Red Sonja: Gail Simone’s Epic Series!

SPOILER ALERT for Dynamite’s Red Sonja, written by Gail Simone. Check out the video review on YouTube.

I had only just started reading sword and sorcery comics when I wrote this review. I had started with Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian series, written by Jason Aaron. In that series Aaron made a strong starting point for an age-old character with a… “mixed” history in terms of quality and appropriateness. Aaron expertly captured the violence, mysticism, and gore that goes along with sword and sorcery stories. He was able to write about the blood, sex, and war with nuance, bringing Conan into a modern age.

Now what does that have to do with Gail Simone’s run on Red Sonja? Besides the shared lineage between the two characters, everything that Aaron did with Conan, Gail Simone did with Red Sonja.

And to be honest, she did it better.

How I Found Red Sonja

Conan the Barbadian is mid battle with a deadly sorceress behind him.
Yeah, this review does start by talking about Conan the Barbarian.

Another reason is because Marvel’s new Conan comic is one of two reasons I started reading Red Sonja. Conan is a great character when written by Aaron. I’ve never read a Conan run written by anyone else, but his design is still the same as always, and so is his backstory. To me this means that Conan can be… kinda boring.

Conan has a pretty generic design. Sometimes he looks just like Thor with brown hair, specifically from when Aaron also wrote that character. He’s a big, muscly, white guy, without a signature weapon, armor set, or even markings or tattoos. Good character designs don’t need that to be good, but there needs to be something similar to make a character distinct from everyone else. 

So to vary my experience with the sword and sorcery genre I looked at other series. This is when I came across the character of Red Sonja. While I was vaguely familiar with the She-Devil with a Sword, I didn’t really want to touch that chainmail bikini. It’s honestly really silly in a bad way. Now I realize the massive disservice it does to this amazing character by objectifying her so blatantly on every cover. 

Finding Gold

Red Sonja holds a sword, ready to kill with it.
She’ll kill you before you can blink.

I said before that there was a second reason I started reading Red Sonja. It was because of how acclaimed and recommended Gail Simone’s run is among fantasy and sword and sorcery comics. From IGN and Women Write About Comics, I heard how Gail Simone, a prolific writer in the comic book industry, changed what many people viewed as a gross male fantasy tale into a dark, badass fantasy story about a woman so deadly and vicious people call her the Devil.

Plus, based on Simone’s prior work, I figured her Red Sonja would be more respectful than previous, less thought out incarnations of the character. I personally believe we don’t need another female “badass” heroine whose motivating backstory starts with her getting raped.

That being said, I had only read Simone’s Red Sonja at the time of this review. Now I’ve read others but this was my first. Everything else was only what I had heard. A lot of past storylines did not have a particularly good reputation like Simone’s, and I assumed that was for good reason.

So I picked up the first volume of Dynamite’s Red Sonja, written by Gail Simone, and I’m greeted to a character with an interesting and challenging view of the world. Not Red Sonja, but King Dimath.

Gail Simone’s Red Sonja Starts Strong

Red Sonja holds up someone's head.
You know her name.

In fantasy, sci-fi, and even the modern world, rulers suck. Kings, emperors, presidents, and politicians don’t embody the kind of people we can trust. They aren’t fair, merciful, or just, most often quite the opposite. When King Dimath defeated the Zamoran King, clothed in blood, guts, and a scar over his eye, I thought I had the villain pegged. Then he found two barbarians chained in the cellars, doesn’t execute them. Instead, he freed, clothed, and fed them. The King demonstrated an unexpected kind of human decency from a political leader. In his mind, and his words, “We fought for our freedom today. It would be unjust, indeed, to deny that to whoever these creatures used to be.”

As I’m sure you can guess, one of those barbarians was Red Sonja. For the first time Red Sonja met a ruler she can respect and be called upon to fight. While King Dimath didn’t stay in Simone’s story very long, the effect he had on Red Sonja lived throughout the first two volumes of Simone’s run. 

Red Sonja Says Screw Your Crown

Red Sonja is telling people to leave her and her band of artisans alone.
You heard her, leave.

