The Gap between Panels / Rehabilitating Red Sonja

Gail Simone’s soft reboot of Red Sonja shows you that origins matter. Rather than try to refit the deeply problematic foundational ideas behind the character to the 21stcentury, Simone sweeps all of them away and starts afresh. Sonja’s mercenary career is not kicked off by being raped by the marauders who kill her family. There is no deal with the gods whereby incredible fighting powers are granted on the proviso that you can only have sex with someone who defeats you in battle. Instead, Simone’s Sonja learns swordplay as a slave in the gladiatorial arena. Like Spartacus, her mission is to free slaves and kill slavers. No gods are involved. Her purpose and her choices are her own.

The more one thinks about the nature of the “deal” hanging over the history of the character, the more unsavoury it becomes. Sonja’s strength becomes dependent on her chastity. Her male creators were willing to grant her violent abilities at the expense of restricting her sexuality. Fear of female desire might have played a part in the decision, although I suspect the look-but-don’t-touch aspect to the character also had the effect of stoking the male gaze (so crucial to the character’s commercial success). Moreover, the deal mandates that all of Sonja’s sexual relationships must in some way be preceded by violence. Whoever she sleeps with inevitably has to overpower her as well – a cruel ruling to adhere to for a victim of rape.

The darker aspects of the deal were hinted at in the previous attempt to reboot Red Sonja. This was Michael Avon Oeming’s run with Mel Rubi (with Mike Carey helping out at the beginning). The creative team suggested a novel explanation for the most ridiculous aspect of the character – her chainmail bikini. The traditional justification was that Sonja’s enemies would be distracted by the sexy, and so would be easier to deal with in a fight. Carey, Oeming and Rubi instead suggest that the costume is a kind of bait. Sonja invites attackers in order to punish their attempts to sexually assault her. Although this is left unarticulated by the creative team, by wearing the bikini Sonja is choosing to keep reliving her own rape. Even after she kills her rapist, rape revenge continues to provide a motive for everything she does.

Simone obviously didn’t want to be burdened with that bullshit. She mocks the whole idea of the chastity vow, explicitly calling it out as “without question the stupidest thing I have ever heard”. In fact, humour turns out to be a big part of why Simone’s book works – the inherent silliness of the character is made bearable by a constant undercurrent of irony. Oeming’s run is drearily straight-faced by comparison, and becomes increasingly difficult to take as a result (a nadir is reached with a wince-inducing attempt at epic poetry towards the end of the first omnibus volume).

Simone punctures through all that epic swagger by having Sonja become a pantomime version of it. Her Sonja is like a female version of Thor or Conan the Barbarian – boorish, lusty, and obsessed with ale. She is both more real, and more of a joke, than before. Walter Geovani’s take on the character is cartoony and down-to-earth compared to Mel Rubi’s gorgeous, high fantasy version. Tellingly, Simone’s script instructs Giovanni to tone down the objectification in the scene where the adult Sonja is introduced: “she’s beautiful, but this will be sexier if the pose is natural and not artificial”.

That naturalness is probably why the character is so palatable compared to previous iterations. Sonja is not weighed down by a grim history of sexual violence. Neither is she an inaccessible figure for lonely men to yearn after. Instead she becomes the vehicle by which the reader imagines what it must be like to have the ability to keep safe in a threatening world – the wish-fulfilment powering all superhero stories. For female readers, this is no doubt augmented by the refreshing unconcern Sonja has for other people’s expectations of her (or women generally). She’s is free not only from physical injury, but the restrictions of femininity. There is no whiff of bad faith – Sonja is already her fully realised self. To prove the point, Simone doesn’t give any explanation for the ridiculous chainmail bikini other than that Sonja likes wearing it.

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