The Complete Gail Simone Red Sonja Omnibus
Simon Bowland (letters), Walter Geovani (artist), Gail Simone (writer)
November 26, 2019
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussion of rape.
Slave. Warrior. She-Devil.
I don’t remember Red Sonja. In fact, I think I fell asleep during it … the movie, I mean. Everything I know about Red Sonja came from that crappy ’80s movie and that Renee Zellweger movie about Conan (and Sonja, partially) creator Robert E. Howard. With the comic revival of the early works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter/Dejah Thoris) and Howard (Conan), I had low expectations going into Simone’s run. This is the sword and sorcery genre after all, the women aren’t exactly written to be three dimensional feminists. When I heard Gail Simone was taking a ‘feminist’ stab at Red Sonja, I was excited to see what she had in store.
The Complete Gail Simone Red Sonja Omnibus collects volume 2 issues #1-18 and includes the one-shot issue, “The Ballad of Red Malek”, along with a pretty epic variant cover gallery that I loved. Queen of Plagues introduces us to Simone’s Sonja, former slave turned warrior fighting off an invading army lead by Dark Annisia, her sister that fought alongside her in the Zamoran slave pit. Simone’s Sonja straddles the line of exploitative and feminist. I feel there are times, mainly in Queen of Plagues, where she pulls it off. Other times, she doesn’t and can’t quite make up her mind on which direction (if any) she wants to go.
The Art of Blood and Fire was the weakest of the three stories. The weird reptile swamp beings that talked seemed very out of place for a sword and sorcery comic. It has some humorous scenes and a fun cast of characters but overall it wasn’t my cup of tea. The Forgiving Monsters finds Sonja tracking down the last of the bandits who murdered her family. Consumed with her task, she falls into darkness and depression.
Simone’s writing is witty, but poor. Her writing starts out fairly strong in Queen of Plagues. But as I progressed through The Art of Blood and Fire and The Forgiving Monsters I found myself getting bored because of the predictability. At times and I love Sonja’s ‘I drink and I bed’ attitude while other times it got old. I’m sure there are readers who love the hack and slash repetitiveness of these sword and sorcery comics but that’s not me.
To my dislike, Simone bypasses Sonja’s rape survivor origin. Taking away rape survivor elements of Sonja’s character really makes the series fall flat and lack the emotional punch. I don’t feel Sonja’s emotional motivations leaping out at me from the page. Marvel’s run of Red Sonja that began in 1973 is what the Sonja’s origins in the film from the 80s pulls from. Sonja’s family is attacked and she’s raped. Left for dead, Sonja screams to the heavens for revenge and the red goddess Scáthach from Irish mythos appears. She grants Sonja awesome fighting skills on the condition that she not sleep with any man unless he beats her in fair combat. I would’ve loved to have seen a feminist take of that origin instead.
Having participated in Cover Girl discussions on one of Sonja’s recent issues, I expected Sonja to run around in that chain-mail bikini all the time. It’s what she’s known for and all the variant covers I’ve seen over the years seem to highlight that. To my surprise, she didn’t. In fact, it was extremely rare to see her in it. When she was in her infamous bikini, it was usually due to the hot weather, she wasn’t chilling out in the forest in the dead of winter with her cloak and bikini. It was both refreshing and a relief to have the artist Walter Giovani draw her with appropriate weather attire most of the time (yes, Wendy and Emily, she’s warm enough).
Walter Geovani’s artwork and the variant cover gallery are the only two things that save this omnibus. After finishing Monsters, I was pretty bummed that that was it. I was hoping to finish this omnibus with my expectations to be elevated and stoked about this awesome revival of Red Sonja. But I wasn’t.