Review by Frank Plowright
Technically Robert E. Howard created barbarian warrior Red Sonja, as Roy Thomas merged the characteristics of two of Howard’s characters in the early 1970s, one named Red Sonya. The result, though, was someone new and unique, rapidly far removed from her origins and to all intents an all new character created by Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Thomas describes the process in his introduction. That tenuous connection with Howard, however, means his estate retains the copyright, which is how almost fifty years after creating her Thomas came to be involved with an original Red Sonja graphic novel for Dynamite, the then current licensee.
The title reflects Sonja’s comics introduction, ‘The Song of Red Sonja’, and in many ways this is a reintroduction, offering a framing sequence around Sonja’s birth as a warrior, and the telling of how she acquired her famous costume. The editorial story behind that involves Esteban Maroto and is also told in Thomas’ introduction. All three creators are involved in the writing, Maroto and fellow Spanish artist Santi Casis plotting the story together, with Thomas scripting once the art was complete.
Sonja is reconfigured, with a supernatural element to her origin explaining how she’s able to hold her own against brutish barbarian men, and cleverly drawn in black and white, but with prominent red highlights. It’s a labour of love for Maroto to work on a character he feels he didn’t do justice in the past, and for Casis to collaborate with an artist he grew up studying, meaning both artists produce spectacular pages with the art showcased to stunning effect via the oversized album format. However, each artist has a different interpretation of Sonja, and while that might be valid over a series, the contrast between Maroto’s delicate athlete and the almost manly-looking Sonja under Casis is a nasty surprise in such a short story.
That’s something else worth clarifying. Sales listings providing page counts don’t differentiate between story material and other pages, and the actual story clocks in at less than half the 92 pages noted. That’s not a complaint, as the sketches, introductions and process material are, after all, by highly talented creators.
All things considered, the origin story betters the framing sequence, which begins with a pompous soliloquising conqueror of a type common to barbarian stories, and ends with his inevitable come-uppance when Sonja arrives. There’s little suspense and much inevitability. However, the art takes an ordinary story a long way, and Thomas captures Sonja’s authenticity in a way interpretations by others haven’t.