At a certain moment during the always troubled run of Marvel’s RED SONJA, somewhere between the end of Vol.1 (1976-1979) and the rise of Vols.2 and 3 (1983-1986), the red-haired warrior lost the iconic metal bikini that Esteban Maroto made legendary and gained a (not totally ungainly) blue pelt leotard, only marginally less sexy and – if possible – even less protecting in combat situation (for those who care to subject comic-book fantasy women to that kind of reality-check). I can’t really say if it was a smart move or a popular one, but I do know that I hated it with all my heart – come on, Red’s not Red without the chain-mail bikini. And maybe it was coincidence, or maybe it’s just selective thinking, but I don’t believe that Tom DeFalco or Louise Simonson ever managed to deliver a really memorable story in that period; and certainly not one that could rival with such classic pulp yarns as “The Singing Tower” (RED SONJA #6), “Vengeance of the Golden Circle” (#8) or “Red Lace” (#10-11), just to mention some of my favorites.
Well, if in the early Eighties one could easily understand the prudish logic subjacent to such a drastic editorial wardrobe decision, what could justify so within the diegesis? I mean, did she got bored? Surely it was not because of the weather as in both “Red Lace” and “The Bear God Walks” (MARVEL FEATURE PRESENTS RED SONJA #5) we see Sonja fighting the wintry rains with her bikini on and the aid of a fur cape; and in “The Tomb of Three Dead Kings” (RED SONJA #15) the same ensemble keeps away the cold hard snows of a harsh Aquilonian winter.
Now, with the help of overrated best-selling author Peter V. Brett (The Demon Trilogy books), and eye-catching art by Walter Geovani, (also responsible for the mouth-watering sexy cover) the blue pelt leotard is brought back to Dynamite’s Red Sonja universe through the amusing one-shot appropriately titled BLUE. And finally we get to see a logic – and I dare say, defiant – rationale for such a garment. So, dear reader, if you don’t fear the SPOILERS AHEAD, read on.
From scene one, we’re made aware of the auto-referential elements of the story, which revolves around Red’s bikini armor, her vow, her sex-appeal, some deliciously twisted inversion of gender roles, and a curious comment on the reader’s own voyeurism. Indeed, there are several instances in which text and art threat to break the fourth wall and implicate the reader directly in Sonja’s predicament.
We start in media res, with a barefoot Sonja climbing the snow-covered phallic tower of an evil wizard. As she tells us, times are not good right now. “Not long ago I was the most feared general in the world. Now I’m ridding peasants of the local bogeyman for a handful of pennies and a warm place to winter”. Worse still, “(…) I can’t even afford to oil my chain mail. I’m starting to squeak”. We soon find out that Red Sonja has been hired by a tavern-keeper to save her son from the clutches of an evil wizard who is about to sacrifice him to the blue-pelted demon Bramothes in exchange for a few inches in height (yes, compensatory mechanisms of that kind are pretty much dominant in this comic book). The young lad is being offered as a tribute because he is a virgin, in a clear role-reversal for the sacrificial virgin maiden, made even more pertinent due to a later observation of the demon (“I can smell the innocence on him”, he states when the kid tries to deny his lack of sexual experience) about Sonja herself. Her presence denounced by the unexpected squeaking of her dagger being drawn, Sonja confronts and defeats the wizard, only to be grabbed by the demon Bramothes who tantalizingly hooks a sharp claw under Sonja’s chain mail bikini, right between her luscious breasts.
The obvious erotic connotations are made explicitly clear by the demon that drawls menacingly: “For all your bravado, there is a delicious scent of innocence about you. I will enjoy this feast!” Now, having previously referred to young Bregan’s virginity as “innocence”, the demon raises a pertinent question about Sonja’s own “virginity” – a matter also touched upon on this very interesting post by Gene Phillips and that I intend to address in a proper post further down the road.
