A few months ago now, the first issue of Gail Simone’s Red Sonja run hit shelves. I originally didn’t pick it up; I didn’t know anything about the universe (a fantasy world shared with Conan the Barbarian, among others) and I had my concerns about a character who wore the most stereotypical of fantasy-babe scale-mail bikinis. However, after seeing rave reviews and impassioned defenses of the first issue across the internet, I made it to my shop in time to pick up the second printing of the first book, and from there I was sold.
So who is Red Sonja? I’ll let Gail Simone herself explain:
When a lot of female characters were still mostly wet blankets, hostages and love interests, Red Sonja was commanding armies and cutting off demon heads. She is lusty, a bit of a drunkard, she does what she wants, says what she wants, and if you give her any shit, it’s entirely possible she’ll slay you and your best friend and your best friend’s cat.
She kind of defines badass. The same things I love about, say, Black Canary, I find all over Red Sonja. She’s got a bit of a dry edge to her, when we first see her, she’s passed out blind drunk.
It’s a new series, a new story, it starts off at ground zero…there’s no catching up involved, no knowledge of history required. She hits the ground running and slaying.
—Gail Simone (x)
That about sums it up. Red Sonja follows the titular character, Hyrkania’s She-Devil with a Sword, as she fights, drinks, eats, and screws her way through life. Simone’s arc so far has focused a lot on building the character’s backstory for new readers, touching on many of the events that have shaped her current lifestyle and mindset.
One unavoidable part of that lifestyle is her clothing, and in a comics environment that is ever more dedicated to taking artists to task for their cheesecakey female character designs, it may at first seem surprising that Simone, a strong voice for feminism in the industry, would take on a character who typifies the swords-and-sorcery bikini babe image. However, the costume does fit her character; Sonja is comfortable in her skin, and more importantly, relishes the edge that the lack of heavy body armor gives her. She has a freedom of movement that she would not have in full plate. Sonja is a brash, lustful, and aggressive character, and the bikini makes sense for her. Simone does acknowledge, however, that the outfit would not be appropriate for every situation, and so the comic has shown her in a variety of different attires depending on the setting.
We can’t thank only Simone for the reasoned approach to Sonja’s portrayal, though. It doesn’t matter what Sonja is wearing if the artist puts her in objectifying poses, but thankfully this run was blessed with artist Walter Geovani, whose interior art is awesome and gorgeous and compliments Simone’s characterization perfectly. I don’t recall seeing a panel where I thought “Ugh, was that pose really necessary?”, and that’s cool, since it’s a problem many other apparently progressive titles still have. In other cool art-related Red Sonja decisions, Simone was able to get a myriad of super-talented female artists to provide all of the cover art, including several variant covers for each issue.
Simone has recently been called out on the fact that, although she tends to be a vocal ally as far as LGBTQ+ inclusion in comics is concerned, a majority of the characters she creates or makes queer are either villainous, tragic, or both. This is true to some extent in the first arc of her Red Sonja; the tragic (check) and villainous (check) character is Dark Annisia, a former friend of Sonja’s who fought alongside her when they were slaves, and who apparently loves (or at least loved) Sonja romantically, and I felt it was unclear whether Sonja returned those feelings in anything besides a platonic way. However, in the most recent issue, a horny and hard-up Sonja clearly specified that she was not picky about what gender of person she slept with, which reassured me that both Simone and this title are dedicated to including more than just queer baddies.
The collected trade paperback of issues #1–6 just hit stands a few weeks ago, so if you’re interested in checking Sonja out, give it a try! And if you like it and find yourself needing more She-Devil in your life, you should really pick up Legends of Red Sonja either in individual issues or the trade when it’s released. It’s a currently ongoing series of short stories organized by Simone and featuring Sonja tales from some of the most notable female writers in the comics and fantasy fiction industries, including Tamora Pierce, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Rhianna Pratchett, and Mercedes Lackey among many others. If their enthusiasm to write about Sonja doesn’t convince you she’s awesome, I don’t know what else to say.