Friday, September 25, 2015

Wishfull Thinking, or What About Truth in Advertising?

And so it ends, with a whimper, not with a bang, the insufferable run of Gail Simone in Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword. She will not be missed, sad to say. Now, as soon as the over-inflated, redundant, and in the end, utterly useless Swords of Sorrow is over, maybe we can ascribe all of it to a bad dream, a liquor-inspired nightmare from Simone's usually drunk Sonja.

The last panel of the story, after the lamest finish one has memory of, promises Next: Red Sonja Reborn. As a promise, it is tantalizing, a return to healthier and happier times, to a more purposeful Sonja, not this dreg of politically correct-propelled walking-ad for self-pitiful wannabe-feminists. However, one bears in mind the implied threat of Simone, proffered in the already quoted interview from Previews World, that Swords of Sorrow would change everything in all the books of the crossover event. That doesn't bode well for poor ill-treated Red Sonja.

What do you think, dear reader?   

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Alisa Marie as Red Sonja

Harley Quinn cosplay might the most popular, but here we still love Red Sonja the most.
Here is RS:SDWAS favorite Alisa Marie, aka Alisa Kiss, as Red Sonja.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

RED SONJA / CONAN #1 (Dynamite/Dark Horse, 2015)

Red Sonja has gained such popularity and wide recognition as one of the iconic female comics character, that one almost tends to forget that she was created by Roy Thomas (based on a character by Howard from a completely different timeline from the Hyborean Age) as a worthy female rival for Conan, the Barbarian (Conan the Barbarian #23). Since their first encounter in the besieged city of Makkalet , and the first hints of erotic attraction in “Song of Red Sonja” (Conan the Barbarian #24), each time the two hyborean legends meet is an event that truly merits celebration, as it usually adds to both character’s personality.

Dynamite/Dark Horse’s crossover Red / Sonja Conan is the second time such meeting that happens in 2015 after the mini-series Conan / Red Sonja, by scribes Gail Simone and Jim Zub, and superlative art and covers by Dan Panosian. Despite the Simone byline, Conan / Red Sonja was the best Sonja comic book I’ve read in a long time, with good writing, excellent storytelling, compelling visuals and a coherent plot, although I would bet Simone’s writing input was greater on issues #3-4 than in the first two, as those were the ones where shaky writing was more in evidence (I could be proved wrong). Those failings were most obvious in the erotic relationship between the two heroes, as the newly liberated and retconned Sonja, deprived of her ‘problematic’ origin story that filled any advance towards a relationship with a darkly erotic tension, left no room for any kind of tension or uncertainty as to any carnal relation, cheapening it. This also makes painfully obvious the infantile way intercourse was denied twice, something that had some meaning when Sonja couldn’t mate unless defeated in combat, but cannot be accepted in a book that (one would hope) is no longer targeted at children.  (By the way, another such instance occurs in this first issue of the second mini-series.) Despite such shortcomings, it was a gripping story, chronicling the feud between Conan, Sonja and the wizard Toth-Amon and his cancerous blood-root, at several (canonic) stages of their lives.

Red Sonja / Conan picks up some time after the events narrated in the previous series, and once more introduces the blood-root which one was led to believe to have been extirpated from the world. As a way to circumvent that small obstacle, writer Victor Gischler (X-Men; Deadpool; Conan: The Phantoms of the Black Coast) takes us through a nine-years flashback to the Kothian city of Enshophur, there to meet Kal’ang, “a mage of middling powers, commanding little respect” but about to get his hands on some of the genocidal blood-root seeds. Behind this far from awe-inspiring mage is an enigmatic blind seer, clearly a creature of greater power, cunning and, above all, intelligent dissimulation.

Then we’re brought back to the present, when Kush and Stygia are about to go to war, mainly because Kush’s king fears an attack from Stygia. It is no surprise then, to find that Kal’ang is now a small Stygian king, still as little deserving of respect as he was before. In fact, maybe less than before, as Conan at one time refers to him as “some hedge wizard. You know how it is with these Stygians… every upstart mage thinks he can conquer the world”. What may come as more of a surprise, is that Kal’ang doesn’t want that war… at least for the moment, a fact that subtly and cleverly draws the reader attention to the same blind seer that continues to counsel the mage king, hinting at a true puppeteer running the show unseen. 

