Red Sonja vs. Red Sonya

Allow me to return to a topic I can’t seem to milk enough: the creations of Robert E. Howard.  This time around I’d like to discuss Red Sonja/Red Sonya.

Let’s start with Red Sonja, clearly the more popular of the two Reds.  Many fans of speculative literature and comics will have heard of her.  Red Sonja is probably the most famous “chick in chain mail.”  Originally created as a foil to Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, she is the flame-haired she-devil with a sword, one of the most feared and desired warrior-women of the Hyborian Age, who will lie with no man unless he first defeats her in fair combat.

This Red Sonja—who was the premiere archetype for the scantily clad, beautiful but deadly swordswoman; who has appeared in comics, B&W illustrated magazines, novels, her own movie, and other assorted venues; who seems like a logical female addition beside Howard’s other sword & sorcery creations of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn—was not created by Robert E. Howard.

Red Sonja made her first appearance in 1973, thirty-seven years after Robert E. Howard committed suicide.  During the 1960s there was a renewed interest in sword & sorcery literature, and in October 1970, Marvel Comics attempted to capitalize on this by launching issue # 1 of Conan the Barbarian (hereafter referred to as CTB).  Roy Thomas was enlisted as the writer, with Barry Windsor-Smith (at that time just Barry Smith) the artist.  Marvel Comics had built its reputation and fortune publishing superheroes in the modern-day world, and the character of Conan fell far outside of this model.  The company’s investment paid off, though, as the team of Thomas & Smith proved immensely popular.  The duo earned a number of awards for their work, and CTB was regularly among the top-selling comics each month.

While Smith’s work on CTB was widely popular and highly respected, his run with the comic proved rather limited.  Smith left after issue 24 (and I’ll add that issues 14 & 15 were illustrated by Gil Kane, in Conan’s first major crossover, this with Michael Moorcock’s Elric) and John Buscema took over.  Roy Thomas would stick around until issue 115 (and return to the comic many years later), and Buscema had a distinguished run that lasted until issue 200.  CTB experienced a dip in popularity following Smith’s departure, and another dip following Thomas’ exit.  But their initial run together helped lay the foundations for 275 issues of CTB, 235 issues of Savage Sword of Conan (hereafter referred to as SSOC), 97 issues of Conan Saga, 55 issues of King Conan/Conan the King, and assorted short-lived series and mini-series.  They also opened the door to Marvel bringing Robert E. Howard’s Kull and Solomon Kane to comic form (not to mention Red Sonja), though neither would prove nearly as successful as Conan.

 But for all their wonderful work on Conan, the more lasting contribution this duo made to the world of the speculative is their creation of Red Sonja.  Yes, it is Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith who created Red Sonja, not Robert E. Howard.  The great REH, master of lasting sword & sorcery creations, never had that flash of genius to create a woman-warrior meant to be Conan’s equal, his sometimes friend and sometimes foe, but never his lover.  In all fairness, REH did create Bêlit and Valeria, two exciting women warriors who appeared in the Conan tales, “Queen of the Black Coast” and “Red Nails” respectively.  But Red Sonja, probably the most famous of this Hyborian trio of femme fatales, was not created by the godfather of sword & sorcery.

Red Sonja was first introduced and first met Conan in issue 23 of CTB.  The two of them shared an adventure that would span Windsor-Smith’s final two issues.  Basically, a lusting and smitten Conan is lured into following this flame-haired beauty into a lair where they overcome dangers both human and magical before Sonja manages to abscond with the treasure, leaving Conan without the treasure or the girl.

Thomas was a big fan of Howard’s writing, and had read a tale of his that included a character called Red Sonya.  This character was not part of Conan’s world, but it occurred to Thomas that with a few tweaks—including the spelling of her name—she could fit quite nicely into Conan’s Hyborian Age.  Thirty-six years later, Red Sonja continues to endure.

 Red Sonja would make additional appearances in SSOC, and she and Conan would cross paths again in issues 43-44 of CTB, thus cementing her place as a recurring character in Marvel’s Conan stories.  As in their earlier adventure, they parted ways without becoming lovers.  Thomas would pen a number of additional tales about Red Sonja, and would also serve occasional stints as the writer to the various Red Sonja series launched by Marvel Comics.  In the ensuing years, other Marvel authors would write about Red Sonja, and she even made occasional appearances in the mainstream Marvel universe, such as Marvel Team-Up, where she joined forces with the Amazing Spider-Man.

No matter what writer was penning her tales or what situation she was in, the one constant was that Red Sonja never got romantically involved.  She might have had feelings, she might have come close to acting on those feelings, but she never did.
And this is the genius behind Sonja, and it’s a major reason she has become so enduring, especially concerning her interactions with Conan.  Whether you’re reading the comics or the original stories by REH, barring when it’s a demonic seductress or a woman hell-bent on revenge (and sometimes even then), Conan always gets the girl.  He is supposed to.  He is a he-man, a primal force of walking testosterone who, despite his barbaric background (and often because of it) is irresistible to the fairer sex.  He is supposed to get to the requisite nookie for his Herculean efforts against foes of flesh and otherwise.

