Saturday, February 20, 2016

RED SONJA #1 (Dynamite, 2016)

Let us pretend we never heard of Red Sonja before. Let us pretend this is really the number one issue, the introduction of a new (anti)heroine to unsuspecting readers used to have their sword-and-sorcery warriors and thieves brawny, manly, and savage. Let us open the book in front of us as if we didn’t know what had gone on in this last forty years and try to answer the question: who is this Red Sonja, of the flaming red hair, chainmail shirt, and savage sword?

The book opens up somewhat enticingly. Over a familiar map, crossed by the shadow of what I want to believe is a candle about to be snuffed, the text situates us in “The latter days of the Hyborian Age”, and tells us of a message sweeping “Through the plains of Hyrkania…” Successive text-boxes tells us of Hyrkania as “that once great nation” whose king is dying, and asking “Who will save him?” It is an effective beginning, with a layout dominated by inklings of an ominous storm approaching, not only in the gathering clouds, dry lightning and strong winds, but in the dagger that is thrown at the map, straight at the heart of the kingdom. 

And then, a double-spread page introduces us to Sonja – although we don’t know it’s Sonja, not yet anyhow – fighting a giant bull that seems to have been spit from hell itself, in a storm-swept plain. It is a nice introduction to our heroine. As the text asks “who will save him”, we see Sonja fighting a monster that seems to be unconnected from the king’s plight, either a way of telling us that Sonja will be the one saving the king, or that the only one that could save him was at the time far away, incapable of help.  An idea reinforced by Sonja passing by the king’s castle in the next panel, under the caption “No one. No one.  The kink is dying, and that is final.

But then, in the immediate panel, with the king prostrated in bed, the pained queen tells us all we need to know, by telling the king that “Red Sonja comes. All the elixirs, the ancient texts, the enchanted jewells… all failures! Sonja will not let you perish, not with the wolves of Khitai and Turan at the door”.

Let us stop here a moment, before proceeding with the story, as I find this to be an important point to be made. In a swift moment, we're told about a series of important facts that will shape the way we’ll read coming events, not only in this issue, but in future ones as well. After all, it is as if we’re reading about a new Hyborian Age, one where wizards have no power, ancient texts lost their magic capabilities and the elixirs are just sugary placebos. This Hyborian age seems to have been touched by the rotting influence of Westeros, and its re-centering of Ur-fantasylands as recycled Middle-Ages loci. An idea reinforced by the remaining pages, that strive to shape the story as a political intrigue one – albeit simplistic in the extreme (but lets not spring ahead of ourselves at this point) – instead of a typical sword-and-sorcery narrative. And so we learn that Sonja was sent to bring back the heart of the Thunder Bull of the Steppes (a rather small one, I figure, for such a big beast!), because the Mages assured the King that it would prevent death for another thirty years. Allas, that is not so, as the king is dying of mere old age. And, in his dying bed, the King confides in Sonja his troubles and aspirations.

So, by now, Sonja is already established as a capable fighter, an intimate of the royal family and close to the King himself. So close that, as a dying wish, he asks her to take the throne. Wait a minute? WTF!? He asks her to take the throne!?

I know I mentioned above this was a way too simplistic political intrigue, but hey, shouldn’t one stop and think a little before writing this kind of things? It’s true we’ve been told Hyrkania is (apparently) at its waning days, but what kind of decadent autocratic regime is this where there’s no dynastic line to be upheld, no rival aspirants to the throne, no bloodlines fighting each other for the destinies of the nation?  A queen made by diktat of a dying king, in the face of the king’s own wife?

This logical stumbling block, however, serves another narrative purpose: until now, we’ve seen Sonja in action fighting the giant bull (the objective view), we’ve heard about how others see her (third party perception) and now, with the offer of the throne, we get Sonja’s subjective perception of herself:  an haughty, opulent, and decadent queen, given to parties and (one suspects) orgies, “the doom of Hyrkania”, as Sonja describes herself.

And so, she refuses the throne and, though pledging to “defend and protect our people, as Sonja the She-Devil, not Sonja the Queen”, with the king’s corpse still warm in his dying bed she leaves Hirkanya and spends a full year traveling abroad, bludgeoning beasts, tying tyrants, vanquishing villains and undistressing damsels in distress…  all of it told, not shown.

As one progresses in the book, it becomes transparent the reason for such an absence. The new King (apparently selected by the dying king) has made an utopian paradise out of Hyrkania, with free schools, jobs for everybody and security within and beyond the kingdom’s frontiers. Returning after one year away, we’re expected to believe that Sonja hasn’t even heard the name of the new king (talk about straining the reader’s suspension of disbelief). More than that, in what is the most irksome section of this first issue, the reader is made privy to the thoughts, dreams and aspirations of Sonja as she seemingly finds herself out of a role to play in Hyrkania, the new king having taken care of all the needs of its people. But Sonja’s interior life, however, is made out of fantasizing about an endless stream of lovers, of sex with high born and peasant. Looking back now, and thinking that maybe she should have become Queen, she sees her regal duties as “hunting and fighting and lovers every day… quince and mince and enough cimmeran beer to float a navy…  And a royal consort. Or two. Or ten.

