- July 5, 2021
Red Sonja Comic Review: Oeming’s Old Original
Written by: Mike Carey, Michael Avon Oeming
Art by: Mel Rubi, Lee Moder, Pablo Marcos, Stephen Sadowski, Michael Turner, John Cassaday, Joseph Michael Linsner
Spoilers for Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword, first Omnibus.
This comic starts off well enough. Yeah, I may be setting it up as something that turns bad later on, but its the truth.
This comic run could just as easily be the beginning of a story arc halfway into any writer’s stint on Red Sonja, as much as it could be the beginning. That’s a plus, the She-Devil is one of those characters you can always jump into. If you see a new writer has joined the series, you’ve just found a new starting point.
Michael Avon Oeming and Mike Carey of Lucifer fame, quickly develop Red Sonja as someone who’s been around the block. They do this while also making it simple and easy to understand who she is. They take a long time before they jump into her origin, and they really flesh her out with rich narration and dialogue.
This series, I believe is during Mike Carey’s run on Lucifer, which is legendary and sublime in its own right. He brings his ability to subtly separate the main character from everyone else with dialogue and narration alone. I don’t how much was Carey or Oeming, but I imagine that Carey at least helped set the story’s tone.
The She-Devil Herself
This She-Devil is the driest she’s ever been here… at least, compared to the other writers I’ve read of here, being Amy Chu, Roy Thomas, and Gail Simone. She’s cold in conversations and brooded more than any other Red Sonja. It may have been a natural progression following a previous run, but its hard to ignore when comparing her to Amy Chu’s superhero, and Gail Simone’s spirited barbarian. From the beginning, she could see a threat from a mile away. She’s immediately threatening, more than her pretty design, and more than pure anger.
The story’s tone was set perfectly when she first entered the city of Gathia. She was surrounded with arrows aimed at her from every direction as a whole city hoped to capture her. This Red Sonja blew through nearly every fighter in the city until she came up against a magical beast who failed to do anything more than tire her.
My complaint with Chu’s run was that it wasn’t bloody or violent, making the action feel too… friendly. There is nothing friendly about the violence here, nor the She-Devil. She’s a badass, cold-hearted killer, and she bring the gore I want to see in sword & sorcery.
The Art of Red Sonja
I must preface this with the fact this is a comic from 2010. The art is of a older time, but also not. It’s from this weird place when comics still looked completely hand draw but captured so much detail without looking like a cartoon. Everything feels like it was personally crafted with a stencil, but the coloring and inking is a bit stale and goes overboard in some parts. Some pages can look like bad CGI at times, if that comparison makes sense.
The worst example is a two-page spread dedicated to a sex scene. The drawing, the detail and the shape is fine, but the coloring is just off and makes everything… shiny, and not for any reason that makes sense.
The She-Devil herself though, is pretty well captured. She has a softer look to her than either Chu’s or Simone’s run. Once again, she’s more supermodel than barbarian, which is just weird to me personally. It’s not bad, it’s what people expected of the character. I personally find that a bit weird contextually, and I don’t like it. At the same time, there are more qualified than me to comment on it.
The First Arc
I had fun overthinking the subtle way the mythos of the She-Devil with a Sword is built throughout the omnibus. It’s an interesting point brought up by an admirer, but respectful friend of Red Sonja, about the songs sung about her. Her immediate and telling response was to scoff and say they’re not entirely true.
This may seem a bit weird because this came after she blew through an army of guards, but it felt telling of how Red Sonja saw herself. The stories told of a slayer of beasts and monsters, man and not, but there’s more behind her and why she is the way she is. On the most basic level, the creative team was trying to get across that Red Sonja doesn’t adhere to anyone but without saying it.
Others may not see that because sublty can be here and there with people. It may seem ridiculous considering her feats, but I appreciated the avenue they tried to take her down… at first. I’ll save my more serious criticisms for later, because I can tell when Carey leaves and this book becomes solely the product of Oeming. I still have more to say about the first arc where his hand can be felt.
Red Sonja vs Society?
The first villain doesn’t seem like much at first, but the idea that he wanted to forcefully keep peace because of things he’s done is thought-provoking. Once you learn that he’s one of the ethnic minorities, one of the lower class races whose enslaved by the upper class, it colors his actions as this sort of guilt born from oppression. He became sympathetic in a way I had not expected.
The villain seemed to truly believe his own inferiority despite being physically and mentally capable of taking over the city. He learned to hate himself, his own race, and ultimately leads to his worst nightmare coming to pass, the slaughter of Gathia.
It’s fascinating because it was built up and executed using very little page space. There’s a greater overarching threat being built up more than him, but still he ends up feeling like a well-thought out character. It all ultimately makes Red Sonja’s defeat of him feel far less rewarding for her.
When he’s dead among his fallen people, many innocent and some not, Red Sonja seemed far more like a tragic hero than an avenger.
This arc ends with this chilling inner monologue, “My name however… Red Sonja. I thought it was for my fire hair, but now I know. It means blood… death to my enemies, and my friends… I leave a red wake behind me. Red for death, red for anger, red for blood.”
It ends it on a narratively high-note, but a low one for that character.
The Origin that Never Seems to Change
What followed was an ongoing story where Red Sonja hunted down the religious institution that allowed for the first arc’s villain to come to power. It began with a few one-off chapters where she found herself a companion who each had a complete and well-written arc.
The first one about Ander searching for his father’s treasure may be stereotypical, but the dialogue and narration carries through past being generic, especially with its climax. Here, is when Carey officially leaves the book, and the plot becomes more by the book. As long as the writing matched Carey’s style, the generic plot twists were still compelling despite everyone being able to see it coming a mile away.
