Red Sonja is one of the archetypical fantasy characters and a fountain for which hundreds of copycats have been created. She’s also a character younger than most people realize as it was not Robert E. Howard who created her (though he created her inspiration, Red Sonya of Rogatino) but comic book legend Roy Thomas in 1973. The character became immensely popular with her own series, “so bad it’s good” movie, and novels.
Unfortunately, the character is as infamous as she is famous due to the Esteban Maroto created chainmail bikini that became emblematic of sexism in fantasy. Terry Pratchett would even famously create a parody of her in Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan where she would be described as famously wearing a sensible chainmail with boots. Despite this, Red Sonja has always had a massive female fanbase as well as male.
One of the early fans of the She-Devil with a Sword is Gail Simone, who loved the character as a teenager, metal swimswear and all. It was the “Women in Refrigerators” and Birds of Prey author who was asked by Dynamite Comics to reimagine the character for the 21st century and create an entirely new take on her. Red Sonja had been doing quite well since being reintroduced in 2010 but they wanted to try something new with her.
The result in her three graphic novel run is one of the best set of fantasy comics written in decades, at least in my opinion. My praise is not 100% without criticism to go along with it but presents my all-time favorite incarnation of the Hyrkanian heroine. Certainly, if you want to jump on the character then it is an excellent place to start if you don’t want to read the original Roy Thomas comics.
The changes to Red Sonja aren’t in her costume–though Sonja wears more clothes–but her backstory. The original story had our heroine sexually assaulted with her family slaughtered by mercs. Gail Simone removes that element from her backstory as well as the connection to the goddess Scathach that Sonja swore her “I will bed no man unless he first defeats me in battle” oath to. Indeed, this element gets mocked rather soundly throughout the story.
In simple terms, this version of Sonja is significantly hornier and spends a good chunk of the second novel wanting to get laid but being unable to do so despite looking like Jessica Chastain with better hair. Apparently, Red Sonja really needs a bath but it’s a running gag I found to be incredibly amusing. Sonja is also now openly bisexual, which is an interesting change given the character’s somewhat spotty history with representation.
Some of the few complaints I have about the book is the removal of Scathach as well as the fact Sonja is less noble versus more of a lumbering barbarian. Still, I think the removal of the “best her to bed her” oath is one of the better decisions of the book. Roy Thomas himself has stated that he’s received literally decades of fans complaining about it from both sides of the gender divide. Apparently, a lot of female fans (and of course male ones) thought she should be allowed to fool around.
The humor, action, and art of the book is spectacular as well as the characterization. Sonja is a bit of a lunkhead at times, doing stupid things like loudly announcing she has no money in a brothel, but still recognizable as her avenging angel of the Bronze Age self. This is a truly fantastic book and perfect for fans of fantasy comics.
Read Red Sonja by Gail Simone