The Complete Gail Simone Red Sonja Omnibus collects all nineteen of the author’s issues for Dynamite on the title, and it’s a great read. Simone and the art team created my all-time favorite adventures for the leading lady of metal bikinis, and one of the best things they did was finding her a few more sensible outfits.
The she-devil with a sword looks smashing in her bikini, but it never made much practical sense. One unrelated, non-Simone story from Dynamite shows Sonja leading a pack of male warriors though a snowy wasteland, constantly complaining about the cold while garbed in only her metal bikini and a single animal skin draped around her shoulders. No shit, Sonja. Put on some clothes. Somehow, all the men chose warm clothing, but she didn’t get the memo? Idiotic choices about combat gear make Sonja look stupid rather than tough and fearsome.
Simone gives Sonja her proper due as a warrior who doesn’t make frivolous clothing decisions when she wanders into snowy wastelands, muck-filled swamps, and other inhospitable environments.
Simone also revamped Sonja’s origin story into something far more appealing than the dusty old Roy Thomas version from 1970s Marvel Comics. Both Simone and Thomas have Sonja’s entire village and family murdered by marauders, but there the similarity ends. Thomas inexplicably included Sonja being raped right before the reader’s eyes, as if every female hero needs a good helping of rape to get started. Note to guys writing female leads: THEY DON’T.
Then, Thomas had Sonja gain her fierce warrior “power” as a semi-divine, mystical boon. That always bothered me, because it meant Sonja had no intrinsic skill or ferocity or admirable warrior qualities. They only came to her as a gift, because in her natural state she was a weakling. Compare that to a guy character like Reed Richards, who was a bloody genius before he ever got stretchy powers, or Hal Jordan who had a relentless will before he got his Green Lantern powers. Thanks, Roy Thomas, for reminding us that women are basically useless on their own.
To add insult to injury, Thomas tacked on a condition to Sonja’s warrior powers. To gain them, she needed to vow that she would never have sex with a dude unless he first defeated her in combat. What? Linking Sonja’s warrior skill to some sex thing is stupid, and it just plays into an awful idea that you need to physically beat a woman before bedding her. As a result, Sonja’s Marvel adventures never captured my imagination.
Oddly enough, Simone became a Sonja fan back in the 70s when she discovered the Marvel stories drawn by Frank Thorne. Something about the barbaric she-devil on a constant quest for drink, destruction, and dollars fired the young Simone’s imagination. When Gail had an opportunity to write Sonja for Dynamite, she cranked up the volume on all the things she loved while sweeping away the detritus Thomas left behind.
Simone’s Red Sonja origin still includes the murder of her entire family and village, but this Sonja has the skills to pay the bills. Simone’s young Sonja puts her keen mind and hunting ability to use in a bid to exact bloody revenge on the marauders, and she doesn’t need some mystical gift to accomplish it. She doesn’t need to be sexually assaulted for us to feel the horror she experienced, nor to take pleasure in seeing her adversaries die by the score and regret the day they ever met her.
Beyond correcting the origin, Simone delivers the best characterization I’ve ever read of Red Sonja as a brutal but relatable barbarian. Sonja makes mistakes and must deal with the consequences, often going to great lengths and incurring painful, personal loss to make things right. Sonja is admirable but rough around the edges. Fine cuisine is lost on this hell-beast who prefers plain and honest meat.
Sonja also has a major aversion to bathing and, despite her good looks, usually stinks so bad that she can’t even get laid—a fate that is often played for laughs, because this Red Sonja is a bit like Jenny Sparks from The Authority in that she isn’t ashamed of craving a good shag.
Sonja is so relentlessly barbaric that when she encounters traditional “girl time” of putting on makeup, doing her hair, and wearing pretty clothes, the whole thing is utterly alien to her and awakens emotions she doesn’t know how to process. By contrasting Sonja’s rough-edged rowdiness with softer and more traditionally feminine characters, Simone gives us a well-rounded and complex portrayal of the red-headed warrior.
On top of all that, Simone absolutely nails Sonja’s voice. Where the old Marvel stories narrated using captions full of third-person exposition, Simone lets Sonja narrate many scenes in her own first-person voice, and it’s a joy to read. There were plenty of places in this run where the plotting and the villains’ motivations seemed weak to me, but the strength of Sonja’s voice carried the story, and her force of character kept me engaged.
Simone transformed the savage she-devil from an embarrassing character trapped in Marvel’s vintage boys’ club into a fully realized sword-slinger, and my only real complaint is that she didn’t do it for a few more years.
Collector’s Guide: The physical omnibus currently sells for $100 or more, but you can get it in digital format for Kindle for $30. It’s a lot easier than trying to collect the original issues and trade paperbacks. You can also find Dynamite’s reprints of the original 1970s series in three Adventures of Red Sonja volumes in digital or paperback for about $20 each.