Monday, 10 August 2015

Red Sonja Book 1: Queen Of Plagues (#1-6)

"We were never meant for lingering in sickbeds we two" - King Dimath

Time for some more Gail Simone, this time her 2013 reboot of a somewhat previously problematical female hero, Red Sonja.  Notable for wearing only a chainmail bikini which has made comic conventions sexier places than usual thanks to dedicated cosplayers, Red Sonja's character history needed to be completely rewritten to make it acceptable for a modern-day female comic character. When she was first created in 1975 by Robert E. Howard and Barry Windsor-Smith, her backstory was that she was brutally raped, when she can't even lift a sword to defend herself she calls to the heavens to help, and the Goddess Scáthach appears and imbues her with incredible fighting skills but she can only sleep with a man if he defeats her in fair combat.  Which all sounds a bit icky and sexist nowadays, so that has been removed from origins.  Now she is a smelly, drunken, sex-hungry traveller, who honed her fighting skills when thrown into an extreme survival situation and she always looking for someone to romp with, male or female, though she doesn't find opportunities for sexy times nearly as often as she would like.  She rarely wears the iconic chainmail bikini as well, dressing far more sensibly according to the weather.  In short she's now a kickass bisexual female barbarian hero without the rapiness and reliance on a stronger man who can "take her" to get her jollies.  The art by Walter Geovani is commendable as well, clear and crisp with a muted colour palette suiting the olde worlde aspect of the story. All the covers, including the varients were drawn by women and it's amazing how many put her in the metal bikini, not that I am complaining!
Hail to the King, baby!
This first six issue arc introduces this new take on Sonja, as well as acting as a self contained story arc of it's own.  After an enthusiastic introduction where Simone tells of how much being allowed to create a new take on the character meant to her, the story begins with a battle and a King claiming victory over the Zamorans.  This is a flashback from "three turns of the seasons past."  The King wants to face the Zamaron king but he has been lost somewhere during the battle.  The king asks where his son is and his knight says he has heard that his son was seen "harrassing" the dead.

His son arrives and says he was collecting "humors and specimens" and apologises for not fighting alongside his father.  He hopes he'll finds a way to make him proud one day.  They descend into the dungeon where eighty prisoners were forced to fight for the entertainment of the Zamorans.  Only two are left, bound to posts.  The king orders them freed, fed and bathed.  One of the women manages to say her name, "Red Sonja".

The action then cuts to the present day and she is sleeping by a fire in a forest when three scavengers come upon her.  She says they can take the gold and other stuff if they like, just not touch her sword as she'll send a throwing knife into one of them's head.  The lead scavenger asks why she hasn't done it now to stop them taking her stuff.

Red Sonja: "Because I am drunk scavenger.  My aim could be off a bit.  I might get blood on my horse."

Suddenly two girls burst into the clearing armed with bows saying they will defend her.  But the lead scavenger attacks one and this rouses Sonja in anger.  She grabs her sword and stabs up two of the three scavengers.  The final one pleads with her, then vomits blood on her.  He has the plague.
Red Sonja, classic style.
The two girls say she is summoned by King Dimath, the man who showed her kindness when she was tied up in the slave pit.  She agrees to go with them and asks them to brew up a concoction so foul it will make her angry enough to forget she is drunk.  She leaves the dying man her booze and a knife to end his life with.  She and the girls depart as he drunkenly sings to himself.

The reach the town garrison and the girls get Sonja cleaned and prettied up much to her annoyance.  She meets with King Dimath and he calls her "sword daughter".  He lays out the situation.  Their army is gone, the plague took them.  The other city states refuse to send aid due to the plague.
Sonja doesn't normally "do" pretty.
The Zamorans are on the march with a terrifying new general and beasts that walk like men.  All that are left are the craftsmen and farmers, and the women and children.  He wants Sonja to train them to fight off the Zamorans who are on their way to take the town.  Sonja agrees and throws herself into it but secretly believes:

Red Sonja: "It's hopeless.  Of course it's hopeless.  I can teach them tactics, I can't teach them war.  But they have heart.  And they have nowhere to go."

