I’ve never read any Red Sonja comics. That’s not to say I’m unfamiliar with Red Sonja. The character was one I read and saw on the big screen as a kid. My ten year old self loved Conan the Barbarian and thought Brigitte Nielsen’s flick was pretty good. I’m loathed to go back and re-watch it however.
Over the passed few years, Red Sonja has gained a large following in the geek community. When juggernaut Gail Simone began writing her Red Sonja comic, things seemed to really take off. Simone made the character more than just fanboy wankbait; she made Sonja into a real hero. I even incorporated a great essay by Ginnis Tonik into my first year English course (about representation and as a useful example of applied feminist criticism), because it addressed many and most of the concerns I’ve had about Red Sonja since I was ten.
But I finally decided it was time to read some of the comics. Unfortunately, I’ve come to Red Sonja just after Simone stepped away from the series handing it off to Marguerite Bennett (of DC Bombshells fame). What I have found in reading the volume Red Sonja: The Falcon Throne, which will be released in the middle of October, is that Bennett is a superb storyteller, and Sonja’s character is in good hands.
I’ve never been the kind of comic reader that cares overly much about the art. I tend to immediately accept the style and tone artists deploy. I’ve noticed reading through the various individual issue reviews a good deal of other comic readers found Aneke’s work lacking. I can’t really imagine why. One of the aspects that kept me engaged with the story was how the art never overcame the story yet maintained a compelling Silver Age vibe but one that was more nuanced.
This comes across almost immediately in the open chapters of the story when a dying king attempts to hoist the crown onto Sonja (you’ll have to forgive the quality of the screenshots from my digital copy):
The panic and shock in Sonja’s face is visceral and real. Then, when she imagines herself as queen and how it would allow her to indulge in all her vices:
We get a tableau throwing us back to the wonderful debauchery scenes from the world of Conan the Barbarian. But the art is always in service to the story as Sonja immediately feels shame at her fantasy saying “I know what manner of queen I would be.”
Red Sonja leaves her kingdom for a year and in the meantime has a slew of adventures we only get glimpses of in dream. When she returns, she discovers a land wherein she is out of place. At first, Sonja believes that this is because the new king and order have overcome the need for someone like her. This kind of displacement is common among soldiers when they return home. But Red Sonja is a fantasy tale so we quickly see that all is not well in Denmark.
The new king, Savas, has certainly improved Hyrkania but has done so by creating “a military state fueled by misinformation, jingoism, and xenophobia.” This Hyrkania is experiencing the boons of militarism, the prosperity of fascism. Sonja feels it, feels that something has gone horribly amiss, but she can’t really wrap her mind around it. Bennett takes us into a theatre where we see just how propaganda is being used to stoke populist rage. Midyani, the prime actress, demands explanation from her direct for the re-writes to their play that came from on high turning the work mean-spirited. The director sets her and the reader right, “The Hyrkanian army is larger than it has ever been. And those not in the army benefit from it—the soldiers build our schools, patrol our streets, they are everything everywhere.”
Even when Sonja disrupts the play calling out its ugly corruption, she is confronted not by the enemy but by her own people who have already internalized the message. Sonja is unable at first to accept that this kind of populist rage can be natural: “Are the plays written in cursed ink, I mean? Or on paper made from human skin? Some dark witchcraft, that the stories would drive the people that hear them to such cruelty and madness.” Here is where Bennett’s story really stands out. Instead of giving us some mystical out, magical or religious, to explain away the hateful actions of ordinary folk, she situates her story firmly in the reality that people can to goaded into doing, saying, and thinking horrid things without remorse.
But this is merely the jumping off point for Sonja to become the hero she is. There is no miring in this populism, no Hobbesian resignation believing that this is just how human being are. No, Sonja knows we are malleable creatures that have an equal capacity for compassion and good. It simply takes a message as strong or stronger to ignite that in us.
She rallies those allies encountered in her year away–Raka, an ice tribe hunter, and Lyna, a priestess and orator. Sonja has a very clearly defined moral center in this story and a vision of not what Hyrkania could be but really is. Sonja knows that there are more “People in hiding, native and foreign-born, but people uncorrupted, educated in the ways of the world, or else true still to the best of what Hykania always has been and yet could be” out there than there are hateful mobs. She spearheads an insurgency, a rebellion, that is portrayed appropriately enough as phoenix-like.
Better reviewers have provided more nuanced summation of Bennett’s story than I. It is one that instead of “focusing on Sonja the warrior, this series has portrayed Sonja more as a grudging politician and would-be revolutionary, trying to overthrow a disingenuous ruler by winning back and hearts and minds of her people.” Josh Begley was able to see what separated Bennett’s story from most, “This isn’t something you typically see in a barbarian tale, and it’s excellent. Bennett understands that it takes more than military might to make a nation go insane. The powers that be must win over the hearts and minds of the populace, or else their plans will never reach fruition.” As well as the fact that Bennett’s Sonja delves into “The question of what it means to be a legend and the toll it takes on a person.“
What kept me close to this story was how intimate it felt. The passion of the characters for their homeland was tangible. Even the ‘bad guys’ behaved in a manner that wasn’t merely believable but understandable and oddly emphatic. I especially like how Bennett subverts Red Sonja’s past depictions. King Savas in his obsession with Sonja creates three impostors to do his bidding.
These women exist as playthings, objects for King Savas to use as he sees fit. They serve a precise purpose in the narrative while at the same time critiquing the notion that Red Sonja exists to be a mere sexual fantasy. It seems clear to me that this is an indictment of the standard fanboy fetishizing of Red Sonja. But even these women break out of the mold they were literally cast in. When two of them are defeated by Sonja and left behind, they find their way into the same theatre Sonja had first encountered the maddening crowd. Here they watch a new play written by Midyani, now a captive of Savas, and meant to coalesce support for Red Sonja (so that Savas can deploy his impostors in a sort of false flag maneuver). Through the play these two women realize the strength of not just Sonja but themselves, “Yes, she bettered them…but they bettered her,” and experience a baptism at the playhouse bringing them over Sonja’s side.
We have a tale of two opposing forms of popular uprising, the reactionary populism of the new king and the radical populism of Red Sonja. The goal is political and not in some abstract sense, rather it is political in the everyday sense of just how one lives with and among others. Given our own nation’s current political climate where reactionary and radical populism have been the driving forces in the presidential election, reading Red Sonja: The Falcon Throne is less escapist and more realist than I think the creators expected.
Red Sonja: The Falcon Throne is a great story and a good comic volume to add to your library. I will definitely be searching out more work by Marguerite Bennett, diving into Gail Simone’s previous tellings of the character, and eagerly looking forward to future installments of Red Sonja’s adventures.
If you liked this article, then consider supporting me via my Patreon site. Even a small pledge helps.
This article was made possible thanks to support from my patrons:
Nathaniel E. Baker