Chainmail Back In Style With Gail Simone's Red Sonja
By Vince Brusio
Gail Simone does not need an introduction if you like comics about women that kick ass first, and ask questions later. Renowned for her work on titles like Birds of Prey, Batgirl, and Secret Six, she now has taken the torch to write about a lass that also sports fiery red hair and attitude: Red Sonja.
The adventures begin in Red Sonja Volume 1: Queen of the Plagues ($19.99, 978-1-60690-481-7) from Dynamite Entertainment. In this debut collection of the new ongoing series, Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword, intends to pay back a blood debt owed to the one man who has gained her respect... even if it means leading a doomed army to their certain deaths! Who is Dark Annisia, and how has this fearsome warrior accomplished what no god nor demon has been able to do: force Sonja to her knees in surrender? An epic tale of blood, lust, and vengeance, Queen of the Plagues takes Red Sonja from the depths of her own grave to the heights of battlefield glory.
Along with collecting the first arc of the new series, this graphic novel also features a gallery of cover art from the comic series, featuring high-profile artists such as Fiona Staples (Saga), Amanda Conner (Harley Quinn), Nicola Scott (Birds of Prey), Jill Thompson (Beasts of Burden), and Stephanie Buscema.
In this Diamond exclusive interview, Gail shares a few thoughts on her new Red Sonja series, and how cool it is to let the chainmail flag fly.
Red Sonja Volume 1: Queen of the Plagues is scheduled for February release and is suggested for Older Teen (16+) readers who are fans of sword-and-sorcery adventure.
Vince Brusio (VB): What raised the bar for you in regards to the sword and sorcery genre? Do you have old school Red Sonja books that you would say epitomize that genre? Or would you point more to Robert E. Howard’s novels? I’m curious as to how you’ve internalized/interpreted swords and sorcery culture, and how it affects your writing for Red Sonja for Dynamite Entertainment. What should stay the same, and what can change?
Gail Simone (GS): I love the primal storytelling that can be found in period pieces and fantasy settings. The world is complex and full of subtlety, it's kind of lovely to be able to tell stories of loinclothed, sword-wielding heroes fighting demons in the desert. I'm a fan of the cultured, mannered fantasy of Tolkien and others, but there's a tremendous appeal to the bloody, half-naked asskickers of Robert E. Howard's earthier imaginings.
My first contact with Sonja was definitely in comics, these immaculately told stories of this incredibly dangerous woman. I loved them immediately. I wasn't aware that she was not a direct adaptation of a Howard character, but rather an amalgam of several of his toughest female adventurers. But it's a mistake to discount the Howard influence in those stories, it's in the setting, the tone, it's in everything.
I've been re-reading a lot of Howard stuff (and the Sonja comics) for this assignment, and one of the exciting things is rediscovering that Howard was a bit of a proto-feminist, he created many amazing female hell-raisers. There's stuff that time has thankfully passed by, but some of his fiercest, smartest, toughest characters were female.
As for Sonja, I want her to feel a bit more modern in tone, a bit more human. I don't want her making wisecracks like Peter Parker, but I have seen some writers write her as distant and aloof, and that's not really how I see her. I think she's got fire in her blood.
VB: Were there any particular character interpretations from previous creators that struck a chord with you? Was it work done by Barry Windsor Smith or Frank Frazetta? Certain plots that you thought could serve as archetypal adventures for Red Sonja? What in the past serves as a necessary prologue?
GS: I found the Frank Thorne drawings of Sonja to be amazing, they were fiery and sexy and fierce, I would love to recapture some of that blazing intensity.
My favorite Howard barbarian story is possibly Red Nails, which has so much of what I like about the sword and sorcery genre, kickass heroine, lusty bloody adventure, giant serpents, and a powerful and disturbing allegorical twist.
I'm very inspired by the mood and tone of the Howard books, but also the visual kick of the best of the comics work—in particular, I love the monsters and mythical aspects.
VB: What's been the nature of conversations between you and Publisher Nick Barrucci when you discussed your "take" on Red Sonja. What has he said that helped support your vision for new adventures to come?
GS: This is what I love about Dynamite, you take an idea to them and they run with it. They have a genuine enthusiasm, they love when you are enthused as well. I had this idea, wouldn't it be fun to have all the covers and variant covers be drawn by female artists?
Now, I fully expected to have to debate this idea and fight for it, but it wasn't like that at all. It was just, BAM, done immediately. They asked for a list of who I thought would be great, and Nick started sending out the letters immediately. And now, we have these AMAZING covers by Colleen Doran, Amanda Conner, Fiona Staples, Nicola Scott, and lots more. I can't tell you how lovely that is. And readers and retailers are responding hugely.
BECAUSE Dynamite has been so supportive, we are doing lots more wonderful experiments, to get people to try Red Sonja that have never read her book before. It's wonderful.
VB: You've said in a previous interview that many female artists confided in you their "secret love for Sonja," and the outpouring of cover sketches was overwhelming. Why would these women keep their love for Sonja secret? Is there a stigma? Women shouldn't say they like to read Red Sonja in public? Is it like a guy openly admitting he likes to read Judy Blume novels? Given that you just introduced a transgender character in your Batgirl book, I thought you might want to touch on this topic.
GS: I think we are in this age of plenty, in a way, where suddenly, women in comics fandom are sprouting in huge numbers. So much so that it's easy to forget that even a decade ago, we were still considered oddities, rare fish indeed.
There were very few adventure comics aimed at a female readership, and there was definitely an undercurrent of hostility from some segments of fandom (not all, not a majority, just a small segment). And on the other side, there were definitely some female readers who felt that loving characters like Sonja, or, say, Catwoman, who were often written as this sort of hyper-sexualized male fantasy figures, was counter-productive at best.
But that's the thing, we appropriated these characters…we loved them almost in spite of how they were written at times, we loved their ferocity and their dangerous sides. I have been at a bunch of conventions since the announcements, and just over and over, I am having female artists come up and say they have always wanted to draw Sonja, they just never imagined that they would be asked.
I can't give the full line-up yet, but it was thrilling to get all these sketches from some of my favorite female artists, women whose work I adore, all drawing Sonja joyously, often before we'd even gotten a letter to them to ask if they would be able to participate. They just loved the idea and let their chainmail flag fly!
I hope people will give Red Sonja a try. The setting is icy mountains and scorching deserts and pirates and monsters and plagues, but the storytelling is very modern and sharp. I dearly love it.