Thursday, 4 June 2015

Red Sonja, Volume 2: The Art of Blood and Fire Review (Gail Simone, Walter Geovani)

Gail Simone and Walter Geovani’s Red Sonja run continues to impress with this second volume, The Art of Blood and Fire. This might be Dynamite’s best series since The Boys (which happens to be, ironically, about a girl)!

A dying emperor (who looks a lot like an Egyptian pharaoh) is arranging a death party before he clocks out. He tasks Sonja with acquiring for him the six greatest artisans in the world from these professions: chef, swordsman, courtesan, beast-master, stargazer and dancer. She has one month to procure them for his party. If she succeeds, he will release his 1000 slaves – if she fails, they will be buried alive with him!

Like the first volume, you don’t need to have read any Red Sonja before to enjoy this as it’s a self-contained book, but I recommend checking the first one out, not just because it’s really good, but because Simone’s doing an outstanding job of building Sonja’s character. In Queen of the Plagues, Sonja’s imprisoned and forced to fight for her life, eventually being freed by a benevolent ruler. Here, she sees slaves living the same harsh existence and wants to free them – we see her compassion and empathy, we see her character in doing something selflessly for someone else, and instantly know why we should root for her as the hero.

Strong female character isn’t a term that refers to a woman who can literally kick ass (though Sonja can) or is necessarily physically strong. It means a well-written, believable character which also usually means someone who isn’t dependent on men. What I love most about Simone’s Sonja is how memorable and well-defined her character is. She’s principled – fighting for people or causes she respects – but also a fiercely independent person who completely owns her identity. She’s unashamed of who she is (slobbish), her sexuality (bi), or how she dresses (chainmail bikini or fully clothed, whatevs).

Her straightforwardness is refreshing – she needs booze, sex and food, usually in that order – and, though I liked her in the first book, I really loved her in this. She’s a modern woman in a fantasy realm made up of medieval and ancient settings. Simone doesn’t stop at Sonja though and the supporting cast and nature of the quest story are all equally progressive. Eating meat is questioned in the chef’s story, female sexuality and the role of the sex worker are thoughtfully addressed in the courtesan’s tale, and even the damsel in distress is gender swapped!

Sonja and the courtesan’s conversation about the choices they made and the vastly different paths their lives took, despite growing up nearby each other, was heartfelt and real, a dialogue that transcended fantasy comics. Never mind passing the Bechdel Test, this book passed the me test by taking the time to create multi-layered supporting characters!

That said, not all of the artisans are as well developed as the courtesan. The dancer is essentially a mincing caricature of a gay man, though I can understand the shorthand given that he’s the last of the six and Simone was rushing to complete the story. There’s also a running joke about nobody wanting to bed Sonja because she stinks. Geovani doesn’t really support this joke with his art as she’s always immaculately turned out and also Simone does run it into the ground by the end. Not to mention, we’re supposed to believe some plain-looking dude is going to say no to this fantasy (in more ways than one!) beauty?! Breathe through your mouth, you wilting tiger, you hit the freakin’ jackpot!

Otherwise, I have no complaints about the art which remains impressively high quality. Geovani’s producing such beautiful pages, one after the other, and it’s brilliant. Jenny Frison’s covers too are as fantastic as ever. What a terrific art team!

There’s also a #0 issue included which is usually an origin story of sorts but instead it’s a fun story about a warrior who tells everyone he’s Red Sonja’s widowed husband, taking advantage of the goodwill of the villagers – and then Sonja shows up, alive and angry! It’s a fun one-shot that’s tacked onto the end of the volume even if it’s purpose is baffling.

Like the first book, The Art of Blood and Fire is superbly paced with Simone not rushing the story but not dragging it out either. It’s structured so that it’s one issue per artisan though the aforementioned dancer just gets a couple pages. It is episodic but the various pieces flow together well into a single narrative thread. The action is also always in service to the story and never excessive or pointless, and the book as a whole is accessible to new readers (like me).

I never thought I’d care about a character as seemingly one-dimensional as a barbarian chick in a chainmail bikini but Gail Simone and Walter Geovani have done just that. There’s a freshness and an energy to their Red Sonja that’s rare in most superhero comics, proving that the first volume wasn’t a one off and the second is equally great fun and well put-together. This is a series worth following!

Red Sonja, Volume 2: The Art of Blood and Fire

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