A Dynamite staple since 2005, “Red Sonja” began life as a Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith in 1973. While very loosely based on the Robert E. Howard short story heroine Red Sonya, Marvel’s Red Sonja was a popular Conan contemporary, appearing in “Conan The Barbarian” and “The Savage Sword Of Conan” as well as multiple solo series. The property was also turned into the 1985 fantasy film “Red Sonja” starring actress Brigitte Nielsen as the titular swordswoman. The “She-Devil With a Sword,” Red Sonja’s defining characteristic quickly became her chain-metal lingerie and the character was instrumental in cementing the fantasy female barbarian in pop culture, made famous by artists like Frank Thorne and Boris Vallejo. Prior “Sonja” artist Walter Giovani will join Simone on art for her run.
Speaking with Comic Book Resources about the series, Simone discussed why she wanted to write the bikini-baring barbarian, her plans for the character and why Red Sonja deserves as much respect as Wonder Woman and the other strong comic heroines Simone built her career on.
CBR News: Dynamite announced that you’ll be taking over as writer on “Red Sonja.” While Sonja is a character many readers have come to associate with T&A art, you’re a creator known for writing strong female characters and for your views on how women are portrayed in comics. What made you want to tackle this specific character for Dynamite?
Gail Simone: Oh, man, there are several reasons. And I’ve been dying to talk about this, so buckle up!
â€¨First, a big part of the fun of comics is defying expectations. I could happily write superheroes forever, I dearly love them, but there’s some genuine joy in writing swordfights on blood-caked sand, as well.
About the T&A thing, you know, people said that same thing about Black Canary when it was announced I would be taking over “Birds of Prey.” Red Sonja’s got a metal swimsuit, sure, but she wears more clothes than Conan. She’s a stunning image just standing still, I love that — but if you look up ‘ferocity’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Sonja (well, there should be). In a sea of testosterone-laden barbarian comics, Sonja was more kickass than any of them, to me.
I just dearly love her.
If you’ve read my “Wonder Woman” or “Secret Six,” you have seen that I’m always trying to stick my superheroes in barbarian/swordfight scenarios, like shoving a pizza into a toaster. This is my first chance to do the real thing, with the greatest girl barbarian ever created.
When my exclusive ended, I made a conscious decision that if I was going to take assignments, I would only take the ones that made me happy, that would be fun to write and rewarding for readers. The first thing I said “yes” to was “Red Sonja,” for that very reason.
What is your approach to Red Sonja? How do you go about changing those perceptions of her as primarily a pin-up heroine?
You know, some brilliant creators have worked on this character — I don’t know if she was ever just a pin-up heroine. Frank Thorne, Mike Oeming, Ron Marz, Mike Carey, some of the best creators out there. Just putting it out there that a million pin-up girls have come and gone in comics, but Sonja is still there. I think that’s a testament that there’s a lot more to her.
But I don’t feel any anxiety about changing perceptions. From our very first issue, this is a fun, funny, fearsome female who fights monsters that would make Lovecraft cower. I can’t think of anything more entertaining than that.
My one small complaint is that sometimes she could be a bit of a stiff. This is a much more human Sonja. People are going to want to know her, she’s just a magnetic personality.
With your new run, will Red Sonja be undergoing any sort of visual re-design? Should readers say goodbye to the chain-mail bikini?
It may be the girl in me talking, but I love fashion changes and costume variants. Sonja wears a bunch of new outfits in this run.â€¨â€¨I think we’re a little hyper-focused on the bikini — she wears it because she likes it, it’s formal gowns that make her feel uncomfortable!
You’re working with Walter Giovani on interior art, but the cover artists for your run are all women, such as Nicola Scott. Was it your idea to work with mainly women for the cover art?
Yes! I thought, “How fun would it be to have all the variant covers done by the best female artists in the industry?”
We all thought about it, and no one could remember that ever having been done before, especially not on a barbarian book, traditionally a more dude-oriented genre.
