I guess you don’t need a special occasion to celebrate Red’s origins and past adventures. And here, in Red Sonja – She-Devil With a Sword, we need no reminder of it, as every day is Red Sonja celebrating day. However, I believe there are some grounds to suspect this impromptu celebration of the RED SONJA 1973 Dynamite’s one-shot, being as it is almost two years past the round celebrating year of 2013 (or having three more years to go before we’re at Sonja’s 45th anniversary in 2018). So, one is hard pressed not to link this celebration to some discontent over the soon-to-be-over Gail Simone’s run on Red Sonja; a way of bringing back some lost readers who don’t recognize this new demythologized, depowered and banal Sonja. If that is the case, there could be no better idea than to bring back Sonja’s original scribe Roy Thomas to pen a new she-devil with a sword adventure. Unfortunately we get no more than eight pages of Thomas among three other writers from Dynamite’s stables – including dreaded Gail Simone and Eric Trautmann – and two yet unproven newcomers, which makes the whole endeavor seem more like an appropriation by Dynamite’s staff of Sonja’s past glories than a true celebration. (And, it is, as it pertains to Dynamite’s celebration of its ten-year tenure with Sonja.) At least, those were my first thoughts on browsing the table of contents. This said, what can we add about this special issue?
First of all, one must mention the gloriously eye-catching cover by my favorite cover artist Ed Benes. If there’s a man who can draw magnificent and magnificently sexy women that man is Ed Benes, and with this haughty Sonja, thigh deep in some swamp’s treacherous bilge, he makes a remarkable update of fan-favorite and iconic cover from Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword #4, by Mark Silvestri. Benes’s cover is poorer in detail (and maybe even poorer overall), but his Red Sonja is a fierce vision of beauty and might, inviting the reader to dive inside the pages of the book in search of adventure and magic.
Alas, eager reader won’t find any of those treats in the first story of this book, “The Raiding Party”, written by Eric Trautmann with indifferent art by Ivan Rodriguez. I admit that with only seven pages to show off his skills, any aspiring writer would feel confined. But Trautmann is no aspiring writer, and, with no less than 25 consecutive issues writing Red Sonja he is the current holder of the longest solo run record of Red Sonja stories (at least I believe it to be the case). No beginner here. So why such a poor excuse for a story? No more than a vignette, really, as we watch – incredulous – as a flat-chested Red Sonja (donning the original chain-mail shirt from her first appearance in Conan the Barbarian #23 back in 1973) attacks a raiding party of Hyperboreans returning from incursions against the Vanir and Aesir, only to free their loot, a bunch of northern warrior women abducted from Asgard (sic) and Vanaheim “for the amusement of Hyperborean nobles”. And that’s it. Really.
The entire story is made up of a long fight atop a moving wagon, the outcome of which is never in doubt, and a pretended twist-ending (the revelation as to the nature of the cargo) that comes out absurd and gratuitous by pure inept writing. Indeed, Sonja attacks the party by surprise, killing two of the escorts with arrows, and virtually materializing among the others with the quip “Forgive the intrusion… but you have something I require.” However, as soon as she frees the women, one of them promptly declares “I’ll happily open the throat of any gray-skinned bastard that cares to have a try”, and, turning to Sonja, “But you? You’ll join us?” And, to the reader’s great surprise, Sonja utters a nonsensical “No. Head for your homelands. I’ll lead them a merry chase away from you. If this is the worst Hyperborea has to offer, than what is there to fear?” (in an explicit nod to the Red Sonja #100 special).
I referred above to Ivan Rodriguez’s art as indifferent. Some nice facial expressions are undone by angular bodies and awkward poses, and the color palette chosen by Marcio Menyz, which casts a sickly yellowy pallor over everything doesn’t help in the least. Particularly as it makes the reader ponder the description of the Hyperboreans as being “gray-skinned bastards”, as the colors on the story portray them as uniformly greenish-yellow.
There’s a lot more one could say – for instance, with the first panels showing the raiding party from multiple angles (supposedly POV angles from Sonja before she lets the arrows fly), and being shown to us that the party is travelling through a barren road with sparse-to-no vegetation, where in hell did Sonja come from? – but suffice to declare this a poor and unsatisfactory reading.
Sonja’s creator and veteran writer Roy Thomas’s entry, “For Whom the Bells Troll” easily recaptures the feel of 70s Red Sonja, in a simple and droll story of a rape attempt, a fight, and a troll under a bridge. And this is our Red Sonja, chain-mail bikini-clad, man-magnet and trouble-arouser, as willing to talk her way out of her predicaments (letting others do the fighting for her) as to slash with her savage sword. As in “Song of Red Sonja” (Conan the Barbarian #24), she is at the same time self-confident, cynical and loyal, even to an ugly brute who wants nothing more than to “ravish and pillage” her. As the brute tells one of his cohorts just after Sonja has decked him with a kick to the nose, “She kicked me when I wasn’t looking… and I’m gonna kick the livin’ insides outta her… when she is!”.
As with Ivan Rodriguez, I didn’t much appreciate Rich Buckler’s sketchy art on this story, one that made me think of how filled with luscious detail it would have been if Dynamite could have brought Frank Thorne back for a reteaming with Thomas. Ditto for the cold color spectrum favored by Arison Aguiar that, with Buckler’s art, have a very detrimental effect on the story.
Arison Aguiar is also de colorist on duty on “The Simple Life” by Luke Lieberman (Red Sonja vs Thulsa Doom, with Peter David and Will Conrad), the next entrant on this celebration, but here the cold palette is a lot more appropriate to the snow-bound story, although flesh tones still look somewhat askew on the spectrum. Rod Rodolfo’s art is on a par with Ivan Rodriguez’s, although a lot less dynamic, and doesn’t make any effort to avoid some strange compositions (as when Sonja seems to be flying towards Ori's crotch).
