Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Red Sonja Chronological Retrospective 01: CONAN THE BARBARIAN #23 (Marvel, 1973)

Contrary to common opinion, the Red Sonja we all know and love was not created by Conan scribe Robert E. Howard. She was born out of the imagination of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith in search of a strong female supporting character to enrich the Conan series of comic books being published by Marvel in the early seventies. In Thomas own words, he “had been casting about already for a female equivalent of Conan – not an absolute doppelganger, mind you, but a character similar in skills and attitudes in certain ways, yet with a somewhat different point of view” (from the introduction to The Ring of Ikribu, 1981). That’s when he stumbled upon an article by Allan Howard on Amra magazine dealing with the Crusader stories that Howard had published in several adventure pulp magazines of the 1930s. Among them, there was a reference to a short story published in The Magic Carpet Magazine of January 1934, entitled The Shadow of the Vulture. Although the leading character of that story, taking place at the time the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1529, was one German knight by the name of Gottfried von Kalmbach, the hard-drinking hero spent half the story being rescued by a Polish-Ukrainian red-headed girl , named Red Sonya of Rogatino. With his curiosity piqued by Allan Howard’s assertion that had Conan and Red Sonya met, “she might have been a bit too much for him”, Thomas proceeded to adapt REH’s short story into the Conan timeline: the siege of Vienna became the siege of Makkalet, the Turks became the Turanians, von Kalbach became Conan and Red Sonya became the she-devil with a sword from Hirkanya. And so it was that in page 15 of CONAN THE BARBARIAN #23, in February 1973, Red Sonja appeared for the first time.

As depicted by British artist Barry Windsor-Smith (for me, the best all-time Conan artist), Red Sonja is a fiery, lithe red-head, donning a long-sleeved mesh-shirt and wearing leather shorts that bare her thighs, adorned with daggers. It’s a Sonja very distant of the more rubenesque iconic warrior that fan-favorite (and my all-time favorite Sonja artist) Frank Thorne would popularize later on, but a close one to the Red Sonya described by Howard on the seminal short-story: “It was a woman, dressed as von Kalmbach had not seen even the dandies of France dressed. She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was carelessly thrown a scarlet cloak.” Windsor-Smith adds some ear-rings for good measure.

When the story begins, Conan has been sent from Makkalet with a message to the king of Pah-Dishah begging for reinforcements to the besieged city. Once the message is delivered, Conan turns south, not wanting to return to Makkalet whose young queen had tried to kill him, back in CONAN THE BARBARIAN #21. However, hunted down by the sinister Mikhal Oglu, the titular Vulture, unleashed on him by the vengeful Prince Yezdigerd of Turan, whom Conan had disfigured, the Cimmerian is soon running back to Makkalet, driving his horse to death trying to escape the pursuing soldiers. He falls within sight of the city gates, only to be aided by the mercenary troops from Pah-Dishah, commanded by none-other than Red Sonja, that spew out of the besieged city. It is obvious from this first meeting of giants that Thomas wanted Sonja to create a durable impression. So, it is fitting that the first time Conan met the Hirkanyan warrior he should be prostrate on the ground, looking up Sonja’s leg, while the red-headed seems to barely acknowledge his presence there.

Sonja fights like a she-devil. In Howard’s words, “her onslaught was no less terrible than that of a she-panther. Her strokes followed each other too quickly for the eye to follow; her blade was a blur of white fire, and men went down like ripe grain before the reaper. (…) Oaths flowed in a steady stream from Sonya's red lips and she laughed wildly as her saber sang home and blood spurted along the edge.” Following closely the original short-story, when Conan tries to thank her for her help, she rebuts him saying that she had only done what she was being handsomely paid to do. I trust some original readers must surely have started right then counting the pages until she would die a miserable death. But that was not to happen.

Sonja – Conan keeps repeating her name, “Son-ya”, both to familiarize the reader with the correct pronunciation, and to allow Thomas to distance her from her original namesake – is described (in another close echo of the original story) as “all-men’s delight – and no-man’s love”, although in this first story no mention is made of her vow, or of her back-ground.

Before the issue is over, Conan is ambushed by traitors within Makkalet and sequestered into an isolated outpost, there to wait for the arrival of The Vulture. There he is once more rescued by Sonja, who fights alongside him. That Sonja should have come to the rescue when she didn’t seem to care the least about Conan was a clever way to imply the sparkling of a first flame between the two characters. The ending is appropriately gruesome and memorable for such a story, and wisely, Thomas refrains from centering the denouement on Conan and Sonja, whom we see for the last time preparing to face their respective adversaries. Through this simple expedient, Thomas leaves an open ending as to the possible relation to be established between Conan and Sonja. Would she be just one more of the fleeting flames that so often filled the pages of Conan’s adventures? A first, tentative answer would come the following month in The Song of Red Sonja, on the pages of CONAN THE BARBARIAN #24. That will be our next stop.

Final Note: The Shadow of the Vulture, by Thomas and Windsor-Smith, should have been published in CONAN THE BARBARIAN #22 (January, 1973). However, some 13 pages of the story were lost in the mail, prompting Marvel to issue a reprint of Conan’s first story, from CONAN THE BARBARIAN #1 (October, 1970) as a filler for that issue. As the mishap was near the deadline for publication, Marvel was not able to substitute the cover for issue 22, sporting the title “The Shadow of the Vulture”. That’s why issue 23’s cover announces “Swords in the Night” instead of the correct title for the story. So, for the sake of completism, here it is, the original cover for “The Shadow of the Vulture”:


  1. always loved that cover for ish bad it's a came in handy when I could not afford # 1 yet

  2. Just a quick note, you keep refering to Buscema. I'm assuming you got tripped up over your 1970's comic book icons, & meant 'Thomas', since, & I could be wrong but, I don't remember Buscema (either John OR Sal) ever writing a Conan story.

    Interesting article otherwise.

  3. Hi there, and thanks for the comments.

    Indeed it is a great cover. I particularly appreciate the twenties-style lettering (art nouveau, art deco?) of the title.


    You are, of course, totaly correct. In the second part of the post I kept thinking Thomas and writing Buscema. Buscema is, indeed, another of my favorite comic book artists. And although he didn't write any of the Conan stories, he penciled or inked well over 200 of his stories in the 80s, when he was in charge of all three Conan titles run by Marvel.

    Anyway, thanks for calling my attention to it. I've already corrected the text. Thanks.


  4. Hi, this is my blog:

    I wrote an article about the Red Sonja of Frank Thorne. Regards.