Review: Legends of Red Sonja trade paperback (Dynamite Entertainment)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

As I noted when I read Gail Simone's first Red Sonja collection, beasts and barbarians isn't really my thing, and additionally what would seem to be the built-in explotativeness of a warrior woman clad only in a chain mail bikini dissuaded me. But with Simone at the helm, obviously there was something going on in this title I didn't know about.

Impressively, in Red Sonja Vol. 1: Queen of Plagues, Simone takes what would seem to be a character that inherently objectifies women, and instead writes a story largely about women's relationships -- sisters, parents, mentors, and so on -- with plenty of action and intrigue to boot. Simone even uses, then loses, that chain mail bikini. Simone's Red Sonja is a swords and sorcery book I can get in to, and so I was eager to read the new Legends of Red Sonja, especially as written by Simone and a who's who of comics and fantasy talent, including Mercedes Lackey, Nancy Collins, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Blair Butler, Nicola Scott, and Devin Grayson.

I'll say at the top I did not like this book as much as Plagues, though that's as likely due to the format as anything else. Any short story collection of this sort, and especially one that tries to weave in and out of a frame story with a dozen writers, is bound to have some parts that work better than others, even despite the collection of awards this team has won. I am not sure the collected format fits this story especially well; even with the frame story, reading one semi-independent "short" right after another begins to feel scattershot after a while, like the book can never focus on one thing long enough to really hone in. So I'll take the main Red Sonja book, please, though that doesn't lessen my estimation for this volume.

What I did like was that these were "legends" of Red Sonja, with the implication that some might be "true" and some might not be, or might be exaggerated, and that the reader can pick and choose what's Red Sonja to them. I thought it was particularly telling that the book starts with a story by Nancy Collins that portrays Sonja essentially as a thief; our sympathies are with her, the same as in a Catwoman tale, but it remains that Sonja is not really on the side of the angels here. In "The Undefeated" by Meljean Brook, Sonja essentially goads a fellow warrior into doing her work for her (less so than the man telling the story claims, we're given to understand, but more so than we might expect from Sonja); in "Double-Edged," Sonja very nearly refuses to help a mother and daughter gain safe passage.

This is Red Sonja eventually heroic, but maybe not immediately so, and Legends struck me as a safe place to explore these aspects of the character that might not fit devoutly into her own monthly series.

A number of stories, including Brook's "Undefeated" and Mercdes Lackey's "Jenny's Story: Parallax," deal head-on with this concept of "legend," juxtaposing what the storyteller says happened with what actually did. This is an interesting deconstruction, especially within a book called "Legends of ...," both undermining and enhancing its own premise. The "book of lies (or are they)" aesthetic coincides especially well with the comic book format -- the narration says one thing and the images show another, instead of their usual complementary relationship.

One of my favorite stories was Marjorie Liu's "She Lives Still" at the end of the fourth chapter, with art by Phil Noto. By my quick, unscientific count, Liu's story might be notable first of all as one of the longest in the book, at ten pages. This gives the story more room to breathe, to the extent that it has an evolving story that ends in a different place than where it starts, as opposed to some of the other stories that are mainly setup in deference to a final joke or irony.

But in a book whose inciting incident was Sonja fending off an assault, and where violence against women is a fairly constant threat, Liu offers an interesting bit of genre- and/or gender-bending. Here, Sonja rescues a forest god, and then she initiates sex with him as her reward. The final twist is that Sonja essentially impregnates him and then leaves father and daughter behind as she continues on her warrior's journey, a clear flipping of the "tall dark stranger rides into town" trope. Simone has hinted that some characters from Legends might appear in the Sonja series, and I'd be curious to see what Sonja ultimately makes of her god-daughter.

I also thought the third chapter used this experimental format well, especially in the second and third stories; the second, written by Earth 2 artist Nicola Scott, features cartoony art by Doug Holgate, pretty far and away from what one might expect of a Red Sonja story. In the same way, writer Rhianna Pratchett's story is drawn in an animated style by Naniiebim; these stories, both about a young Sonja, were maybe too comedic for what I expect from Red Sonja (indeed Scott's has a bumbling Sonja kind of like a comic strip character), but I appreciated the "difference" that the chapter offered.

Blair Butler's story at the beginning of chapter five is cleverly constructed (and probably reads even more interestingly in a digital format where the pages replace one another), though at the same time it's a bit gimmicky as a few other stories here tended to be. But, having Jim Calafiore draw it, and having his art in a book that also includes Gail Simone's writing, is always a good thing. I also felt a kind of Secret Six vibe to the proceedings toward the end as the villains begin to panic that Sonja would kill them all (I think there's a lot of examples of this "fear of the unseen" in Secret Six). A thought at random: a Red Sonja/Catman team-up would be awesome.

Again, all in all I'm not sure Legends of Red Sonja was quite for me, even despite my admiration of the creators involved. If you're curious about Red Sonja, I recommend Queen of Plagues; this book is a cool item, but that one was a better story.

[Includes original and variant covers, copious sketches, full script for issue #1]

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