Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Red Sonja #1


Hasslein Blog

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Red Sonja #1

By Matthew Sunrich

Dynamite Entertainment's Red Sonja series debuted eight years ago. The popularity of sword & sorcery comics had waned considerably during the 1990s (attributable, no doubt, to the myriad poor decisions made in the name of avarice by publishers during this era), and Marvel decided not to renew its license for Conan, which it had held since 1970. Although Red Sonja is technically a Marvel character (she is loosely based on a female heroine from one of Robert E. Howard's short stories, "The Shadow of the Vulture," but is really the creation of Roy Thomas and Barry Smith), the company's claim to her went like the proverbial baby with the bathwater, not that they seemed to care. (The only Sonja comic Marvel published during the 1990s was the lackluster one-shot, "Red Sonja: Scavenger Hunt," which appears to have been drawn by a couple of third-rate Rob Liefeld protégés.)

Conan was picked up by Dark Horse, which specializes in comics based on licensed properties (Star Wars, most notably), and the She-Devil with a Sword went to Dynamite, a newer company with a similar business model. I don't know whether or not Dark Horse was interested in getting Sonja, but in a way the character benefited from existing in a universe without Conan (note that the setting is unchanged; their paths just never cross) because it gave her greater room to spread her wings, as it were, and prevented her from playing second fiddle to the Cimmerian, as she frequently did during her time at Marvel (see my article "Red Sonja: The Marvel Years").

The new Sonja series proved popular and featured some of the best art and writing in the industry. The spirit of the sword & sorcery of the 1970s, arguably the genre's strongest era, permeated every issue, and, without the restrictions of the Comics Code, Sonja was free to lop off limbs and heads with impunity (and to show more skin, of course, though not too much). Several top-notch miniseries, one-shots, and annuals followed, as well as an excellent spin-off called Queen Sonja, concerning her tumultuous time as sovereign of a small kingdom.

The character really came to life under Dynamite's banner after years of relative obscurity. Eighty issues in, however, the publisher decided it was time for a reboot. (It is worth mentioning that as of the time of this writing, the final issue has not yet arrived in stores, as the series fell behind at some point and had to struggle to catch up. The last story arc, "The Crimson Well," in which Sonja has been changed into a vampire and must fight Dracula to regain her humanity, serves as an excellent, if unusual, conclusion to the first volume.)

The new series is penned by acclaimed writer Gail Simone, who has worked on such titles as Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and Birds of Prey, as well as providing scripts for DC's cartoon series. Simone isn't interested in reinventing the wheel; her goal is to explore Sonja's character more deeply and to bring out her human qualities, which, she says, have been absent in many of the Hyrkanian swordswoman's adventures.

Walter Geovani, who illustrated numerous issues of Dynamite's first series, returns as regular artist after a break from the character, and his work looks better than ever. It is easy to see how his interpretation of Sonja has evolved over the years; his current version is leaner, sharper, and displays more intricate line work. His storytelling skills have likewise improved, and if this first issue is any indication we can expect great things in the coming months.

The story opens with Sonja's being rescued from the dungeons of a Zamoran castle by King Dimath, following his military victory. It is unclear exactly how she wound up imprisoned in the first place, but it's not really important. It serves as an effective device for the introduction of a new story; the fact that she survived the harsh treatment she received as a slave is a testament to her mettle and gives new readers an indication that Sonja is no ordinary warrior. There were eighty slaves at the outset, but only two remain. The identity of the other, it turns out, is an important plot point.

With a deadly plague ravaging his people and his army severely depleted, Dimath seeks out and implores Sonja to teach his people how to fight. Dimath is one of the few kings for whom Sonja has respect, so she reluctantly accepts, although she's convinced that it's a hopeless venture. She has only four days to train them in the ways of battle, and while she knows that it will not be enough time, she is willing to give it her best and to die alongside them if necessary.

I am generally not a huge fan of reboots. It is usually an indication that either the writers of the original series made some egregious missteps or that the series simply ran out of steam. I don't believe that this is the case with Dynamite's first Red Sonja series. The quality remained consistent throughout. I suppose the publisher just wanted to give new readers a fresh place to start from. Whatever the reason, I have no problem with this reboot and am excited about future issues.

If you've never read Red Sonja before, this issue provides a perfect opportunity to get on board. It gets my highest recommendation. 

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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