And, in a moment to be forever inscribed in every Red Sonja fan’s wet dreams for years to come, the red-head lashes with her savage sword, wounding the demon on the neck, the sudden jerk of it’s talon breaking the chain mail bikini that rains around her in a twinkling shower of metal discs.
Then, in a gorgeous pin-up page (Geovani should be given the art job in every current Red Sonja title), Sonja turns to the demon, fierce eyes ablaze: “Enjoy the look, dog, they’re the last thing you’ll see”. But although she is diegeticaly addressing the demon, and the insert reaction shots show both the demon and Bregan fascinated by Sonja’s naked breasts, it’s the reader she is speaking and looking at, as if chiding is for our prurient fan-boy delight.
“Why don’t you save yourself the trouble and simply remove the rest of your armor?”, taunts the demon, clearly aroused, despite its wound. To what Sonja retorts, blue eyes as fierce as fiery diamonds, mischievous smile on her face, “Cur! You’ll cloth me from your pelt!” And it does, after Sonja beheads and skins it.
And thus begins the second act of the story; Sonja, now clothed in blue returns with Bregan to town where she expects to spend the winter, fed and housed by the boy’s mother, winning drinking contests and dancing on the tables afterwards. The second act is mainly concerned with the metal bikini and the rationale for it. First, en route to town, they are ambushed by a family of rag-tag robbers that do not believe that she is who she claims to be (“If you’re Red Sonja, then I’m Kulan Gath”, the robber patriarch chides. “Everyone knows she wears nothing but a touch of steel on her naughties!”). As I’ve written before, in comic-books what the characters wear is an important part of who they are. Their garish clothes are less subject to reality adjunctions than they are to its functions as identity markers (that’s why even in covert operations, Captain America wears his uniform underneath his disguise, even when entering a secret Hydra base – as in Captain America, Vol.5 #24).
And in Sonja’s case, the chain mail bikini, covering only her breasts and genitalia, obeys to a somewhat perverse logic, inasmuch as she is condemned, by her vow, to be forever challenged by men intent on bedding her. It seems strangely fit that she should dress so erotically. BLUE also addresses some practical aspects of the chain mail (besides the need for careful lubrication) closely connected to this: when she looks for an armorer to repair her bikini top, she finds herself at the bitter end of laughter and jokes:
And than, adding prurience to insult, the armorer observes, after evaluating the damage, “and we’l need to… ah… measure carefully”, prompting Sonja to mutter in an obvious fourth wall crumbler, “Everyone wants a look these days…”
But, although conscious of the prurient aspect of the chain mail bikini, the story also makes a point about women in primitive times (or in any time, really), for when she’s talking to the innkeeper, Bregan’s mother, about her chain mail, being asked why should she want to wear “that slip of cold steel in the middle of winter when you have warm fur. And does it not pinch?”, the fact that she’s wearing the fur, and not the bikini, doesn’t stop a patron from pinching her buttocks. Simply, men would behave as such independently of what she may wear.
So why wear it? BLUE’s answer to that (echoing what seems to be Dynamite’s standard stance on this issue – and Ishtar bless them for that) is voiced by Sonja herself: “It’s easier to run a man through when he’s watching your navel instead f your sword point, especially lovesick fools looking to test my vows”. It may not be very convincing – I do prefer to believe she wears the chain mail for less obvious and more subtle psychological reasons: a woman warrior who can not be sexually loved unless defeated in battle, should wear some outrageously sexy outfit as a compensatory (almost suicidal) mechanism to cope with the pressure – but it proves painfully accurate in the particular down-beat denouement of the current story: a cold, unflinching ,tying up of all the threads left hanging all through the build-up.
Walter Geovani’s inks really capture Red Sonja’s fierce beauty and earthy sexuality, and Ivan Nunes’s color palette ranges sensuously from healthy skin tones to cozy interior warmth. Brett’s scrip is funny and bravely attempts to justify Sonja’s clothing options, tacking forth some pro and con arguments, and wisely choosing the pro. Crom bless him. All in all a very rewarding read, addressing several pertinent points of Red Sonja’s mythology.