Red Sonja #1973

Eric Trautman, Roy Thomas, Luke Lieberman, Gail Simone, David Walker, & Cullen Bunn (scripters in order of stories)
Ivan Rodriguez, Rich Buckler, Rod Rofolfo, Kewbar Baal, Bilquis Evely, & Jonathan Lav (illustrators in order of stories)
Marcio Menyz, Arison Aguiar (2-4), Bilquis Evely, & Ivan Nunes (colorists in order of stories)
A Larger Word Studies (letters)
Ed Benes & Dinei Ribeiro (cover)
July 15, 2015

Dynamite continues their celebration of Red Sonja with a special edition featuring six different writers and artists. The issue is numbered for her 1973 debut in Conan the Barbarian #23. Writers featured are Eric Trautman, Roy Thomas, Luke Lieberman, and Gail Simone and two newbies to the She-Devil: David Walker and Cullen Bunn. Let’s review!

(Note: This review contains some spoilers. WWAC reviewed Red Sonja #1973 with an advanced review copy from Dynamite.)

The cover. Well, I am leaving that out because it’s terrible in the most banal way. There’s bendy spine, extra small chainmail bikini, yawn.

As for the stories, I have mixed feelings with a general learning towards “yay!” Dynamite did a similar anthology this year with Red Sonja #100 which also featured Trautman, Thomas, Lieberman, and Simone. Newbies Cullen Bunn (whose Harrow County I just started reading) and David Walker, writer of the Shaft mini-series for Dynamite, wrap up this special anthology. I am always eager to see what new writers will bring to the mythology of Red Sonja.

The anthology begins with Trautman’s “The Raiding Party.” The story is anticlimactic, which has more to do with its placement in this anthology than it does with the actual story. “The Raiding Party” is supposed to proceed “The Snare” which appeared in Red Sonja #100 in February. It seems like Trautman is trying to do a series that would be more suited to single issues rather than an anthology, and the reading experience suffers for this. Anthologies read better when inserting stories that more or less stand on their own. But this is an action-packed story, conveyed well by the art and colors. Rodriguez draws a hippy and athletic Red Sonja with electric ferocity:

Red Sonja 1973, "The Raiding Party" by Eric Trautman, drawn by Ivan Rodriguez, Dynamite 2015

Seriously, I want this as a tattoo. Additionally, Rodriguez’s composition furthers the story’s tone of savagery and chaos by laying panels with thick, jagged outlines outlines over splash pages.

The second story is the most disappointing for two reasons: it contains a problematic element and it comes from Roy Thomas, Red Sonja’s creator, who I have totally unfair expectations for. In “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Red Sonja deals with a rape-threatening asshole—not an uncommon occurrence in Red Sonja stories. In fact, Red Sonja teaching shitty men a lesson is pretty common—it’s one of the particularly cathartic elements of reading Red Sonja. Thomas keeps Red Sonja close to her pulp origins, which is unsurprising considering that he created her based on a character from a Robert E. Howard story, but this story only repeats old themes without offering anything new, or reaching that over-the-top pulpiness so suited to Thomas’ take on the She-Devil. This is further compounded by the muddled artwork with colors that attempt to make Red Sonja’s eyes a blazing green, but instead looks like cataracts.

Luke Lieberman’s story continues filling in Red Sonja’s past. I usually enjoy insight into her past and what it means for her interpretation in contemporary timelines, but unfortunately, after Thomas’ story, it reads like another Red Sonja teaching shitty men lessons tale, which gets real old real fast. The art is unimpressive—too many poses designed to maximize the appearance of Red Sonja’s bust despite her unusual costuming in this issue (she wears a dress).

“The Hanging Tree” is in fine form with the Red Sonja we have come to love from Gail Simone. Red Sonja is drinking, farting, bar-fighting, and mocking aspects of so-called civilization. Baal draws the character in her original costume from her 1973 debut. Designed by Barry Windsor-Smith, the costume features a chainmail top that fully covers her upper body and hot pants (it was the 70s after all). Additionally, Baal does some great facial work:

Red Sonja 1973, "The Hanging Tree" by Gail Simone, drawn by Kewbar Baal, Dynamite 2015

Overall, the tone is in keeping with Simone’s Red Sonja—a fun story with some cheeky irreverence towards common tropes.

David Walker’s story immediately jumps off with a title that promises something very new and different: “Red Sonja and the Nubile Barbarians in the ‘Arena of Dread.’” Bilquis Evely’s artwork (who did the artwork for Walker’s Shaft) features Red Sonja centered on the page with a variety of barbarian women with a range of skintones in the background. The most prominent of these characters is a black barbarian woman sporting a 70s style afro and a direct glare at the viewer. She is the only character on the cover who is staring back at the viewer:

Red Sonja 1973, "The Arena of Death" by David Walker, drawn by Bilquis Evely, Dynamite 2015

Also, the chainmail bikini covers Red Sonja and doesn’t leave you wondering where she finds a waxer in the Hyborian Kingdom.

The story opens with Red Sonja enslaved in the quarters of Lord Sadisto where he keeps captured woman. Yes, Lord Sadisto. The tone is very much like 70s exploitation flicks, matched by Evely’s art. Lord Sadisto says the sort of things that can only be interpreted as misogynistic, but the promise of this story being a cheeky inversion of problematic tropes is diminished by an ending that reifies the white savior trope. However, the story ends with a promise for more, and my interest is piqued enough by this take on Red Sonja that I would definitely read more of Walker writing Red Sonja (with Evely on the art). Walker’s work as a comic book writer and pop culture critic tackles race and racism, so I am interested in seeing how he would handle these themes in a longer arc.

Finally, the anthology concludes with another newbie to Red Sonja: Cullen Bunn. I was excited for Bunn’s story. I recently picked up Harrow County #1 (another young witch story!) and am eager to continue. Bunn’s story stands out because it is completely dialogue free. Red Sonja hacks and slashes her way through her many adversaries, one after another through a variety of climates. It gets tedious…which is the point. She finally arrives at her family’s gravesite, where she grieves deeply. Red Sonja’s history and characterization is based on the murder of her family and to see this rage driven by grief was a lovely way for Bunn to take on the infamous barbarian. It feels very human, which is well-captured in Lav’s art which effortlessly shifts from brutal to vulnerable.

While Red Sonja #1973 starts weakly, the final two stories offer some fresh, new takes on the barbarian swordswoman. Though the overall tone feels uneven (to be expected to a degree with six different writers), the fact that some of these writers are taking interesting risks with the character make Red Sonja #1973 a compelling read.