Throughout the history of comics there have been multitudes of iconic characters. Many of them have gone on to inspire creators to think up similar characters. They became archetypes of that type of character. When I say the word “superhero” most people will immediately get an image in their head of a man in tights with a cape fluttering in the wind, he is square-jawed and cuts an inspiring figure. He can fly and run faster than the speed of sound, is strong enough to lift skyscrapers, nigh-invulnerable, and possesses a plethora of other abilities. The image of Superman has become synonymous with the idea of superheroes, and the idea of Superman has been copied time and time again within the genre. So I ask of all of you now, when I say the words “fantasy barbarian woman”, is your mind filled with images of red hair and chainmail bikini? Ladies and gentlemen, today we’re talking about Red Sonja.
One of the neat things about Red Sonja is her origin. Not her origin story. I’ll get to that later on, but I’m talking about her actual origin. The character known as Red Sonya of Rogatino was created by Robert E. Howard in 1934 for his short story “The Shadow of the Vulture”, which was set in the late Renaissance. This version of Red Sonya was a fierce red-headed pirate woman. After the story was written, the character was forgotten, as Howard was more interested in writing more of his Hyborian Age stories. It wasn’t until decades later, when Marvel had bought the rights to Howard’s work and been making Conan comics for a few years that Red Sonja as we have come to know her came into being.
In 1973, nearly 40 years later, Marvel Comics decided to adapt “The Shadow of the Vulture” into comic form for their Conan the Barbarian #23. In doing so, they brought Red Sonja into the Hyborian age which she has stayed a permanent fixture of ever since. It was artist Barry Windsor-Smith, which fans of this site will know we ranked seventh in our list of “Top Ten 1970s Marvels” that came up with the idea to put Red Sonja in her iconic chainmail bikini. [Editor’s note: For more details of the creation of Red Sonja, “look inside”The Adventures of Red Sonja, vol. 1 on Amazon]
On the subject of said armor, let’s go ahead and get this part out of the way. Is it sexist? Well, I’d say it depends on how you look at it. From a standpoint of us in real life looking at a comic character, there is no question that it’s sexist. The armor is obviously designed to show off as much skin as possible and provide a male fantasy. If a reader looks at the situation from an in-universe perspective though, then everything gets turned upside down. That chainmail bikini becomes a statement, one that says “I’m better than you.”
Many writers over the years have pointed out that one of the reasons Sonja wears her outfit is that it distracts her opponents, and it honestly is a legitimate reason when you are someone as skilled as she is. It also serves to point out just how good Sonja is at what she does. She is known throughout the many lands of the Hyborian Age as a powerful and ferocious warrior, able to take on and triumph over odds while alone that most people would not be able to so much as survive much less defeat even with comrades at their back. When looked at from this perspective, that bikini becomes quite the intimidation point. By wearing it she is essentially saying to her opponents “You know my reputation, you know of the many battles I’ve fought and won. You know all this and look at my body, barely a mark on me. Do you really think you have a chance?”
The answer to that question is usually a resounding “No”. Red Sonja doesn’t get defeated often, and when she does it’s usually by a far numerically or mystically superior force. I haven’t kept up with her book as well as I would have liked (an oversight that I am correcting, I assure you) but outside of the defeat that Mrs. Simone recently handed to her in the newest Red Sonja series (which I cannot recommend enough) I can only think off the top of my head of two instances where she has been outright beaten. One of these is the non-canonical What If? #16 of the 1989-1998 run. No shame there; practically everybody loses to Wolverine, and Conan himself fared no better by the end of the issue. The second defeat that comes to mind is her origin, much as I’d like to forget about it.
For the few not in the know, Red Sonja’s origin is as follows; she was a 17 year old girl living with her family on the steppes of Hyrkania when a group of mercenaries attacked her home. They killed her family and torched the house. Sonja, unable to lift her brother’s sword in order to defend herself, was brutally raped by the leader of the band and left for dead. As she clung to life, she swore that if she survived, she would find vengeance and her oath caught the attention of Scathach the Red Goddess. Scathach agreed to empower Sonja with unparalleled skill in battle under the condition that she never lie with a man unless he beat her in combat.
