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.