Red Sonja: An Achievement in Comic Art
Spoilers for Red Sonja: The Ballad of the Red Goddess.
“The more we have the more death will take from us.” This is a quote said by the Adversary from the Red Sonja short story, The Ballad of the Red Goddess, written by Roy Thomas, but more importantly, illustrated in a collaboration by Esteban Maroto and Santi Casas.
I say more importantly because I want to take a departure from what I usually talk about. This is typically the writing in comic books. I don’t always give enough time to the art in my favorite stories. Sometimes I only stop to say its absolutely gorgeous.
While art can make or break a comic, it’s far less subjective than writing to me. It’s easier to look at an artist’s work, especially in comic books, and decide whether you like it. If you like an artist’s style once, you’ll likely like again, and again, and again. With a writer, you can easily like one story of theirs and hate another. When this happens with an artist, it’s usually considered a clear sign of failing physical ability. That’s closer to objective than subjective in nature.
This often, if not always, leads to comic book backlash being pointed at the writer, rarely the artist. Outside of a controversy involving the wrong racial coloring, secret offensive symbols, or the oversexualization of a character, artists don’t see the same backlash that writers do. And again, the backlash an artist faces is far more objective.
We can objectively measure that Storm’s skin isn’t as dark as Kenyan native’s should be. We can objectively point out an offensive symbol hidden in the background of an X-Men Gold panel. And we can objectively see when an artist has put a female character in an unrealistic sexual position or costume.
For example, any time Clay Mann draws Catwoman. But that doesn’t suddenly change whether an artist is good or bad, only if they made a mistake or are of poor character.
Why Point the Finger at One and Not the Other?
To better understand the dichotomy between the treatment of writers versus artists, think back to the recent controversy with Tom King’s run on Batman. Many people hate it for a few reasons. One of them being how it ended. Another being how it didn’t properly give fans the marriage it promised between Batman and Catwoman. Tom King’s name went from being one of the most celebrated names in comic books to being considered trash in most corners of the internet. It’s like he never wrote The Vision and Mister Miracle.
But, the artist for those issues, Mikel Janin, Clay Mann, Tony S. Daniel, and more, are never brought up, ever.
I’m not saying that I think they should receive backlash. I don’t even think Tom King deserves anywhere near the backlash that he gets. I do think this is the product of art in comic books being unappreciated.
This all leads back to my main point that art can truly drive a story. Something I’ve noticed recently is when the story is poor, quality art can carry it through.
Art can drive a story, and it was Red Sonja: The Ballad of the Red Goddess, that helped me realize that.
To Start: A Beautiful Start to a Beautiful Comic
From the first page, I knew The Ballad of the Red Goddess was something special. The first page was something ripped right out of Castlevania, with the way this ancient and elven castle sits before a red moon, in a world colored in only black, white, and red. I thought this would only be the first page. To my delight, Esteban Maroto and Santi Casas made the inspired decision to make the entire book black and white, with particular use of red. This art style would be what makes its story beats work. Without this inspired style, this book in all honesty, isn’t all that special.
Look, I love Red Sonja. Originally introduced to us 1973, she has had a rocky history, especially when it comes to her origin. She originates from a time when warrior women characters couldn’t get away from revenge and sexual assault origins. Writers, like Gail Simone, have reinvented her to avoid this, but sadly, yet again, they drag Red Sonja back to this outdated origin.
This kind of story isn’t terrible on principal. The problem is that it’s poorly played out across many mediums, and many Red Sonja stories. It’s grown grotesque with how she isn’t allowed to evolve without it. Red Sonja is more than a victim.
And Roy Thomas’s plot barely illustrates that in this short three chapter story. A villain is introduced in the first chapter to be cruel and nihilistic in the face of his mortality. In the second chapter we learn Red Sonja’s tragic and horrific origin all over again. Then in the third, we see her slaughter the villain and his cabal. That’s it.
The plot should sound pretty mundane and repetitive. It is, but the tale is beautiful, haunting, and shows a side to Red Sonja that’s deeper than trauma.
And its all because of the art.
CHAPTER 1: Black, White, and a bit of Red Sonja
In the first chapter, only three things have color past the opening shot of the red moon and Red Sonja approaching it.
The first is the red sash strung across the chest of a villain known only as the Adversary. The second are his own red pupils inside the white of his eyes and the eyes of his beheaded victim. The third are the red lips of the bard who tells Red Sonja’s story, old and new.
Not even the innocent princess that gets beheaded gets to be colored red. Through Maroto’s and Casas’s art, we know what’s important and what is powerful in this world.
We know the position the Adversary holds as he wears the red sash. We know what he fails to see happening around him through his eyes.
