Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani
Oh... Where to even start here? With the long and strange history of the character of Red Sonja? With her creator Robert E Howard? The fabled career of Gail Simone? To Discuss Brazilian artist Walter Geovani? Not to mention the graphic novel itself? You know what? I'll start with Gail Simone.
I kind of feel like Ms. Simone is both a warning and an example to comic editors everywhere about what might happen if you turn to a fan and ask “You think you can do better?” Because as it turns out... she can. Personally speaking, I'm very comfortable in saying she's one of the better comic book writers out there, which is interesting because before becoming a writer she was a hair dresser who had studied theater in college. She first came to everyone's attention when she joined a small web site called Women in Refrigerators which took it's name from an infamous scene where Green Lantern Kyle Rayner came home one day to find his murdered girlfriend stuffed into a fridge. The website pointed out that an awful a lot of female superheroes and other characters were being murdered, raped or otherwise brutalized; to serve as plot devices in the stories of male characters. Which in a lot of cases turned them into well... props for the plot instead of fully realized characters in their own right. I'm going to risk jumping in the white hot gender wars of the internet and say Women in Refrigerators had a point. This isn't to say you can never hurt a female character, just that if you're killing Supergirl just to invoke angst in a Superman story you might not being treating Supergirl as a character in her own right. The same of course holds true in reverse. From there Ms. Simone wrote a column on Comic Book Resources and moved on to writing Simpson Comic Books. Then DC comics hired her and the rest is her becoming so beloved by comic book readers that when DC editor Brain Cunningham fired her on the 9th of December, the fan outrage was so powerful that she was rehired on the 21st of the same month (this would be the warning part for editors...). Red Sonja was written in the next year for the up and coming company Dynamite (who sadly I won't be discussing in this review, space and all).
Walter Geovani, the artist is a Brazilian born artist who had worked mainly on independent comics. Honestly I feel that Red Sonja is some of his best work so far (it's the latest example I've seen, to be fair) but I can see rapid improvement in the young man. Now I'm not an art critic, so when the improvement is so dramatic that I can notice it, it must be good. The art on Red Sonja is pretty damn good too; the action has weight and movement, and it conveys a certain brutality which is what you need for a character like Sonja. I'm actually left with high hopes for the man.
Let me talk about Red Sonja, who springs from the same mind that gave us Kull, Solomon Kane and most famously of all Conan the Barbarian. I speak of course of one of the more under appreciated fathers of sword and sorcery and maybe American Fantasy in general, Robert E Howard. I intent to write more about Howard in a later entry in this series but here's what you need to know for now: he's awesome, I love his work and will make no apologies for that. Interestingly enough Red Sonja wasn't written as a character in Conan's setting. She was instead a character in one of his historical works “Shadow of the Vulture,” set during the actual siege of Vienna. In it the character of Red Sonya is a red haired, gun slinging sword's woman who is after revenge on the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and his consort Roxelana (Roxelana was a real person who became the wife of the Sultan, the first woman that was actually married by the Sultan in hundreds of years). It is revealed that Roxelana is actually Sonya's sister and she had betrayed the family to the Sultan.
Fast Forward to the 1970s, Marvel Comics is making Conan the Barbarian comics and they're converting Howard's other works into Conan stories to avoid running out of material. Roy Thomas rewrites Shadow of the Vulture into a Conan story and combines the Red Sonya of that story with another Howard character Dark Agnes De Chastillon (Interestingly Dark Agnes also inspired another character Jirel of Joiry who would become the prototype in turn for a legion of female heroes. This is what I mean about Howard not getting his fucking due!). Red Sonya proved to be a popular character (her first appearance was not in the scale bikini but that would come along shortly) and took off. Roy Thomas and friends would hammer together their own origin story in 1975 that appeared as a story in a Kull comic. It's... a very 1970s origin story I'm going to have to say. Red Sonya is basically a peasant girl whose family is brutally murdered while she is raped and left to die. While Sonya lays there the goddess Scathach (The goddess in question is based on a woman from Irish mythology, a Scottish Warrior Woman who trains the great Ulster Hero Cu Chulainn) appears to her and basically offers her superpowers, that she may be as a strong and fast and skilled as any man with a weapon. As long as she swears to never lie with a man who doesn't first kick her ass. I'll admit from the year 2016 that origin is a bit... well...look guys “I Spit on your Grave,” was a thing back then but it ain't anymore. Plus that vow really kinda bothers me, I mean, the only person Red Sonya can have a sexual relationship with is someone willing to beat the crap out of her? That's kinda of... Rapey. I'm not big on these issues so I kinda feel when I notice it, it's time to tone it down.
That's why we have Gail Simone who in this graphic novel gives us a 3rd origin story for the character. In Queen of Plagues we have Red Sonja dealing with her past, an invading army of men and monsters from the ocean deeps, a plague, and the fact that the woman she considers a sister has turned on her and gone batshit crazy. To be honest when I read the novel for the first time, I considered it the 2nd best origin (Shadow of the Vulture is the best one!). On reflection (having read it three times now) we have a story where Red Sonja is dealing with betrayal by a sister, a siege on a city by an expansionist empire of an alien culture and her own mental issues; the mixing of the two origins is actually pretty damn good and I find I like it. The only thing I disagree with is writing out the goddess (seriously I would just modify the deal to make it less 70s revenge porn). We get to peer back into her childhood where she was raised by a hunter, before her family was murdered before her very eyes by a wanna be warlord (that's a nice touch, it's not a real band of soldiers, but a bunch of thugs who think they're soldiers who do this, making the following scenes much more believable). We see this in flashbacks, as well as where Sonja learned to be a two legged whirlwind of death. She had been taken as a slave and taught to kill by a fellow prisoner Dark Annisia (who may herself be a nod to Dark Agnes, man, we got layers here!). She and Dark Annisia were freed when a man lead a coup to overthrow the brutal and wanton king of the city. Dark Annisia left, Red Sonja stuck around for awhile moved by the mercy and generosity of such a man. Sadly without support Dark Annisia had sunk into a kind of PTSD driven insanity where she believed herself literally hounded by the souls of the men and women she killed. This insane rage led her to a path that collided with Red Sonja and while they may regret it, neither one of them were backing down and neither one of were pulling their punches. I really wish we got to spend more time with Dark Annisia to see how she slid into her current stage. This is a very comic book version of PTSD and the reactions of people who suffer from it. I would have liked to see it treated with a more realistic tone. I would say that I hope in the future Ms. Simone gives something like that more consideration, because it's a real issue and some of my brothers in arms are still laboring under it. That said, Ms. Simone never treats it as anything but a tragedy and does not make light of it, which counts for a lot with me. She is after all, a civilian and as far as I know doesn't have a lot of direct experience with such things.
Red Sonja Queen of Plagues is a successful re-imaging of the characters origin that includes a lot of nods to her inspirations. The action is great, the dialogue rather snappy without being to modern which helps it retain a serious tone. Because of this Red Sonja Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone is an A. Ms. Simone's first appearance on this review series is a triumphant one and I hope for more to come.
Quick note, this is the first week I've had someone else proofread my review. Give a thank you to Ben Allen for his hard work folks. Next week, we go back to novels. See you then.