Title: Conan Red Sonja
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse/Dynamite, 2015
Artist: Dan Panosian, Randy Green, Rick Ketcham
Writer: Gail Simone, Jim Zub
Collects: Conan Red Sonja #1-4
I think Conan Red Sonja would make an fine book for a preteen who has not read many comics, or maybe someone a little older who needs a bit of distraction while waiting at an airport, or any someone who needed to get an idea who and what Conan and Red Sonja were but didn’t really want to know any the specifics (for some reason). Conan Red Sonja would make a suitable book for one of these persons.
There are some things Conan Red Sonja has going for it. It isn’t completely disjointed, despite having large time jumps between issues. It contains some good artwork. Some good colouring. It is printed on great paper. It is bound very well.
I also think I like what writers Gail Simone and Jim Zub were aiming at. And to be fair they don’t completely miss the mark. This book has a some nice set pieces. Individual panels here and there can be quite pretty. The splash pages are well composed. The whole package is there. Unfortunately its just lacking in all the little polished details that would have made Conan Red Sonja something really good.
In essence what’s wrong with Conan Red Sonja is that it is just not smart enough.
Now I bet most people who haven’t read a lot of Conan comics wouldn’t expect you’d go to Conan or Red Sonja comics for smartness, but I do.
It used to be that Conan’s stories were based on short stories by Robert E. Howard (and a few other authors). That tended to smarten things up quite a bit. And Conan comics, unlike the superhero comics, had real deaths, people would die and – get this – not just come back a few issues down the road. That was smart too. Trust me, I know whereof I speak on this whole issue. I’ve been reading comics since the mid 1980s. I grew up collecting and reading Savage Sword, Conan The Barbarian, King Kull, Red Sonja and pretty much every other Robert E. Howard character they’d do a comic about. So I know Conan and Red Sonja pretty damn well – and it can be very smart stuff.
This comic isn’t very smart.
I’ll point to five very specific problems:
There are no cannons in the Hyborian age. Maybe this wasn’t actually in the script, maybe this is just a slip-up by an enthusiastic artist who, thinking “this is a pirate ship” and “pirate ships have cannons” drew some cannons. They don’t have cannons, not in the Hyborian Age.
The pirate ship on the right. Do you see what’s missing? You can’t make racism go away by avoiding situations that might look controversial. Bêlit’s crew is supposed to black, made up exclusively of “ebony-skinned warriors.” Bêlit’s crew, in Conan Red Sonja don’t look ebony to me. Yes, Howard was racist, but Bêlit isn’t racist. She is selfish. Wanton. Cruel. But not racist. Having Bêlit not have a black crew is a stupid way to avoid looking like being racist. It’s like having the Kents of Smallville be Chinese for the purposes of racial diversity, but keeping Clark Kent white – he’s a fucking alien! – So, suffice it to say, I don’t get the point of the change here – it just makes me think yeahhh, they’re afraid to deal with the fact that the creator of this character was racist, so lets pretend everyone is white in the Hyborian Age. Howard specifically sets up this image in Queen Of The Black Coast. Bêlit is an “ivory” skinned warrior woman leading a crew of “ebony” skinned pirates. Deal with it.
No, Thoth Amon is not responsible for the poisoning of the Zarkheba River, nor, as we are probably supposed to infer, the subsequent death of Bêlit. Bêlit is responsible for her own death. Despite what writers Gail Simone and Jim Zub have Thoth Amon saying above, there’s no reason at all to have him say it – other than it is something for him to say.
First of all, Thoth Amon isn’t the be-all and end-all of evil in the Hyborian Age – he isn’t the evil behind every evil. He isn’t anything close to being the Professor Moriarty of Hyborian Age (and neither was Moriarty, actually). That’s just lazy, lazy writing.
Thoth Amon shows up in exactly one Robert E. Howard story, The Phoenix On The Sword, and the two characters never actually meet. Or as the Wikipedia page for Thoth Amon puts it “[Thoth Amon] is often used as Conan’s arch enemy in derivative works.” Well, here’s another derivative work to add to the list, Conan Red Sonja.
Moreover, Thoth Amon’s explanation for why he supposedly poisoned the Zarkheba River doesn’t hold water. There were no ruins of a coastal town at the mouth of the river! There was a ruined city upriver, that’s the setting for the climax of Queen Of The Black Coast, but that city was ancient, and had very different reasons for going bad. Again, shitty lazy writing.
Maybe there are excuses for this sort of thing, maybe the folks at Conan Properties International and Red Sonja, LLC, are so worried about protecting the characters they invented claim to own that they are micromanaging the writing team – telling them what can and cannot be written. I don’t know.
When not occasionally looking drugged, sometimes, just from panel to panel, Conan will look like a different dude. He will rapidly grow and then lose abdominal hair. Weird right? Too weird. I could buy a version of Conan with abdominal hair, or a version with chest hair, or a version with hair everywhere, or a Conan with a completely hairless torso (the traditional look). What I can’t buy is the growing and mowing I’m being asked to do between panels. Pick a fucking hair pattern.
While The overall plot McGuffin isn’t bad – I like the idea of a red seed (from space) – one that sprouts a red-thorned vine that infects and chokes all the life out of everything in a land – it’s not a new idea of course, its from H.G. Well’s The War Of The Worlds – I like it! Yet I don’t think this book uses it very well. For example, we’re told it kills absolutely everything it gets close to, and so when Conan, after getting infected somehow (the book doesn’t show us how) – after getting infected Conan has the red thorny vines growing out of the muscle on his left forearm. His cure for this infection is fire (which is cool) but when the red thorny vine grows back Conan just pulls it out by the root – and that cures it?!? WTF!? What about all the other people and animals and plants that were killed by this invasive red alien plant? You’re expecting me to accept that this burn it then pull it technique will work for Conan but didn’t work for anyone else?
And that again is the problem with Conan Red Sonja, this book doesn’t expect anything of me. It certainly doesn’t respect the rules and patterns of the Hyborian Age and so it can’t and doesn’t respect itself.
I’ve seen this happen with a lot with corporate controlled franchises. They turn a character with whom an author told stories into fan service machines – telling us more about the character and forgetting what made the original writing so compelling.
Don’t give us more backstory, don’t give us prequels, do something awesome.