Saturday, June 29, 2013

Red Sonja (Dynamite) - Year Two

In a previous post, I reviewed the first year of Dynamite Entertainment's Red Sonja series (#0-11).  I sang the praises of that series for having outstanding story and art.  In this article, I will review the second year of this series, issues #12-24.

Year 2 of Red Sonja continues to provide excellent stories and gorgeous artwork. Oeming and Rubi, joined later by new artist Homs, continue their praiseworthy run new story arcs about the red-haired swords-woman. Throughout the arcs, Oeming provides flash-backs of Sonja's origin, where we learn how she came to be the woman she is.  These flash-backs appear, bit by bit, in each issue, usually lasting 2-3 pages at a time.  Oeming walks a fine line here.  Piecemeal flashbacks over a long series of issues can often be done in a way that confuses and disorients the readers (see, for reference, Grant Morrison's issues 1-7 of Action Comics). Fortunately, Oeming has a talent for providing just enough recap in the first panel or two of each flash-back that the reader can follow the back-story and the current story easily each issue.  He also cleverly depicts, in the flash-backs, events that have a clear bearing on the present story as it happens, so the reader can easily connect the two plots.

What we learn of Sonja's origins

Told in flashback (as mentioned above), throughout issues 7-24, we learn the origin of Red Sonja.  We see her with her family as a young girl of 13, learning to hunt at her father's side, and arguing with her mother and brother.  Then we witness as forces from the evil god Borat Na-Fori (with whom we've seen Sonja tangle in the present day) attack her village, and slaughter everyone there, including Sonja's parents.

Starting in issue 12, Oeming slowly tells what happened next.  At the tender age of 13, Sonja was brutally raped by some of the soldiers, who then left her for dead in the burning town.  Bloodied, beaten, and perhaps dying, Sonja crawled away from the ruins, and encountered a beautiful goddess.

After comforting Sonja, the owl goddess set her three tasks. First, Sonja must return to the site of her family's slaughter to discover the face of her enemy. Second, Sonja must climb a great mountain and eat either the white or black lotus (white will bring forgetfulness of the pain and a life with a new family, black the fire of revenge and prowess of a warrior).  And finally, she must seek a great serpent and kiss it.

Having accepted the charge from the goddess, Sonja returned to her home.  She witnessed again the aftermath of the slaughter, and noted the symbol of Borat Na-Fori, the dark good whose followers killed her family. Then she climbed the Lotus Mountain and found the flowers. She chose the black flower - the flower of revenge.  Then she climbed down the mountain where she confronted a giant white serpent - the one she had been instructed to kiss without showing fear.  She stepped forward, and kissed the tongue of the serpent, fulfilling the charge of the goddess, and earning her final blessing.

n.b. - These events were depicted a little at a time throughout many issues. For the reader's convenience, they are presented here as a coherent origin story.

Story Arc 3 - The Return of Kulan Gath (#12-18)

At the end of the previous story arc (Arrowsmith, issue 11), Sonja and her companion Osin were being attacked by a follower of Borat Na-Fori.  In the beginning of issue 12, which starts the "Return of Kulan Gath" story arc, they awake in the care of a north-man named Summaro.  Summaro explains that his mammoth saved them from death, causing an avalanche that distracted their tormentor.

Summaro then explains who he is and where he has come from.  He is a prince from a kingdom far to the north, which had been a land of good people.  However, after Summaro's mother perished, his father, the king, took up with a woman Afrea.  This woman was a vessel for a "dark god," and corrupted first the King, and then the people.  Summaro eventually came to oppose them.  Now, Afrea is with child -- the incarnation of Borat Na-Fori.  He tells Sonja that they must stop this dark god from being born.  Osin, whose main desire is to become famous like Sonja and appear in the bards' songs, decides to go with them.

Together, the three set out for the northern kingdom.  Meanwhile, Summaro's father, the king in the north, leaves his very pregnant wife to carry out the will of their dark god. He amasses an army and leads it forth to begin conquering the neighboring lands.  At the end of issue 12, however, we learn that this is all being manipulated by an even more powerful entity, who controls even the Borat Na-Fori - a being named Kulan Gath.

Who is Kulan Gath?  Dynamite answers this question on the back cover of issue 12, where they explain that he is a powerful sorcerer who first appeared in the pages of Conan, and later was a major villain in the Marvel Universe.  Dynamite has the rights to him, so they decided to bring him back as an enemy for Sonja.

In issue 13, Sonja and her companions arrive in the snowy north, and find an advance guard including Summaro's father. Together they attack and steal horses, after which the advance guard gives chase. Meanwhile, back at the castle, Afrea has died in childbirth, giving rise to the dark god. With its first words, it calls out the name of its enemy: Sonja.  Within a few frames, he grows to adulthood, and begins preparing an army to attack the south.