In a totally inappropriate comedic tone, the utopianism of Hyrkania’s new rule is played against Sonja’s mounting boredom and itching for a fight. Any fight. Searching for the smallest chance to use her sword, Sonja feels like a swagger and a brigand, not far removed from any common lout on a drinking hole. In any other book not bearing her name on the title, she would be the villain. And not a very impressive one. When, by the end of the book, some dark aspects of the seemingly benign rule of the new King tear through Sonja’s dreams, prompting her to fight the so called Black Talons of the king, one is led far more to believe that she unsheathes her sword out of boredom, than out of a sense of justice. And that she does it with extreme prejudice, not asking for explanation or confirmation of what is told to her by the escaping peasant family, just stresses an impression of Sonja as incapable of thought.

There would be a lot more to say about the three final pages: of how incredible it seems for Hirkanya to be able to wage an expansionist war without anyone being aware of it; of how simplistic it is to equate the new ruler of Hyrkania with a Hyborean Hitler; or of how predictable the all dreg was since Hyrkania was first presented as a paradise on Earth after Sonja’s return.

But the question we set out to answer was: who is this new Red Sonja? Frankly, she’s not very bright. Not very wise either. Maybe she’s just the feminine ideal of some middle-aged teenage girl that never grew out of her padded bra. The first impression we get of her, of a courageous and loyal warrior, is quickly dispelled by posterior events: her fight against the Giant Bull of the Steppes turns out to be an empty effort, casting Sonja as a superstitious and gullible woman, that naively trusts the sayings of powerless wizards; and her loyalty turns out to be to a dying king, not to a country, a nation or an ideal, as she quickly leaves Hyrkania on the hands of what seems to be an anachronistic Nazi-regime after the king’s death. Then, after the swift killing of the Giant Bull, we see her do nothing but bragging (of how she killed a king who tried to possess her – more trite pseudo-feminist cant) and aching for a brawl, all of which makes her less than warrior, less than woman and more of a lout. And not a very bright one, as she spends several days in Hyrkania – perhaps even more, as the captain of the Black Talons knows her by name – without learning the name of the new king. By the last pages of this first installment, when she apparently sees the evil that has taken hold of the land (note that said evil is nothing more than an act of forced conscription, something that is legitimate even today in many modern countries like Switzerland or Israel, and in this last case, for man and woman alike), but her eye-opening feels contrived and precipitated, leading us to believe, as I mentioned above, that it was her brawl-aching and not any sense of Justice that prompts her to sudden, excessive and (by story logic) inexplicable action. Inevitably, before we get to this, we have a couple instances of the Drunken and Horny Sandra character so beloved of Gail Simone and her female minions. Instead of the fiery match for Conan, once envisaged by Thomas, she’s just Conan with tits, bereft of his natural cunning.

It is thus a brutish, boring and stupid woman that we get from this “rebirth” of the once she-devil with a sword.

Marguerite Bennett’s writing is lazy, unoriginal and totally uninspiring. From the few books by her that I’ve read, she strikes me as a terrible writer, a product of the Diktat for affirmative action that komissar Simone imposed on all comics publishers in order to provide job opportunities for untalented female writers. And in this first issue of what is Dynamite’s third volume of ersatz-Sonja adventures , she adds insult to injury by including some irritating anachronistic colloquialisms and gestures that help in sinking the last flimsy efforts at suspension of disbelief.

I’ve voiced before my discontent for the ubiquitous Medieval look that marks almost all Fantasy works after Martin’s GAME OF THRONES mammoth success. One thing I enjoy the most in Sword-and-Sorcery stories, from Howard to Leiber, from Gaskel to Carter, is the distancing/displacing amalgamation of oriental and exotic motifs in the Fantasy world. Here we get the Medieval European look once more, without a sparkle of novelty. Unless we count as novelty the apparent use of cowboy sleeveless denim shirt and hat by men, and thigh-high stockings with garter-belt by women. It is a single panel, but it occurs in the very first page of the story, making it difficult for the reader not to be perusing the art for more ill-advised and incongruent elements from there on. 

Which is somehow unfortunate, for the most part Aneke’s art  is the only good thing in the book, displaying a nice handling of perspective, adding immensely to the cinematic feel of some pages and underscoring the emotional impact and mood of some moments. Aneke’s Sonja is a beautiful, sexy woman, and it’s good to have once more an unapologetically buxom Sonja. But where the artist excels herself is in the portrayal of Sonja’s facial expressions, that goes smoothly from loutish to concerned, from mischievous to surprised. And it helps that colorist Jorge Sutil was able to expertly draw out Sonja’s vivid green eyes and sexy freckles.