This is one of the most fun, thrilling parts of this project for me, working with some of the most brilliant artists in the business, and they all happen to be female — it’s just a blast.
I felt a bit nervous asking, because of that preconception you mentioned. I was writing friends to ask if they wanted to draw this woman in a bikini, and without exception, it was immediate; everyone said “I’m in” without hesitation. It turns out almost all of them were closet fans of the character and never dreamed they would be asked to do a Sonja cover!
So I made a dream list of names, women I have worked with or have been dying to work with, and we got them all. Incredible. We’re going to be revealing the names one at a time and you won’t believe who we got. They put their other work on hold, they got exemptions to exclusives, it’s a real event!
I can’t wait for people to see the images. I got one yesterday from an artist I have adored since first started reading comics, and it blew our minds. I can’t wait.
I should also add that Walter is an outstanding artist, he’s killing it on the character work. We’ve designed a new arch-nemesis for Sonja, and he designed her and it’s simply eye-popping. I lucked out again!
This really is a dream come true for me. Dream project, dream artists.
I can’t stop smiling.
What’s your personal history with Red Sonja? Were you a fan of the Marvel comics or Brigitte Nielsen movie?
I’ve been a fan of the comics; the movie was pretty terrible, as I remember.
But mostly I was a fan of the character. I’ve just read most of the Dynamite Sonja comics and they are top-notch stuff.
It’s a funny thing. I can’t stop writing Sonja. I finish an issue, I want to go right on telling the story so I immediately start the next. I finish another title, I can’t wait to write a few Sonja pages. I’ve gotten up early and gone to bed late, I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to write her, just for the sheer fun of it.
Sonja makes me happy.
While she first appeared in comics in the ’70s, Red Sonja was very loosely based off a Robert E. Howard short story character from the ’30s. Did you go back and look at the story or the old comics for inspiration, or are there any specific eras of “Red Sonja” you’re pulling from in your approach?
The Howard story is a far different character from the Sonja most people are familiar with. Ours is more the classic, better known interpretation. She’s still a stone cold destroyer, but I think people are going to feel her personality very deeply. That’s been the most fun part, for me.
What can you tell us about the story? Will you be re-imagining her origins and world for your run?
I won’t be giving her a new origin, but I believe there’s a way to retell it that is more meaningful to today’s audience, and to a wider readership. There are a couple ideas in her story that time has passed by, to be frank. They need a new coat of paint, I think.
We talked above a little about reader’s perceptions of the character, but it seems that over the past couple of years the discussion about women in comics, both on the page and working behind the scenes as creators, has gotten a lot more mainstream attention. Do you feel comics are hitting a turning point in trying to attract female fans? And if so, how does putting a new spin on a character like “Red Sonja” fit into that?
Let’s face it, for a period of decades, most female characters in comics were not designed to attract female readers. They were designed to attract male readers. That left us females who loved comics to sort of appropriate these characters for ourselves. And we did.
But out of that pool, some characters refused to just be pin-ups and sex objects. Some captured the imaginations of young girls, and they survived when the others fell into disinterest and disuse.
For me, there’s something incredibly appealing of a weary, terrifying Red Sonja under a blood red sun, holding a bloody sword over the bodies of her enemies. That isn’t about bikinis, and it’s the soul of the character.
I think the turning point is past, there’s no putting the gender genie back in the bottle. I was at a signing in Greensboro, North Carolina last month, people waited four and a half hours in the cold to get their “Batgirls” and “Birds of Prey” signed. I was at a convention in Oregon two days ago, and girls and women were buying comics, doing cosplay, getting sketches, and making comics in numbers like I’ve never seen before. Every year, that door swings open wider.
I love it. It’s not just a great time for comics, it’s rapidly becoming the best time.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more coverage of Emerald City Comic Con and Gail Simone’s “Red Sonja” run.