Sonja's group gives battle to the king's vanguard, defeat them, and capture Summaro's father.  They then see a vision of the goddess, who tells Sonja it is time to return home and acquire her sacred Hyrkanian blade, which she must use in the coming battle.

At this point Summaro suggests they should recruit the assistance of the old, forgotten gods, who he says bear enmity toward Borat Na-Fori.  Together, the group heads north to the ancient temple of those gods.  The dark god, however, tries to bar their path by summoning forth a powerful creature from the depths of the earth.

After defeating the monster, Sonja and her companions continue north until they reach the temple of the old gods.  There, Summaro's father comes to his senses, puts his own eyes out for what he has done, and his blood awakens Kaleval, one of the old gods.  Kaleval battles Sonja and the others, defeating them, but when he hears of the resurgence of Borat Na-Fori, he decides to help them.  With a flying steed, he returns Sonja to her village, which is bathed in blood due to the dark god's curse, and she retrieves her sacred Hyrkanian blade.

Meanwhile, back in the north, Osin and Summaro search out Summaro's band of men, who have hidden in exile from the king.  They find the army, including a bard, much to Osin's pleasure (remember, his goal is to have songs written about him).  Just as they find the men, Sonja and Kaleval return on the flying steed, and all is made ready.  Sonja and Kaleval then lead the forces north into the frozen kingdom, and attack the capital. The battle is joined against the forces of the dark god.

Sonja and Summaro break through, to find Borat-Na Fori waiting on the steps of his castle.  He invites them in, and taunts them, saying that he has defeated gods before, so he does not fear mortals.  Sonja, of course, is not afraid of him.

Sonja then draws her Hyrkanian sword, and leaps forward to attack.  They battle, and the dark god seems to have the upper hand. Then Kaleval smashes through the wall and joins the fight.  Borat Na-Fori defeats him, and pulls out his heart. Then Sonja leaps forward again, and slays the dark god.  But his death is exactly what Kulan Gath wanted.  The death of Borat Na-Fori bathes the castle in the blood of a god, completing an ancient ritual, and Kulan Gath returns to the world from which he had long been banished.

The story arc concludes with Kulan Gath victorious, and Sonja and her friends fleeing his wrath.  Kulan Gath burns down the castle and melts the snows of the north, and to escape the floods, Sonja, Osin, Summaro, and the others flee into an underground river.  The hunter reappears, and Sonja battles him again, this time defeating and nearly killing him.  Then Osin drags her back into the boat, and they go down the river and over a waterfall, finally ending up in a paradise land of plenty.

Sonja has defeated Borat Na-Fori and revenged herself upon him for what he did to her and her family... but she has also caused Kulan Gath to be freed.  She fears what will happen next.

Story Arc 4 - Animals (issues 19-21)

With issue 19, Mel Rubi departs as the interior artist of Red Sonja, and is replaced by an artist known simply as "Homs." I have no idea who Homs is, but his art is nearly as good as Rubi's, and his layouts are extremely original, so I can't complain.

In this arc, as Kulan Gath begins his cruel reign over Hyboria, Red Sonja and her colleagues discover that the new world in which they find themselves is not a paradise. Flying lion creatures (the Leijona) attack them, and capture half of her party, while Sonja and the rest flee into the forest, where even the plants attack and kill some of them.  Sonja is rescued by some humanoid amphibian creatures, who take her back to their city.  Sonja's friends are put into an arena by the Leijona as a trial by combat while she tries to find a way to help them. Meanwhile, in Hyboria, a pirate named Valera gets into a tavern brawl which is interrupted by the invasion of Kulan Gath's army.

Valera flees the invasion on her ship, the Scorpion, and receives a vision of her death -- that Red Sonja will cause it.  Meanwhile, Sonja leaves the amphibian humanoids to summon another tribe of cat-like creatures who the amphibians say can help her, and the arena trial of Ossin and Sonja's friends begins in the land of the Leijona.  The cat-creatures, who know that Sonja's friends have been kind to normal cats in Hyboria when they were younger, agree to help, and use magic to send Sonja to the Leijona to help her friends.  After a battle, they are recaptured, but Sonja weaves a great tale for the Leijona, and they release her, and give her a ship to send her back to Hyboria.  Meanwhile, Kulan Gath captures the owl goddess who is Sonja's patron.

