Dark Agnes #1: You Will Remember Her

A woman with short reed hair stands with her sword ready

Look, I love a lady with a sword. I love a good bit of wordplay. I am an extremely easy mark where Dark Agnes #1 is concerned.

Dark Agnes #1

Becky Cloonan (Writer), Travis Lanham (Letters), Luca Pizzari (Art), Jay David Ramos (Coloring)
Marvel Comics
February 5th, 2020

A woman with short reed hair stands with her sword ready
Stephanie Hans cover

I hadn’t actually heard of Agnes before this book was announced, and that’s not a terrible surprise; she was created by Robert E. Howard, the same man who would later inspire the creation of Red Sonja, but she only appeared in two complete stories with an unfinished third. She was eventually adapted into comics, appearing in Dark Horse’s 2010 anthology series featuring Howard characters, Savage Sword. There, she had a grand total of five appearances, so that wraps up our grand tour of her history.

Like Sonja, Agnes is a dangerous redhead with a sword. Unlike Sonja, Agnes does not wander the dangerous sword-and-sorcery world of Hyboria, but the…well, just-about-as-dangerous world of France in the year 1500, during the time of the Italian Wars. This grounds her in a distinctly Renaissance aesthetic, which is something I enjoy; it separates her enough from Red Sonja that I no longer feel the need to keep comparing the two from this point forward.

The facts of character history established, I’m happy to say that the first issue of this series is entertaining, and in a very old-school kind of way. Becky Cloonan is something of a powerhouse artistically, and it may just be personal perception, but I feel like her praises are more widely sung for her art than her writing, which is a shame, given her resume as a writer. For Dark Agnes, she sets out to give us an adventure book featuring a raucous swordswoman, and that is a feat she effortlessly achieves; the plot starts with a daring rescue and proceeds into a horseback escape to a remote roadside inn. Even there, what could be a dry sort of exposition is instead framed as a naked threat to a boorish man; it carries intimidation and weight. Agnes is blustery and boastful, and I’m interested in seeing how her adventures play out, as well as hearing more about the ones she’s already had.

The dialogue especially feels like it fits that archetype of a sword-and-sorcery book; it reads as a little stiff, a little anachronistic, and a little archaic all, but I want to stress the point that I’m not describing these as negatives. Rather, they evoke an era of comics past, while at the same time being applied with a deft hand to a distinctly modern book. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Cloonan has executed it masterfully. She’s aided by Travis Lanham in that regard; his lettering work is clever, bold, strong, and easily readable. It seems bigger than a lot of standard lettering sizes, and grows even more when someone is shouting (as happens several times this issue). He’s playful with sound effects also; at one point, as an ax slices through a rope, the rope, suddenly deprived of tension, springs up and through the letters of the ax’s heavy “CHONK.”

I’m not quite as impressed with the art, I have to say. It’s more than serviceable, it’s actually perfectly good art. Renaissance-era aesthetics are a specific thing in cultural consciousness; in the same way that most people can’t define “art” as a concept, neither can they specifically define the visual hallmarks of Renaissance costuming, but most will know it when they see it, regardless. Luca Pizzari, aided by colorist Jay David Ramos, replicates that faithfully enough at least. There’s still something off, though, and it falls mostly to the faces. Pizzari’s facial work has an almost cartoonish quality, but at the expense of cohesion. Agnes especially is a victim of this; were it not for her hair and attire, she would be unrecognizable from panel to panel. As I said, it’s not bad art, but it does hurt the book overall; here I am registering a detailed complaint instead of singing its praises.

The release of Dark Agnes feels like a calculated move on Marvel’s part. They didn’t get Sonja when they got Conan, and so without access to the prime Howard redhead, they dug into his archives to find the next best thing. That’s fine; as a character, Agnes is an almost blank tableau, comparatively. Giving her to Becky Cloonan for the beginning of her new adventures is a smart bit of math.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.