BY THIS AXE, I REVIEW!
By Sam Hurt
So before I got back to finishing Jirel of Joiry, I wanted to do a little detour, content-wise. My reasoning for that was because I wanted these first few reviews to really codify for you what I consider sword & sorcery as a genre. I could go on and on, paragraph after paragraph waxing poetic about the genre and how I feel about it (and I may just do that in the future). But instead of drowning everyone in an aimless wall of text (for now!), I thought a better idea would be to simply show you all what I consider sword & sorcery (mainly, excellent sword & sorcery) through these write-ups.
So without further nonsense, here's another wonderful slice of that corner of fantasy fiction I love so much: Red Sonja, or more specifically, Gail Simone's Red Sonja. Even more specifically, the first trade paperback collection of issues 1-6 from Dynamite Entertainment. This is the world's introduction to how Gail Simone does sword & sorcery. It's also, no joke, my introduction to the She-Devil with a Sword. I've spent a lot of time avoiding the character because of the rep that chain-mail bikini has attached to the character. Now, I have read a decent amount of Roy Thomas' Conan work from the 70s, and that includes Red Sonja's first appearances. And there is a certain amount of kitschy fun that gives her creators a small pass when it comes to her method of dress for those specific comics, but not indefinitely for all possible appearances of the character.
I don't need to go on a lengthy rant about the miserable state of warrior women in modern fantasy. There are plenty of posts with much more articulate arguments against the sad reality that is armor for women in fantasy already on the internet, so I suggest reading those in addition to this piece.
And that's sort of the main issue with Red Sonja for me. I know women as scantily clad props and set-pieces in fantasy existed long before she did (let's face it, the unfortunate truth is Jirel and Dark Agnes were the exception, not the rule), but Red Sonja is the crux upon which rests the arguments against that type of clothing for a female character, and I'm willing to bet she's also most likely the Ur-Example of choosing cheesecake over characterization, as exemplified by, you know, the entirety of Image Comics' 1990s output. At least, that's the idea I've built up myself. And it's because of that idea that I've avoided her solo adventures and instead sought out lady warriors like the kind found in Sword and Sorceress and Sword Woman.
Enter Gail Simone. I've read her work for years, always entertained, always on board whenever she starts a new series. Not all of her stuff ranks as something I'd consider a favorite, but her track record is sparkling enough that I give everything she does at least a fair shot. It was with that in mind that I decided to take the plunge on the first volume of her series, and I was not disappointed. My first inclination of the quality of the book was contained in SImone's introduction. Not just because she lists her history of loving sword & sorcery as a genre, but because she talked about how much she loves Red Sonja in particular, and how excited she was to bring her long-standing love and understanding of the genre and what makes it great to a character that A) deserves a writer of Gail SImone's caliber on her book, and B) desperately needs a writer of Gail Simone's caliber on her book.
Now to the meat of this review: it's great. I'm serious, it's hands down one of the best fantasy comics on the shelf right now, and since there's a dearth of new fantasy material out there, I'm including reprints and relaunches of other fantasy properties. There's a sense of fun, urgency, and action to this version of the character. While the chainmail bikini is still present, it's usually in conjunction with other clothes instead of standing alone. It's never actually worn into battle, and instead serves more as Sonja's "business casual," as it were. In battle, there's armor and plate and leather, at social functions there are actual clothes, and not once is it ever explained away with that weaksauce excuse of "I use it as a distraction in battle because I'm a Strong Female Character."
In a nutshell, what makes Simone's take on the character so excellent is she doesn't spend any time giving us excuses about why the character is dressed in a bikini, she doesn't spend any time telling us she's great and then having artist Walter Geovani fill the pages with cheesecake and titillation. She gets right to the action. Heads are chopped off, booze is drunk, bad guys are stabbed, it's everything good sword & sorcery should be.
And with this series being a soft reboot of the character herself, the backstory doesn't include any of the typical female peril that is so often used as the motivation for a woman of action. We get the sense that Sonja actually had a life before her current head-choppin' ways and currently has a purpose beyond eye candy. I would add the caveat of "even if that purpose is stabbing and drinking," but this is sword and sorcery, that's all the purpose a great hero needs! And that itself is yet another example of why Simone seems to get whatever that intangible "it" is present in other great authors of the genre like Wagner, Lieber, and Howard himself: it's not necessary to add complicated, melodramatic, angsty baggage to make these stories work, because these characters are fueled by impulse, emotion, id and reaction. These are visceral characters in a mean, uncaring world out for themselves and, if they're in a good mood, they're able to help an innocent passerby or two. Nobody's out to take over the world, nobody is going to shift the tides of kingdoms and empires, the story is only going to be about the small splash and circle of influence these rowdy protagonists invite and interact with on a story-by-story basis, and Simone seems to be well aware of that.
The reason it's so important for me to impress upon you how well Simone understands what makes good sword and sorcery is that she was able to take a character that, in the past, mainly existed as Exhibit A of the male gaze phenomenon in comics, and saw the potential of what she could be, standing right alongside the titans of the genre like Solomon Kane, Conan, and Elric. And most importantly, she delivered. You can read this book, and it doesn't feel like an apology for the past or a rehabilitation of any sort. Simone starts from the beginning assuming that you know that Red Sonja is more than a joke in metal lingerie, that she's actually a kickass barbarian adventurer who has kickass barbarian adventures. And her assumptions are what turn that potential into a self-fulfilling prophecy, taking only 6 issues to deliver on what should have been apparent from the 70s: she has no need to be liked and known as a fictional character just because of her sartorial selections or association with pre-existing characters. Red Sonja's awesome on her own. You know it, I know it, and Gail Simone knows it.
To boil it all down to a couple points: you should be reading this comic, Simone is a phenomenal sword and sorcery author, and her Red Sonja is a title I'll be following for as long as she's on the book. And for what it's worth, after I finished Simone's first story-arc, I read through a copy of the Red Sonja: She Devil with a Sword Omnibus volume 1 from Dynamite, collecting the 2006-ish ongoing of the character, to see if I'd just been unfair in my assumptions of Red Sonja's publication history, or if Gail Simone really did mark a sea change in terms of storytelling quality. Turns out I had been right all along: you should start, and stick with, Simone's run.