Swords of Sorrow is a Marvel/DC-wannabe crossover event from Dynamite Comics, involving some of the most recognizable and franchisable female characters from the print’s pool. However, lacking the vast coherent universes of both those rival labels from which to draw, and faced with half-a-dozen characters from such irreconcilable milieus as an impossible Mars, a lost pre-historic Jungle in an unknown island, nineteenth-century London, or a twenty-first century alien vampire from planet Drakulon among others, you can only try for a convoluted and contrived styoryline. This hard task is made even more complicated if – because all your characters are female – you think it may be a good idea to make the creative team all-female as well. One would think it difficult to find a dozen good writers and as many good artists without further consideration but for quality, but to narrow it down to a dozen good female writers and artists… Well, the mind boggles. Moreover if those female writers and artists have not as their goal to write a good story, but only to press a certain agenda…
Obviously, if you want politically engaged and contrived writing (although more inept than convoluted), who you gonna call? Yes, you guessed it: Gail Simone. And you’ll defer to her the choosing of said team of female followers – sorry, creators – in a process that strangely mirrors the storyline-to-be. Weird, eh?
Said story-arc began to be deployed in the one-shot Swords of Sorrow: Chaos! Prequel (written by Mairghread Scott and illustrated by Mirka Andolfo) where we follow a mysterious unnamed character who has “acquired a measure of power over reality itself” (remember what I’ve said before about contrived writing? But wait, worst has yet to come, as Gail Simone goes one over this one in terms of plain silliness), as he picks up a team of female fighters comprised of Purgatory (“vampire and demon alike”), Chastity (“a monster and killer of monsters”), and Bad Kitty (“frenzy incarnate”) who, along with Mistress Hel, are enticed, through the promise of fulfilling their most deep desires , to protect the enigmatic man for the time needed to complete a rite that will expand his power a thousand-fold.
In a taste of things to come, and shortly after the mysterious character mentions that his “nearing triumph has attracted dissent”, we are shown a one-page glimpse of Red Sonja, Kato, Jungle Girl, and Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. How these four represent dissent, or how they come together to fight the dastardly plan of the Mysterious One is something left for the main books themselves and the several tie-in titles (Sords of Sorrow; DejahThoris and Irene Adler, Swords of Sorrow: Vampirella and Jennifer Blood, Swords of Sorrow: Masquerade and Kato and, the one that really matters to us, Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja and Jungle Girl).
As we here are only concerned about Red Sonja and her role in the unfolding (should I say, mainly uninteresting?) saga, I will only refer here to her own story-arc, reaching out to the main storyline only when needed to clarify the events concerning Sonja herself.
And so we start with Swords of Sorrow #1, an insipid effort helmed by Gail Simone with adequate art by Sergio Dávila, that not only has virtually no flame, but goes out of her way to undo the few positive things that Mairghread Scott had introduced in her prequel. If Scott has tried wisely to wring some mystery out of the identity of the Big Bad Villain and the rite he proposed to perform, Simone openly reveals his hidden motivations – as well as revealing him in such an uninspired visual that one would believe him to be a reject from the casting session for a comic-book adaptation of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. If Scott purported him to be harboring some transcendent scheme concerning the nature of reality itself, Simone pulls him down the ladder to a mere magical Prince seeking to satisfy a grudge against women – “against all women”. (Did I mention somewhere contrived writing? Put simpleton writing instead.)
And, if his four female minions (pawns?) were given by Scott some deeply personal motivations for assisting on his mad scheme (and one over-the-topper as Mistress Hel wants nothing more than to completely destroy Earth), here Simone wipes it all out introducing them as if in thrall of this second-rate Harlequin villain. “She has her seconds, her little bitch warriors. And I have my own, do I not? And you are loyal to me because you all love me?” Really? Is that all Simone can come up with? Apparently so, as our four minions of evil sing in what I imagine to be a single voice from off-page: “‘Til the end of time, Prince”.
Well, we all know who she is, but let me take a small detour here. When the Courier finds Sonja, she is dying of thirst in the middle of the desert, after fighting some bandits who took her sword and her waterskin, even if she slays “half of them before they have the sense to run”. Never mind how – really, how? – could that happen: she slays half of them and the others run, but get away with her sword and her water? Ok. That’s Simone logic for you. But that is not my main contention (a recurring one with me and Simone’s writing on Sonja). Sonja is dying of thirst in the desert, and she is sprawled under the sun, singing drunkenly. One can mistake her singing for defiance on the face of certain death. But then the Courier comes along, gives her water and handles her the sword. And what does Sonja ask of him? “What is this gibberish you spout? And more importantly, you haven’t got any wine, have you?” Am I the only one to find it somewhat problematic that in Simone’s hand Sonja seems to be no more than a drunkard? I refer you, dear reader, to “The Hanging Tree” in Red Sonja #1973 (2015), where Sonja starts a bar brawl because she isn’t allowed to drink till she’s filled to the brim. Here, barely dying from thirst, she asks for wine? Really? I do remember the first story illustrated by Frank Thorne (written by Bruce Jones), “Blood of the Hunter” (1976), where Sonja is also trekking through the desert, unarmed and running from a bounty hunter, nearly dying of thirst. When the hunter catches up with her, dehydrated, she gets to best him as only Sonja would be able to, but all through her predicament, there’s only one thought in Sonja’s mind: “I’d give all this fine booty for one berry tree in full bloom.” And, obviously, “Water… I must have some water soon..!”
It is true that in “The Song of Red Sonja” (Conan the Barbarian #24) it is said that she “drinks the strongest man under the table – and outswears a Zingaran!”, but she dances happily, not drunkenly, and she drinks in celebration, not out of habit. If Simone relies heavily, time after time, story after story, in this simplistic character building, to tell us that Sonja’s as much of a man as the next drunkard, and farts as loudly, her storytelling technique is little more than amateurish, and the only way she can advance the story is through sudden personal moments of insight – more akin to religious revelations – that tell the characters what’s going on, in a way not seen in comics since the forties. Not to mention the infantile expedient of having the black swords serve as universal translators. But that is the least of Simone’s troubles and can be excused as a time-saving narrative device. When the Courier delivers the swords to the chosen women, there are some dislocations among different comic universes: Tars Tarkas is taken from Mars to the Hyborian Age; a T-Rex is taken from Jana’s world to contemporary London; Kato’s car is taken to Jana’s island, etc… These dislocations seem to have the only function of page fillers in Swords of Sorrow #2, where they take up half of its pages. However, only minutes after he delivers the swords, the Courier is crying to the Traveler that “I’ve failed you, Traveler. The women you have chosen… they will not rise to the task. All time and space is doomed.” Vampirella is still trying to escape the T-Rex, Sonja is still grappling with a confused Tars Tarkas, and yet… I’ve failed you, Traveler? The women will not rise to the task? This is the worst kind of bad writing. Try to milk tension and suspense out of lack of events. Tell, don’t show, perhaps?
But it is not a lonely example. Soon after reluctantly joining forces in Barsoom, Sonja and Dejah Thoris have to fight the shard warriors sent to kill them by the evil Prince (sorry, I couldn’t resist), and both women lead them on a merry chase to the Dead City of the White Apes of Mars, who dutifully take care of the pursuers. Sonja and Dejah Thoris barely have had time to catch their breath, let alone ponder the implications of all that happened. However, in a few minutes, Dejah is pointing her binoculars to the Martian sky and declaring: “These… doorways. Portals. They lead to different times, worlds, even dimensions. And worst of all… Several stars, entire constellations. They’re just… gone.” Never mind how precipitous those conclusions are for someone who has seen but one portal, she deduces even more. “I thought the portals were a nexus of some kind, bringing everything together. But (…) I believe we are the nexus. Ourselves. And more like us.” Sherlock, eat your heart out!
These instances of action ex nihilo could be overlooked if part of a cohesive plot of unstoppable narrative drive that would take the reader by pure force of ideas and execution. But that is not the case. These are join-the-dots moments that telegraph to the reader the exact points where the author had no idea of how to go from action A to action B (or set-piece A to set-piece B) on the list of ideas jotted down on post-its strewn along her desk. It betrays, once more, poor writing. And that these moments are connecting points for incoherent ideas is painfully clear. Consider that, despite this last dazzling moment of insight on the part of Dejah Thoris (and Sonja, for Simone, has a tendency to play a brutish second fiddle on her own stories), she fails to recognize Sonja when she crossed to Barsoom while fighting Tars Tarkas, despite the fact that a huge Martian boulder has been carved by unseen forces into a giant statue of the Hyrkanian warrior. A statue that plays no distinct function in the story, that is not explainable by the motivation of any of the characters on either side of the lines (I may be proven wrong on this point as we’re just halfway the book run, but I would bet my entire Red Sonja comic book collection that I won’t be), and thus can be read as nothing more than the writer thinking, hey, wouldn’t it be great if there were to appear in Mars a huge statue of Red Sonja?
Well, after they escape the shard warriors and have one more magical insight as to the abnormal character of the events shaking the entire multiverse and other dimensions, Sonja and Dejah Thoris enter the portal In search of the culprit, thus closing part two of the saga. Dejah Thoris will team up with Irene Adler in nineteenth-century London, and Sonja with Jana, the Jungle Girl in her Lost Island. In my next post I will review Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja and Jungle Girl #1 (out now), as there’s no Sonja in Swords of Sorrow #3.
What there is, however, is enough to make any normal reader throw the book at the nearer wall, hoping it will go out the window and down an infinite cliff into a sea of broiling flame. In a preview interview for the books, Gail Simone tried to wet reader’s appetite by hinting that “There’s a very, very famous character, a character of legend (you will know his name) of massive power who is embittered about humanity, but specifically all females. His heart was broken and he blames women. ALL women.” From what we’ve glimpse thus far of said character – the Prince – he has no resonance with any character fitting that description. However, in issue #3, the Traveler sends a messenger to the Prince stating that she knows who he really is, and that she holds in her possession the woman that caused all his hatred. The idea is so absurd (dumb, is probably the better term)that I will refrain from repeat it here, and, in all honesty, with any other writer I would feel sure that it was no more than a middle-of-the-run red herring. Yet, if it realy is so…
Lady Zorro immediately understands that those are not objects, but people. Generals. And, has she easily deciphers the enigma (again, Shelock, eat your heart out), the page spread shows us Dejah Thoris, Red Sonja and Vampirella, punctuating each of Lady Zorro’s utterances: “The crown is royalty. A Queen. Perhaps a Princess [you’re sure it’s not a King, perhaps a Prince?]. The blade is a warrior, that’s plain. And the leach is a monster. Vampiro. Vampire”. And, with no need for further clues, she immediately states that “we need these women. I feel it in my heart.” A feeling that goes unchallenged by Sparrow as she, apprehending the sudden collision of realities happening around them, utters virtually the same words. Only a very bad writer would put on paper such basic trite, or someone so blind to the world that she would take ideology for reality. Or both. Enough said.