Hasslein Blog: GUEST BLOG: Red Sonja—The Marvel Years


Hasslein Blog

Sunday, March 24, 2013

GUEST BLOG: Red Sonja—The Marvel Years

Rachel Helie, a friend of and occasional blogger for Hasslein Books, recently suggested bringing writer Matthew Sunrich into the fold. It was an excellent suggestion. Matt's first work for Hasslein, presented below, is an expanded version of an article that previously appeared at his blog. It is our honor to present it to you now, and our hope that Matt will continue to write for the Hasslein Blog. Matt, you have the mic.

Red Sonja: The Marvel Years

By Matthew 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 (note 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.

In this introductory issue, as well as in the one that followed ("The Song of Red Sonja"), our heroine was not clad in the chainmail bikini that sword and sorcery fans have come to know and love. Rather, she wore a long-sleeved, midriff-bearing mail shirt and cloth shorts. The change came about when artist Esteban Maroto sent Marvel a fan illustration of Sonja in the bikini. Everyone loved the new design, and Maroto was immediately commissioned to illustrate "Red Sonja," a short but definitive story that appeared (along with his original drawing) in the black-and-white magazine Savage Sword of Conan #1. This story is reprinted in Savage Sword #83, Marvel Feature (volume two) #1, and Conan Saga #31, so you have some nice options.

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 about a vampiric brother and sister 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 and, as far as I'm concerned, look better in black and white.)

In Conan #48, we find Sonja captured by a mad sorcerer, intent on sacrificing her to his inscrutable gods (with "unpronounceable names," no less), in a nine-page solo story called, simply enough, "Episode" (reprinted in Conan Saga #49). Sonja has seldom looked lovelier than she does in this tale, with pencils by John Buscema and inks by Dick Giordano (a rare treat at Marvel). Thomas succeeds in spinning a solid sword & sorcery yarn here, despite its short length, and it stands as one of my personal favorite Sonja adventures.

Sonja appears solo again a few years later in the excellent, seventeen-page "Master of Shadows" in Savage Sword #45 (reprinted in Conan Saga #29). Christy Marx, John Buscema, and Tony DeZuniga weave a suspenseful tale, as our She-Devil runs afoul of a family of assassins, the House of Shadows. After humiliating two members of said family who try make her their plaything, she is strongly advised to leave the city, but she chooses to remain and finds herself the target of two assassination attempts, one of which results in the death of one of the men who assaulted her, and the owner of a dead horse.

When she confronts the leader of the clan, the Shadow Master, about this, he offers her a bag of silver with which to purchase a new mount, despite his brother's protests. He tells her that he is willing to forget the death of his brother but that if another member of his house winds up dead, he will kill her. Unfortunately, the other assassins are unwilling to see the matter settled and endeavor to make further attempts on her life. Needless to say, they come to regret the decision, and ultimately even the dreaded Shadow Master is no match for the Hyrkanian warrior.

Sonja's popularity soon allowed her to spin out into her own titles, first in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #'s 1-7 and then in her own eponymous series, which lasted for fifteen issues. Her adventures continued to show up occasionally in the pages of Savage Sword, including an origin story, "The Day of the Sword," in #78. She appears (to varying degrees) in Conan #s 60-61 and 66-68 and again in #115, the double-length, tenth-anniversary issue, which, for some, represents the end of an era.

Marvel attempted to resurrect Sonja in the 1980s, first in a two-issue 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, the most notable of which is 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, et cetera). 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, which is often lost inside Thorne's inks, needs to be more overt, while not completely distracting. She needs to allure you but keep you on your guard at the same time. I don't feel that this comes across in his 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. Frank Brunner, who drew a few covers, including the resplendent one that graces Red Sonja #12, would have done an excellent job, I'm sure, but he might have been tied up with another book.

Maybe I'm biased, but I think that a character like Red Sonja only works when drawn by a top-notch artist.

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).

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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