I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a Red Sonja fan. After Gail Simone’s run with the character ended, Marguerite Bennett took over for a soft reset of the title that ran for several issues before tapering off to an end. For the first time in a long time, I found myself without the promise of more Sonja in the future, so when I heard that the She-Devil with a Sword would be appearing in a new ongoing series this year, I was excited to see where new author Amy Chu would take her.
Having read the latest Red Sonja #1, however, I was rather disappointed. Aside from not loving the latest plot concept, the issue had, well… issues.
The plot of this newest arc runs thusly: Sonja, by mysterious and magical means, is transported to New York City. Unfortunately, due to the fact that she is a) a rough-and-tumble barbarian in a metal bikini brandishing multiple bladed weapons, who b) only speaks the native language of Hyrkania, she is immediately set upon by the NYPD. When she is arrested for… being Sonja in New York, one cop discovers that a language his mother taught him is strangely similar to that Sonja speaks, and is able to communicate with her. However, Kulan Gath, the evil sorcerer who brought Sonja to our world, has his hands in the police force and elsewhere, and Sonja ends up being admitted to a mental hospital where Gath’s lackeys try to kill her. After escaping, she sets out into the New York winter to track him down and set things right.
My first gripe about this is purely personal: I don’t like this story idea. If I wanted to read about fantasy characters in New York City, I’d go buy a Doctor Strange comic. I like reading about Sonja in Sonja’s element—brawling and being bawdy in trashy fantasy taverns and taking on magical beasts—and here she’s just about as far from her element as possible. I think that part of my dislike stems from this feeling like an insurmountable challenge for Sonja. She’s suddenly in a world whose culture is unfamiliar, whose technology seems like powerful magic, whose language she does not speak, whose weather she is inappropriately dressed for, where her She-Devil skills are no longer valuable, and where she is dependent on a single evil sorcerer to return to her homeland. It’s not even that I mind fish out of water story concepts—it just seems like it’ll be quite a stretch of the imagination to see Sonja get out of it. While Sonja is too much of a hothead to let these challenges demoralize her, this is a far cry from facing down a corrupt king or defending a trading caravan from dragons in her native universe.
However, my personal tastes aren’t the only reason I had problems with this debut issue. The issue opens on some NYPD officers being jackasses to a kid about a petty offense, which, while in character for the NYPD as a whole, doesn’t necessarily endear us to them for the part of the issue where they’re trying to help Sonja. Since the one officer, Max, will presumably be necessary in the rest of the story given that he is the only one who speaks anything resembling Sonja’s language, it would have been nice to see him with a bit more empathy right off. Instead, we get a character who goes from taunting a shoplifter to being excited that the call for backup with a possible mentally unstable subject mentions that said subject is a “naked woman with a sword”. Max is Asian-American, and if this excitement was intended as a way to show that Asian men are not sexless, it was a deeply ham-fisted and sexist way. It’s also worth pointing out that Max is the only notable character of color in the issue, a disappointment given that the real New York is far more diverse than the one we see on the page.
Then there’s the mental hospital. While we’re clearly shown that Sonja’s poor treatment within the facility is at the hands of Gath’s minions, that doesn’t help to break down the harmful stereotype that mental health facilities are dangerous places where the staff are out to get you. and where people who aren’t in need of inpatient mental healthcare, but are considered a nuisance in some way, are kept against their will. Given that the reader knows that Sonja isn’t hallucinating or disassociating, but reacting in her natural way to a clear and present danger, it takes the mental hospital setting and divorces it from any discussion of actual mental health. Adding to this unpleasantness is that, since the story is set in a real city, the hospital in question is a real place, and it presumably doesn’t benefit from being portrayed as a facility where goons in disguise can abduct and attempt to harm someone who has been forcibly committed.
Overall, the art is pretty good; the coloring helps Sonja stand apart from the grey of NYC winter, and artist Carlos Gomez draws fantastically expressive faces. I did, however, take issue with the way he draws Sonja throughout the book. There are at least two shots of her that are textbook Hawkeye Initiative spinebreakers, her stance unnaturally twisted to show off her boobs and butt simultaneously. She’s constantly shown from angles that emphasize the size of her breasts and minimize the visibility of what clothing she is wearing. The worst offender of this is when she is tackled by the NYPD confronting her: held to the ground by three men, only the thin chain straps of her bikini are visible, tying this excessive sexualization to a scene of our powerful heroine being subdued by men.
All in all, I was surprised by how much I didn’t like this debut issue. I may buy one more to see if the story (and the artwork) improves at all as the series progresses, but I don’t have the highest of hopes. While it’s definitely a bummer to not connect with a series about a character I care about, I’d rather put that four dollars a month toward checking out a new series that may be less problematic.
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