The day of the battle arrives, Sonja rallies her motley troops but then sees the new Zamoran general, it is a woman called Dark Annisia, her "sister" in the Zamoran slave pen.

As she and Annisia fight on the battlefield, Sonja remembers when they were the last two scheduled to fight in the slave pit.  The two bow wielding girls, Nias and Ayla charge into battle next and then the king orders a full on attack.  Sonja and Annisia fight and "for a moment... we are eternal."
Sonja versus Dark Annisia.
The action flashes back to them tied up in the slave pit. A gross, froglike Zamoran leers at them and looks forward to seeing who will win the next day.  Left alone Annisia says she will not raise her sword to fight Sonja.  Either Sonja or the Zamorans can kill her.

Back in the present, Annisia screams that Sonja dishonours the dead and shames them both.  Sonja wrestles her to the ground, but gets stabbed in the thigh.  Annisia keeps ranting about Sonja's betrayal.  Sonja says she never betrayed Annisia.  Annisia says not her, she means "Them.  Do you not see them?  They follow me always" and she gestures to empty air behind her, but where she sees many ghosts following behind her.  The ghosts of everyone they killed in the slave pit.

Annisia: "Can you not hear their endless cries of grief and hate?"
The haunting of Annisia.
Sonja says she can see no one.  Annisia says she is a liar.  They demand she make hell full of souls to ease their solitude.  So it is left to Annisia to bring them companions and solace, by killing many people.  King Dimath charges her, but she throws a sword through his throat and kills him.  Sonja and his son run to him, but he is dead.  Sonja says she will have Annisia for that, Annisia says no, she'll stand down as she has the plague.

Annisia says to the kneeling Sonja that she will die puking her guts out, alone and afraid. She will have waking dreams of loved ones long gone and she can't understand why Sonja risked everything for the rag-tag defeated army of Dimath's.  She kisses Sonja full on the lips.

She then offers a deal.  If Sonja surrenders her sword and her honour, they'll allow the survivors to return to the town, but a fence will be put round it to prevent the plague getting out.  Sonja agrees.  Annisia exiles her to the snowy mountains of the north.

Annisia: "You are no longer Sonja the Devil.  You are nothing. You are no one."

Sonja is marked round the eyes to warn she is plagued then sent with a horse to travel alone until the disease finally claims her.
Sonja goes into exile.
Sometime later a sickened Sonja ponders her horse.  She knows it is fading too but she can't turn it loose because if she couldn't look after it, she'd forget to look after herself.  A beautiful white stag appears in front of her, she goes to kill it but it's majesty is too great.  She ends up collapsing in the snow and the white stag lies down next to her.  She dreams of meeting her father who says she has one last task to do and carry out the custom of their village.

There is then another flashback, Sonja and her brothers are out hunting and she chases a white stag.  But when the others catch up she says she let it go and cannot explain why.  Back home her father, the village cheif says she knows more about tracking and shooting than anyone in the village, but she cost them food for today and she may never be ready for the hunt.

That night her village is attacked by marauders.  In the ensuing battle every single person in the village except for her is killed, and the houses and fields burned.  She is restrained by one of the men and when she asks their leader why they did it he says "It's because we were bored, Hyrkanian".
The oranges of Red Sonja.
Sonja is left alone with her captor who wants to have his way with her, so she slips out of his grasp and stabs him in the gut.  Then puts an arrow in his head for good measure.  She then begins the laborious task of burying the dead.

Red Sonja: "And that is the story of how Sonjita, just twelve years old, daughter of the chief, dug the graves for everyone she had loved... and then I, Sonja of Hyrkania truly hunted for the first time."

One by one she lures the men away from their campfire and into the forest, sleathily taking them out.  All twenty end up dying by her hand, with the final one so freaked out he yells "kill me, you devil!" And Sonja finds a new name for herself.
Back in the present she wakes with the white stag still next to her, it talks to her and tells her to perform the custom of her people, and she starts to dig her own grave.  But she is too weak and collapses and the wolves come to investigate.  Then Nias and Ayla burst in on the scene and tell Sonja the king's son found a cure for the plague.  But then they realise she isn't responding and that "Red Sonja is dead!"

