Red Sonja: The Marvel Years Introduction
(or Why Comic Books Are Better than Fashion Magazines)
By Rachel Helie
For Double Helix
There are a few reasons, quite a few reasons actually, why I prefer to read comic books over fashion magazines.
Two: When I peek over to the right and start reading the headlines of this month’s issue of Cosmopolitan magazine it seriously isn’t about fashion or anything that would be of use to me. It’s about bullshit. Every single line. I get that it’s supposed to be fun and engaging and adaptable for mass consumption but c’mon. “Your hottest year ever”? Seriously? I am not going to learn how to heat my year, whatever that means, from whatever this magazine is.
If it serves as some sort of relationship/lifestyle guide for the modern twenty-something then please, readers of Cosmo, sign a disclaimer stating that you will never marry or join the work force. That may be a little harsh but if your relationship and career advice is taken from a supermarket rag, you really need to rethink your priorities.
This is where I start talking about my love of comic books, particularly the powerful heroines that splash the pages of some of my favorite stories. The stories are radical departures from an otherwise mundane reality, something that the folks at Cosmo wallow around in like skinny little piggies in…well, you know.
The women of comics are powerful and intense. They are conflicted and brilliant, strange and otherworldly. I love them for that. There are arguments that the representation of women in comics is too idealized, but if that argument is to be made, what of the magazine industry? What do we have to say about mooning after the every word, every movement, of some screen darling flavor of the month that comes into the periphery of popular culture? Yes, the women of comics are idealized, clad in skintight bustier and spandex, but they have something over any fashion hag out there. They have a story, stories that span decades. Stories that reflect the human condition and transcend it through fiction.
The idealized images of women in comics are not restricted to the women alone. The men are super-human, muscular, handsome, and often deeply flawed. Take the veil away and what you have are imperfect characters living in perfect or in some cases, imperfect bodies. This is something that no fashion magazine would approach without extreme apprehension. Their job is to create an ideal. The comic book writer’s job is to create an image of the ideal and then shatter it into a million pieces.
This being said and reiterated, let me proceed to introduce you to a postmodern Prometheus, Matthew Stephen Sunrich. Author and blogger, he specializes in Bronze Age heroes and heroines and is currently doing some interesting work with Red Sonja. Say hi; drop in…whatever it is we do.
I just saw someone buy a Cosmo at the checkout so I’ll be screaming in the shower. And not in the good way.
Red Sonja: The Marvel Years
by Matthew Stephen Sunrich
In 1970, Roy Thomas managed to convince Stan Lee to license the rights to Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard’s seminal sword and sorcery adventurer, who had been enjoying great success in mass-market paperback (thanks in no small part to the glorious cover art by Frank Frazetta), for a comic series. Barry Smith was tapped to handle the penciling chores, and the book quickly became one of Marvel’s top-selling titles.
With two dozen or so issues under their belts, Thomas and Smith decided to introduce a female character into the book, one who could hold her own against the Cimmerian swashbuckler. For inspiration, Thomas looked through Howard’s oeuvre and discovered a story called “The Shadow of the Vulture,” originally published in 1934, which featured a female warrior named Red Sonya (notice the difference in spelling) of Rogatino. The story takes place in the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire rather than in Howard’s Hyborian Age, but Thomas thought it could be easily adapted for his purposes. The result was Red Sonja’s first appearance in Conan the Barbarian #23.
According to Thomas, the bikini-armor’s first appearance in the Conan comic series was slated to be #43, but the story, “Curse of the Undead-Man,” wound up in Savage Sword #1 instead because the magazine needed a lead story. (Interestingly enough, it wound up being reprinted in Conan #78.) With this slot open in the Conan schedule, Thomas asked sword and sorcery writer David A. English for permission to adapt “The Tower of Blood,” a story of his that Thomas greatly admired, into a Conan and Red Sonja tale. English consented, and the story (masterfully illustrated by John Buscema, Ernie Chan, and Neal Adams) appeared in Conan #s 43 and 44. (These two issues were reprinted in Conan Saga #79, which can be obtained rather cheaply if you, like I, appreciate black-and-white comics.)
Sonja’s popularity soon allowed her to spin out into solo appearances in Marvel Feature (volume two) #s 1–7 and then into her own eponymous series, which lasted for fifteen issues. Her adventures continued to appear occasionally in the pages of Savage Sword, including an origin story, “The Day of the Sword,” in #78. She appeared again in Conan #115, the double-length, tenth-anniversary issue, which, for some, represented the end of an era.
Marvel attempted to resurrect Sonja in the 1980s, first in a miniseries and then in an ongoing series. Strangely, she no longer wore her iconic bikini armor, opting instead for a less-revealing blue tunic. (I have been unable to unearth any explanation for the change.) This apparently didn’t go over too well, and the character, as least as far as regular comics were concerned, was done. She showed up a time or two in the ‘90s, but by then even Conan’s popularity was waning, and Marvel was more-or-less just waiting for the license to expire.
Sonja’s appeal as a character stems from a number of factors, perhaps most notably because of the seeming contradiction of her disarming beauty and revealing attire and her vow to never give herself to a man unless he can defeat her in combat. Sonja’s vow is tied directly to her prowess in battle, having been granted it by the goddess Scathach, who found her as a young girl in her most desperate hour and offered her not only the opportunity for revenge against the brigands who slew her family and violated her but also to be a champion for those who suffer similar injustices. Why the goddess required this proviso is unclear, but Sonja takes it very seriously.
Conan is, of course, enchanted by her and during their adventures together frequently attempts to circumvent it (putting his arm around her shoulders, for example). In the aforementioned issue 115, a heated disagreement between the two leads to Conan’s knocking the sword from her very grasp with his own blade. (Admittedly, it mainly results from Sonja’s needlessly taunting him.) She draws a dagger, but he refuses to continue the fight, having determined himself the victor. The question of whether or not this is the case is left open, which causes Sonja to feel conflicted (and a little angry).
Even though the Cimmerian is a rogue and a scoundrel, Sonja obviously has some feelings for him. When Conan sacrifices his chance to be reunited with his dead lover Belit in order to save Sonja, she is overwhelmed, and it’s clear that this is the decisive moment in her life. Conan, still convinced that he bested her, tries to convince her to ride with him and be his companion, but she respectfully declines because she doesn’t want to lose her powers by giving herself to him and, further, has no desire to just be another link in his long chain of “conquests.” She has a tear in her eye as they part ways, but Conan, in typical fashion, seems to forget the whole thing almost instantly.
One of the things that sets Sonja apart from Conan, other than gender, is that while she often works as a sword-for-hire, it is not unusual for her to undertake a quest merely because she feels that it is the right thing to do. She has heart. Conan, while not completely heartless, is only in it, as they say, for the money (and the women, when he can get them).
In my estimation, Sonja’s limited success at Marvel is related to its not better realizing her potential. Frank Thorne, for example, was selected to illustrate the majority of the She-Devil with a Sword’s adventures, and his style was arguably a peculiar choice. I’m not sure what he was going for with the designs, but his Sonja comes off as less beguiling and more savage. Her sex appeal, I believe, needs to be more overt, while not distracting. I don’t feel that this comes across in Thorne’s art. Some of the later issues of the ongoing series were illustrated by John Buscema, who had a much better grasp on the character, but he was, unfortunately, not available all of the time.
Dynamite Entertainment purchased the license to Sonja in the early 2000s and has done magnificent things with her. But that’s a subject for another article (or, more likely, articles).