But then they did this thing, where they finally got to her origin, and it got weird. First, the art got weird. As a kid, Sonja looked like some kind of gremlin who always had this weird smile on her face. It was incredibly distracting, and the origin overall wasn’t that much better.
It’s different from Simone’s, this is the older more… not necessarily classic but common origin. I would not give it the compliment of calling it a classic. This time, unlike other times I’ve heard about, the sexual assault was seemingly done… tastefully, I guess… for lack of a better word.
In the beginning, it’s hinted at with few clear visual representations. It’s a part of her clearly but it never defined her.
At least, up until the goddess deemed her the hero of women who have been assaulted. From there on out, nearly ever other sentence of her internal monologue is about her assault, and not in that she’s suffering but in this passive, seemingly inappropriate tone. It’s as if its where her power came from rather than her indomitable will.
The idea of Red Sonja becoming a hero for women who have been assaulted isn’t a bad idea in itself. It’s a great idea, just not for a woman in a chainmail bikini who declares she’ll only sleep with men who beat her in combat.
I’ll get to that. But her sexual assault, or not to be quiet about it, her brutal rape, is something that was at first implied and not stated because she’s more than that. Red Sonja is someone who overcomes.
The Problem with Red Sonja’s Origin
The problem is Oeming’s use of the goddess and having this deity declare the She-Devil the protector of women. The goddess caused a lot of problems for this book. Immediately, this actually led to an interesting reason for Red Sonja’s outfit. Someone does ask what her revealing outfit is meant for since it offers so little protection, and the She-Devil offers a believable reason, at least believable as something she’d say to explain it to another woman who was victimized like her.
She wears it not to distract the enemy, but to invite predators in to kill them, because now she can. Now she doesn’t need to wear armor, now no one can best her. Her chainmail bikini is a trap that will allow her to weed out and kill men like those who took her family away and hurt her. While I don’t know if that makes sense in every outing, the way it’s written in the moment itself as an explanation to another woman seems plausible and respectful. I don’t necessarily believe if its a reason an actual person would believe, but it sounds like a reason someone would make up to explain themselves.
I truly can’t say for sure though when its followed by my biggest problem with Red Sonja’s origin as a whole. For some reason, the She-Devil will, and I quote, “Only lie with a man who can beat me in battle.” This is completely counterintuitive to the supposed mission of her outfit.
If they beat her and sleep with her, they’re a monster who can overcome her skills. It’s like she’s saying that they can violate her if they’re stronger than her. That’s an absolutely terrible lesson to convey. That’s not the intention, but it’s all so stupid that’s it’s not gonna work as a serious motivation.
It taints everything around it and I really wish it hadn’t ever been a part of her character. Something like that can be nothing better than a crude joke, and here it hurts Red Sonja’s backstory and believability.
The Goddess Said What?
The fact that the goddess said this to her after she’s been raped just doesn’t sit right either. I doubt this hurting teenager was thinking about consenual sex. And the idea that beating her in battle proves the man worthy is a stupid relic of older times!
It’s just downright disrespectful, totally and completely. It made Red Sonja seem like a male fantasy at the worst moment. This was something the book did well to avoid for the most part but failed at the most important moment.
Then the goddess was seemingly made out to be the source of the She-Devil’s skills…? I don’t like the idea of Sonja being skilled because of a goddess rather than her own merit. It turns her from this barbarian into this strange secret paladin in barbarian chains.
I don’t like it from a backstory sense. I don’t dislike it because it’s poorly written, which it isn’t. But I dislike it because good writing doesn’t change this ill-thought out conceit. Her origin even goes so far to include her going a quest to become pure again.
This is a gross fixation on her assault without any emotionally real direction. It honestly kind of fetishized, and character defining. The longer it went on the more insulting and tone deaf it got.
Kulan Gath’s… a Thing
So suffice to say, at first I loved this run about the She-Devil. Sadly, by the end I just wanted Oeming to stop telling me what she was thinking. Her inner monologue became nothing less than gross and insulting.
As for the villain… well back before I took a break from Chu’s run, I called Kulan Gath a nothing villain, one I didn’t even deem worthy to name. He’s built up throughout the whole omnibus. While he wasn’t the most interesting thing ever, the way he’s built up as threat was an interesting detail of the book.
The way it ends with him usurping the Russian doll-like villains Red Sonja went through was pretty good.
To have it finally end with a monster far above the rest did make me interested to read more. His personality isn’t all that deep yet, but the way he speaks both with pride and respect to people has me thinking and hoping he’s more than just an overpowered evil wizard.
Red Sonja Deserved Better
So overall, this book started off strong, pretty strong in fact. But then it immediately feel flat on its face. I can’t overstate how much this origin grossed me out, and made me wish that Mike Carey somehow found time to write Lucifer and the She-Devil rather than let Michael Avon Oeming do what he wanted to with her origin. Then again, maybe Carey is as much to blame and that would be incredibly disappointing.
I get that to some people this may seem like a classic origin, but just because its old doesn’t make it a good idea. No matter how thought out the writing sounds, a bad and insulting idea is a bad and insulting idea.
I’m willing to try another omnibus to work towards finish the series, but I don’t think I will. Between Dynamite being a rather unworthy company, and the difficulty in finding used copies, this series doesn’t seem worth the effort.
I’m beginning to fear that I’ll only like Gail Simone’s run. Gail Simone’s run is the only version of Red Sonja that’s entertaining without being offensive.