Tuesday, August 25, 2015

SWORDS OF SORROW #4 (Dynamite, 2015)

Alea jacta est. With Swords of Sorrow #4 we reach 2/3 of the planned run of the series, and the point of no return for whatever story Gail Simone had in mind. Issue four is, indeed, the most momentous up to this moment, not least of all, because it’s the only issue thus far where something happens. Which, with fifteen books published, is a feat of abject proportions. It’s as if we’ve been watching the piano player cracking his fingers for almost two hours before flipping his coattails back and finally sitting down on his bench.  However, what happens, and above all, how it happens, underscore the fragile structure of the story and the poor talent of the musician.

I never saw Simone as a good storyteller, but her performance on Swords of Sorrow is way beneath amateurish: everything that happens, every slow step of story building, happens by omniscient fiat of a deus ex machina narrator. And the most baffling result of this is how passive all the main characters are.

Case in point: Swords of Sorrow #4. After three books of banter and fighting each other, our women warriors finally find the generals they were looking for (Dejah Thoris, Red Sonja and Vampirella, as established in issue #3). How do they do this? They ask Dracula, who knows “where the portals are”. That simple. Obviously, it begs the question: if what’s in stake is the existence of the Universe itself, and if Dracula has that kind of knowledge, why isn’t he doing something? Why will he leave the destiny of all existence in the hands of a bunch of girls that, as the story thus far has shown us, are utterly incapable of doing anything by themselves? 

It may seem as a harsh appreciation of the series up till now, but really, Simone and her cronies haven’t shown us a single instance of relevant action by any of their heroines. Truth be told, the case is almost the same towards her villains: both the Traveller and The Prince do little else then sit and grumble and bemoan their respective minions lack of results. This reduces all the action on the previously published fourteen books to an unrewarding movement for movement’s sake.

And that, to me, is quite jarring, for I still don’t understand what’s the point of all this frenetic red queen(s) racing all over the place. According to the series’s one-shot prequel, The Prince’s minions should prevent the Traveller’s minions of perturbing the former’s ritual, a ritual that would hand him supreme power over all of reality. However, the Prince does little more than sit in his throne room “nowhen”, and one fails to see what kind of menace our girls may constitute towards his plans. In reality if Purgatory, Mistress Hell, et al.  weren’t constantly goading them on, or trying to bribe them with promises of absolute power, Sonja, Thoris, Vampirella, etc… wouldn’t have a fucking clue to what was going on, or where, or when. All the heroines have done so far is being handled gifts and pushed through one portal or another without reason or rhyme.

And with the revelations operated on issues #3 and #4, where we learn the true identity of The Traveler (the only genuine efficient moment in the series so far), it becomes patently obvious how absurd the whole enterprise is. If The Traveler knows the identity and whereabouts of The Prince, and despite being an entity of extraordinary power, still needs generals and soldiers, why didn’t she tell them who the adversary was, where he is, and what they had to do? Doesn’t seem to me the brightest idea, on a countdown to annihilation (or “the end of days” as is put on the current issue), to let the foot-soldiers to figure out for themselves what’s going on.

And that – what’s going on – brings me to what I believe is the most incredible of plot contrivances: the identity of the Prince himself. That he was Prince Charming was not a red-herring, alas. And this attempt by Gail Simone to build up such an innocuous fairy-tale character to the stature of Myth is the most ridiculous bid for relevance I’ve read in recent times (maybe only the coup by J. Michael Straczinski to make Wonder Woman his own in The New 52 comes close to it in the 21st Century).

