Red Sonja has turned 45 this last February, a date that went sadly unnoticed in this our blog for all things Sonja. I guess partly the reason for this neglect has been Red Sonja’s recent run on Dynamite Comics, mainly after Gail Simone’s tenure on the title. Not only that, but her recent adventures have sent the she-devil with a sword carousing all over time and space, diluting the essence of the character until the final holistic distillation has little of the Hyrkanian warrior left. Truth is, she is not Red Sonja anymore. Surely not our Red Sonja.
When Sonja was presented to the readers in that historical issue of CONAN THE BARBARIAN #23, cover-dated February 1973, the world was watching with a mixture of enthusiasm, bemusement and contempt the rise of the furious second wave of feminism. Against that cultural background, Red Sonja, a fierce woman warrior, inferior to no man, was a welcome novelty for both female and male readers, the latter comprising the traditional comic-book readership. More than a novelty, the fierce mercenary captain and cunning spy/thief from “The Shadow of the Vulture” and “The Song of Red Sonja” was the pure embodiment of the new woman brought about by celebrities like Jane Fonda (able to embody the roles of both political activist as Hanoi Jane and sexy space kitten as Barbarella). Red Sonja thus became the comics feminist icon par excellence.
When Spanish artist extraordinaire Esteban Maroto depicted Red Sonja in a metal-bikini some months later, it caught the fancy of millions of readers and gained the attention of none other than Red Sonja’s creator himself, Roy Thomas, who didn’t feel too enthusiastic about the chain-mail shirt and hot-pants with which Barry Windsor-Smith (another genius artist) had garbed Sonja. Penned by Thomas, “Red Sonja” appeared in the pages of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN #1 in 1974. The art was by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams and Ernie Chua (a sacred pantheon of comics artists) and in it Sonja wore her metal bikini for the first time in a story (or two, as she also starred in the main feature of the book, the Conan adventure “Curse of the Undead-Man”, where both Hyborian Age giants were reunited for the first time since “Song of Red Sonja” the year before).
“Red Sonja” was destined to become a classic in Red Sonja’s canon of early stories; when it saw print Sonja was yet to be granted the mandatory comic-book-character origin story, however one throwaway line in it would prove crucial for her future development: ‘Red Sonja made a vow that no man ever shall touch her, save one who’s defeated her in battle’. Thomas was trying to add a little more resonance to a growingly fonder character when he borrowed the quote from Yeats’s “On Baile’s Strand” (1903) and Queen Aoife defeat at the hands of Celtic hero Cuchulain there depicted, but in doing so he invested her with the first inkling of true mythical resonance. A power that would spring full-fledged a year later (in KULL AND THE BARBARIANS #3, September 1975) in her long awaited origin story that set as the reason for such a vow the massacre of Sonja’s family and her vicious (gang)rape at the hands of the perpetrators. The tragic and mythical potential of such a traumatic genesis went widely unnoticed by rabid feminists that simply saw in it the setting of Sonja as a walking add for rape. By the time third-wave feminism got to corrupt modern thought with the tenets of political correction, Sonja was a major no-no: after all, one should come out of such a life-changing event turned into a zombified eternal victim, not as a powerful warrior.
This post is neither the place to set them straight or to expand on a theme of such complexity and polemic value, and if I mention it at all is because it seems to be de rigueur, and because such an incredibly obtuse gut-reaction goes a long way in explaining the recent ill-fate of the character. However, one must recognize that, if treated wrongly, Red Sonja could easily turn into a mere porn-fantasy romp. But then came along Frank Thorne… Wait a minute? What? Yes, I know what you’re thinking: but didn’t Frank Thorne turn Sonja precisely into a “male-ego-oriented cartoon sex cipher”, and her adventures into “tit-slinging, butt-posing soft porn” in the words of Windsor-Smith himself? Well, Thorne’s Sonja may be seen as an abrupt change from Windsor-Smith’s more restrainedly sexy warrior, but to see his work as mere soft porn is myopic. Thorne is a sensualist by nature, someone whith a keen knack and sensibility for the subterranean eroticism of the id as a major creative source throughout the centuries. One can indeed think of Sonja as a feminist icon, but one would be better served reading her as a timeless erotic icon. And that’s exactly what Thorne set out to do, and to do it excellently. In Thorne’s most lavish pages, the world turns into a moist organic growth of living swamps and swollen lumps of clotted earth. Demons, men and animals are bloated carcasses ready to burst in riotous explosions of fetid bodily fluids. It’s a sensory and sensual universe from which metal-bikini-clad Sonja appears to emerge as a shining jewel from a mildewed and rotting purse or, better yet, from the wet shining entrails of a slain impish devil. One can’t fully recall all the times that Thorne’s Sonja had to crawl through swamp bilge, ride under unrelenting rain, fight in cesspools or even inside the rotting carcass of gigantic beasts. One can’t help but to associate all of that disgusting fleshy fluidness with Sonja’s barely concealed body, building in one’s mind a permanent subtext of aliveness, of organic matter trying to overflow, to reproduce in a torrent of uncontrolled, subliminal eroticism. Of course, Thorne would take the erotic aspect of Sonja’s character even further in his ersatz-Sonja Ghita of Alizarr, where he could tackle the more obviously uncomfortable implications of Sonja’s legend that Marvel wouldn’t allow in its hallowed pages.
Thorne would become forever associated to Red Sonja, his run on Marvel Comics usually held as the fan-favorite summit of perfection. I am one of those. Thorne’s tenure on Marvel’s Red Sonja ended in 1979 and although the character would have a vivid career throughout the ninety-eighties, including a polemic change of costume that substituted a new blue fur-gown more in tune with the conservative eighties for the metal bikini, but never again reached the visceral mythic levels of Thorne’s run.
Alas, Red Sonja would subtly flicker away from center stage during the nineties, and when she returned in the new millennium, under a different imprint, it was to suffer a major conceptual overhaul and a significant downgrade in quality, mostly after she was substituted, body-snatchers-like, by ersatz Horny Sandra (again, a tip of the hat to our colleague TheMightyFlip for this fortunate moniker) after a somewhat decent run before Gail Simone threw her into the pudgy little priggish and small-minded fingers of her merry band of quota girls who promptly set to depower, diminish and demythologize her. Anyway, adding insult to injury (or vice-versa, as it seems more appropriate to the case in point), Red Sonja was killed in issue 34 of Dynamite’s run, her looks and name usurped by some aristocratic floozy relative whose mere existence betrays everything established in Sonja’s canon until then. Not a happy ending, no siree. However, that must not distract us from what really matters: Red Sonja – the real Red Sonja – has just completed her 45th anniversary, and that's surely a reason to rejoice. In the current PC-infected cultural milieu Marvel probably wouldn’t treat Red Sonja any better than Dynamite has done. Let us then celebrate this greatest of comic characters, the unsurpassed sword queen of the Hyborian Age, every teenager’s wet dream, every feminist’s nightmare, the one and only Red Sonja of Hirkanya. Here’s looking at you, Red. Happy Birthday!