I started this series of posts with the intention of only writing one. “In Defense of Red Sonja” was meant to be a stand-alone post about how the character was more than just a female version of Conan the Barbarian, more than just a fan-service redhead in a chain mail bikini, more than a misogynist rape-challenge. I’ve been collecting comics from the “Bronze Age” (approximately 1970 through 1985) for years and Red Sonja wasn’t the only female character to pop up. There was Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel … all clearly starting as female versions of established male heroes and all eventually transcending those limits to become their own concepts.
That first post quickly grew in size, reaching over three-thousand words before even going into her appearances in Marvel Feature or her self-titled book. As it covered three distinct themes (how she differed from Conan, where the bikini came from, what the vow meant), I thought it would be better to break it into three separate articles. By the time the third post came out, I’d gotten enough positive reaction that I thought it might be nice to keep exploring how the character grew over the course of her own title. It was at this point that I realized just how much humor got slipped in to various panels of the title, which got me in the habit of highlighting a couple images each week. The novels and film were good ways to show how the character translated into other media, as well as how she was still evolving. And it was all a lot of fun.
So why is this the end? There were two more Marvel Comics series in the early eighties, as well as two Dynamite Entertainment series (Red Sonja and Queen Sonja) currently running. Not to mention a slew of one-shots and mini-series. I’ve got enough material to easily keep this column running at least another three years. And it is tempting to try.
But the fact is that the character just doesn’t seem as fun now as she did then. The easiest dividing mark I can find is when Sonja lost her bikini. No, not like that. I mean, when she traded the iconic chain mail bikini for a furry blue tunic. Apparently, someone at Marvel had decided that a warrior woman running around in something more revealing than lingerie was both silly and sexist (definitely and probably). But with the change in outfits also came a change in story tone. The sillier elements were traded for more straightforward adventures and the artwork, while still good, was not on the level of Frank Thorne, Barry Windsor-Smith, or the Buscemas. Sure, I could keep writing about those stories, but you’d believe every word. And I’m sure there were a few readers out there who thought I was making up these stories myself (one of the reasons I included pictures – evidence).
So I’ll leave the character as I choose to remember her: a crazy woman living in a crazy world. Before she grew up and got all respectable in a linear-logic world.
It’s been nice to read the comments that followed many of these posts, as well as the occasional shout-outs I’ve seen on other sites. Probably the strangest coincidence connected to these posts came when I was commenting on the character at an open mic event (Top Shelf Books in Palatine), when one of the other writers present mentioned that he’d written a few novels with the character back in the eighties. Now, I’d just finished one of those novels days earlier and had never connected that the David Smith who sat next to me at these readings was the same David Smith who’d written those books. Not even when he read from his essay on the sword & sorcery in literature.
So what does the future hold for this character? As you read this post, Peter V. Brent is halfway through a very promising mini-series, Red Sonja Unchained, which is the follow-up to last year’s Red Sonja: Blue. Blue tells the tale of how Sonja lost her chain mail and acquired her blue fur, resulting in one of the funniest portrayals of the character I’ve read that still manages to dovetail into tragedy seamlessly. Unchained is the direct sequel to Blue.
Down the road, a new Red Sonja series is being planned with none other than Gail Simone slated to write it. For those who don’t know comics, Gail Simone is one of the best writers in the comics field today. Her work is noted for both its strong characterization and humor. I’ll certainly be reserving a copy at the local comic shop.
So, after thirty posts, how to sum up Red Sonja? The red hair and chain mail bikini are the visual cues; but that’s like saying Spider-Man is just a guy who sticks to walls. There’s the vow (to never love a man who hasn’t defeated her in fair combat), but even that seems more indicative of some other character trait. Using the Spider-Man analogy again, the death of Uncle Ben defines the character; but just saying it happened doesn’t tell you about Spider-Man until you know how he reacted to it.
As a young woman, Sonja lost her home and her family. Her rape was in many ways a dismissive act, as if she weren’t even worth the bother of killing. No one comes to rescue her and, after the bandits have left, no one is there to console her. Her vision, whether it is truly a goddess or simply a hallucination, doesn’t offer calming words, but instead promises her the strength to prevent such a violation from happening again. Red Sonja is told she is strong enough to take care of herself and, by her vow, the only man whom she will love must be at least as strong.
Sonja moves from city to city throughout her various stories, never settling in one for more than a couple of issues and never developing a regular supporting cast of characters. On three separate occasions (Red Sonja 3, 6, and 13), she is offered a throne and rejects it each time without consideration. This is not just a matter of rejecting the kings that would come attached to those thrones; but an acceptance of her own nature. Just as Red Sonja will never trust love after seeing everyone she loved murdered; she will never feel any place is truly home after seeing her childhood home so easily burned away.
Red Sonja fears living the lives that most of us lead every day because she knows they are fragile things. Anyone can lose everything that matters to them in a day. The courage to risk caring again, to risk feeling the loss she’s already felt once, is too great for her. So the final story of Red Sonja might not necessarily be one of being conquered by a male who then forces her into marital servitude (“raising brats instead of hell”). It might simply be her finding a place where she can settle and call home, with companions who truly become friends rather than merely the supporting cast for a story or two. It doesn’t have to be about finding a husband or raising kids. It doesn’t even have to be about a man defeating her in fair combat. (And did you ever wonder what would have happened if it had been a woman who eventually defeated her in fair combat? Fan-fiction ahoy!)
Red Sonja’s story is about a woman who explores an amazing world while trying to find her place in it. Thanks for reading.
If you’re curious about what else is happening with Red Sonja these days, there’s a couple of fantastic blogs dedicated to all things Hyrkanian: Red Sonja – She-Devil with a Sword and The Nemedian Chronicles. And now, one last image capture, taken from Savage Sword of Conan 29: