Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Comics Commentary: Red Sonja Vol. 5 #16-21


Unscripted, unedited. Just a guy talking about comics.

Audio only.

Transcript below...

We are here today to talk about a handful of issues of the current Dynamite ongoing series Red Sonja. Now, if you're going to read Red Sonja actively, the best time to have done so is probably in the late ‘70s when, after a first appearance, in Marvel Feature, there was a Red Sonja series drawn by Frank Thorne with later issues drawn by John Buscema. Thorne's art is beautiful and has long been held as the best Red Sonja art that there's been. In the later series that Marvel did, art got a little uneven, story got a little uneven, and Red Sonja was revealed to be the sexist male fantasy fantasy figure that she was.

She had originally been a character created by Robert E. Howard in the same “universe” as his Conan the Barbarian character, basically a female counterpart to Conan and King Conan, generally depicted as a chainmail bikini-clad warrior woman. There’s much more to the character, as we'll see in this Dynamite series. Dynamite's been publishing Red Sonja comics since the early 2000s, with various ongoing series since about 2005. Red Sonja is actually a challenging character to read and to be a fan of as a male comics reader just because of the sexism that's built into the character, particularly in the depictions of her as a figure. A similar experience would be had with Vampirella; it's very hard to read Vampirella comics in public without feeling like a jerk. 

How Dynamite has addressed that with Red Sonja at least is by having strong women writers write the strong women comic. Gail Simone wrote Volume 2. Marguerite Bennett wrote some of Volume 3. Amy Chu wrote the previous volume, Volume 4. And this comic, while it's not currently helmed by a female creator, continues that stream of—I wouldn't even say sensitivity—but just a strong depiction of her as a female character regardless of the physical depiction of her physical form. It’s currently written by a fellow whose name is Mark Russell. The first swing of issues was drawn by Bob Q, and then about midway through the run that I'll be commenting on, art switched over to Alessandro Miracolo, and then the last issue was drawn by Alessandro Miracolo and Vincenzo Federici.

Sexist depiction of women aside, the covers to this comic are absolutely beautiful and were drawn by Jae Lee with colors by June Chung. The run I'm looking at is #16-21, six issues, and this current series, Volume 5, has been running since last year. The first volume, interestingly, ran 80 issues or something like that, so they have a history of relatively long-running ongoing series, as well as mini series. Jae Lee's covers are just absolutely beautiful. Again, apologies for the chainmail bikini, but as you'll see once we start talking about the story, that is not why we read Red Sonja, at least in full. I'm sure some men do read Red Sonja for the chainmail bikini, but i just want to give some accolades and recognition to Jae Lee and June Chung for the extremely highly stylized and just absolutely beautiful run of covers that they did. Not uncommon for comics like this, there's also a wide range of variant covers, which certainly do not help challenges of sexism and sexist depictions. There are multiple artists for each issue, at least 20 variant issues—not all different art, but some uncolored, some raw, some without a logo. And there's a cosplay cover and something called the Seduction Variant. Dynamite's not the worst publisher in terms of sexist variants, but it certainly doesn't help the comics reading cause.

What's the story, and what did we get from the writer, Mark Russell? This is basically two stories, the ending of one and the beginning of another. In the first one, Red Sonja finds herself in Khitai with her bodyguard and lover Zo’Ran, in the service of King Jo’Khan, who's an enemy and killed a mentor of hers. But through various misfortunes, she ends up in his service in Khitai. We've got a sideline story in Zamora where a small child named Cyril—we later learn he's not so small—comes into play, but most of the story takes place in Khitai and is a story of the king Jo’Khan with his eunuch advisor Tortoise. (This storyline is very influenced by Game of Thrones, or they were drinking from the same well.) The eunuch advisor Tortoise doesn't really think about right or wrong but just thinks about math and plays the odds and determines responses to risks in that manner. The storyline is about King Jo’Khan in Khitai basically recruiting an army of 12 year olds that Red Sonja is then supposed to go into battle with. The main story in this issue and in subsequent issues is how she copes with leading an army of soldiers so young and so inexperienced, not wanting them to die and not wanting to be responsible for their deaths.

Numbers 16 and 17 are also interesting, though, because there is a story told in the comic by a character. It is the story of a festival that's occurring in town that the population of Khitai is looking forward to. That would be a festival commemorating the death of Idra, favorite daughter of king Gor’Dal, back centuries before even the Age of the Three Hands. The story of Idra, daughter of the king, is a sad and challenging story. Basically it's a story of incest, suicide, and not being able to speak out against the person in power, the abuser in power. Some interesting parallels to the leadership of today. One is unable to act against a king, so instead she chopped away the plaster hands of the servants—Idra was buried with plaster statues of servants to take care of her in the afterlife—so that even in the afterlife they could never again deliver Idra to the king. An interesting story within a story. A powerful story within a story, fictional yet with the weight of what could have been a culture's actual legend and lore.

