So, last time we saw Red Sonja and Dejah Thoris (Swords of Sorrow #2), they were about to embark on a quest to find the part responsible for the puffing out of entire constellations and the sudden creation of rips across time and dimensions. It was a rousing moment, with a determined Sonja challenging the Universe and Thoris: “You said it wasn’t natural. Someone planned this. Fine. So, god or demon, man or beast… I’m going to find it and cut its god-cursed head off. You coming?”
However one takes such a scene – whooping gung-ho enthusiasm or with a grain of salt as to how will she find said planner across time and space, having not a clue to who or what it is, nor the resources it can amass – one thing you’re sure not expecting: that the challenge won’t be accepted. After all, it was Dejah Thoris who spotted the problem, was she not?
And so, it came as a complete surprise to me, on opening issue #1 of Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja & Jungle Girl, to find Sonja, alone, wandering the dry deserts of Barsoom, in search of the portal Dejah Thoris had seen from afar. I had been so certain that both Sonja and Thoris had plunged together into the portal, there to become somehow separated in time and space, that the complete absurdness of it all took some time to register. “The princess had to return to her city and her people, but I was made for a business messier than Martian politics”, Sonja tells us, as written by Marguerite Bennett. I could not believe my eyes, so I reached for Swords of Sorrow: Dejah Thoris & Irene Adler #1 (written by Leah Moore, with art by Francesco Manna), as yet unread, and, lo and behold, there she is, Dejah Thoris, in her luxurious bed in the Royal Palace of Helium, admiring the strange dark blade given to her by the Courier and musing to her dog Woola about how such a blade “surely brings only suffering”.
The most jarring thing to me was not the return of Thoris to Helium per se, as it is a lot more logic than the gung ho attitude of Sonja as portrayed by Gail Simone in issue #2 (a clichéd comic book moment, but an expedient one story-wise). However, with four issues of Swords of Sorrow out now (three by the time Red Sonja & Jungle Girl #1 came out), the ancillary titles almost complete, the story is going nowhere. There’s nothing of significance happening, only an event after another that add to nothing, and add nothing to the story, flimsy as it is. One cannot shake off the impression I mentioned before of reading snapshots of story instead of a coherent narrative.
And so it is with Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja & Jungle Girl #1. Three entire pages are needed to take Sonja from Mars to Jana’s pre-historic Island, than another seven to go through the motions (already seen when Sonja first met with Dejah Thoris) of meeting Jana, the Jungle Girl, and fighting her, before both realize they are really allies. (Just a brief side note here to muse on how Sonja, the fiercest warrior out of Hyrkania and a true she-devil with a sword – soldier, thief, mercenary – can’t quickly dispatch a Barsoomian noblewoman or a primitive jungle girl in a fight. Oh, well….) And then, two more pages are needed to introduce the first element of possible relevance to the plot: the strange freeze affecting portions of the lush tropical jungle.
On the margins we lose track of the orluk that attacked Sonja on Mars and crossed with her to Jana’s island (never mind how the two got separated on the trip), and are deprived of any sense of suspense by a glimpse of Mistress Hel peeping through the vegetation at Sonja and Jana, like the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden, although she waits six more pages before revealing herself. In those six pages, Sonja and Jana see a deer being slaughtered by three winged demons, find an injured savage boy that is apparently responsible by the freeze and becomes their ally, and are attacked by said demons who then are shattered to ice crystals by the boy.
One thing the readers immediately notices is the weird banter between the two main protagonists, as if they’ve just came out of a Winx cartoon TV marathon. Although I, for once, find it refreshing to read once more some Sonja interjections of the kind “Mitra’s Balls!” or “Derketo’s Tits!” that bring a very welcome Roy Thomas & Frank Thorne vibe. However, there’s no way in hell that one would ever swallow Sonja answering on being called a witch by Jana: “‘Witch’, really? She-devil, sword mistress, queen of malice and scourge of maleficence, you could’ve said…” and then adding with a schoolyard degree of rhetoric, “and I could call you a sneaking vicious slat-ribbed giglet!” When Jana retorts “Heh, joke’s on you… I don’t know what that word means!” one’s left to ponder how infantile can you go before the joke’s on you.
And it sure is a minor quibble, but does it make any sense, when it was established that the swords allow them to “understand each other’s languages” (Swords of Sorrow #2)? That is not the only instance in this book when the issue of language is referred to, for on the immediate page Sonja has similar musings on how can a tatterdemalion like Jana speak good honest Hyrkanian, to which Jungle Girl responds with “I don’t know what either of those words mean, either”. Minor quibble it sure is, although it squanders practically a full page that could be put to good use advancing the story. If there really is a story to be told, as at this point, one is not assured of it.
Another not so minor quibble has to do with another instance of poor coordination between Simone and her hand-picked female writers. I’ve already mentioned the by-the-numbers encounter between Sonja and Jana, with both attacking each-other. But then, after a double spread of sexy catfighting, Jana says “I was warned against your coming, trusted with a sacred spear…” It needn’t be said that when the Courier offered Jana her double-bladed weapon (Swords of Sorrow #1) we heard no such warning; but if she was warned, why, oh why, would she attack Sonja? And why was Sonja not given a similar warning? (The situation is once more repeated, almost verbatim, in the Swords of Sorrow: Black Sparrow & Lady Zorro one-shot). This kind of lazy writing (and lazier plotting) is almost mandatory by the lack of capable overall storytelling that should have been secured by Simone.
However, despite all these shortcomings, it is not as big a pain to read as the main books of the series (penned by Simone). Bennett’s writing, episodic structure not-withstanding, is brisk and clean, and the art and colors by Mirka Andolfo bring the book two or three notches above Dávila’s inks in Swords of Sorrow. The colors are pale (I would enjoy a little more vibrancy in the depiction of the tropical jungle and sea) yet adequate, and the drawings are strangely enticing, despite its juvenile lines. The characters are drawn with somewhat disproportionate eyes (a clear neotenic indication of juvenilia) and under-proportioned noses, which brews a heady mix with the full grown breasts and lithe bodies of both girls. The pages flow with elegant action in the fight scenes, and the small panels cramped by the above the shoulders views from both girls add nice introspective nuances to the emotional flux.
It would be nice to see this young Italian artist secure at leat a six-issues run on Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword after Simone has left the title. Or, at least, a couple of one-shots. For me, at least, Andolfo’s art will be the main attraction for Swords of Sorrow: Red Sonja & Jungle Girl #2.