Feb 23 2009 3:24pm

Red Sonja vs. Red Sonya

Red Sonja 35th Anniversary poster by Jim Lee and Richard IsanoveAllow 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.]

1. irishblues
Shadow of the Vulture was last reprinted in Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient from the University of Nebraska press. There's also a version available on wikisource.

Howard also wrote three historical adventures stories featuring Dark Agnes de Chastillon, a female swordswoman with red hair and little patience.
Dave Robinson
2. DaveRobinson
I'd forgotten about Lord of Samarcand (even though I have a copy on my bookshelf).

I think I knew a lot of the background, but most of it had slipped into the dark underbelly of my brain. I really like these entries, and not just because I'm a big REH fan.
Blue Tyson
3. BlueTyson
I am not as mean as Jess Nevins, so no grades, but all you had to do was ask. :) (Or ask google.)

The Shadow Of the Vulture, click right here :-

It is a fine story.
4. DougasCohen
Bluetyson, heh. I didn't think to google this story because I'd assumed the company currently holding the rights to Red Sonja also owned the rights to this tale and would have prevented this story from being posted online.

I know some of the copyrights surrounding Howard's creations are tricky--especially regarding Big Red--so it appears I was wrong on this account.

My bad. Thanks for sharing this with everyone.
JP Ikäheimonen
5. Oldtribe
Red Sonja also had a solo comic book series, drawn by the inimitable Frank Thorne. I briefly owned the first UK issue of the series, and still have fond memories of it, although the memories are limited just to the character. I remember nothing of the plot or the story.

Thorne's Red Sonja looks like a pin-up figure, with pouty lips, flowing flame-coloured hair, and lots of make-up around eyes.

I would have been interested to know how the Red Sonja in this series compares with the Red Sonja as a supporting character for Conan. Was there a continuum of stories? Did Conan appear often in RS's own magazine?
7. Mighty Marc
Personally, I am more fond of Dave Sim's Red Sophia from Cerebus. Now when will a movie be made about her?
8. DouglasCohen
Oldtribe @ 5: I'm going way back in the time machine here, but from what I can remember, Conan rarely appeared in the Red Sonja comics.
9. Chrisb
Dave Sim also pointed out in the comments attached to an early Cerebus that the whole "she would never bed down with any man unless he first defeats her in fair combat" thing is a transparent apologia for rape.
10. Al Harron
It's very grand of you to mention Red Sonya, but I have some considerable disagreements with some of your points.

First of all, the idea that Howard "never created a female foil for Conan". He did: two of them, in fact the two you mention. Belit is Conan's equal in guile, intellect, ruthlessness and leadership, if not combat. They complement each other perfectly, with Belit as strategist and Conan her right-hand man. Conan needed Belit, and Belit needed Conan, in order to become the scourge of the Western Ocean, though it's likely Belit could've had Conan killed by her faithful corsairs with a single word at any moment she pleased.

Then you have Valeria, who is Conan's equal in combat, at least, as close any human can get. She is formidably skilled with a sword - so skilled, in fact, that when facing her unarmed, Conan knew that it was impossible for even him to disarm her and live. Throughout the story she is as capable as Conan in a fight, with only her unfamiliarity with jungle terrain and unsuitable garments (particularly her heavy high boots) giving Conan the advantage. Finally, she saves Conan's life by killing the villain of the tale. All through the tale she's been beating back Conan's advances, but relents only at the end - when she's easily proven herself Conan's equal.

So there you have two women who are easily Conan's equal in their respective stories. In comparison, Red Sonja is actually a step down. She can only be Conan's equal by virtue of a goddess's blessing and supernatural skill: how is that fair, that the only way a woman can be equal to a big man like Conan is through magic? The issue of rape is thorny too, the implication being that a woman has to be humbled and humiliated to the absolute nadir of pathos before she is permitted to rise to equal status (a bit like in the Milius films, though Conan is never violated). Belit and Valeria suffer no such indignity: they become adventurers because they wanted to, not a result of the most traumatic event a woman can endure, and they become skilled commanders/warriors through skill, diligence and honest hard work, not with divine cheat codes. Plus there's the very unfortunate interpretation that "Sonja can only be intimate with a man after he effectively re-enacts the circumstances of the most painful episode of her life".

Secondly, the issue that "Conan always got the girl". Conan didn't get Yasmina in "People of the Black Circle", or Atali in "The Frost Giant's Daughter". He wasn't even TRYING to get Belesa in "The Black Stranger" or Taramis in "A Witch Shall Be Born". A breakdown of the heroines in Conan stories shows that he only really gets lucky with a fraction of the girls. Conan's a player, sure, but he isn't some sort of literal chick magnet against whom ALL women are vulnerable. It's one of those things that is popularly believed about Conan which is actually false, like the idea he always gets the treasure (he more often FAILS to get the treasure) or kill the bad guy (far more frequently another character does).

Finally, there's the comparison of Red Sonja to Red Sonya. I'm biased as an REH fanboy, but there is simply no comparison. Unlike yourself, I consider "The Shadow of the Vulture" to be an especially fine historical adventure, and certainly one of REH's best. Gottfried is a very unique hero, being an amiable, hearty drunkard rather than the sombre, brooding Gael of most of his historical tales. Mikhail Oglu is one of the most distinctive villains in the stories, with those vulture wings and the ruthless efficiency he carries himself with. Rusty Burke appears to agree, including it in "The Best of Robert E. Howard 2" by Del Rey, which together with Volume 1 comprises of some 30 stories, with virtually no outcry from the fans over an "inferior tale's" inclusion. Ranking in the top 10% of Howard's tales is pretty damn good if you ask me.

Even in that single story, as a supporting character, Red Sonya is more progressive, influential and powerful than the decades of Red Sonja stories, being a direct influence on the real first S&S heroine (Jirel of Joiry). Sonja purports to be feminist, but frankly, she's cheesecake compared to Howard's heroines.

Howard's sword-wielding heroines earn their abilities and not have them bestowed upon them by divine intervention, they didn't have to sacrifice their sexuality to gain their battle prowess, and they didn't have to suffer unimaginable torment (one that only seems to be inflicted on females in fiction, as it happens) as a prerequisite to attain them.

Ultimately, I have to praise you for discussing J and Y, but I guess it's inevitable we'd come to very different conclusions. I applaud you for a well-written column nonetheless, even if I strongly disagree with some things. Ultimately I don't mind Red Sonja, as she is no worse a feminist icon than Wonder Woman or Electra, but in comparison to Howard's heroines I can't help but feel she falls behind despite the 40 years of progress towards equality for women. Plus I can't deny the mail bikini's silly charm, and I think your explanations for it are perfectly valid. If the men were wearing heavy plate armour like in the original stories I'd have a problem, but Sonja's really not wearing any more or less than Conan, or any other Hyborian warrior in the comics. People tend to forget that Conan's more scantily clad than Big Red when attacking the bikini.

BTW, Wagner was a bit wide of the mark: Kane would've been a very old man when Sonja was lopping off Turk heads. However, there is another character who was not only a contemporary, but who could easily have met Sonya in the Ottoman wars: a certain fiery-headed French woman with a sword called Agnes. Now THAT'S a team-up I'd love to see - or indeed a fight, considering French relations with the Turks and Sonya's bitter hatred for them...

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment