Monday, 11 May 2015

Red Sonja, Volume 1: Queen of Plagues Review (Gail Simone, Walter Geovani)

While I’ve never heard of Red Sonja before, one look at the chainmail bikini and the sword tells you everything you need to know – she’s Conan the Barbarian without the Y chromosome! As for the story, there are nuances but it’s basically Red Sonja saves a kingdom from an invading army, ie. the standard fantasy hero storyline. 

Hats (or helmets) off to Gail Simone – I’d written her off as a comics creator just not for me but then I’d only been reading her DC stuff. Take her away from that schizophrenic editorial team and she shines because, totally unexpectedly, her Red Sonja won me over! 

Simone hits the ground running, throwing us the story – sans Sonja – immediately. There’s a major battle going on between King Dimath and the enemy Zamoran king. Dimath’s son is not a warrior but more science-inclined; these are all relevant points later in the story. This is what I really liked best about Simone’s storytelling in this book: no scenes are wasted/irrelevant, and everything we need to know, we see, rather than being told – a departure from the DC style of storytelling. 

We meet Sonja drunk and dozing next to a fire in the woods, bandits stealing up on this gorgeous, scantily clad woman all alone – not knowing she’s basically a superhero! It’s a fun scene that tells us 1) she drinks like a god and therefore cool as hell, and 2) she’s danger personified even when plastered. This established format – flashback then return to present, repeat - is how the book plays out, and it works really well. The flashbacks fill in the blanks without slowing down the main story, and add to the build-up making for a more satisfying payoff at the end. 

For instance, I expected that Sonja’s loyalty to King Dimath, her relationship with Dark Annisia, and even her own background would be things left untouched – they were probably dealt with in previous books or the core readership don’t care because they already know this stuff. But it all gets explained, even her origin story, fitting in nicely alongside the main story and making this an accessible, self-contained jumping on point for new readers like me. 

When King Dimath reaches out to Sonja for help, we’re wondering why she cares so much about him – cue flashback to show why. When we’re wondering the significance of Dark Annisia to Sonja, we’re shown via a flashback. When Sonja’s at her lowest ebb, seemingly at the end, we see her at the beginning when she first became Red Sonja. That’s exactly how flashbacks should be used - to emphasise plot points and their relevance to the character’s journey, while also giving them credible motivations. 

I love that most of the characters are complex, though my one main criticism of the comic would be the one-dimensionality of the villain. Sonja is a lone wolf but she makes exceptions, like fighting for Dimath, though she still refuses to bow to him like a subject. She also has a great classic arc that comes takes her down then up and completes neatly in a full circle by the end. Sonja and Annisia were once friends (and, it’s hinted, something more) though they’re mortal enemies now – but they’re also not, their fealties changing as the story progresses. It’s not a simple cut-and-dried goodie v baddie scenario and, while Annisia is the perfect nemesis for Sonja, that fact alone makes their characters all the more compelling. Tiath, Dimath’s son, at first seems like a straightforward saviour but develops the more we get to know him, and even Ayla and Nias, the two archer girls sent to bring Sonja back to their kingdom, have character arcs. It’s so impressive how Simone juggled everything so skilfully. 

Walter Geovani – how am I only now hearing about this artist? He produces page after page of stunning artwork: vast and detailed battle scenes, breath-taking vistas, plague-ridden camps, vicious and graphic fight scenes (so great), and glorious splash pages. He produces a convincingly lived-in world for Red Sonja. This guy is a bona fide revelation. I know this isn’t Geovanni’s fault but the outfit itself is kinda unforgivable though I guess it’s central to the character’s look? She’s not in the chainmail bikini the whole time anyway. 

There are also some amazing covers from Nicola Scott, Amanda Conner, Pia Guerra, Jenny Frison and Becky Cloonan. Fiona Staples though – wow. I wasn’t blown away with her work on Saga (boo, hiss, I know!) but she is one helluva cover artist. That Josie and the Pussycats cover was sensational and her Red Sonja here is something special – so evocative. This book has a fantastic covers gallery – I rarely mention them, though they’re a usual fixture in trades, but Red Sonja’s covers gallery is superb. 

I’m generally not a fantasy reader but Gail Simone’s Red Sonja is such an excellent comic, it’s worth checking out whether or not you’re into the genre. In the same way that Rick Remender’s best work is non-Marvel, it seems Simone’s good comics are non-DC-published. Full of quality writing and art, and an entertaining story to boot, Queens of Plagues is a brilliant read – highly recommended!

Red Sonja, Volume 1: Queen of Plagues

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