COMIC BOOK REVIEW: Red Sonja No. 1

Gail Simone is a pretty big name in comics these days. She’s in the middle of a much-lauded run on DC’s “Batgirl,” and her newest book for that company, “The Movement,” is also racking up lots of fans on top of its critical praise. People appreciate her devotion to writing strong female characters and it’s won her devotees on both sides of the gender line. Accordingly, the Internet got pretty excited a couple of months ago when it was announced she would take over the writing duties on a rebooted “Red Sonja” title from Dynamite Entertainment.

The inaugural issue came out a few weeks ago, but its reviews were kind of lost in the shuffle thanks to the San Diego Comic-Con dominating the news. All the preceding hype did some good, though, as “Red Sonja” No. 1’s first print run of 35,000 copies is sold out. If you still want to get a copy but don’t like the idea of reading it digitally, then you’re in luck because a second printing was ordered and should be showing up in your local comic book shops around mid-month.

For the uninitiated, Sonja is a sanguine-haired warrior woman in the Hyborian Age, which puts her in the same milieu as Conan the Barbarian. In fact, Sonja’s first appearance was in a Marvel “Conan” comic and her modern incarnation is based on a character from a short story by “Conan” creator Robert E. Howard.

I’ve read various “Red Sonja” issues here and there, but none of them had the stick-to-your-ribs quality that has you breathlessly anticipating that next issue. The stories felt generic, the dialogue was flat, Sonja’s characterization was more concussive than cerebral—take your pick—so I’d come back in six months when there was a new writer and give the book another try.

Maybe I’m falling victim to fanboyism, but Simone appears to have triumphed where those others failed. Her Sonja is still stubborn and determined fighter, but everything feels sharper this time around. There’s little chaff among the dialogue—a spartan touch that adds to the hopelessness and impending doom throughout the issue. Rather than being little more than an emotional brute, Simone’s Sonja comes off more as a strategist and war leader. Really, she’s just a much more well-rounded character now than she was during previous writers’ stints with which I’m familiar.

In the last couple of pages, as an army approaches, Sonja makes peace with the idea of her oncoming end in that tropey way fantasy characters do. But just as the issue winds down and we expect some kind of fade to black, Sonja sees a familiar face among the opposing forces. A lost comrade? A dark mirror of Sonja herself? We know who this person is, but nothing about her or who she is to our eponymous hero.

I’m on the hook for the next issue. I’ve tried my best to avoid writing a Gail Simone hagiography, but I find little to dislike with “Red Sonja” No. 1. It’s a rousing tale with excellent art and character designs—a female friend commented to me that she’s glad that Sonja’s armor finally “covered her up a bit.” While there is some great grid-breaking panel work, the art’s not so good as to make it a draw on its own, but it serves as an excellent complement to the story.

At $3.99, “Red Sonja” No. 1 from Dynamite Entertainment is very much a book worth buying. I can almost guarantee you’ll come back next month.

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