Review by: Mark Palm
The last time I reviewed a comic I mentioned that I was a devoted reader until my early teens, when I slowly switched over to paperbacks. The transition wasn’t quick however, a few titles were hard to give up. I wish I could say that it was John Byrne's innovative run on The X Men or Daredevil as re-imagined by the grim and stylistic Frank Miller. It wasn't though. It was Red Sonja. Why? Well, she was created by Robert E. Howard, at the time my favorite author, and she was a gorgeous red-head in a chain-mail bikini. It was puberty, remember?
Now its many years later and I am back reviewing Red Sonja, written by Gail Simone and penciled by Walter Geovani. While I am not quite the sucker that I once was for a chain-mail bikini, I have to say that it certainly doesn’t hurt. Now as most of us know Red Sonja was a true bad-ass, because she had to be. To be a warrior in the Hyperborean Age was hard enough, with all of R.E. Howard's brawny guys with bulging hews, but to be a woman, well, that took a special breed. When the guys could kick back after a battle with a wench and an ale Sonja couldn't. So Ms. Simone has decided to give us an origin story, to show us how Sonja got so tough, and to also give her a bit of company as well.
This book starts with King Dimath of Patra, finishing the capture of a fabled din of iniquity. The former King had slave pits where he would send his vanquished foes to fight to the death, two per evening, until there was only one left. Dimath is informed that there are only two left, barely human anymore. One escaped, and the other, of course, is Red Sonja. She swears her loyalty to the King, and then rides off. Some years later he calls her back, using the scene-stealing twin warrior girls Ayla and Nias, and tells Sonja that he needs her. His city is about to be overrun by Bazrat the Butcher, King of Zamora, and she must take command of his forces. It's a hopeless task, as they are totally outnumbered, but Sonja does the right thing, and soon she is staring down her certain doom. To make things worse the opposing forces are commanded by the other survivor of the Pits; Black Annisha, another hottie in chain mail scantiness, with white dreads, black eyeliner, and a serious grudge against Red Sonja. Sonja engages her in single combat, in an attempt to talk her out of sacking the city and killing the army. It's a bravura fight, with great visuals, and we discover that Annisha has lost her marbles and is taking the advice of the ghosts that the two had slain together. After an epic duel Sonja does the one thing she swore never to do; she surrenders, to save her troops. Annisha then slaps a serious lip-lock on the kneeling Sonja and tells her that she won't kill her, but she infests her with the plague and casts her into the wilderness.
So far we are about a third of the way into the story and Ms. Simone has whacked us over the head three or four times. The next part of the story follows a fevered and blind Sonja as she wanders the countryside, and her past. In trippy flashbacks we see her origin story, from a tom-boy Hyrkanian hunting with her brothers and father, to the sack and slaughter of her tribe, which she alone survives, and avenges, one bad guy at a time. Meanwhile a near-dead Sonja is saved by the twins, who become her bodyguards and nurses, and inform her that with luck and she may be able to stop Annisha, and save the cities that lay helpless before her rampaging armies. As they work their way back the twins unfold a surprisingly complex story about Annisha, Dimath, his son Tiath, and the Butcher. The rest of the book see-saws back and forth as Sonja becomes in turn, a guerilla, a detective and of course, a kick-ass warrior. Annisha meanwhile is fleshed out and turns into a figure as much of pity as evil. By the end Sonja gets to the bottom of all the trickery and backstabbing, and cleans up the whole mess with a rousing battle, and rides off into the sunset to get drunk.
This isn't a sophisticated graphic novel, like the Watchmen or the works of Neil Gaimen, and it's not supposed to be. In the spirit of R.E. Howard it's a simple tale, with basic themes and basic virtues. The visuals are no-nonsense, and solid, and while I would have like a little more flair in the layouts, they get the job done. Sonja is brave and tough, and she gets off a bunch of good one liners, and while the winners aren't much better off than the losers, it's all you can ask for in a world like Hyperborea.