I wanted to celebrate the release of the new Conan the Barbarian film on August 19 by reviewing some of the Conan related material I have. While we’ll get to the strapping angry man in a few posts, I first wanted to touch on his female counterpart; Red Sonja. And how better to do that than with RED SONJA #1 by Marvel Comics?

The cover to my copy of RED SONJA #1 by Marvel Comics.

According to Wikipedia Red Sonja first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics – a composite of a few characters created by Robert E. Howard – and since much of her tale had been told in other books Issue #1 uses a few methods to catch us up. The “Stan Lee Presents” box holds the following text;

“Know also, O prince, that in those selfsame days that Conan the Cimmerian did stalk the Hyborian kingdoms, one of the few swords worthy to cross with his was that of Red Sonja, warrior woman out of majestic Hyrkania. Forced to flee her homeland because she spurned the advances of a king and slew him instead, she rode west across Turenian Steppes and into the shadowed mists of legendry.” – The Nemedian Chronicles

Already starting out pretty bad ass the first page then has six yellow text boxes explaining even more, such as that Sonja was raped as a young woman and a red haired goddess released her inner warrior spirit so that she could exact revenge on the soldier who took her virginity.

The yellow boxes also say that during her travels Sonja encountered a tribe of fire-maned women who worshiped the same red haired goddess. The full page spread of Page 1 shows Sonja traveling on horseback, her injured companion – a red-haired woman from said tribe named Zora who claims to be her sister – dragged behind the horse upon a travois of sticks and leather.

I don’t care how injured I am or on what I’m being carried I would NOT want to be dragged behind a horse…I’ve seen what comes out of there…

Anyway, Page 2 finally gets the new story underway. Zora stirs, saying her wounds from their last battle are healed enough and that she’d rather not stare up into empty space any longer. Thanks to growing up in caverns the short-haired red head, it seems, likes being inside cities and walls – which is a contrast to Sonja’s more open-landed tastes.

Soon the two arrive at a “medium-sized walled city” and while in search of a horse Zora is tricked into riding a wild stallion – which she breaks. Sonja does some wonderful threats to the man that played them – “If that devil-beast hurts her, stable-man…be prepared to shoe your next horse with your toes!” – and they take that horse and another fresh horse and ride off before the man knows what hit him.

From here Sonja and Zora’s activities are quite numerous. Sonja’s possible sister is alien to the world outside her tribe, and everything is amazing and curious to her – especially the haughty men. She also has no idea as to the value of gold, and is surprised when “hair bandits” attack them in an attempt to cut Sonja’s long locks for resale. Subduing the men and learning their plan Zora moans that her hair is not long enough to sell. The men take our female travelers to a man who gives the naive woman a potion that will grow out her hair overnight.

During all this Sonja had planned to buy tickets on the next ship leaving port – I’m not really sure where to or why they needed to catch a boat but they did. The horses run off before they can be sold for ticket money so the red headed warriors offer their protection services to a wealthy man, Lord Daquius, who is leaving the harbor the next day. He agrees to take them on, and reveals they will be guarding his most precious treasure; his young daughter.

That night Sonja and Zora stay at an inn called the Quivering Naval – yeah, you read that right. I am totally using that name in something. And, as Sonja points out, it lives up to its name. Zora is so engrossed by the dancers that she jumps up on a table and makes a few coins before Sonja pulls her down. Then a man from earlier in the day comes by with amorous interests and the young red head is more than happy to accompany him upstairs. Sonja considers “saving” her companion, but stops after recalling that only she has sworn abstinence until being defeated in battle. That night she dreams of Zora mocking her.

The next morning begins when the barbarienne is awoken by screaming. Assuming the man from the previous night as done something to her companion Sonja runs to the other room only to discover no foul play has been done by Zora’s consort; overnight her hair has grown out so long it covers practically her entire body. That, plus the hangover, hurts her head and has obscured her vision. They find the hair thieves who are only too happy to cut it all off and…run away. I’m not sure if our protagonists would have pursued them or not, but the ringing of bells alerts them that the ship they are set to sail on is leaving shortly.

On the ship Sonja deals with some see sickness before she and Zora decide to test their prowess in a duel. Sonja is clearly the better swordstress, but their activity has distracted the crew and apparently no one noticed the enormous pirate ship approaching. The ship is boarded, but Sonja and Zora have no problem defending the ship from all attackers – and Sonja takes the opportunity to make some genuinely entertaining quips.

Eventually the pirate’s leader boards, and he challenges Red Sonja to combat – but immediately retracts it and tells his men to retreat back to the ship when he sees Lord Daquius. The captain of Daquius’ ship realizes what has happened and demands answers, but the lord gentleman refuses to explain. When the captain threatens violence Sonja reasserts who is paying her and thus whose side she would fight by if violence broke out again – as does Zora.  The captain and crew back down and Sonja notes Zora’s loyalty.

The next night the ship is caught in a horrendous storm that is tearing apart the mast, sails, and rigging. While attempting to batten down all the hatches and whatnot Zora spots an island that they can take refuge on until the storm passes, but the sailors refuse. The island is reportedly haunted by metal statues that come to life. As the crew stubbornly fight against the storm, Sonja muses on the fact that she can fight monsters with her sword, but it is useless against nature’s fury.

THE FINAL VERDICT: Recommended

Sometimes I find I just can’t read older comics because of how tightly they are packed. I get frustrated with the yellow text boxes that describe action I can already see going on. But something about how RED SONJA #1 was written keeps the text boxes to a minimum, and when they appear they usually do bring real narrative value to what is going on.

Even without the text boxes the story would still be very tightly compressed! So much goes on in one issue that I didn’t even describe every sequence of events. But every moment is entertaining, and at all times Red Sonja is the tough-yet-surprisingly-real character that I was hoping to find. She has true depth beyond looking good and stabbing people, and it makes her story a pleasure to read.

The art is also very good. Sonja and Zora are always pleasant to look upon, and the ladies of the Quivering Naval are worthy of their tables. Zora’s hair post-transformation is well drawn, with the woman clearly completely nude with just long locks covering her. The fight sequences are nicely laid out and the movements and stances of all the characters are believable. The colors are sometimes a bit off – Zora especially could use a recolor in some frames. Her skin is repeatedly described as “bronze” but at times is just strangely yellow, and on at least one occasion her hair is colored blonde. But these are piddly complaints from an overall wonderfully written and drawn comic. I’m legitimately looking forward to reading Issue #2.

Of course, one last thing to mention are the classic ads. While there are no Hostess Snack Cake ads Spider-Man does foil a villain who can’t resist solving a Magic Snake Puzzle. There’s another ad for the Marvel Comics Christmas subscriptions which features Magneto, Doctor Octopus, and Dr. Doom (complete in Santa hat) singing “Deck The Halls.” And the ad for Amidar in the back makes me wonder how Parker Brothers/Konami weren’t sued by Nintendo. So on top of the overall excellent quality of the comic there are a few little advertising gems worth looking for in the issue as well.