Amazing adventure supported by real human emotions.
What They Say:
This is IT. The culmination to the bloody WAR of VENGEANCE waged between two former sisters of the sword, DARK ANNISIA and RED SONJA! Annisia has done something no other god nor demon has been able to do, force Sonja to her knees in surrender. But Sonja returns, a changed woman, and she has a mighty SCORE to settle! The climax to the entire QUEEN OF PLAGUES saga is here!
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Walter Giovani
Colors: Adriano Lucas
Letters: Simon Bowland
Contracted by the only man who had ever earned her respect, Red Sonja tried—and failed—to protect the country of Patra from an invading army lead by her former sister-in-arms, Annisia. Annisia defeated Sonja, killed the good king Dimath, and once Sonja showed signs of the plague, exiled the Devil with a Sword to the forest to die. Thanks to the intervention of Nias and Ayla—two young women who act as Sonja’s bodyguards—Sonja was cured of the plague and returned to free Patra from Annisia’s army of monsters. However, as she faced Dark Annisia, both are trapped by King Bazrat—the man that held them for slaves many years ago and forced them to fight as gladiators. Now Sonja and Annisia must put aside their differences or else die by the arrows of Bazrat’s soldiers.
Issue six ends the Queen of Plagues saga and it does so in a spectacular fashion. For six issues Gail Simone, Walter Giovani, Adriano Lucas, and Simon Bowland have been putting their mark on this old pulp favorite and have managed to breathe new life and purpose into her. While there were a few times during this initial run where I felt like the team hadn’t quite worked out a natural pace for the story, that is certainly not the issue here. This is a lean, exciting issue that contains great action and tender, forlorn human moments that go beyond the typical approach most writers take to this genre. The best example of this occurs when Annisia seemingly succumbs to her madness and attacks Sonja. Although Sonja came to Patra to kill her, when the two finally fight again, she feels nothing but pity for her former friend. Sonja understands that Annisia never truly left the pit in which they fought so long ago, and she laments that life has put them at odds. In the midst of the fight Sonja thinks, “I wish…I wish for a better world.” It’s a sad, world-weary moment that I think might best represent what makes Sonja different from other sword and sorcery characters—particularly Conan: for all her reveling in drinking and fighting, she understands that this is a hard, cruel world that should be better.
So far I’ve avoided talking about this work in Feminist terms. At first blush even thinking of doing so seems silly considering the protagonist spends most of her time clothed in a chainmail bikini, but the introduction of King Bazrat highlighted something that I hadn’t even realized was missing from the first five issues: the male gaze. Briefly, the male gaze is what reifies and objectifies women. It is what turns women into sexual objects devoid of their own life, purpose, or subjectivity and become receptacles of male desire. It also carries with it an underlying assumption that the person gazing (and thus in control) is male. As far as I can remember, the male gaze is completely absent in the first five issues. Sonja certainly wears her trademark chainmail bikini (among other outfits, to be fair), but the camera eye never leers at her. We’re not shown tight closeups of her breasts or buttocks, and she never contorts herself in impossible poses that highlight every aspect of her body. While she is drawn as a beautiful woman, she’s never represented as an object.
This does not change with the arrival of King Bazrat and for that I’m grateful. I don’t think I could stand seeing the world through his eyes. What his arrival does do, however, is introduce the male gaze into the equation. The man even has eyeballs tied into his hair! He leers at Sonja, Annisia, and the wife of a former general that he’s taken as his concubine/serving wench. He instantly commands them to “amuse your King” thus asserting both his masculinity and his dominance. Later on subtext becomes text when he boasts that “No mere woman can resist” him. Naturally, when Sonja does break free of the trap she becomes to him a witch, a beast, a thing from the underworld—more than and less than a woman, because a “mere” woman resisting him is unthinkable.
Bazrat is a cowering, simpering, egomaniacal misogynist you can’t wait for Sonja to kill, and while it would be melodramatic to say that in killing him Sonja kills the male gaze, she does blacken its eye a bit. Sonja and Annisia are never treated like objects until he appears, and the sudden inclusion of that point of view is jarring and ugly. I find it interesting that when he does show up, Sonja is wearing full armor and is probably the most clothed she’s ever been in this run so far. There is actually less of her for Bazrat to leer at, and yet that doesn’t stop him, indicating that the gaze is more a matter of perception than reality. I can’t help but wonder if this was a conscious decision by Simone and Giovani or if it’s just a happy coincidence.
Moving on to the art, Giovani does a fantastic job with this issue. The action scenes are amazing (as they have been throughout this entire run), but what really caught my attention was panel placement and the way it was used to highlight certain moments and to create a sense of momentum. Giovani uses overlapping and jagged panels to great effect. There are actually very few traditional square panels in this issue, and the jagged, sloping rhomboid lines do an excellent job of subtly reinforcing the sense of movement, energy, and danger in this story.
Really this is a superb issue and a great end to this first story arc. There’s a definite feeling that this creative team has hit its stride.
Red Sonja 6 expertly ends the first story arc by Simone, Giovani, Lucas, and Bowland. There is a real sense that this creative team has hit its stride as the story and art come together to tell a rousing tale of adventure supported by real human emotions. I will definitely be buying this once it’s collected in a trade. Highly recommended.