It is at Kush’s king’s camp that Conan and Sonja meet again, both captaining a company of mercenaries, both pushed to fight each other for general command unaware of the identity of their opponent (not a very convincing premise logic-wise, but military logic is not a strong-point of this book, as is shown by the simplest way Sonja and Conan debate strategy over beers, and how Gischler seems to believe you can prime an army for battle with a few minutes warning time). Obviously, they don’t get to fight one another, instead teaming against some discontent mercenaries, in an impressive demonstration of Roberto Castro’s ability to portray fluidity of movement. 
Although I’ve enjoyed Castro’s (Lords of Mars; Lord of the Jungle) art, I still found it to unequal in this book, ranging from the mediocre (a panel where Sonja seems to have but one leg) to the excellent (as is the case in the referred fight). He is particularly inspired when drawing Kal’ang, transmitting visually the suave malfeasance and self-importance of the mage. And I particularly enjoy the way he draws Conan, which makes me think of a mix of the better parts of Windsor-Smith and Buscema. And he clearly knows how to draw feminine anatomy, which is always a plus when working on a Sonja book.

Obviously, for the fans of the original Red Sonja (such as myself), the insurmountable moment of estrangement comes when Conan, about to engage in a deserved threesome with two buxom wenches, is surprised by Sonja waiting in his bed. “You’re more woman than an entire harem of those wenches”, he tells her.

Obviously, before they can consummate their sensual yearning, they are attacked by two demon-warriors sent by Kal’ang to kill Conan and Sonja in an attempt to stay the imminent attack by the Kushian forces. The monster’s attack, repelled by the lovers-to-be, prompt them to anticipate the attack on Stygia, setting the cliffhanger for issue #2. And yet, one is left to wonder:

What would happen if Conan and Sonja really did it? If they really ever got to make love? I guess one will never know, for the entire Universe seems to be conspiring against such an event. In commercial terms, it would really be unwise, as we’ve learned from countless examples in the past: Superman and Lois Lane, John Steed and Mrs. Peel… the endless teasing, the eternal will-they-won’t-they? is a lot more rewarding than the one-time-only emotional peak of fulfillment. However, when Sonja had her vow never to fuck anyone who haven’t bested her in a fair fight, there was a meta-diegetic rationale that helped suspend the reader’s disbelief as to all the extraneous circumstances that went to prevent the carnal union. But now, in this pasteurized version of Sonja (or Horny Sandra, like our friend TheMightyFlip so appropriately termed her), one is ever aware of how ridiculous it is that every event of relevance to the plot would happen precisely when Conan and Sonja are about to engage in lovemaking, and even before they remove a single piece of clothing (or armor). It’s as if one is thrown back to the times of the Hollywood Hays code.

It feels a cheat, and lazy writing. Sonja now can fuck (and in Simone’s version, fucks) anyone she chooses, and it has been shown (at least in Conan / Red Sonja, repeatedly) that Sonja has no trouble beating Conan with a sword, and yet… not with Conan. It seems contrived, infantile and demeaning to the reader, who, one hopes, is long over the uproar of seeing Dick Grayson and Starfire in bed in The New Titans #1 (1988). It may be slim pickings, but it mars a little what otherwise is a promising start to a potentially interesting mini-series.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

SWORDS OF SORROW #4 (Dynamite, 2015)

Alea jacta est. With Swords of Sorrow #4 we reach 2/3 of the planned run of the series, and the point of no return for whatever story Gail Simone had in mind. Issue four is, indeed, the most momentous up to this moment, not least of all, because it’s the only issue thus far where something happens. Which, with fifteen books published, is a feat of abject proportions. It’s as if we’ve been watching the piano player cracking his fingers for almost two hours before flipping his coattails back and finally sitting down on his bench.  However, what happens, and above all, how it happens, underscore the fragile structure of the story and the poor talent of the musician.

I never saw Simone as a good storyteller, but her performance on Swords of Sorrow is way beneath amateurish: everything that happens, every slow step of story building, happens by omniscient fiat of a deus ex machina narrator. And the most baffling result of this is how passive all the main characters are.

Case in point: Swords of Sorrow #4. After three books of banter and fighting each other, our women warriors finally find the generals they were looking for (Dejah Thoris, Red Sonja and Vampirella, as established in issue #3). How do they do this? They ask Dracula, who knows “where the portals are”. That simple. Obviously, it begs the question: if what’s in stake is the existence of the Universe itself, and if Dracula has that kind of knowledge, why isn’t he doing something? Why will he leave the destiny of all existence in the hands of a bunch of girls that, as the story thus far has shown us, are utterly incapable of doing anything by themselves? 

