Despite the hype surrounding the Gail Simone-penned relaunch of Red Sonja back in July (and the full hour Ali Davis and I spent, um, researching her costume), I didn’t get around to reading the first three issues of the comic until this week when someone told me it has a real Xena sensibility to it. And they were right: The high camp book full of badass ladies wielding swords and doing battle in improbable armor, and there’s also a real lesbian vibe to it. OK, there’s more than a vibe. There’s an actual world-destroying lesbian psycho in it — and she’s in love with the She-Devil herself!
Red Sonja has always been a little problematic to feminists. First of all, of course, she wears that scale armor — it’s a bikini, really — that barely covers her ladybits and is often drawn in the most ridiculously provocative poses. Lots of straddling, lots of chains, lots of licking stuff off of swords. And then there’s her origin story. She got her start in the early ’70s in Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic book before spinning off into her own series in 1977. She is a Hyborean Age farmer’s daughter-turned-mighty warrior that gets her powers from the goddess Scathach, who endows her with remarkable swordsmanship skills and a body that is always in peak physical shape, as long as she promises to never sleep with a man who hasn’t first bested her in fair physical combat, which basically renders her either powerless or chaste.
In one version of her comic book backstory, she is forced into exile after spurning the advances of the cruel king. And by “spurning the advances,” I mean “sticking him in the gut with her sword.” Unfortunately, that narrative took a twist in the 1985 movie adaptation in which Sonja refused to be seduced by an Evil Lesbian Queen and so the queen had her brutally raped while her family was murdered and her farm was burned to the ground. The moral was that predatory homosexuals will ruin your life with their debauched urges and whims. On the up-side, Red Sonja was one of the worst movies ever made and hardly anyone saw it.
But to be fair, she still wears more clothes than Conan, who is her contemporary in every way, and while the other women in comics in the ’70s were all hung up on their men and whatever gender politics of the day, The She-Devil of Hyrkania was slaying dragons and beheading bad guys and not apologizing for a second for being so damn fierce.
And anyway, Gail Simone is one of the most feminist-friendly writers in comics today. Her turns on Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl are legendary. And she’s a super-excellent LGBTQ ally. It’s no surprise that her version of Red Sonja feels so remarkably Xena-y.
The first three issues feature a present-day story that finds Sonja helping an old friend (a king, naturally) by training the women in his kingdom for combat against an approaching army, while introducing us to a revamped origin story told through flashbacks. Sonja is a confident, furious, smack-talking warrior who fears neither man nor beast. And before the first issue even closes out, she’s finds herself with medieval groupies following her around and singing her praises.
She also finds out that her sword-sister, Dark Annisia, the only other person who could hold her own against Sonja in battle, has been holding a candle for her for a long, long time. Annisia is nuts. Super-duper lesbian psycho nuts. And yet, there’s something really sweet and tender about the way she confesses that she’s been in love with Sonja since they were chained up in the dungeon by a brutal king, forced into gladiator battles with their fellow prisoners. If you never thought you’d be able to go, “Awwww!” while watching someone afflict someone else with the plague, now’s your chance!
Only three issues of Red Sonja have been released so far, so right now is a great jumping-on point if you want to get acquainted with the character. And also, some of the comics industry’s most famous female names are working together to create an anthology called Red Sonja: Legends. Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and on and on. Simone is leading the team and she says it’s one of the most joyful and entertaining things she has ever done.
Have you checked out Red Sonja? What do you think of the story so far (and the lesbian subplot)?