Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Chainmail Bikini

After so many entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I sometimes forget the books and the stories about which I've already written. This happened recently when I started writing a post on Robert E. Howard's "Sword Woman," featuring Agnès de Chastillon – Dark Agnes, as she is sometimes called – only to discover that I'd previously written one on this very story more than a decade ago. The reason I wanted to make a post on this story is that it's often reported that Marvel's Red Sonja is based not just on the similarly named Red Sonya of Rogatino but also on Dark Agnes. 

Of course, the matter is complex. None of Howard's yarns about Agnès de Chastillon appeared during his lifetime, though he shared drafts of them with fellow writer C.L. Moore. In fact, Moore was so enthusiastic about Dark Agnes that she was inspired, at least in part, to create her own fictional swordswoman, Jirel of Joiry. In any case, a "posthumous collaboration" between REH and Gerald W. Page resulted in the third Dark Agnes story being published in the neo-pulp magazine Witchcraft & Sorcery in early 1971. That story, entitled "Mistress of Death," served as the basis for "Curse of the Undead-Man," the first (original) story to appear in Marvel's The Savage Sword of Conan" in 1974. 

The Savage Sword of Conan is itself a fascinating topic worthy of further discussion, not just for its role in further popularizing Robert E. Howard's most famous literary creation, but also for its influence on later fantasy entertainments of all kinds (including RPGs – remember that OD&D appeared almost contemporaneously with its inaugural issue). For present purposes, what's important is that Savage Sword was initially published not by Marvel Comics directly but the related company of Curtis Magazines. This meant that, among other things, Savage Sword did not have abide by the strictures of the Comic Code Authority (which, at any rate, had already revised its rules several times in the early '70s). Unsurprisingly, Roy Thomas – and, more importantly, his artists – were freer in adapting Howard's stories, particularly when it came to violence and sexual or occult content. Equally unsurprisingly, this made the comic one of the most popular and successful of the decade.

So it was into this environment that we first see Red Sonja in the garment for which she is most famous – the chainmail bikini, as it is commonly known.
Recall that Sonja had previously appeared in issue #23 (February 1973) of Conan the Barbarian and it's to this prior adventure that she refers here. Recall, too, that when Sonya appeared in that comic, she dressed rather differently.
Still not the most practical armor perhaps, but at least her arms and chest are protected. So what happened? Why the change in the character design? 

According to Roy Thomas, it was Spanish artist Esteban Maroto whom we have to thank for this innovation. The story goes that Maroto submitted a piece of artwork to Thomas that depicted Sonja in this now-famous outfit. Thomas loved the look and ordered John Buscema to use it as the basis for Sonja's appearance in "Curse of the Undead-Man," while Maroto got to illustrate a back-up story featuring the Hyrkanian warrior woman entitled simply "Red Sonja." Also worthy of note is that the cover to Savage Sword, depicting Conan and Red Sonja fighting side by side against a horde of undead, was done by Boris Vallejo, back before he had become fantasy caricturist and demonstrated some genuine talent.

Growing up in the '70s, it was almost impossible to escape Red Sonja. She was featured regularly in advertisements for Marvel comics during the period and, alongside Conan himself, forms a big part of my early awareness of sword-and-sorcery as a distinct literary genre. To this day, I've never actually read a single one of her own titles; she's always been a secondary character in Conan's comics. Still, she's an important part of the pop cultural history that feeds into the history of roleplaying games, so I may need to familiarize myself better with her as a character. Even if you're not interested in her as a comic character, her creation touches on the interplay between publishing and fans, as well as changing mores regarding what was acceptable content for comic books. Those are some rich veins to mine for anyone interested in the prehistory of RPGs, so this probably won't be the last time you'll see the chainmail bikini in these pages.


  1. I talked with Maroto just a few months ago and he tells that same story :)

  2. Multiple comments from me on this post...let's see:

    Loved Savage Sword of Conan..it was my introduction to Howard literature as the stories (at least in the issues I owned) were generally taken from Howard's own work, including Solomon Kane. But I never had an SSoC that had a Sonja story.

    MY introduction to Sonja was in the later (2nd) volume of Red Sonja stories published by Marvel in the mid-80s. This Sonja did NOT have a chainmail bikini...though she was still pants-less (as is typical of the genre: you never se Conan wearing breaches or hose, even in his "shirted" Conan the King comics); she likewise appeared sans chain bikini as a "guest star" in other Conan titles of the time. When I was later able to collect the (very good) first volume RS comics I was surprised and disconcerted by the chainmail bikini...for me, the sheer ridiculousness of the outfit is a distraction from what are otherwise excellent S&S-style yarns.

    Later IMAGE comics doubled-down on the chain bikini look, using it exclusively, with Sonja herself justifying it in text as being purposeful to distract her male opponents. Which is utter bullshit for a fighter of Sonja's caliber to say, but whatever.

    The original outfit from Conan 23 doesn't seem all that impractical other than the lack of helmet (usually only worn by mooks or protagonists in disguise). Hauberk and short shorts is par for the course in Marvel's version of Hyboria. I can forgive a chainmail turtleneck much more readily than the scale swimsuit.

    But I don't recall ANY other character in the Conan books sporting a chain link bikini top. Plenty of other ladies in skimpy outfits (even swordswomen), but none with this ridiculous piece of "armor." It always irritates me.

  3. >
    > To this day, I've never actually read a single one
    > of her own titles; she's always been a secondary
    > character in Conan's comics.

    I have. Mostly of the 'Dynamite Entertainment' variety. Prepare to be underwhelmed.