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!|
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 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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.
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.|
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.|
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.
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".
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.