As to the story itself, Lieberman takes us back to the first hours after Red Sonja’s family is killed by marauders and our fiery warrior-to-be is gang-raped. Obviously unwilling to embrace the seminal origin story as envisaged by prime scribe Roy Thomas in “The Day of the Sword” (Kull and the Barbarians #3, 1975), Lieberman makes no explicit reference to that primal rape, although the way Sonja – still a teenager at the time – taunts rebel youth Ori clearly point to it: “So, that is your plan, join up with some other thugs and push women around? Wow -- ‘big man’. Course, I’ve seen bigger.”
In a way, the elliptic references to that traumatic experience parsed out all over the short narrative enrich the character development, moreover as Lieberman does an excellent use of Sonja’s silence and introspection on the first part of the story. However, despoiled of her mystic endowment by the Goddess – and of her problematic vow never to surrender to a man unless beaten in a fair fight – Sonja comes away a lot poorer than the larger-than-life character she should be. For instance, one would be hard pressed to believe that this Red Sonja would ever become the Red Sonja of “For Whom the Bells Troll”. Worse of all, maybe, is that Sonja doesn’t seem to even bear a grudge against the marauders that destroyed her life and youth (contrary to established canon, Sonja kills them all here, off screen, and so the theme of revenge is dismissed entirely even before the story begins). And so, the determinant factor to Sonja’s new being and new life, in place of the Goddess, the vow, or the need for revenge, is just a youthful thug; a “stupid, fat slopsucker”, as Sonja refers to him at some point. Not someone that would justify an entire existence as a she-devil with a sword. Despite some nuanced writing, “The Simple Life” comes out at the end as Disney-lite family entertainment.
Gail Simone’s “The Hanging Tree” is, at least to my utter surprise, the most entertaining story thus far in this issue. Falsely accused of murder on some unnamed village in the outskirts of some unnamed kingdom, Sonja, about to be hanged, does a Sherlock Holmes stunt and exposes the true murderer just as she performs an exciting escape. Entertaining though it may be, it is an incredibly flawed and amateurish detective story. First of all, it commits the most basic of narrative mistakes when Simone pits Sonja’s word against the culprit’s without external validation; in no court in the world would this “unmasking” ever make any sense, let alone sway public opinion from one thesis to the other. And then, after it is established that only the real culprit (besides Sonja) could have known that the murdered merchant was deep asleep when he was murdered (as unbelievable as this sounds, since lots of people would deal with the dead body dressed in day clothes), what’s the origin of the scratches on the culprit’s neck, if there was no fight between murderer and victim? (Trust me, I read the story twice just to make sure.)
The art by Kewbar Baal is the best thus far in this issue, presenting us a sultry Sonja clad in her original 1973 chain mail shirt, and the colors by (again) Arison Aguiar don’t seem to distract too much from the events on the page. None, however, can distract us from the irritating Simone’s habit of making Sonja refer to herself on the third person (it makes her sound feeble-minded and stupid); and, by the way, any reference to Sonja’s farting doesn’t make her feel more flesh-and-bloody, just adds to the infantilism of the writing.
The beginning of David Walker’s “The Arena of Dread”, with Sonja in chains, sold as a slave to satisfy the lubricious appetites of some small tyrant (here appropriately named Lord Sadistos), is reminiscent of the classic Roy Thomas’s and Esteban Maroto’s tale “Red Sonja” from The Savage Sword of Conan #1 (1974), but all similarities end there as the present story has none of the verve, daring, imagination or sense of adventure of the classic. To those desired attributes, it substitutes some of the worst writing on any of Red Sonja’s titles published since 1973.
After quickly making mush-meat of the tyrant’s unmentionables (as expected), Sonja is thrown into the titular arena of death, where several women gladiators are pitted against male gladiators in life-or-death matches. There she proceeds, by bloody example, to inspire the other women – one of whose, on meeting Sonja, and asked about how long has she been a prisoner, tells her “too long. I have long prayed that someone would come save me and the others from this terrible place.” – to stand for themselves and enact a Spartacus-like revolt. The idea by itself would spit in the face of originality, but the affront is compounded by the revelation – straight out of the blue – that Sonja has been hired by the families of some of those women to rescue them, but that she feels she must first instill some balls into them, by making them continue to fight to the death. That’s how she sees things: “I could not set you free from this prison, just so you could be enslaved in another.”
The absolute absurdity of the premise needn’t be mentioned, and all the ways this absurd plan could go wrong strains the credibility of even the utmost childish comic-book logic. If at least the artwork by Bilquis Evely could instill a certain degree of kinectic action, but it looks too constrained by the panels on the page, besides providing us with the ugliest Sonja I can remember. Evely also assumes the coloring of the story, choosing such a pale tone that it makes Arison Aguiar seem positively dazzling in his use of color. The worst thing, perhaps, is the threat that ends the story, telling the reader that “Red Sonja and the Nubile Barbarians shall return”. Please, dear Crom, noooo….
Of course, David Walker is the first of our two newcomers, and that could explain much of his script's shortcomings. The other newcomer is Cullen Bunn that pens “Silent Running”, an exciting wordless cinematic dash of an elfin Sonja (an option by artist Jonathan Lau I’m not entirely satisfied with) through unaccountable perils and towards a surprising final destination that successfully brings this special issue full circle.
To choose to rely entirely on art to tell the story is a courageous decision by any writer, as it demands a total knowledge and control over the comic-book writing process. In Bunn’s case the bet was a risky one, but fortunately paid off in a nice succession of dynamic panels that awe and excite its readers (although I didn’t enjoy the unnecessary explosion at one point, or the videogame-inspired perspectives of some panels).