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On Red Sonja & Changing Perceptions

The 18th issue of Gail Simone’s run as writer on Red Sonja arrived last week. I have several confessions to make first before talking about it. Confession #1: Red Sonja first came to my attention decades ago when the character appeared in an early issue of Marvel’s Conan drawn by Barry Smith and I’m certain her solo appearances in one of Marvel’s “Showcase” style comics is squirreled away in some box in my collection. I don’t recall developing an interest in the character, or maybe my perception in the subsequent years of the character being turned into a two dimensional caricature for the male gaze effectively killed any of my earlier appreciation of her.

Confession #2: The news about Gail Simone writing Red Sonja had me wondering how she would handle a character that I perceived had been reduced to a sex object. Simone’s writing is excellent in my estimation. Still, what was Simone thinking she could do with Red Sonja to make her more than tits and ass with a sword? My intuition told me to take a chance and add the title to my pull list.

Confession #3: I hadn’t intended to write a review of Red Sonja because the number of stories I want to review feels overwhelming and at the same time compounded by an inability to string words together; something which is likely apparent here. That was my intent until reading a scene half way through the finale and it’s been on my mind so much since reading it that I stayed awake after dreaming about it.

Let me give you some background about the plot from the preceding issue. Red Sonja has been petitioned by a trio of young nuns and their leader from the Daughters of Erlik to protect their order and its library from being pillaged and burnt by the order of the empress dowager who sees the library as a threat to her little kingdom’s status quo. History is full of accounts of leaders controlling who learns to read and write and access to books as part of an effort to control common people. Corporations and conservative think tanks try a different approach today, but the intent to control how people think is all the same. The promise of a reward from the Mother finds Sonja accepting at first until a visit triggers a memory. Simone uses a flash back to Sonja as a little girl and the difficulty she had trying to learn to write and her older brothers, who easily learned, shaming her. The shame her brothers caused her clearly still troubles her in the present time, causing Red Sonja to relent and leave them to whatever fate befalls them. Coming across an inn, Sonja realizes she can’t drink enough beer to dull her conscience and she returns to the sect’s library in time to stop the sheriff from making them prisoners for the empress, and that makes for one regal hissy fit.

The opening scene of this latest issue is a typical one for Simone – putting a known character into an unusual situation for them. Here it’s a nun reading the story of a young girl named Gravaha who won an impossible fight against the bear god. Sonja is entranced until an unsavory man hunk arrives to gloat over their impending deaths as the nasty empress’ assassins are soon to arrive. And yes, it’s a plot device used to inspire Red Sonja when the future looks grim. The point is stories can feature females as heroes and serve as inspiration for them as well. Using her wits and the story as inspiration, Sonja devises a plan to fight all three assassins on her own since the nuns are strict pacifists. The plan shouldn’t work. It almost doesn’t work. After taking out two assassins, Sonja gets a little too sure of herself and the third killer wounds her shoulder, sending her to the ground. And then this part of the scene that set me off with the last assassin’s dialog: “Do you really think the world would tolerate your shamelss capering forever? A woman of all things? Did you think we would allow that to fester?”

redsonja18-002

Mind you, the reputation Simone’s given this trio of assassins is so fearsome and ruthless that they’re the evil empress’ personal best. Sonja thought she’d die facing them. The assassin standing before her, trading on their frightening reputation to the woman who’s killed one of the assassin, symbolizes hubris and entitlement for me as he demands subservience in exchange for giving her a quick death. And then he’s dead with a sword sticking out of his back and like a domino of death topples over on to the remaining one. And like that, they’re dead. Sonja’s life is changed, not only because she’s survived an intense fight, but from accepting the kindness and generosity of the nuns who teach her to write and read.

redsonja18-003

I can’t not read these two issues as commentary on pop culture fandom today and the efforts of some self entitled fan boys to denigrate women’s interest in comics, gaming, and related media. Efforts that encompass the civil and persistent sea lion; dickish behavior like trying to shout down women in social media and internet forums or trying to mark territory with numerous posts; or shaming women in some fashion; or telling women to stop complaining about sexist depictions of and some costumes for female characters; or telling them to STFU because women’s participation in fandom will never be as good or equal to male fandom; or resorting to threats and the downplaying the threats as a joke when intimidation was the intent plain and simple. Or maybe recent experiences of my own in an online forum has colored my perception and Simone was commenting on conservative media and evangelical groups who try control information and shape women’s roles in society.

Simone has done a few other incredible things with the character and these dozen and a half issues deserve a later look. Until then, Simone sold me on her idea of Red Sonja. After all, she did what I thought was impossible by taking the scanty chain mail bikini wearing, straight male sex fantasy Red Sonja and transforming her into a hero for all readers.

And that nasty empress? She got put in her place!

September 28, 2015
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