In a publicity interview for the series, Gail Simone referred to Prince Charming as “a character of legend (…) of massive power”, an idea that is hinted at at several instances all through the books already published, infusing the reader with the notion that Prince Charming is a being with the grandeur beyond that of a Galactus. But how to support such a proposition? Former reporter Lucy Freeman and psychotherapist Kerstin Kupfermann (who has worked of famous Freudian fairy-tales specialist Bruno Bettelheim, much in at the time of writing) write in their book The Power of Fantasy (Continuum, New York, 1988), that what they call the “Prince Charming” Fantasy is, in essence, the fantasy if idealized perfect love, a fantasy that cannot stand the quotidian reality of a longstanding relationship.  Being a book of Freudian bent, the authors cannot free themselves from the centrality of oedipal interpretations, and thus, the Prince Charming fantasy is one of longing for maternal love. However, its nuclear tenet is very close to Simone’s view: “Seeing a wife of several weeks in hair curlers or brushing her teeth may fill a husband with disgust. Watching her husband clip his toenails or hearing him pass gas in the bathroom may bring feelings of revulsion to a bride” (p.62). Snow White was not repulsed by Prince Charming passing gas, but by him deriving joy on revenge for what was done to her. For “Snow White was of kind heart, and could not bear to see his cruelty, even to the witch”, Simone tells us, through The Traveller. In this, if the extrapolation is allowed, we can see a mirror-image of Simone retconning  Sonja’s origin, so as to wipe out rape. In both instances, Snow White’s and Simone’s, there seems to be a disgust in dealing with reality, an attempt to stay in an idealized infant state. For a rabid feminist writer, it must be close to anathema the thought that a raped woman could gain power, strength and wisdom from her ordeal. That she could transcend such an ordeal. That she wouldn’t be forever defined by it as a victim.

So now consider the motivation of the character. Disgusted by Prince Charming’s revenge (to burn the witch’s feet with molten lead shoes, as in Grimm’s original telling of the story), Snow White leaves him, and, in return, he intends to destroy the Universe. For want of a good fuck, all the universe was lost… But then again, consider: if Prince Charming has the power to open rips in Time, of manipulating the Universe at a quantical level, couldn’t he just travel back in Time and undo his revenge? Could he not seek redemption through other means and so regain his lost love (although I bet something like that will happen in the end)? And really, what kind of immature man cannot abide to lose a loved one and go on with his life?

Anyhow, back to Prince Charming as figure of Myth. Feminist scholar Catherine Orenstein has this to say about him in her book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (Basic Books, New York, 2002): “It’s no secret that today’s best-known fairy-tale protagonists are female: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Red Riding Hood, to name just a few. These heroines act amongst a cast of banal male foils. The men are simply fathers, beasts, dwarfs or princes, all interchangeable and usually illustrated as one and the same from tale to tale. In Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Into the Woods, the Prince Charmings of two interwoven fairy tales swap places without so much as a ripple in the plot” (p.121).  That’s because Prince Charming has no relevant role to play in these tales, whose center belong entirely to women. “In these fairy tales, the heroines make decisions that illustrate the expectations of women in real life, while the male figures are simply metaphors for punishment (misbehave and you’ll meet a wolf) and reward (a prince in the end – if you’re good!)” (idem).

So what Simone is doing here, is creating a big paper tiger that her female heroines can disintegrate with their magic swords, as if in a pajama party for women that refuse to grow up (and how apt it suddenly feels to have Sonja revert once more to the Simone-simpleton that refers to herself in the third person and looks as dim as a burnt bulb). I was enveloped on the above musings (I admit, a little collateral to the review at hand) when in the double spread by the end of the book, where all the heroines are amassed against Mistress Hel, I got a sad glimpse of how Simone and her readers may see the world (or may fantasize the world as it should be).

This kind of setup is recurrent in comic-books, and frequent in comics featuring teams of Superheroes, be they The Avengers vs The Masters of Evil, The X-Men vs The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants or The Superman Family vs The Marvel Family, but never that I recall had I seen before such a setup comprised of men only. But here, in the dark tones of a cold night, sixteen women face a rival woman for the destiny of the Universe menaced by one of only four men in the entire story-arc (Dracula, the Courier, the savage boy Jana and Sonja meet, and Prince Charming himself). For a moment I saw this image encapsulated the entire agenda of Swords of Sorrow; that Simone was sex-reversing what she saw in comics: a male medium, populated by male characters, aimed at male readers. Perhaps an apt comment on the industry, as she is fond to refer to comic book publishers. But then it hit me: this could not be, as comics have always been a brewing pot for strong women characters, from Wonder Woman and Red Sonja, to Jean Grey and the White Queen. Nor forgetting Supergirl, Catwoman, Black Cat, Batgirl, Mary Marvel, and so many more that made my delight as a boy. So it is not the sad way they see the world. It’s the way their feminist agenda wants the world to be: a place that excludes man, that sees no place for man but as tyrants and world-killers. And if the first was a grey perspective indeed, this one made me realize how really really SAD their world is.