 There’s only one instance where Aneke’s art is not up to her own standards, with wrong perspective and crass symbolism (see below), but looking at it, I choose to believe that it is Aneke’s way to give the finger to Bennett’s writing. 

That’s the feeling one closes the book with.


  1. I gotta agree with pretty much everything here. Bennett's handle on Howard's world is sketchy at best and editorial isn't helping. When the king described Turan in the east and Khitai in the west I was wondering who proofs these things? Hyrkania was never a waning nation in Howard since it stood in for the encroaching East. Turan is a Hyrkanian state, in fact, which is part of the push west by the nomadic Hyrkanian tribes. Here, it's just another generic medieval European setting.

    The offer of the throne, I Sonja wouldn't have had a lot of time for sloth with all the rival claimants one could expect, especially if she has the village nobody background. I could imagine this scenario out of Reed's run where Sonja began as a noblewoman. She could have had some claim to the throne but village Sonja?

    The comment about having killed a king in the past might have been a reference to 'Red Sonja' in Savage Sword of Conan 1 where she kills King Ghanniff on the heels of Conan the Barbarian 24 'The Song of Red Sonja' but that's likely giving Bennett too much credit given the rest of the Sonja/Hyborian World fails in this book.

    Sonja's fears for her rule are laughable. Debauched lout on the throne, that covers half the countries in Hyboria but then the evil expansionist rule with an iron fist leader comes along. Did Bennett not do any research because that is the other half of the rulers in Hyboria. The rest of the place is savages like the Picts and Cimmerians looking to overrun everyone and put them to the sword. Besides that, Sonja spends a lot of her time as a mercenary for those expansionist assholes and debauched creeps. Conscription wouldn't be a surprise to her though she might not care for it.

    Overall, not an impressive start. There's too much beholding to Simone in this. Sonja is a poorly conceived adventure character with no motivation now beyond drinking and getting laid. There's no thought taken to the cultures of Howard's setting. One of the worst was in Simone's run where Sonja would run around Stygia for drinking binges. Stygia is a xenophobic theocracy devoted to Set. Foreigners hanging about are likely to end up slaves or sacrifices, probably both and end up undead zombie slaves. Bennett is much the same here. The Hyrkanians are a Lemurian people quite different from the Atlantean Hyborians.

    Basically they're the Mongols and other eastern nomadic tribes pushing west. They are not barbarians, though, but an alien civilization to the Hyborians. Sonja's discontents rarely come from rejection of civilization unlike Conan but from not fitting in with Hyborian ideas of a woman's place in the world. Unlike Conan, she isn't instinctually fearful of magic, doesn't reject culture or law outright.

    Simone and Bennett have no grasp on any of that. Instead, they created a very generic fantasy world and an empty vessel of a character to run around spouting sad pastiche fantasy tropes.

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  3. Hi there,

    As always you point your facts straight at the jugular of bad writing. Indeed, the mix-up of East and West is a howler. However I do not believe Bennett (or Simone before her, for that matter) have ever troubled herself to read Howard. For her (them) Howard was a fascistic, racist and misogynist writer, so anything he wrote is not worth their time. I bet they go by some editorial bible, that sketches some info and shows them a map, and that's all.

    The matter of Sonja on the throne: I must confess that on first reading the entire scene, I thought that by story's end it would be revealed that Sonja was in fact the King's daughter or something like that. That's the only way to read that scene and for it to make sense. Even in Sonja's musings on her as queen, she pictures her life as an endless stream of beer, sex and parties - not in a single instance does she ponder the eventuality that someone would dispute the throne. Either she is the King's daughter, or she is even more feeble-minded than Bennett made her look like.

    But then the King utters that he would never possess her and, although it may be read as another inkling of his paternity - it is because of them being blood related that she knows he would not possess her –it sounds so weird that I discarded the hypothesis (time will tell).

    As to Sonja's mention of killing a king possibly referring to Pah-Dishah's king Ghannif, I must confess that despite being one of my favorite Sonja's stories, it has not occurred to me that she could be talking about that event.

    Probably because I don't seem to be able to place this Sonja in the same Universe as Thomas/Marvel's Sonja. But I guess it could be. Although by the context in which it is said I was led to read it as a case of forced marriage (she is talking about being possessed by a king, of being married to Hyrkania) and not as an attempt to add her to a harem.

    Another thing that jarred me on reading this first issue, was the way the new King was "introduced" almost in the same way as the main villain in Swords of Sorrow. We may yet learn Sonja is once again facing Prince Charming of Hyrkania.



  4. *Bangs head into a wall repeatedly* Good God, its never going to end is it? Someone get Trautman on the phone, we need Red Sonja to kill this impostor Sandra!

    A great review for a mediocre issue, I'm pretty sure it will be getting stellar reviews as everyone seems afraid of ruffling female writers feathers since gamergate or whatever it was.