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.


  1. Wasn't Red Sonja turned into a vampire recently?

    1. That was the Crimson Well arc which started with issue 76 of the first series, as I recall. It was an arc that came out of the Prophecy crossover whose importance to Dynamite was abandoned before it started for Simone's announced run. It has no connection to Simone's series.

    2. The Simone/Zub crossover struck me as a trite story. The time jumps made Thoth Amon seem the slowest moving enemy ever created as he needed years to get any plan going. Also, the Bloodroot, after the creepy first chapter reveal became less threatening than a kudzu infestation thanks to the lack of focus on Thoth and the Bloodroot. An average episode of Scooby Doo would be the level of threat Conan and Sonja faced in that story. The less said about Conan going all emo-angst about his life of bloodshed and Sonja throwing herself at him for pity sex the better.

      This offer from Gischler did not feel much better. The art had gaffes enough. When Sonja and Conan first meet his axe loses its blade in one panel and when they go into a clinch the blade is dangerously close to gelding him.

      Writing had gaffes enough, too, such as ditching the two wenches for Sonja 'Conan no longer needs of you' which is bad on many levels. First, Conan no longer HAS NEED of you. There's more writing gaffes through out the text, too many for a professional book, really. Secondly, and more important in some ways, when has Conan ever used that idiotic sounding third person voice? Crom!

      Finally, this had the feel of later Marvel works where Sonja would appear and be a second banana supporting character. Conan proposes the dual command, he's done the scouting and discovering the enemy's supposed weakness in cavalry, and the fight at the end has Sonja tackled and Conan beheading the attacker after chucking the beast jumping him out the window. Sonja puts a shaft in him in the end, but these two were shown to be nothing but a nuisance to Conan. Apart from the initial fight, and the arrow, the bulk of Sonja's action in word and deed is trying to get under Conan's furry breeches.

      Altogether, this was a very poor showing for the character in the first issue of the book produced by Dynamite. This is especially seen in the dialogue from the mercenaries at the start and the assassins at the end who pointedly address themselves to Conan alone referring to Sonja as 'his harlot' in the first instance and 'his bitch' in the second.

      Action alone has showcased her as Conan's sidekick, but in addition having the villains referring to her in so belittling a way is not rendered less obnoxious by Sonja getting her licks in after the fact when the overall action has portrayed her so much in Conan's shadow. Taken altogether, it makes her ham-handed come on in the pub and later appearance in his bed smack of the most juvenile desperation one would expect to see only in some bad summertime teen romantic comedy.

      A lot of folks may prefer Sonja without the vow, but I don't as this is precisely the kind of direction that would have happened at Marvel had there been no vow. Sonja would have ended up jingling arm candy for Conan as she pretty much does here in Gischler's story. That they don't do the deed in Dark Horse or Dynamite to date is likely editorially imposed which leaves the first/second base encounters looking like painfully obvious bait and switch antics. I didn't hate this first issue, but I certainly didn't like it either.

  2. Well, you certainly have pointed some very straight issues that really went wrong with this book (and the previous crossover). I went back and re-read the book, and indeed the glaring grammatical inconsistencies are all there sure enough. As are the art gaffes, as you so well put it.

    And indeed Sonja seems to be playing second-fiddle a lot, although the way her opponents refer to her as "harlot" or "bitch" is not inconsistent with the context. And Sonja being pinned-down on the bed by the monster-attacker is, I guess, just a little bit of titillation, a hint of some erotic naughtiness that will never be (and that's the panel where Sonja seems to be missing a leg).

    Let us wait for the next installment, and see how it goes. I admit I was a little less critic with this book than with the Swords of Sorrow crap, and maybe because of it (I was so filled up with that lousy story-line that this seemed something a little less annoying).

    Although I admit to some weak points on the previous cross-over, I don't think it is as bad as all that, at least considered in context of the recent Dynamite run. And although CONAN /RED SONJA has some weak spots (mainly in books 3 and 4 - and yes, the angsty Conan and the sexually-comforting Sonja were the most jarring) I didn't find that Thoth Amon's delayed action was as much annoying as all that. I frequently despair of how easily it seems that everybody can concoct a scheme of world domination, amass the necessary resources, deploy the plan, suffer one or two setbacks, and rebound - all in as little as a few days/weeks - before being finally dispatched by our heroes. Sometimes it is nice to see a plan that takes some years to develop. Mainly when in those years so much changes in the lives of out protagonists [Conan meets and looses BĂȘlit, Sonja becomes a bi-sexual lesbian ;), etc..]... It would help, it is true, if Simone/Zub had showed us other instances of the menace the blood-root could represent, but I don't dislike the idea of a silent, slowly creeping killer, acting unnoticed on the background.

    Anyhow, it is always a pleasure to read your comments and I hope you'll stick around here, as I will love to see how similar/dissimilar will be out take on the remaining of this cross-over and in the post-Simone Red Sonja run (if there is one from #19 onward).



  3. Always nice to get a mention :) Another good review. Again I liked this issue, until bam, Sandra in Conan's bed, and again, Sandra once more needing this the feminist movement? To turn strong warrior women into drunken dumb damsels in distress?

    1. Well, the second issue manages a little better, but is frustrating in that much of the story is done in flashback which is informative for the reader as to what happened to Sonja and Conan's attack on Kalang's forces but is mostly easily intuited from the outset when Sonja awakens on the battlefield. It's a long exposition spoon feeding what the reader can already surmise from the opening splash. Something Gischler did last issue with Kalang's backstory, frequently explaining what can be seen in the art.

      The action of the day in this issue is Sonja being groped by a scavenger whom she maims and then dispatched his attacking side kicks. She trails on after Conan when the maimed groper tells her he survived the battle.

      Besides the script being confusing on whether these scavengers were part of Sonja and Conan's army or not it's a shame Gischler used the standard attempt at molesting Sonja routine. It would have made greater poignancy had Sonja dispatched the clowns because she didn't want them despoiling soldiers she led. It would have made the dead something more than the inevitable cannon fodder one finds in these stories.

      The screw up in continuity about the scavengers, though, is one more nail in the production coffin for me after the number of gaffes of art and writing in issue one. Is Dynamite just whisking this stuff to the shops with a rubber stamp?

    2. Pretty much, Sonja sells, it's like DC and Harley Quinn, or Marvel and Deadpool.