The story continues in #17 where, through some duplicity and trickery, that army of children actually goes pretty well, and then she ends up facing an old friend of hers, General Holoforus, on the field, as well. The comic later comments on them being two generals in service of absentee landlords. This is a fight neither of them wants, that neither of them would seek. But they are currently in service of people who are disagreeing and so therefore are the hands of that disagreement. They're facing each other on the field, and she is able to work the battle in such a way—again, through duplicity and trickery—that both of them can get out of it with their honor intact, even if the battle doesn't go in the direction that they would like.

We return to Khitai, and the king meanwhile has taken back over the city that she had abandoned to go into the field—and has gone out into the field with an army of his own. It’s not going that well—he’s not as strong a leader as Red Sonja is—and it does not end well for the king. That's the end of that story, those three issues, 16, 17, and 18 end the storyline that's happening in Khitai. Then Sonja and Zo’Ran, her bodyguard and lover—he won't be around too much longer (Spoiler alert!)—return to Hyrkania, where she is queen.

That takes us to numbers 19-21, which switches art to Alessandro Miracolo. I don't like Miracolo's art probably as much, but this run of stories is also interesting because there's another example of a story within a story. They're going to honor the citizens of Hyrkania, the dead of the city, with a night of stories. They are going to enlist a storyteller named Kaspar the Poet. Cyril returns to Hyrkania. His mother, the empress, will be pleased. And the story that is told is a story of a king, King Julius boasting to his friend, King Florin, about his incredible luck. Julius the king of Argos boasted of incredible luck. Just everything he did was coming up roses, and he received a warning from his friend and was so troubled by it that he removed his signet ring and cast it into the sea. Iit was later found by a fisherman in a fish. I won't tell you where the story goes from there, but depicted in the comic is a story being told by a poet and actors wearing masks in a performance—another example of a relatively decent story told within the story. That’s kind of a neat theme out of this run of Red Sonja.

Cyril returns, his mother is pleased to see him, and it turns out that he was not who he thought he was. I won't give that away in the name of not revealing a spoiler, but that's kind of an interesting story: How did he get to seem so much older and so much wiser? That issue tells you. He sends a message back to Red Sonja, and the war continues. There's also some neat stuff. He's got this group of advisors which are basically decapitated heads in a box called the Theraphim that he's able to get advice and counsel from. He travels around with a talking boar that's depicted relatively cartoonily. He has a cruel streak like another character out of Game of Thrones.

Battle returns to Aquilonia. This is kind of cool for those that play roleplaying games: a series of skirmishes. He's leading small battles, nothing big, not taking on any major forces. The opposing leaders are kind of mystified by this: Why isn't he attacking the strongholds? Why isn't he attacking the largest forces? He's instead attacking these villages and towns, and they seem to be relatively pointless surgical strikes. What's going on? There's a point in the comic when they realize that every single blacksmith in Aquilonia has been killed. By the time they realize what's going on and that they need to increase production of weapons, raise the army, and order the smiths to double weapon production, “Father, there's a problem. All these small raids, small as they were, I don't know how they did it, but every blacksmith in Aquilonia is dead.” Just think for a moment, at that time going after the forces of production and figuring out, OK, if you're going to go after the armies, don't go after the armies, go after the supply chain for the armies. Kind of interesting there.

The last issue has perhaps one of the most beautiful covers with a lack of line work and the color palette from June Chung. The last issue continues that storyline with the army. You've got another depiction of his decapitated head advisors. The boar is still around. It’s not as good a story as the first story, in terms of the first three issues of this run of six. The art's not as great, but it’s a decent Red Sonja comic. There wasn’t a lot of fiction written by Howard about Sonja, so these aren't based on existing examples of fiction. These are new writings and relatively relatively decent. And Sonja in the comic, at least regardless of her physical depiction and the clothes that she wears with the chainmail bikini, is portrayed as a strong woman, a leader, a person of character, of honor. It is a really interesting and fun comic to read, so if you haven't checked out Red Sonja for a while, check it out. The current volume, Volume 5, being published by Dynamite is well worth reading—at least just for the Jae Lee covers. The Jae Lee covers are absolutely beautiful. We'll see where the storyline goes.

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