Outside the fenced of town of Patra, Annisia and her army are still camped out.  A peasant from inside the village makes a run for it but is captured.  He says they are starving because they can't access the fields to grow crops, and that no one in the village has died of the plague since she sent Sonja away.  Annisia asks the ghosts what she should do with the peasant, they say no mercy and Annisia chops his head off.  She then says she doesn't want to be known as Dark Annisia anymore, but Red Annisia.

Back with Sonja, she is not dead.  But is being treated by Ayla and Nias, they feed her an elixir that Tiath the kings son made that will temporarily relieve her symptoms so they can get her to him for the proper cure, they also blindfold her to protect her eyes as they heal.  They make a board for her to lie on and pull it behind their horses.
Nias and Ayla to the rescue.
They camp out later and Sonja is able to speak to them.  They say they need her to be their general again.  Sonja says being that means being able to assess who is a asset and who is a liability.  When they demand to know what she thinks they are, Sonja replies: "Kind hearted. Loyal spirited.  You will never be soldiers."

Back in the past we get to see Annisia and Sonya fighting in the slave pits.  Annisia gives Sonja some combat tips, as well as advising she pick a small, quick weapon.  The next day Annisia and Sonya win their fight in the pit, watched over by the Zamoran king Bazrat himself.  Sonja chops off one of her opponent's heads and holds it up proclaiming that she is Red Sonja.

In the present, while getting fresh water and food, Nias and Ayla are captured by a Zamoran patrol.  Red Annisia has said to make an example of them, so their leader says to de-bone them like a fish.  Then Red Sonja, still blindfolded and armed with a bow appears.  She kills all but the leader and the one holding Ayla and Nias, who stab him to death. 
Even half dead Sonja will Kick. Your. Arse.
The Zamoran leader drags Red Sonja into the river with him, she recognises him as the slave keeper and chops off his hands before kicking him over the waterfall. A newly determined Sonya says the people of the village need to be saved from Annisia, "I'm coming for you sister, do you hear?"

Some of Annisia's men and mer-men are keeping watch close to the village.  Suddenly a string of severed heads is chucked at their feet by Sonja.  Then she Nias and Ayla take all but one of them out.  The one spared is to return and give a message to Annisia.  "I will meet her in the place where we were made."  Once they are alone, Red Sonja half collapses and has to take more potion.  She doesn't like relying on magic, but the girls say it's something called science, not magic.

As they ride along, Nias says she was barely able to open her eyes but she still became the destroyer when they needed her to be.

Sonja: "Being Sonja means being called to darkness and pain and knowing you have the power to alter and take the lives of many.  A great many.  And praying to the Gods that you chose the right side."

The girls show her the Kings grave.  They managed to get it away from Annisia who had ordered it cremated along with the livestock.  A humble grave, but at least they buried him in the place he loved the best.  Another flashback to three years ago.  Dimath is concerned they haven't been able to find Bazrat.  Then he wishes to speak with the women from the pit.  He tells them he has arranged horses and some coin for them and they are free to go.
Dimath's grave.
He tells them not to let the evil done to them make them who they are.  Sonja kneels before him saying she is in his debt, "Red Sonja pays what's due, sire."  Back in the present Sonja mutters that she would "rather have full plate armour than memories sometimes."  Sonya asks where the cure is to be found, it's in a place by the town square.  When Sonja is told that Annisia closed down all the pubs, she gets super pissed off.

Annisia is communing with the angry ghosts that follow her.  The man from the watch who was sent to deliver Sonja's message arrives and tells her what Sonja said.  Annisia says she will meet Sonja, but also all the inhabitants of Patra are to be herded into the towers, locked in and then burned to death.

