Monday, August 31, 2020

The Coming of Red Sonja

In today's Pulp Fantasy Library entry, I mentioned that Robert E. Howard's "The Shadow of the Vulture" served as the inspiration for Red Sonja, who was based on the character of Red Sonya of Rogatino. Whereas Sonya was a character of the 16th century, Sonja was a re-imagined by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith as a woman of the Hyborian Age. She made her debut in the pages of issue #23 (February 1973) of Conan the Barbarian, before appearing a second time in issue #24 the following month.

Issue #23 very loosely adapts "The Shadow of the Vulture," changing not only its setting but also several details of the plot. Conan takes the place of Gottfried von Kalmbach in the narrative, while Prince Yezdigerd takes the place of Suleyman. Red Sonja fairly closely approximates Red Sonya, though, as we shall see, her motivations are not identical. On the other hand the titular Vulture, is quite similar to his counterpart in the original Howard yarn, right down to his winged armor and description as "the most noted slayer in a nation of slayers."

In the telling of Roy Thomas, Yezdigerd bears a grudge against Conan for having scarred his face. He now seeks revenge on him, with the help of his agent, Oglu, whose name is unchanged from the original story.
Oglu tracks Conan down to a rural village, just as his namesake had done to Gottfried, except that Conan is in the company of a young woman, because of course he is. Awakened by the attack, Conan escapes to the city of Makkalet, which is being besieged by Turanian forces. The Cimmerian only makes it to the city's gates thanks to the intervention of a mysterious red-headed woman.
The woman eventually introduces herself as Red Sonja and Conan is shown several times pronouncing her name aloud as "Son-ya" as if to stress to the comic's readers how the "j" in the name is to be pronounced. Silly as this was, it probably was necessary; I remember well how many people I knew who insisted the character's name was pronounced "Son-ja," with the "j" sounding like the one in my own name. 

Conan tries to thank Sonja, but she brushes off his gratitude, claiming, as a mercenary in the employ of the king of Pah-Dishan, she "merely did what [she is] paid well to do." Though attracted to her because her skill with a sword and her ability to drink "the strongest man under the table," he concludes that "she's all men's delight – and no man's love" and heads off alone. Of course, that's not the last we see of Red Sonja, as she returns later to save Conan a second time, just as Sonya of Rogatino did for Gottfried von Kalmbach. The adaptation ends in a similar fashion too.

As a Conan story, "The Shadow of the Vulture" works well enough. The character of Red Sonja differs from her 16th century counterpart in having no motivation for her involvement in the battle against the Turanians – Hyborian Age stand-ins for the Turks – except money. There is no personal motive, as there is in Howard's original story. 

Equally noteworthy, I think, is that Sonja dresses somewhat reasonably. Though she has bare legs, she does wear a full chain shirt rather than the bikini normally associated with her character. The bikini wouldn't make an appearance until August 1974, when Red Sonja returned in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan drawn by John Buscema. The story behind the change in her attire is an interesting one in its own right, resulting from the confluence of the growing popularity of fantasy, the emergence of a powerful and influential fan culture, and changes in what was deemed acceptable for portrayal in comics. Perhaps I'll talk about these in a future post. For now, what's important is that Red Sonja did not become the character we all know today overnight; there were several steps in her evolution from Red Sonya of Rogatino to the She-Devil with a Sword.

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