As you can see, there are definitely some elements in that origin that are particularly wince-inducing. The newest series from Dynamite doesn’t completely get rid of these elements as Mrs. Simone is admittedly not a fan of straight-up writing things out of continuity. However it can be said that as long as Gail is the writer then there was no rape and Sonja has no vow keeping her from laying with whomever she may wish. In Gail’s own words, “She is no prize.” I must say I like this version much better.
So in the end, what makes Red Sonja badass? Her skill in combat is an obvious factor, as she consistently comes out the victor of practically every battle thrown her way. This is especially notable as she is considered to be a greater threat than most any man, in an age where many women are considered to be little more than property. Equally badass is the fact that I pointed out earlier, that she has without a doubt become an archetype in culture every bit as recognizable Superman, Conan, Gandalf and Dracula.
Here’s a neat thing that Gail recently shared with me as we discussed Sonja, specifically about her choice in clothing. Gail said that when she took on the writing, she sent out for quite a few variant covers from female artists. She told each of them to draw what they wanted to, to put Sonja in whatever type of clothing or armor that they wished. Without fail, every single artist sent back to her a drawing of Sonja in her classic chainmail bikini. That’s pretty awesome.
So to close things out today, I’m doing something a little bit different. I have No Man’s Land volume 3 and have been going through it, but I really wanted to share this instead. As I mentioned above, I recently met with Gail Simone and I was able to ask her a few questions about some of her upcoming projects. Now I’m no professional member of the press so it’s only a few questions that I was able to think of, but it’s information that some people didn’t know and would like to. Please note that none of what I write here are exact quotes as I don’t have a recording device and I’m not that fast with my handwriting, so this is pretty much the cliff notes of what was said.
Riagain27 for Comics Bulletin: Sonja is currently questing to find the greatest artisans in the world. Currently she has found a chef, an animal trainer, and a courtesan. Can you provide any hints as to what’s next in her itinerary?
Gail Simone: She’s gonna be looking to find some love or some sort of physical release.
CB: Does this have anything to do with the death of Annisia at the end of “Queen of Plagues”? Great arc by the way.
Simone: Thank you. No, she’s just in the mood.
CB: You’re involved with writing probably the most off-the-wall wedding of the century, obviously you can’t tell us who the bride is but can you offer any hints or tell us of any interesting things to keep an eye out for?
Simone: *Gail smiles widely here* Start counting Deadpool’s injuries.
CB: – But, but there’s so many! That’s gonna be a lot of counting!
Simone: *Smile stays and she chuckles*
CB: So on that note, how did it feel to be back writing Deadpool after 10 years?
Simone: It was SO much fun. The amount of freedom given on what to do with the character and the jokes I was allowed to make and use, there aren’t many other characters that can be done with.
CB: *I nod and begin writing this down*
Simone: Also, I don’t know if this has been put out yet but Alvin Lee is also involved with this issue.
CB: *Noted* Ok, so moving on to Batgirl. Silver is obviously a very sick and deluded man, are we going to find out soon where he came up with his delusion that all the bat-family are vampires?
Simone: We’ll see things more from his perspective in the next issue.
CB: Follow-up on the previous, how did Cissy Chastain get involved in all of this? Was she targeted for a reason or simply an unfortunate bystander?
Simone: She’s just an unfortunate bystander.
CB: Ok, in the “Wanted” arc we saw the emergence of James Gordon Jr., is he going to play any big roles this year?
Simone: Not in the near future.
CB: At the end of the arc, we saw Gordon Sr. come to terms with Batgirl, so does this mean that his personal vendetta against her has run its course or will it come back again in the future?
Simone: It’s pretty much run its course and they’re moving on.
CB: In that same issue, Barbara tried to reveal her identity to her father only for him to turn away and not let her, just on your end have you ever wanted or thought of writing a story where she successfully revealed her identity to him?
Simone: Yes, a few times. It would make for a good story, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
CB: Understandable, something like that would change….EVERYTHING.
Simone: *Laughs* Yup.
CB: Finally, Stephanie Brown has recently made her New 52 debut, knowing of your attempts to utilize her and Cassandra in the past can we expect to see her appear in Batgirl?
Simone: There are no immediate plans, but maybe sometime in the future.
CB: And that’s all I got, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been great meeting you.
Simone: No problem, it’s been a pleasure.