Meanwhile, Sonja is having the cure administered via a strange contraption with a huge leech attached to her stomach.  Tiath thinks that Sonja was more the son his father always wanted than he was.  Meanwhile Nias and Ayla have gone to rally the troops.  They declare themselves generals and the others say "we're doomed".
Sonya is finally fully cured.  Tiath gives her the best chainmail and his father's sword.  Finally Sonja asks for something to scrub the plaguemark off her face.  Sonja and Annisia meet in the slave pit.  They both say that neither is the person they loved back then.  They begin to fight when suddenly the pit is surrounded by soldiers and King Bazrat appears in the throne looking down upon them saying he's come out of hiding to get what he didn't get three years ago, seeing both of them die.

He tells them to "amuse their king".  All the soldiers have arrows pointed at the women.  And a scantily clad lady is pouring drinks for Bazrat.  Annisia is shocked to find out he is still alive.  Bazrat then drops another bombshell, he reveals the plague is not a plague at all, it is a poison.  That was why the armies died first and no one else.  He waited out his time in exile and now is back, with a new army and the drink pouring woman being a general from his first army whose husband he killed.
The evil king Bazrat.
Annisia who had been given the job of burning "plagued" villages to the ground to contain it starts to have a breakdown.  "Sonja, I am drowning.  Help me."  She is surrounding by the accusing fingers of all the people she killed.  Sonja asked why he hated the Patran king Dimath so much he would raze entire countries.  Barat says actually he didn't want him dead he had a brutal respect for him, but Dimath was killed by Sonja and Annisia.  Sonja lays the Hyrkian curse upon him.

Then Annisia attacks Sonja, Sonja fights her reflecting that the pit never really left Annisia.  The one thing in this world she could not imagine harming.

Sonja: "I wish.. I wish for a better world."
Sonja versus Annisia round two.
In the village the women gathered by Ayla and Nias hold up a squadron of Zamoran troops and demand their uniforms.  Back with the Sonja and Annisia fight, Sonja manages to disarm Annisia and get her sword back.  Annisia pulls out two daggers and keeps goading Sonja about what she did to Dimath.  Then she suddenly hurls the daggers at Bazrat's two guards and kill them. 

Bazrat panics and tells the archers to kill them.  Annisia leaps ontop of Sonja and takes the arrows meant for both of them.  Angrily Sonja gets up and grabs her sword so she can "cleave him in twain".  She makes her way up to him and tries to frighten some of his men out of her way, they refuse to move so she murderises them.  Bazrat spots what he thinks are reinforcements but turn out to be Ayla and Nias's warriors in disguise.
A gruesome but fitting end.
Bazrat runs, but is stopped short by Annisia.  Before she and Sonja can kill him, the drink pouring woman says not to bother, he's about to die from the huge amounts of poison she just fed him, and indeed he suddenly collapses choking on blood and liquified internal organs.  But before everyone can take stock, Tiath runs up behind Annisia and runs her through with a sword, then yells he did it, he avenged his father's death.  Annisia dies in Sonja's arms, the angry ghosts now welcoming her with forgiveness.

Now Sonja confronts Tiath having figured out he poisoned her at the party before Annisia attacked the town.  Tiath says he did it because Bazrat says he and his father would be allowed to live if he killed the army and got rid of Sonja.  He begs Sonja not to kill him, saying he can cure suffering and death and the world will not know his like again.  "The price is too high" says Sonja and kills him.  She knights Ayla and Nias and leaves them in charge of the town and then departs saying:

Red Sonja: "I'm going to get drunk in a legendary fashion."

And that concludes the first arc of the new Red Sonja.  I enjoyed it very much, not knowing much about the character beforehand except that Red Sophia in Cerebus was a parody of her.  This is a very "feminist" tale.  All about female friendships and empowering women with kickass characters who are by no means perfect Mary Sues, but who you like all the same.  The flashbacks are well spaced and breaking Red Sonja down via the poison, only to build her back up the badass ladder as she slowly gets better was a great idea.  Easy to show a healthy, powerful top of their game fighter, but more interesting in someways to see how that same fighter would cope sick, half-blind and on the edge of collapse through an entire battle.  Gail Simone is able to write dialogue that feels authentically period without getting all flowery and her characters also all have distinctive voices in the narrative. The collected volume also has all the varient covers done by female artists and a script exerpt from chapter one. All-in-all, a great start to the new Red Sonja ongoing series.