But not with Sonja.  Red Sonja was not just a foil to Conan, she was his kryptonite.  Because Conan wanted to bed this wench, she could talk him into situations no one else could.  And because of this, combined with her awesome fighting skills, her no-nonsense attitude, and a body whose armor reveals far more than it covers, she makes for one of the most popular traveling companions Conan ever had.  And when they were not on opposite sides, she was also one of his best friends.  But Conan would give up the friendship in a heartbeat if it meant hitting the sheets with the she-devil, which was why the two of them always parted ways before too long.

But what, you ask, is the deal with Red Sonja refusing to let any man have her?  Well, when Red Sonja was seventeen, she was living on the steppes of the nation of Hyrkania.  Then along come some mercenaries who kill her family, burn down the house, and rape Sonja before going along their merry way.  Shortly afterward, with Sonja desperate for vengeance, she is visited by a goddess who instills her with awesome fighting skills on the condition that she would never bed down with any man unless he first defeats her in fair combat.  Sonja accepted, and so a fighting legend was born.

This formula and her interactions with Conan proved so successful that Red Sonja broke into other mediums, including novels and the 1985 movie starring Brigette Nielsen and co-starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (not as Conan).  Red Sonja continues to exist today, with a new movie in the works, and Dynamite Entertainment publishing her own monthly line of comics (which I’ve never read, so I’m afraid I can’t comment on them).

There is one other aspect of Red Sonja that should be mentioned, and like it or hate it, it plays a big role in her popularity:  I speak of her infamous chain mail bikini.  This creation was not part of the wardrobe of Robert E. Howard’s original Red Sonya, nor was it worn by Red Sonja as she appeared in CTB 23-24.  Instead, it was part of a non-commissioned illustration submitted by an artist named Esteban Maroto.  At the time, Roy Thomas was editing SSOC, and he decided to run this reinvented look for Red Sonja in the first issue of the B&W magazine.  Later, John Buscema would illustrate this same look in CTB 43-44, only now it was in a color comic, thus completing the she-devil’s transition to the mail bikini.  While Red Sonja hasn’t always appeared in this outfit, it is without question her most popular and enduring look.

This look has also created its share of controversy in speculative circles. Some view it as sexist, and many have noted that her armor (such as it is) offers terrible protection against weapons, and would chafe like no one’s business.

On a commercial level, the defense of this look is pretty straightforward: it makes Red Sonja a marketable brand, a character you remember.  It caters to the target audience, that of the teenage boy.  It is a signature look, one that spawned an archetype.

 Trying to defend this character on a literary level is far more difficult. For the sake of playing Devil’s advocate, I will offer two literary defenses about the validity of her armor, which I admit was a lot easier to accept when I reading this stuff at age thirteen. 

The first argument is that while Red Sonja has appeared on the big screen and in novels, first and foremost she is a comic character. An accepted convention in comics is that over time writers and artists create new dimensions to comic characters, building on and sometimes reinventing their established mythologies.  Costumes are an important part of a comic character’s mythology.  If Red Sonja’s bikini is viewed in this light, the argument can be made that the invention of her bikini is an important part of her mythology as a comic character.

The second argument is that this armor can be considered a physical symbol for her psychological scarring.  Considering her origins, one could argue that Sonja remains angry over what was done to her.  In this light, her armor can be viewed as a brazen attempt to flaunt what men cannot have.  This flaunting is meant to be an enticement, an invitation to any man foolish enough to challenge her.  Given the violation she suffered, Sonja might be only too happy to embarrass and/or kill any man who would seek to take her through violence, whether it’s through fair combat or not.  This would mean that Red Sonja wants to be challenged.  She craves the challenge.  And if someone should happen to defeat her, such scant protection makes it more likely she’ll be killed in the process.  And part of her just might prefer death than submitting to a man’s touch.  Viewed in this light, there is some rationale to the armor, although this argument still fails to address how uncomfortable wearing such armor would be.

Let me add some final tidbits of interest before moving on to the other Red.  On two separate occasions the archetypal she-devil almost never came to be.  While it’s true that the renewed interest in sword & sorcery literature caught the attention of Marvel Comics, Roy Thomas originally tried to acquire the rights to Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria.  Thomas tried to acquire this character because the immortal Stan Lee decided he liked this fantasy character’s name the most.  But Carter’s agent asked for too much money, so it occurred to Thomas to try acquiring the rights to Conan instead.  When he approached Glenn Lord, the then-agent to Howard’s literary estate, Lord accepted the offered amount.  But if Carter’s agent had accepted the offer of $150/issue, Red Sonja (and arguably much of Conan’s modern-day popularity) might never have come about.