The She-Devil with a Sword hates kings for being a cowardly, cruel, and selfish lot. The Zamoran king kidnapped and enslaved the wives of fallen enemies, and forced captured warriors to fight for sport. A dying emperor wanted to take all of his slaves to the grave if he did not receive six great artisans for his death celebration.

Red Sonja had every reason to hate kings. None of them lived up to the rather small kindness that King Dimath showed her. Simone skillfully portrayed how people feel about their leaders through Red Sonja’s own feelings. Red Sonja was distrustful, angry, and disenfranchised with the sense of importance these leaders always held for themselves. She decided that they should be proving their worth to her with every hateful gaze and dismissive look she gave them. It’s a feeling that most people can relate to today. In America we fully expect our leaders and representatives to vote down any bill that would suit the majority of people and not the corporations that fill their pockets.

Simone simplifies these modern issues into a sword and sorcery blend, making it relatable and entertaining. A prince tried to prove his intelligence by curing people he poisoned. At the same time, he claimed no guilt with the same arrogance of a governor who calls for relief for a natural disaster he failed to prepare for in the first place. This is a connection I made myself based off of personal experience. Others may not have it, but that’s the powerful thing about fantasy.

The She-Devil With a Sword Herself

Now Simone’s characterization for the character of Red Sonja herself, was amazing. It may seem like you’ve met characters like Red Sonja before, but the She-Devil rises above in Simone’s hands. 

Red Sonja is many things. She is believably a hero who fights for the common man, and a killer who fights for herself. Simone makes Red Sonja’s wants seem simple in her love for ale, and desire for sex now and then. When she’s hunting a beautiful stag, she reflects on the family she once had and who she once was. When she’s saving an artisan of pleasure, Red Sonja learns of the beauty she could see in herself if she had the chance to be a lady instead of a barbarian. She’s both relatable, and godlike in her characterization. She’s unmatched with a blade, but on the inside she’s not altogether. She isn’t whole, and when she comes close to finding a home, she runs away.

Red Sonja runs away from the artisans, knowing that to stay with them any longer is to never leave. How Simone writes her internal monologue creates a sense not that Red Sonja thinks a home would be bad for her, but that it wouldn’t be where she fits in. There’s an incredible depth to the She-Devil with a Sword.

Appearances Can be Deceiving

The She-Devil with a Sword is hunting through the forest in animal skins.
I would die of fright if I ran into her.

In terms of character design, Simone’s Red Sonja is a mixed bag. Character design is a negative factor for me in Aaron’s run on Conan. That’s what brought me here, looking for a story that does design better. Walter Geovani’s art is spectacular, but some of the character designs leave something to be desired for me.

Red Sonja’s chainmail bikini is here, and its not going anywhere. I am thankful whenever she wears armor and leather instead of her bikini. The image of Red Sonja in the snow, covered in pelts and black war paint, is her at her most menacing. She is a force to be reckoned with as she fights Red Annisia in knight’s armor.

Even the one-off hunting leathers in her trip to the swamp in Volume 2 or a throwback to her chainmail tunic before in the same volume, all seem more appropriate and appealing than her chainmail bikini.

Now there is a chapter having to do with the church. That chapter acts as an always timely rebellion of religion’s silly vilefication of sex. It speaks about how Red Sonja’s outfit is an expression of herself as clothes should be. She feels more naked being covered up than not. It’s a truthful representation to show how detrimental people’s judgements can be to women and how they view themselves. It’s pretty clear that how Red Sonja dresses is no one’s business but her own.

Red Sonja Says Get Over Yourself (or Myself)

That makes me think that maybe, or even likely, my disdain for the chainmail bikini is my and society’s problem, and not Red Sonja’s. If I’m distracted by it, it’s my hormonal brain’s fault, most certainly not Red Sonja’s. No one would ever say that the chainmail bikini offers any real physical protection, it factually doesn’t. But Simone’s Red Sonja wears it for mental protection so its become my job to get over it.

Whether or not it affects comic sales or people’s perception of Red Sonja, that’s not my problem or business. She’s a staple in comics and she’s here to stay dressed however she wants. Red Sonja is a classic character in a classic genre, and Gail Simone’s run is a classic story in itself.

Check out the review for Red Sonja: The Ballad of the Red Goddess if you like Red Sonja.

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