  1. Tony really likes Red Sonja. He has a little figurine of her and everything.

    It's good that she can sleep with men even if they don't defeat her in combat, because the old Sonja probably lost a couple of fights on purpose just because she fancied the man's, ahem, swordplay. Also, it reminds me of Wonder Woman losing her powers if she was bound. Some male SFF writers seemed to have the hots for women who were very strong but also very weak. Which is a thing that should be worked through on the couch rather than the page.

    "I might get blood on my horse" is the best drunken excuse for not fighting I've ever heard :-D Was it a white horse? Are they dry clean only?

    The problem with Annisia killing people to bring the souls company is that the souls of the people she's just killed will want company too, so she'll end up having to kill everyone. And then herself.

    Writing period dialogue that doesn't succumb to gadzookery is a neat trick.

  2. I didn't know much about her, but thanks to this reboot I'd totally have a figurine of her as well.

    This nice thing about this new Sonja is she is bisexual, she's quite happy to have sexytimes with women as she is with men. She basically a walking mass of horniness!

    Have you ever tried to scrub bloodstains off a horse?! I think Sonja just wants to avoid some boring work.

    Annisia was definitely pants-on-head crazy, she made a good contrast with Sonja who has the same darkness in her background but never sucumb to it.

    Gail Simone is a really good dialogue writer, I put her up there with Garth Ennis when it comes to creating character through verbal means. And that's a huge compliment from me I am sure you'll agree!

  3. This sounds brill. i always liked Sonja, even in her old problematic guise, but this is much better.

    Howardian dialogue is definitely hard to get right. I know from the days i'd try my hand at Conan pastiches. 'I shall cleft thee in twain' just always sounds shit. I did get to use the Sawardian 'They must thin us fools!' though, which amused me somewhat.

    I'm still slightly narked that the Red Sonja movie starring Rose McGowan never happened. Though a friend of mine insisted (when it seemed like it was happening) that she was terrible casting, and that it should have been Christina Hendricks or Jessica Chastain.

  4. *'THINK us fools', obviously.:p

  5. "They must send us fools to Slimming World!"

  6. There was going to be a Red Sonja film starring Rose McGowan? Gah! I feel cheated now. Gail Simone is great. She's written a Conan and Sonja team up and a maxi series which brings together Sonja with other ladies like Vampirella which I hope get collected in a couple of big trades as well.

  7. i think this red sonja would be an awesome girlfriend!

    1. I don't think Sonja would be tied down to one person, but I'd definitely romp with her. As long as she had a bath first!

    2. No, no: if she washed she'd lose part of her charm. There's nothing wrong with the smell of lady's musk. And possibly blood.

  8. Hmmm, you know actually I agree, I'm not a big one for the smells of perfume and ladies deoderant. Mind you I could take a bath with Sonja, that could be fun!

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  10. Red Sonja was one of my earliest crushes. One of the few Marvel comics I read. I even liked the film, notwithstanding the weird prologue.

    "Ah Sonja, you were brutally violated when Gedren attacked your village and murdered your parents and all your neighbours"

    "I know, I was right there, it's only just happened, why are you telling me this?!"

    There was quite a good strip examining the impracticality of the chain mail bikini (but justifying it) actually featuring Roy Thomas. It was all very tongue in cheek and had actual photos of the key Sonja cos-players* at the time in the relevant outfits.

    (* of course in my day we just called it fancy dress, and it was all fields round here, and whe can't you buy Fresca any more?

  11. Argh, I re-pasted the comment with the same blooming typo!!!!

  12. Apologies for missing this comment:

    I have to admit, I mainly knew of Red Sonja because of the similarly bikiniied pastiche in the early Cerebus comics. But Simone's reboot is excellent stuff that I need to write up volumes 2 and 3 of next year.

    Also google for current Red Sonja cosplayers for some real stunners. And no, I don't know why cosplay is used now, I knew of it about a decade before it began to get used in the west, and for a while I was forever saying "Yes it's a fusion of "costume" and "play" and no, I don't know why it's being used instead of fancy dress" now it's just another useful foreign word.