Both of them contrast to the genderless bard’s red lips. They warn the Adversary of his impending doom by the hands of Red Sonja. Being that it’s a warning he cannot see, it is a warning he ignores.
This first chapter is good. Though, while the art is amazing, I’m sure anyone can read it and think that it doesn’t prove anything other than that this book is pretty. It’s how it all leads into the next chapter that sets it apart.
CHAPTER 2: When the Art Respects Red Sonja and the Writing Doesn’t
In the next chapter, from the bard’s red lips, we see Sonja’s tragic origin. We see how she became the best swordfighter her master had ever trained. She worked for them, they were not given to her. Then her master is killed and she is sexually assaulted by the Reavers who killed him once her training is finished.
These first few pages are colorless. Unlike Oeming’s original Red Sonja run, the scenes aren’t tasteless enough to force graphic imagery of this horrible act on the reader. For a few pages, the book seems like a slog. It forces the reader to repeat Red Sonja’s dreaded assault in the same way we’re forced to re-watch Batman’s parents be murdered over and over again, despite Maroto and Casas’s art.
But then the Red Goddess appears, known as the Morrigan, and the color red first enters the second chapter.
Through the horrifying image of the Morrigan’s form, Maroto and Casas already do so much to right the wrong that was redoing this horrific origin for Red Sonja. Instead of creating a loving and comforting goddess, they create the mirror to match Sonja’s pain and rage.
They craft this monstrous and unforgiving face, with horns fit for a goddess of vengeance. While the Morrigan’s words are not empty, it is how her red form bleeds into the surroundings and even the panel edges that allow for well-understood anger to take over the book, and Sonja therefore.
This art carries the themes of revenge forward. This art drags out the anger from us as it does Sonja. Not the writing which can border on fetishizing Sonja’s assault.
CHAPTER 2: The Birth of Red Sonja
When Red Sonja is bathed in the blood of her sacrifice to the Morrigan, after she has bathed in the cleansing waters and sacrificed her unicorn mount, she becomes the Red Sonja that bards sing terrifying songs about.
It is as the blood washes over her head, where Maroto and Casas illustrate the blood dying her hair red, that we can understand the necessity of this story. This is when the pain, rage, and suffering has justified its existence.
In this moment we understand why the She-Devil with a Sword must exist. She is to murder any and all who harm and scar innocent women as Sonja was.
It’s this scene, this full page panel that evokes emotion and reaction. It’s not what Red Sonja says or what the Morrigan says to her. It is the art that shows Sonja’s state of mind. This is what tells us all we need to know about her motivation to kill whom she kills. One panel, even if it were wordless, can tell us why we should root for and sympathize for Red Sonja more than anything Roy Thomas could have put to word.
Furthermore, that rage only continues through that chapter. They showcase her rage in a two page wide spread of Red Sonja butchering her assaulters with the Morrigan overlooking her. It tells us how unimportant these men are to the world, how meaningless and corrupt their lives are by basking Red Sonja in the red of her hair and the red powers of her goddess, without giving these men any hint of color.
This is the power of a truly great comic book art. It creates emotion and meaning past and beyond whatever the words may say.
CHAPTER 3: A Love Letter to the She-Devil With a Sword
And the book never stops doing this. Not even the beginning of the third and final chapter lessens its dependence on the art, when Red Sonja has finally reached the Adversary’s castle.
Maroto and Casas create this haunting shot. Red Sonja is an all black figure save for her red eyes. She’s a demon reaping the souls of vile men. She should terrify the world.
From here on out Maroto and Casas only continue to do what they’ve been doing. They use their art to amplify Red Sonja and de-emphasize the Adversary and his cohorts. Her enemies are not colored with the smallest hint of red.
Only Red Sonja, the Adversary’s paling sash, and the lips of the bard who tells her tale, get to be red.
A sash that crumples to a color far less than vibrant upon the Adversary’s death.
Therefore, Art drove this whole book, through all three of its chapters.
The color red denoted where you should pay attention, and what your attention can ignore, likely even should. Art controlled what mattered in this ballad of Red Sonja, what you should have felt and who truly mattered.
The scorned victim who arose to slay her victimizers; the innocent princess full of fear as she’s unjustly murdered; the Adversary who could not foresee his own wrongdoing; and the bard who would see the tale foretold for generations to come.
These are the things we must pay attention to and learn from. These are the people that mattered.
In Conclusion: Maroto and Casas Did Real Good
Art drove everything home, not writing, and not the language. This book could have been without any words. While it might have been a bit difficult to follow, the main points would have remained, the emotions would have remained, and the lesson to be good to keep red vengeance from coming down upon you… would remain.
Art can drive a story, and maybe, artists are due a bit more credit than they get, from me… and you.
Artists have given us much to lose when death comes to collect.