Master of Shadows
As I mentioned last week, Red Sonja’s first series ended with issue fifteen. But cancellation often came quickly and without warning in the Bronze Age of Comics (look it up – it’s my favorite era). So there was already another Red Sonja story written and illustrated, no doubt ready for coloring, when the axe fell.
Well, nothing went to waste at the House of Ideas, so in October 1979, the story was published as a back-up feature in Savage Sword of Conan 45, in glorious black and white. Master of Shadows reads like a new direction for the series was seriously being considered before the whole thing got shut down. It’s one of the rare Red Sonja stories completely free of the supernatural and with a plot that’s far more coherent than what we’ve come to expect from the She-Devil with a Sword.
The new direction is likely due in large part to Roy Thomas being replaced as writer by Christy Marx. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because you heard an interview with her a couple months back. Maybe you’re a fan of her sword-and-sorcery limited series, Sisterhood of Steel. Maybe you’re following her current take on Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld in the pages of Sword of Sorcery.
But, more likely, you’ll remember her as the creator of Jem, the truly outrageous holographic pop singer from the 1980s. Jem would occasionally get transported back in time or shanghaied by yetis in her never-ending quest to keep the Starlight Home for Plot Device Girls open. So Marx certainly would seem to have the writing pedigree to follow-up giant clams and ancient green robots. But she instead chose a rather straight interpretation of the character.
Of course, there’s still room for fun in a straight version of Red Sonja. The story opens with our heroine trying to catch a nap in a public park. Draped out on a park bench in her chain mail bikini, she certainly draws her share of appreciative leers, but three men in particular decide to approach her with the standard “show you a good time” dialogue. Two of the three get tossed in a nearby pond, while the third, who only identifies himself as the Master of the House of Shadow, tells her that she was right to toss them, but now she should leave town as they’ll want revenge. It’s good advice, but Sonja won’t be driven off.
The weirdest bit about this scene is that we see no one else in the park until page four, when it suddenly becomes apparent that it’s both the middle of the day and a crowded location. Apparently, no one decided to intervene on behalf of either side. Sonja quickly realizes that the House of Shadow is a sort of fraternal order of assassins and everyone in the city is terrified of them.
That night, Red Sonja receives her first assassination attempt from the House of Shadow. The youngest member attempts to stab her while she sleeps, but she manages to catch his hand and actually turn the blade back on the assassin.
What follows is classic Red Sonja madness. If you killed a man in a rented room, knowing he would be but the first of many professional assassins, what would you do? A) Pack your things and flee town in the dead of night before word of the assassin’s failure reached his friends? B) Carefully hide the body so that the assassins won’t be wise to the failure for a while, buying you time? C) Gear up and search the area, in case there are more assassins lurking about?
If you answered A, B, or C, then you are NOT Red Sonja. She picks up the corpse and throws it out the window, leaving it to splatter on the street below. Then she goes back to sleep. In the same rented room. Without even bolting the window shut.
Come morning, the assassin’s corpse is gone. But her horse has been killed (a carry-over from the old series – equine violence). She tries to have some breakfast, but a dead cat on the kitchen table lets her know that her food’s being poisoned as well.
That’s two assassination attempts by an order of assassins that holds the entire town in fear. And how does Sonja react?
She walks right up to the door of the House of Shadow and demands that they buy her a new horse.
I’ve said it before, First Lady of Fantasy.
And the Master of Shadow is so impressed by her bravado that he gives her the money to buy a new horse. But he dismisses the murder of the assassin simply by saying that if he’d been any good at his job, he wouldn’t have gotten himself killed. He also warns Sonja that, if she kills any more members of his order, he’ll have to kill her. I guess the first one’s free.
Of course, nobody wants to get in the middle of Sonja’s struggle with the House of Shadow, so she can’t find anyone willing to sell her a horse or put her up for the night. She climbs to the roof of some abandoned building and opts to sleep in the attic. The bats and spiders keep her just awake enough that she feels the rope slipping around her neck a moment before it gets tightened.
So her third assassination attempt (after stabbed in her sleep and poisoned breakfast) is a strangling. Drawing her knife, she just stabs haphazardly behind herself until the blade connects with the assassin. Once he’s dead, she realizes that she won’t be getting any sleep in the attic, so she leaves.
She’s immediately attacked by some variation of the throwing star. She hides behind a chimney until the next assassin runs out of the things, then she pursues him across the rooftops of several buildings before realizing that, honestly, she’s probably being led into a trap. So she instead opts to hide behind the far side of the one of the houses until two of the assassins return, looking for her.
It turns out that they were indeed luring her into a trap; but now that they’ve lost her, they scatter dozens of small spiked balls across the rooftop. Once they’re gone, Sonja gathers up the scattered items in her cloak and spreads them over a different roof, to which she quickly lures one of the assassins. It turns out the balls were covered with poison, so that as soon as one of them punctures the assassin’s boot, he falls off the roof, dead before he strikes the ground. The fourth one gets tossed into a moat with Sonja right on top of him.
So that’s it for the House of Shadow. All but the Master of the House is dead. Again, most people would count themselves lucky and head out; but Sonja has to go back to him. Not only does she inform him that she’s murdered his entire family, but she offers him a truce.
Of course, in true arch-villain fashion, he believes the others were fools and tries to dispatch with Sonja himself. He seals off all exits to the room they’re in, then douses the flames so that they’re both in darkness, an element where he’s used to fighting (Master of Shadows). Of course, Red Sonja’s done her own share of night-fighting and it only takes one glint of moonlight on a blade for her to deduce where her assassin is hiding and stab accordingly.
The story ends with our heroine returning to the park and falling asleep on the bench once again. No doubt the other park-goers give her a wide berth.
While this story lacked the supernatural weirdness that marked earlier issues, the character still feels like Red Sonja and her behavior is consistent throughout the piece. Both Sonja and the Master of Shadows are portrayed as rational characters with their respective ethical codes and none of their actions seem false based on what we know of them. It’s too bad Christy Marx wasn’t given a chance to work with the original series, as it would have been interesting to see where she took it (although she did eventually write a few issues of the later series).
So, is this really the end of the gonzo insane chapter of Red Sonja’s career?
Well. Maybe there’s just one more crazy adventure …
(originally published in The Savage Sword of Conan 45, October 1979, Marvel Comics) (writer Christy Marx, artists John Buscema and Tony deZuniga)
Next Week: You’d Never Believe Me.