devil With A Sword follow a version of Red Sonja near identical to the original. Then a new version is introduced for the remaining 47 issues. This Red Sonja is a new incarnation of the original warrior. She starts off her adventures by infiltrating a gang of pirates in order to avenge her fallen husband. After issue #49 the series split into two titles with the new title being called Queen Sonja. Then six months later the regular Red Sonja series resumed with issue 50 and the two ran concurrently. Queen Sonja enjoyed a 35 issue publishing run.
Queen Sonja Omnibus Vol. 1 collects the first half of the spin off series. The issues collected in this Omnibus were written by Joshua Ortega, Arvid Nelson, and Luke Lieberman with art by Mel Rubi and Jackson Herbert. The story follows Red Sonja’s ascension to the throne and her reign as ruler of Sogaria. Sonja starts out her quest in search of the Sword of Aurora. As she begins her journey, Sonja becomes aligned with a band of Sogarian warriors and joins them in a rebellion against the empire of Emora.
My favorite part about Queen Sonja is that each issue contains a small adventure that builds onto the series’ larger narrative. There are also a lot of cool side characters on both sides of the conflict. The writers find a good balance between action and story development which creates an intrigue filled plot. As the story unfolds Sonja’s reasons for traveling to this area of Hyboria are revealed. The writers build suspense by waiting to expand upon Sonja’s reasons for seeking the Sword of Aurora. This new Sonja’s personality is different from her predecessor. The previous incarnation didn’t want others to bow to her or to rule over them. This one goes on to carve out an empire. Though both are united in their goal to rid Hyboria of evil.
I really liked the art in this first Omnibus. I especially enjoyed the use of shading to add depth to the illustrations. Many of the battle scenes are drawn with a perspective that adds an even greater sense of depth to the action. The entire book is full of beautiful full page spreads rendered with vibrant colors. Close ups are used to great effect to showcase the emotions the characters are feeling. I do wish that Rubi was as good at drawing faces as he is at drawing breasts. There are times when it’s hard to tell Sonja apart from the other female warriors. That being said, the action scenes stand out enough that it’s easy to look past the occasional lack of fine detail. There were many times where I stopped reading the dialogue altogether just so I could take in the gorgeous artwork.
The second half of Queen Sonja follows Red Sonja as she builds an empire and defends it against military and mystical threats. The remainder of She-Devil With A Sword showcases Sonja’s adventures as a mercenary facing off against the armies of Koth and Argos. For those who want to check out any of the collected editions mentioned in this article, Dynamite has been running sales on many of their titles, including those starring Red Sonja. First issues of many of their series are also available for free. As Red Sonja’s first adventures at Dynamite began to wind down, a new era was dawning on the horizon…