Revisit the early days of the She-Devil with a Sword!
Based upon a few different characters from Conan and Solomon Kane author Robert E. Howard, Red Sonja of Hyrkania has been a fixture in sword and sorcery comics since she was first properly introduced in 1973’s Conan the Barbarian #23. Sonja, the scale mail bikini-clad “She-Devil with a Sword,” was eventually spun off into her own title, even receiving a (terrrrrrriblllle) film adaptation in the 80s. For the last several years, the rights to the character have been owned by Dynamite Entertainment, who have produced multiple series featuring the character, including acclaimed runs written by Gail Simone and Amy Chu.
Many of the character’s early comic book appearances have been collected here in The Further Adventures of Red Sonja Vol. 1, an impressive book featuring work by some of the industry’s greats, such as Howard Chaykin, John Buscema, and Roy Thomas.
In a subgenre overrun by big, burly He-Man types and women who were damsels in distress at best and conniving sex slaves or gnarled witches at their worst, it has always been refreshing to see Red Sonja carving out her own brand of justice and doing it many years before Xena ever picked up her Chakram. Yes, the outfit tends to lend itself to a bit of cheesecake, but it’s rarely the focus of the stories. In fact, her manner of dress usually leads the villains to underestimating Sonja’s fighting prowess before they fall to her blade.
The stories in the collection range from short encounters with supernatural horrors to humorous depictions of a day in the life of Red Sonja. Some of the inclusions are slightly puzzling, seeming to require further context from Conan stories that Dynamite don’t have the rights to reproduce. For instance, a short interlude with a wizard summoning the various versions of Sonja throughout history is a fun trifle, but ultimately lacks a payoff. Many of the early shorts are variations on the same tale: Sonja is accosted by a group of bandits who don’t know who they’re dealing with, butt-kicking ensues. These are largely saved from an acute feeling of sameness by the various writers’ flowery prose and some incredible illustrations, which have been painstakingly remastered for this collection. There’s a reason (beyond the eye-candy) why this character caught on with readers.
Aside from my minor quibbles with some of the story choices for this book, much of it is a radically fun read. The stories are quick and exciting, the humor mostly works (especially when Sonja talks down to her quarry), and the artwork provides all the bloody action that the Comics Code Authority would allow back in the day. What doesn’t quite hold up for me is the constant threat of sexual violence in many of the stories. Much of this has been corrected in modern Red Sonja comics, but in the beginning, she was a character fighting to avenge the murder of her family and her own sexual assault, calling upon a goddess to give her the strength and skill to carry it out. In more than one story, the various rogues Sonja happens upon threaten to “make sport” with her, whether she wants to or not. The villains call her demeaning names and act as though they have ownership over her body. Sure, she always outsmarts them and they’re quickly dispatched, their disgusting behavior used as a shorthand to show us how unforgiving Howard’s Hyborian Age could be and how deserving these men are of a sword in the gut, but it’s kind of a shock how frequently and frankly it’s depicted. It doesn’t help that these scenes tend to have some of the more inelegant dialogue of the book. Luckily, this is a well that the writers seemed to return to less as the series went on. As well-written as many of these stories are, one can’t help but be thankful for the many female writers who have redefined the character in the last decade or so, giving Sonja more agency as a self-made warrior woman.
Which actually brings me to my favorite story of the collection, “Master of Shadows,” written by Christy Marx. It’s a fun story of Red Sonja fighting her way out of a town full of assassins, but the portrayal of Sonja really stuck out to me in this one. It’s subtle, but this chapter shows us a Sonja who is fully aware of her sensuality but refuses to be ogled at. It’s a brief exchange before the bloodshed, but she appears to be tired of the same old kind of men accosting her when all she wants is to find food, drink, and a bed for the night. It’s a nuance to the character that I don’t think many male writers would have brought to the story, especially in the time it was written. The rest of the story is mostly one big action sequence and it’s a blast to read as Sonja outsmarts and outfights this gang of brutes at every turn.
The longer stories like this one and the multi-part epics that make up the second half of the collection are more of a pleasure to read, allowing us more time to get acquainted with Sonja and her world. As mentioned previously, many of these issues are written by the great Roy Thomas and his style in particular lends itself very well to these mythical tales, with characters making bold proclamations and the promise of eldritch evil lurking around each and every corner.
All in all, I think this trade is a must-buy for existing fans of Red Sonja who enjoy the character and would like to see some of her pulpier origins and how she evolved over time. For newer readers, however, I may recommend they seek out the more recent Red Sonja comics from Dynamite’s various creative teams. Some of the tales in this collection, well-told as they may be, haven’t aged quite as gracefully as Sonja herself.