The second instance where Red Sonja almost never came to be happened after Marvel Comics pulled the plug on CTB after either issue 2 or 3 (sorry, can’t remember).  But the fans wrote in so much that CTB was renewed.  Mind you, this was in the pre-internet age, when expressing your outrage took far more effort.  So if not for this impassioned and determined plea of the fan base, Red Sonja never would’ve come about.  There would have only been Red Sonya.

And as to Red Sonya …

Even though she was spawned from the imagination of REH and provided the inspiration for Red Sonja, I’m afraid there’s far less to be said about this particular character.  Howard only used her in one story, and unlike his other sword & sorcery creations, she did not appear in Weird Tales.  Instead, she appeared in a companion magazine to WT, called The Magic Carpet Magazine
One might wonder why Howard would send this sword & sorcery character to a different magazine, when WT had proven so receptive to his other fantastical works.  The answer is that Red Sonya was not a sword & sorcery character. While REH is best known for his speculative works, he also wrote in a number of other areas, including westerns, boxing tales, and historical fiction. “The Shadow of the Vulture”—the story in which Red Sonya was introduced—falls into this latter category.  The Magic Carpet Magazine—originally called Oriental Stories—was a magazine that catered to adventure pulps, and published stories ranging from historical fiction up through contemporary action-adventure.  “The Shadow of the Vulture” does contain one dramatic affectation that would seem at home in a fantasy tale, which is that the main antagonist was famed for the vulture wings he wore over his armor. Otherwise this tale is straight historical fiction, and so it was published in the January 1934 issue of The Magic Carpet Magazine (which happened to be the last issue).

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Red Sonya—also called Sonya of Rogatino—isn’t even the protagonist of this story. That honor goes to Gottfried Von Kalmbach, a wayward German prince.  Kalmbach’s tale takes place during the sixteenth century, and it revolves around him fleeing the vengeance of the Sultan of Turkey for a war-wound he dealt the ruler before the story begins.  In an effort to bring Kalmbach to justice, the Sultan’s Grand Vizier turns to Mikhal Oglu (of the aforementioned vulture wings), a man whose name is feared throughout Asia.  Oglu is the chief of the Akinji, a tribe of wild riders who commit raids outside of the Sultan’s borders.  When Oglu accepts the assignment of hunting down Von Kalmbach, he spends the next few years chasing this man, with his tribe wreaking devastation wherever he passes.

In mass market paperback form, this story runs forty-five pages.  Red Sonya doesn’t come into the story until page 20, which finds Von Kalmbach hiding out in the city of Vienna while it’s under siege.  From here, Sonya flits in and out of the story, but it’s clear why this supporting character who only appeared in one tale so inspired Roy Thomas.  Without question, Red Sonya is the most (and honestly, the only) dynamic character in this story.  Whenever she appears, she commands not just the reader’s attention, but also that of all the characters around her.

The details about who Sonya is are somewhat sketchier than her modern reinvention.  Other than their names, the similarities are as follows: they both have red hair, both are beautiful warrior-women, both of them have got that no-nonsense attitude, and both of them are referred to as she-devils.  That’s pretty much it.  Sonya of Rogatino wields a sword, but she also totes a pistol.  Instead of being a peasant girl, we learn during one offhand mention that she’s actually a princess.  Her sister is the favored consort of the Sultan, and Sonya has a fierce vendetta against him that is only marginally explored.  There is no bikini and no goddess that granted her fighting abilities.  She also has no obvious issues with the opposite sex, although I’ll note that while Von Kalmbach is attracted to her, they never become romantically involved.

She is a character of action and is portrayed as more than a match for any man, but there isn’t much else to say about her.  I suspect the true purpose of this story was to introduce Red Sonya, and at some point in the future Howard intended to write stories featuring her as the protagonist.  But Howard killed himself a little over two years later, so we’ll never know the truth on this matter.

“The Shadow of the Vulture” was not targeted toward fantasy readers, and while I enjoy the occasional piece of historical fiction I’m not really the intended reader for this one.  Even so, I feel confident in saying that this is far from Howard’s best work.  Still, Sonya is interesting, and fans of Robert E. Howard’s fantastical tales and of the comics might be interested in reading this one, just to read about the character that would eventually morph into Red Sonja.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure where you can get your hands on this story.  It’s possible that Del Rey has reprinted it in one of their many recent volumes containing the works of Robert E. Howard, but I’m can’t say for certain since I don’t own the complete set.  My own copy of the tale comes from an anthology edited by Karl Edward Wagner called Echoes of Valor III, but the publisher’s website doesn’t seem to have this one in stock anymore.  If nothing else, you can try hunting this volume down elsewhere.

In his introduction to this tale, Wagner notes that Red Sonya lived during the same time as Howard’s sword & sorcery hero, Solomon Kane.  He wonders what sort of tale it might have made if Howard had them cross paths.  It’s an interesting thought.   Let me build on that by providing further food for thought: what if Howard had created Red Sonja?  What sort of tale would he have given us, especially once she crossed paths with a certain barbarian?  A rousing one, I’m sure.

[Image is the Red Sonja 35th Anniversary poster by Jim Lee and Richard Isanove.]


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