Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Red Sonja Fan Art: Garrett Blair



Garrett Blair's pin-up art has a je ne sais pas quoi of extremely captivating; one can say that all his drawings are of the same girl, with only eye and hair color variation, but that, by itself, it’s not a minus – that’s only proof that in comic books it’s the costumes that identify (and sometimes define) the character. And so Blair morphs her ideal girl into every comic book character that ever fired his (and our) imagination, presenting them to us through color, costume and attitude. By such criteria he, and his Savage Land series of drawings, are fan-favorites. By the same token, the image above, displaying our beloved Red Sonja in a contemporary coy pin-up pose is a fail, for it poses her out of character. It still has the same erotic allure of all his drawings, but the pose clearly demolishes the sense that it is Sonja we’re looking at, and not some unnamed sketch with hair colored red and a chain mail bikini from the mental prop department for fantasy/female warrior characterization.



Not so with this second drawing, of a Red Sonja in chains. Here we can feel that it aims to represent the Hirkanyan warrior: the expression on her face and the emerald fire in her eyes, screams loudly that she is not pleased by being bound. Her countenance is that of someone beaten but not defeated. It doesn’t spell fear… it’s more annoyance for the clearly erotic bondage – this is not a Sonja that has been captured by someone bent on killing her. Oh no. The way the rope goes around her breasts, pushing them together, accentuating her cleavage, is the work of a fine connoisseur of erotica. She’s not there to be tortured, but to be ogled. Laura Mulvey, eat your heart out!



This third image does not need a story. It is a picture of calm dominance. Sonja has lost her top, but she is not covering her breasts in fear, prudishness or in a defensive way. Her hands are merely serving as mediators. Her expression tells us that she could as easily stand in proud topless that it wouldn’t nick a inch her position of power. But she knows that her nudity holds us entranced… it holds a great sway over us. And so, she teases us. Men, hummf.





The two images above represent the battle damage that every Sonja fan dreams of, and that every feminist Sonja fan deplores. It represents the prurient side of comic book costuming, the essential unreality of the diegesis, the all-consuming male gaze that demands that Sonja’s chain mail be broken but that her skin should not be marred by the slightest scratch. And one would despair of trying to imagine the sword swipe that could so damage Sonja’s bikini bottom. They are clearly images of fantasy, a fan wet dream, a bit of over-eagerness, a piece of adolescent bad taste and a confirmation (note the blood on her blade) that whoever sees Sonja’s breasts, dies! What a way to go!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

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”:


Sunday, July 10, 2011

RED SONJA: BLUE (Dynamite, 2011)



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.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Queen Sonja #2

Monster Island News has some sneak peeks at the new Queen Sonja TPB #2.
http://robojapan.blogspot.com/2011/07/queen-sonja-volume-2-red-queen-tpb.html


It looks pretty cool.
Here is the info:

SKU: C1606902156
Rating: Teen +
Cover: Lucio Parillo
Writer: Arvid Nelson
Penciller/Inker: Jackson Herbert
Genre: FANTASY, SWORD AND SORCERY
Publication Date: Advance solicit in June for July shipping
Format: softcover trade paperback
Page Count: 144+
Caution Code: C:0-1-2

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Savage Swords of Elephantmen, The DragonKing's Daughter

So I was perusing the new comics on the rack today and saw a cover that featured characters very familiar to us all. Except...it wasn't a Sonja title. It was an issue of Elephantmen (#32) - with the caption The Savage Swords of Elephantmen, The DragonKing's Daughter

Curious. Very curious.

So I picked it up, Elephantmen not being one of my regular titles, and flipped through it. Sure enough, Elephantmen had done a Red Sonja tribute issue (the Sonja character is named "Vanya" in the story).





I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, so I'm not entirely sure what it's all about. It looks like it might be a hallucination/dream sequence for one of the regular Elephantmen characters. I'll have to read it later and blather on about it in the comments.

Dan Panosian

A wonderful cover from Dan Panosian.