Story Arc 5 - The Long Way Home (issues 22-24)

As Kulan Gath taunts the owl goddess, Sonja's small boat returns toward Hyboria. However, they are run over by a demon ship, filled with a skeleton crew right out of Pirates of the Caribbean.  The crew's captain tells them that they have been cursed to hunt a whale they attempted to kill long ago but did not.  Sonja and her companions will supply the blood to summon him and end the curse.  As Sonja gets ready to walk the plank, in another part of the northern sea, Valera's Scorpion runs into the ice, and she asks Calibas, the prophet who foretold her doom, to help them. He shows them how to use their horses to pull the ship free, but then he escapes with some of the horses.  Calibas ends up riding a pod of sperm whales toward a meeting place.

That meeting place is, of course, the location of the demon ship. Sonja is sent into the water, but then Summaro, who knows some magic, casts a spell that kills him, but grants Sonja the ability to breathe underwater and resist the cold of the deeps.  Sonja finds an undersea city and defeats the soldiers there, and then the great whale, who is an old god, awakens.  Sonja tames him, and rides him to the surface, where he smashes the ghost ship and swallows its crew. Then Sonja stabs the whale with a spear, finally letting him rest in peace.  Calibas and the whale pod then rescue Sonja and her remaining friends.  As the arc ends, Sonja's whale pod finds Valera's ship, and she takes them on board. Calibas is nowhere to be seen. And the owl goddess tells Kulan Gath that Sonja returns to Hyboria.

Reflections on Year 2

The Red Sonja series in year two continued to dazzle me.  The plot, the dialogue, the characterization, and the artwork are all absolutely top-notch.  Since returning to comics, I have found no other series -- not even Gail Simone's Batgirl -- that has been as consistently good for as long a period.  For two solid years, Oeming (assisted by Rubi and Homs) produced inter-connected story arcs that told one of the deepest and most interesting tales not just in current comics, but that I have ever read in comic-books, period.  This run, which by year 2 was still not quite over, easily parallels the greatest creative team runs of all time, ranking up there with Simonson's Thor, the Claremont/Byrne X-Men, Mantlo and Buscema's Rom, and Wonder Woman by George Perez.  In the 21st century, only Gail Simone's Batgirl comes anywhere close to equaling the quality of this comic, and then only in terms of plot and story.  Red Sonja's art is far superior to Batgirl's.

Perhaps what has surprised me the most about this series through the first 25 issues has been the thoughtfulness and maturity of the stories.  Based on the covers, one might expect these comics to be pure "cheesecake" -- a hyper-sexualized female character constantly placed into one situation after another designed to titillate young men.  To be fair, the covers often serve such a purpose.  However, the stories and art within are nothing like that.  In the first 25 issues, Sonja has sex exactly once, across two pages, and that act fits within, and serves, the larger story.  Outside of that one act, there is nothing gratuitously sexual about the story, or about how Sonja is posed or depicted.  Her companion, Osin, is as scantily clad as she is, for example.

One thing I love about Red Sonja is what a great warrior the character is, and what great heart she has. She will face down any enemy.  Whether it's a horde of skeleton sailors, or a swarm of mer-people, or a giant whale, she willingly brandishes her weapon and heads into the fray -- most often, for the purpose of saving her friends.  This makes Sonja a hero in the truest and most traditional sense of the word. Yes, she's violent and she kills a lot, but never gratuitously or because she fails to value life. Indeed, Sonja most often issues a warning, telling those who face her that they would be wise to stand down. Only when they refuse, and attack her instead, does she pull out the swords and daggers and have at it.  This makes Sonja a sympathetic character, and Oeming does a great job of interweaving her staunch bravery with the softer side that clearly loves and deeply cares for her friends.

Red Sonja is, clearly, and adult comic-book. You would not give this to a child to read. There is blood, and violence, and yes, once every couple of years, there's a little sex.  But this series presents a grown up, sophisticated story in a deeply engaging fantasy setting.  The characters are 3-dimensional. The story has weight. The plot is paced well. And the heroes are absolutely people you will want to cheer on from issue to issue.  In short, what made this series so good through the first two years was that it's everything most modern comics are not.  And it does all that without being a throw-back to the Silver Age, or bowing to the lowest common denominator with Sonja's sexuality.  These first 25 issues represent a body of work of which Dynamite and its creators can be proud. I can't wait to see what happened in year 3.


  1. Fantastic article, really cool. Given how long Sonja's title has run at Dynamite, it's woeful how little there is on the run on the internet. I realise the covers sell the comics but there's too much focus on the risque covers, when the actual stories have been really good (at times) with relatively little T&A. Thanks so much for doing this and here's hoping Gail Simone can run with the ball.

  2. Yeah the sexy covers actually turned off a friend of mine who probably would like the series but remains skeptical when I tell him that there is very little overt sexuality actually inside the book.

  3. I grew up with the original Marvel run of Sonya bur this does sound interesting :)