Red Sonja. Female version of Conan the Barbarian, in a way lingerie football* is a female version of American football.
*There really is such a thing, and apparently quite popular in the US. Isn’t it a perfect summary of what is worst in today’s pop-culture? The worst trends in advertising and entertainment combining sport and sex to appeal to the lowest instincts of mass audience. And there is talk of empowerment and providing role models for little girls, of course… and fining players for not revealing enough skin.
This digression is not completely out of topic, because Red Sonja seems to be part of the same problem. Pulp had its strong points and can still be fun to read, but it also targeted male teenage audience with soft erotica in days when it had to be disguised and the regular porn was not easily available. Scantily clad women on the covers, damsels in distress rewarding dashing heroes with their graces, and sometimes sword-wielding females like Sonja, inspired but slightly different fantasies of authors and readers. Still, no actual women were hurt and left without medical help in the process, so maybe these were better times…
Anyway, I like to read some Conan stories from time to time, and classical covers are a bit fun, if not taken seriously. The 1985 Red Sonja movie was always a bit too much for me, I could never make myself watch the entire thing. Generally, genre moved towards gender equality and treats women more seriously (there is a long way to go, as we often point out here, but I believe no one can deny situation has improved). I’d argue that men are sexualized and objectified just as often in literature, in some neighbouring genres. It’s not necessarily the case in the mainstream media, but this is not a problem for this blog. Genre TV has several great examples of female protagonists, and Wonder Woman is about to hit the cinemas, it might be the first good DC movie in years, Gal Gadot certainly was one of few good points of B vs S.
Ok, so it’s not really really a proper review any more, but lets finally get to the main topic. Red Sonja comics have always been around (since 1976, anyway), but mostly had all the aforementioned faults. In 2013 a new author created a new version though, critically acclaimed and frequently praised by several authors and reviewers I trust. The author was Gail Simone and name alone makes you think. Well, there would be no lingerie football without some women playing along, but Simone is an established name in comic books industry and a creator of several stories feminists don’t complain about, like her Batgirl run, or Birds of Prey. And her Sonja was supposed to be really good.
Well, the chainmail bikini is still here (not all the time), and there is not enough muscle on Sonja to justify her great strength, but the stories are really good and the heroine is nobody’s prize, she’s a smart, capable warrior, and a shaper of her destiny. Just as likely to get drunk and screw something up as male comic book barbarians.
Simone herself described some of the problems she had to overcome:
I was a fan of the idea of Red Sonja, but the gender politics of the character made her hard to read for me, at times. I said, if I’m coming aboard, I’m not doing this rapey origin.
And the latest version (written by Marguerite Bennett, Simone’s hand-picked successor) finally got rid of the bikini, replacing it with a realistic sleeveless mail shirt and a skirt:
This version of Sonja can be read in public transportation without attracting strange looks 😉
Red Sonja: The Queen of Plagues is a three-volume collection of Simone’s stories and The Falcon Throne is a Bennett’s story I’ve read recently.
Queen of Plagues features, as the title suggest, a plague, and that is not something that could be defeated by even a great warrior. Or so it would seem. And then she goes on to have further adventures, make friends, kill enemies, help the weak and defy the mighty. It’s fun, smart, very entertaining. Increasingly famous, but unwilling to compromise on her simple values of loyalty, honour and sympathy. As promiscuous and care-free as Conan, quick to correct anybody who would have wanted to use it to manipulate her. The other characters are more cliché and a bit repetitive, but that’s to be expected in the genre.
Sonja is a dynamic protagonist who grows from a fierce barbarian to self-aware, battle weary hero. What we have is a great sword and sorcery graphic novel with female protagonist.
The Falcon Throne is a final step in distancing Sonja from her origins as a sexy magnet for teenage boys, but not as good a story as Simone’s. Dangers of nationalism, conflict between right-wing populism and Sonja’s idealism, make a plot that is a bit too righteous without certain lightness found in The Queen of Plagues. An entertaining read, but the correct message is delivered a bit too forcefully for my taste. But maybe it’s what our times need?
Altogether, after her 2013 makeover, Red Sonja became one of the most enjoyable fantasy comics, with great art and stories that can catch and keep reader’s attention.
And I love the alternative covers included in paperback collected editions, especially the Red Sonja meets Samurai Jack ones…