  1. Interesting review, particularly on how the men have fared in light of the Red Sonja series which I'm more familiar with than the Swords of Sorrow material. In the main series men were limited in appearance in the first arc, the king who'd called Sonja for aid was a father figure of sorts who was otherwise negligible to the story. The others were the villain king who pops up out of nowhere at the end and the first king's son who turns out to have been in cahoots with the villain. Overall, a dull lot.

    In the second arc, the depiction of men becomes even more one sided in that they are harmless and neutered in sexuality in order to be the punch line to Simone's stumbling run of a joke about Sonja being unable to get laid. She does at last in the end with the sex slaves from the brothel that were trafficked by the city guard. It is a bizarre story choice in an arc about freeing slaves but it's the kind of weird story logic Simone does.

    The next arc, which is a mess of a story, doesn't do much better in its four issues in showing men being anything but passive bed partners in the young mage. The other men of the village the story revolves around are equally passive characters who swing about in anger support due to the curse McGuffin that drives the story. The villains spend their time describing Sonja as a slut and such and are otherwise one dimensional and provide no real threat to Sonja in the story.

    The other male which could have made an interesting forgiveness tale was one who had been among the men who destroyed Sonja's village and family. Unfortunately, he's just an exposition machine so the telegraphed ending of Sonja forgiving him has no feeling of catharsis for the reader following Sonja through the story.

    The last issue, 17, is just naff with an opening with an orgy, Sonja hitting on some nuns, then later being asked if she wants her usual courtesans sent up at a bar she frequents. Sonja's main lays are women with Simone, from Annissia to this it seems or men who entirely let her do the driving. This is underlined by the lone man in the series propositioning Sonja in issue 17 and she knocks him out.

    Simone's idea of sexuality for Sonja is juvenile. Sonja has sex when she wants, but her partners are almost universally passive actors who perform when Red wants them to and never act on their own to proposition her especially men. As put in your article, 'sex-reversing what she saw in comics: a male medium, populated by male characters, aimed at male readers.' but I'd posit the relationship roles in Conan comics and books were never so simplistic as Simone is playing them out here. She is envisioning set of gender roles that never existed in the bad old days of the industry. Simplistic and limited they may have been in the 70s and earlier often more due to the comics code than sexism, but they were not the rank gendered stereotypes Simone has created in her Red Sonja run.

  2. Hi there,

    Thanks once again for your comment. And what an interesting and perceptive summation you've done of Gail Simone's run.

    Reading your comment, I'm drawn to notice as the villain King and King's (usually feeble) son is another of the narrative crutches Simone resorts to too frequently. They are once more the motor of the story in the Simone co-written mini-series "Conan / Red Sonja" (2015).

    It is undeniable that Simone's worldview inspired by her biased conception of "gender" roles (I hate that term, as it applies only to language: in biology man and woman belong to the same genus - homo - but have different sexes) is infantile and simplistic. And her storytelling technique is obviously inspired by an idea of "lets do to them what they did to us", although what "they" (men) did to "us" (women) is totally fabricated and discards the most simple explanations provided by reader demographics and sales imperatives.

    So, she proceeds to take a strong female character like Sonja and turns her into what Thomas has had the care to avoid: a female Conan. Sonja, in Simone's hands, is not a female warrior, but just a male warrior with tits. A Conan with breasts.

    Even in feminist terms is a simplistic model of "gender" equality, one that simply eschews every biological, cultural and natural difference between man and woman. It is not the best way to go for a writer, but one cannot expect much from someone who, on reading the announcement of the roster of authors for a certain comics line (in the case it was DC's New 52, but it could have been Marvel or Image), and instead of evaluating merit and quality, is just concerned with the simple question of counting males vs females. Guess she's having her revenge for imagined wrongs in Swords of Sorrow.

    Anyhow, hope that you keep adding such insightful comments as this one (although I can't see why don't you join the blogger roster here in Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword. I believe you would be a valuable contributor).