It may seem as a harsh appreciation of the series up till now, but really, Simone and her cronies haven’t shown us a single instance of relevant action by any of their heroines. Truth be told, the case is almost the same towards her villains: both the Traveller and The Prince do little else then sit and grumble and bemoan their respective minions lack of results. This reduces all the action on the previously published fourteen books to an unrewarding movement for movement’s sake.

And that, to me, is quite jarring, for I still don’t understand what’s the point of all this frenetic red queen(s) racing all over the place. According to the series’s one-shot prequel, The Prince’s minions should prevent the Traveller’s minions of perturbing the former’s ritual, a ritual that would hand him supreme power over all of reality. However, the Prince does little more than sit in his throne room “nowhen”, and one fails to see what kind of menace our girls may constitute towards his plans. In reality if Purgatory, Mistress Hell, et al.  weren’t constantly goading them on, or trying to bribe them with promises of absolute power, Sonja, Thoris, Vampirella, etc… wouldn’t have a fucking clue to what was going on, or where, or when. All the heroines have done so far is being handled gifts and pushed through one portal or another without reason or rhyme.

And with the revelations operated on issues #3 and #4, where we learn the true identity of The Traveler (the only genuine efficient moment in the series so far), it becomes patently obvious how absurd the whole enterprise is. If The Traveler knows the identity and whereabouts of The Prince, and despite being an entity of extraordinary power, still needs generals and soldiers, why didn’t she tell them who the adversary was, where he is, and what they had to do? Doesn’t seem to me the brightest idea, on a countdown to annihilation (or “the end of days” as is put on the current issue), to let the foot-soldiers to figure out for themselves what’s going on.

And that – what’s going on – brings me to what I believe is the most incredible of plot contrivances: the identity of the Prince himself. That he was Prince Charming was not a red-herring, alas. And this attempt by Gail Simone to build up such an innocuous fairy-tale character to the stature of Myth is the most ridiculous bid for relevance I’ve read in recent times (maybe only the coup by J. Michael Straczinski to make Wonder Woman his own in The New 52 comes close to it in the 21st Century).

In a publicity interview for the series, Gail Simone referred to Prince Charming as “a character of legend (…) of massive power”, an idea that is hinted at at several instances all through the books already published, infusing the reader with the notion that Prince Charming is a being with the grandeur beyond that of a Galactus. But how to support such a proposition? Former reporter Lucy Freeman and psychotherapist Kerstin Kupfermann (who has worked of famous Freudian fairy-tales specialist Bruno Bettelheim, much in at the time of writing) write in their book The Power of Fantasy (Continuum, New York, 1988), that what they call the “Prince Charming” Fantasy is, in essence, the fantasy if idealized perfect love, a fantasy that cannot stand the quotidian reality of a longstanding relationship.  Being a book of Freudian bent, the authors cannot free themselves from the centrality of oedipal interpretations, and thus, the Prince Charming fantasy is one of longing for maternal love. However, its nuclear tenet is very close to Simone’s view: “Seeing a wife of several weeks in hair curlers or brushing her teeth may fill a husband with disgust. Watching her husband clip his toenails or hearing him pass gas in the bathroom may bring feelings of revulsion to a bride” (p.62). Snow White was not repulsed by Prince Charming passing gas, but by him deriving joy on revenge for what was done to her. For “Snow White was of kind heart, and could not bear to see his cruelty, even to the witch”, Simone tells us, through The Traveller. In this, if the extrapolation is allowed, we can see a mirror-image of Simone retconning  Sonja’s origin, so as to wipe out rape. In both instances, Snow White’s and Simone’s, there seems to be a disgust in dealing with reality, an attempt to stay in an idealized infant state. For a rabid feminist writer, it must be close to anathema the thought that a raped woman could gain power, strength and wisdom from her ordeal. That she could transcend such an ordeal. That she wouldn’t be forever defined by it as a victim.

So now consider the motivation of the character. Disgusted by Prince Charming’s revenge (to burn the witch’s feet with molten lead shoes, as in Grimm’s original telling of the story), Snow White leaves him, and, in return, he intends to destroy the Universe. For want of a good fuck, all the universe was lost… But then again, consider: if Prince Charming has the power to open rips in Time, of manipulating the Universe at a quantical level, couldn’t he just travel back in Time and undo his revenge? Could he not seek redemption through other means and so regain his lost love (although I bet something like that will happen in the end)? And really, what kind of immature man cannot abide to lose a loved one and go on with his life?

