Red River Valediction

In an attempt to meet my goal of posting more regularly, here is a sequel of sorts to both Saturday’s

https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/avenging-1978/

and https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/sing-a-song-of-sonjas/ from this time last year.

Today, I’m reviewing the second volume of Dynamite Entertainment’s Adventures of Red Sonja, featuring the late-70s exploits of the chaste mercenary in the scalemail bikini.

Sonja 2

As I stated previously, Frank Thorne’s lush fantasy world is very different from the sword-and-sandal settings of Buscema’s Conan. It has more in common with Barry Smith’s more intricate Kirby-via- Art Nouveau vistas of the early 70s.

Sonja herself is among a wave of female Marvel stars launched in their own titles between 76 and 78: Tigra, Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman (This is could be seen as a more elastic period: a Perez Black Widow strip originated in this period surfaces later in the 80s Marvel Fanfare title. Satana starred in one issue of Marvel Premiere in late ’75. At the other end of the scale, we have 1980’s launch of the She-Hulk, which might be considered a late entry in this wave).

Unfortunately, of these titles, only Spider-Woman made it to the fifty-issue mark, when she was promptly cancelled. Ms. Marvel probably has had the most longevity, having survived in one form or another since the mid-70s and spinning off two modern-day titles. Surprisingly, for a non-super-hero comic, and unlike Tigra, Sonja graduated from a Showcase-style title to her own book. But surely, like Tigra, she’s a character designed to appeal mostly to the straight “male gaze?

I suppose she’s fairly unique in the comics world (Note to self: I still haven’t blogged about DC’s “Siren of Sword and Science”, Starfire!) in being a blend of (loose) literary adaptation and fan favourite-  enough of one to have both her own convention and her own 80s movie.

Also, it could be argued that Sonja is not -completely- a distaff version of a male hero, like her contemporaries. But as I’ll argue later, Conan casts a very long shadow over the comic- and, in some ways, it might have been better if she were simply a female Cimmerian.

Raven

Sonja is also fairly unique in the sword-and -sorcery world since I can only think of one serial adventuress, Raven, Swordsmistress of Chaos. This is a dreary series I tried only once, in the 80s;  Marion Zimmer Bradley is in a totally different league.

To this Sonja collection, then:

Red_Sonja_Vol_1_1

Blood of the Unicorn (cover date: Jan 77):  a grotesque and ambitious villain seeks an elixir of immortality with the eponymous ingredient. A dreamlike tale of a girl and her horse with the vaguest erotic frisson.

Demon of the Maze (Feb 77): a confusing and unclear quest in a mirror maze with skeleton warriors that reads like a chaotic assembly of sword-and -sorcery cliches.

The Games of Gita (Mar 77): far more excitingly billed on the cover as ” Web of the Spider Queen”. Son joins in with the gladiatorial games between two feuding Burroughsian cities and kills the shape-shifting queen. Doesn’t make much sense.

The Lake of the Unknown (Apr 77): “The Lurkers in the Lake” is more Marvel-lous, no?  Aliens from a “star chariot” mutate and degenerate while building a city under a lake. But they also perform in an odd Theatre of Monsters, ripped off from Anne Rice. Son picks up a male companion called Mikal, as Conan picked up Natala, Olivia et al and they set off to rescue the aliens’ captive king.

Master of the Bells ( May 77) or “Dragon in the Pit”- the former’s better. Red Sonja and Mikal meet some whimsical robber gnomes(!) and encounter the king of last issue’s aliens. But his dreams of flight are made blackly comic when he’s propelled to his death by a giant bell. Just random, as  the kids say.

sonja singing tower

The Singing Tower (Jun 77): “Siren of the Singing Tower” is probably the best story in the book and it’s co-written by Elfquest‘s Wendy Pini. Son is searching for Mikal and is captured by insect-men (“fingerlings of Hell”- I like the pseudo-Shakesperian voice). Sonja is to replace their giant queen, transformed through  “golden nectar” but her evil beekeeper captor is eaten alive by larvae. We learn Mikal is the king of the oppressed city in issue 3 but Son isn’t bothered.

Throne of Blood (Jul 77) “The Blade and the Behemoths” was the first issue I actually bought, one chilly summer’s day in Largs. Still wandering in Argos, Son encounters Oryx, son of the General of Generals of Skranos. This is a city where mammoths (“behemoths”) are penned. After stopping a stampede- oh, the irony- Son is to be hanged for the regicide in her first solo appearance (by Maroto). The collection ends on this cliffhanger.

I rather think a bounty hunt for Sonja would have made a good initial story arc for this series. Its episodic nature ( and the feeble gimmickry of the stories) is one of its weaknesses. The other is Red herself. She’s an echo of the Thomas/Smith heroine- as bland and generic as Richard Kirk’s Raven.

The purposeless and rather dour wanderer of these stories who seems to fight for lost causes with little motivation is very different from her original incarnation.

Doctor-Who-River-Song-600x337

Smith’s Sonja is, in the words of Longbox Graveyard the “wrong kind of crazy”; an antediluvian biker chick. She’s a little butch, dangerous, unpredictable and fun. I feel she has something in common with Professor River Song who arrives in the Doctor’s life every so often and sets it on its head. (And they both have adventures with “Singing Towers!”) I’ve still to find out whether Big Finish can make River work outside of her relationship with the Doctor. But I wonder if Sonja’s failure to sustain a title might be related to how much she is only an effective foil for Conan. And I’m sorry to say this of Marvel’s biggest solo heroine of the Seventies.

Another problem is there’s no Marvel-style supporting cast. Mikal is terribly dull and we only glimpse doe-eyed Tarzan-lookalike Suumaro in the final story.  A Gerry Conway-Ms. Marvel approach, where he borrowed Spidey’s cast for his launch issues, might have worked, The Murilo/Tara pairing from Conan’s Ring of Black Shadow arc would have been welcome, for example.

Murilo

Nor does Sonja have any strong, recurring villains, like Thoth-Amon or  Thulsa Doom. Since her baroque world is so unfamiliar, it might have been wise to see Sonja in Hyborian locales Conan readers already knew- Shadizar or Messantia- and those we saw next to nothing of: Koth or Ophir perhaps.

But crucially, wouldn’t the book have been more successful if it had just been drawn by Buscema and written by Thomas? He claims he was excited to launch his creation. But his new bachelor lifestyle in LA ( understandably) led him to hive off writing chores to newcomer Clara/Clair Noto, whose fantasies are, to my mind, bland and generic- regardless of a well-intentioned female voice. I still like Thorne’s design flair and prettiness but Sonja’s world seems increasingly divorced from the Hyborian Age.

Clearly, the answer to how one solved a problem like Sonja lay with one other creative team:

WINTER SPECIAL 1980

Claremont would have been a good fit for Sonja. Arguably, Storm and Phoenix were among the most rounded and successful female characters at Bronze Age Marvel. Byrne had drawn the character before MTU and would have brought a dynamism to the title. But it remains “an age undreamed of”…

Byrne 75

In the end though, while I’m a little curious to know more about Red’s adventures in Skranos,after nearly 40 years, I’m dubious about ever picking up volume III.

Coming soon: The Justice Society Returns

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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