Anyhow, back to Prince Charming as figure of Myth. Feminist scholar Catherine Orenstein has this to say about him in her book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (Basic Books, New York, 2002): “It’s no secret that today’s best-known fairy-tale protagonists are female: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Red Riding Hood, to name just a few. These heroines act amongst a cast of banal male foils. The men are simply fathers, beasts, dwarfs or princes, all interchangeable and usually illustrated as one and the same from tale to tale. In Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Into the Woods, the Prince Charmings of two interwoven fairy tales swap places without so much as a ripple in the plot” (p.121).  That’s because Prince Charming has no relevant role to play in these tales, whose center belong entirely to women. “In these fairy tales, the heroines make decisions that illustrate the expectations of women in real life, while the male figures are simply metaphors for punishment (misbehave and you’ll meet a wolf) and reward (a prince in the end – if you’re good!)” (idem).

So what Simone is doing here, is creating a big paper tiger that her female heroines can disintegrate with their magic swords, as if in a pajama party for women that refuse to grow up (and how apt it suddenly feels to have Sonja revert once more to the Simone-simpleton that refers to herself in the third person and looks as dim as a burnt bulb). I was enveloped on the above musings (I admit, a little collateral to the review at hand) when in the double spread by the end of the book, where all the heroines are amassed against Mistress Hel, I got a sad glimpse of how Simone and her readers may see the world (or may fantasize the world as it should be).

This kind of setup is recurrent in comic-books, and frequent in comics featuring teams of Superheroes, be they The Avengers vs The Masters of Evil, The X-Men vs The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants or The Superman Family vs The Marvel Family, but never that I recall had I seen before such a setup comprised of men only. But here, in the dark tones of a cold night, sixteen women face a rival woman for the destiny of the Universe menaced by one of only four men in the entire story-arc (Dracula, the Courier, the savage boy Jana and Sonja meet, and Prince Charming himself). For a moment I saw this image encapsulated the entire agenda of Swords of Sorrow; that Simone was sex-reversing what she saw in comics: a male medium, populated by male characters, aimed at male readers. Perhaps an apt comment on the industry, as she is fond to refer to comic book publishers. But then it hit me: this could not be, as comics have always been a brewing pot for strong women characters, from Wonder Woman and Red Sonja, to Jean Grey and the White Queen. Nor forgetting Supergirl, Catwoman, Black Cat, Batgirl, Mary Marvel, and so many more that made my delight as a boy. So it is not the sad way they see the world. It’s the way their feminist agenda wants the world to be: a place that excludes man, that sees no place for man but as tyrants and world-killers. And if the first was a grey perspective indeed, this one made me realize how really really SAD their world is.

Monday, August 24, 2015


 So, last time we saw Red Sonja and Dejah Thoris (Swords of Sorrow #2), they were about to embark on a quest to find the part responsible for the puffing out of entire constellations and the sudden creation of rips across time and dimensions. It was a rousing moment, with a determined Sonja challenging the Universe and Thoris: “You said it wasn’t natural. Someone planned this. Fine. So, god or demon, man or beast… I’m going to find it and cut its god-cursed head off. You coming?

However one takes such a scene – whooping gung-ho enthusiasm or with a grain of salt as to how will she find said planner across time and space, having not a clue to who or what it is, nor the resources it can amass – one thing you’re sure  not expecting: that the challenge won’t be accepted. After all, it was Dejah Thoris who spotted the problem, was she not? 

And so, it came as a complete surprise to me, on opening issue #1 of Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja & Jungle Girl, to find Sonja, alone, wandering the dry deserts of Barsoom, in search of the portal Dejah Thoris had seen from afar.  I had been so certain that both Sonja and Thoris had plunged together into the portal, there to become somehow separated in time and space, that the complete absurdness of it all took some time to register. “The princess had to return to her city and her people, but I was made for a business messier than Martian politics”, Sonja tells us, as written by Marguerite Bennett. I could not believe my eyes, so I reached for Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris & Irene Adler #1 (written by Leah Moore, with art by Francesco Manna), as yet unread, and, lo and behold, there she is, Dejah Thoris, in her luxurious bed in the Royal Palace of Helium, admiring the strange dark blade given to her by the Courier and musing to her dog Woola about how such a blade “surely brings only suffering”.

The most jarring thing to me was not the return of Thoris to Helium per se, as it is a lot more logic than the gung ho attitude of Sonja as portrayed by Gail Simone in issue #2 (a clichéd comic book moment, but an expedient one story-wise). However, with four issues of Swords of Sorrow out now (three by the time Red Sonja & Jungle Girl #1 came out), the ancillary titles almost complete, the story is going nowhere. There’s nothing of significance happening, only an event after another that add to nothing, and add nothing to the story, flimsy as it is. One cannot shake off the impression I mentioned before of reading snapshots of story instead of a coherent narrative.

And so it is with Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja & Jungle Girl #1. Three entire pages are needed to take Sonja from Mars to Jana’s pre-historic Island, than another seven to go through the motions (already seen when Sonja first met with Dejah Thoris) of meeting Jana, the Jungle Girl, and fighting her, before both realize they are really allies. (Just a brief side note here to muse on how Sonja, the fiercest warrior out of Hyrkania and a true she-devil with a sword – soldier, thief, mercenary – can’t quickly dispatch a Barsoomian noblewoman or a primitive jungle girl in a fight. Oh, well….) And then, two more pages are needed to introduce the first element of possible relevance to the plot: the strange freeze affecting portions of the lush tropical jungle.

On the margins we lose track of the orluk that attacked Sonja on Mars and crossed with her to Jana’s island (never mind how the two got separated on the trip), and are deprived of any sense of suspense by a glimpse of Mistress Hel peeping through the vegetation at Sonja and Jana, like the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden, although she waits six more pages before revealing herself. In those six pages, Sonja and Jana see a deer being slaughtered by three winged demons, find an injured savage boy that is apparently responsible by the freeze and becomes their ally, and are attacked by said demons who then are shattered to ice crystals by the boy.

One thing the readers immediately notices is the weird banter between the two main protagonists, as if they’ve just came out of a Winx cartoon TV marathon. Although I, for once, find it refreshing to read once more some Sonja interjections of the kind “Mitra’s Balls!” or “Derketo’s Tits!” that bring a very welcome Roy Thomas & Frank Thorne vibe. However, there’s no way in hell that one would ever swallow Sonja answering on being called a witch by Jana: “‘Witch’, really? She-devil, sword mistress, queen of malice and scourge of maleficence, you could’ve said…” and then adding with a schoolyard degree of rhetoric, “and I could call you a sneaking vicious slat-ribbed giglet!” When Jana retorts “Heh, joke’s on you… I don’t know what that word means!” one’s left to ponder how infantile can you go before the joke’s on you.

And it sure is a minor quibble, but does it make any sense, when it was established that the swords allow them to “understand each other’s languages” (Swords of Sorrow #2)? That is not the only instance in this book when the issue of language is referred to, for on the immediate page Sonja has similar musings on how can a tatterdemalion like Jana speak good honest Hyrkanian, to which Jungle Girl responds with “I don’t know what either of those words mean, either”.  Minor quibble it sure is, although it squanders practically a full page that could be put to good use advancing the story. If there really is a story to be told, as at this point, one is not assured of it.

Another not so minor quibble has to do with another instance of poor coordination between Simone and her hand-picked female writers. I’ve already mentioned the by-the-numbers encounter between Sonja and Jana, with both attacking each-other. But then, after a double spread of sexy catfighting, Jana says “I was warned against your coming, trusted with a sacred spear…” It needn’t be said that when the Courier offered Jana her double-bladed weapon (Swords of Sorrow #1) we heard no such warning; but if she was warned, why, oh why, would she attack Sonja? And why was Sonja not given a similar warning? (The situation is once more repeated, almost verbatim, in the Swords of Sorrow: Black Sparrow & Lady Zorro one-shot). This kind of lazy writing (and lazier plotting) is almost mandatory by the lack of capable overall storytelling that should have been secured by Simone.

 However, despite all these shortcomings, it is not as big a pain to read as the main books of the series (penned by Simone). Bennett’s writing, episodic structure not-withstanding, is brisk and clean, and the art and colors by Mirka Andolfo bring the book two or three notches above Dávila’s inks in Swords of Sorrow. The colors are pale (I would enjoy a little more vibrancy in the depiction of the tropical jungle and sea) yet adequate, and the drawings are strangely enticing, despite its juvenile lines. The characters are drawn with somewhat disproportionate eyes (a clear neotenic indication of juvenilia) and under-proportioned noses, which brews a heady mix with the full grown breasts and lithe bodies of both girls. The pages flow with elegant action in the fight scenes, and the small panels cramped by the above the shoulders views from both girls add nice introspective nuances to the emotional flux. 

It would be nice to see this young Italian artist secure at leat a six-issues run on Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword after Simone has left the title. Or, at least, a couple of one-shots. For me, at least, Andolfo’s art will be the main attraction for Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja & Jungle Girl #2.