Taking over from Gail Simone’s distinctive, beloved run on “Red Sonja” was never going to be an easy task, but Marguerite Bennett and Aneke have delivered an energetic start in their first issue. “Red Sonja” #1 finds Sonja grappling not with a specific foe, but with some big changes in Hyrkania that call her future and purpose into question. With Bennett’s lively, layered script and Aneke and Jorge Sutil’s light, colorful artwork, Sonja is in very good hands.
It’s clear from the start that this book has its own particular feel. Aneke and Sutil give Hyrkania a lighter look that embraces the fun of sword-and-sandals rather than the epic. Aneke dives into the world building with detailed, fully imagined backgrounds, fleshing out the different locations and cultures in Sonja’s world. (I have to give a particular shout-out to her suggestion that Hyrkania somehow has a reverse-Elizabethan theater culture, where all-female acting troupes play all the roles.) Even Sonja’s face is less lean and chiseled than in previous incarnations; Aneke draws her with long, dark lashes and open, expressive features. Sutil’s colorful palette also keeps the book feeling brighter and more fantastic; both Sonja and Conan can tend toward the dun and dour in their color schemes, but Sutil bucks that trend with a more high-fantasy look.
However, Aneke’s grasp of posture and motion isn’t always strong. Her smaller, close-up panels read well, but some of the body language in the larger panels doesn’t translate. For example, when Sonja has a dramatic face-off with the Thunder Bull of the Steppes, it’s difficult to see where her sword and the monster collide, and both characters are positioned awkwardly. Similarly, when Sonja drops in to stop some bandits, it’s very unclear where she is in relation to the other characters in the scene.
As far as the script, Bennett’s character-driven approach feels surprisingly leisurely. For all that there are two monsters, a royal death and any number of scrapes for Sonja to get into, they all feel incidental to the larger plot of her self-questioning and self-discovering. Faced first with an offer of queenship and then with an orderly Hyrkania that has no need for its She-Devil protector, Sonja examines her options. She’s had to make choices about her future and contemplate her role in life before, but Bennett makes this particular instance a laid-back, dreamy, funny contemplation — less existential crisis and more career counseling. In part, this is due to the nuance with which Bennett approaches Sonja’s crisis, capturing both the self-affirming and self-questioning aspects of finding oneself adrift. She also adds plenty of humor and never lets Sonja get too self-serious. On a character level, it’s a very thoughtful book.
However, the lower-class characters have odd and inconsistent accents. One of the army recruiters, for instance, says “guarding” and “gouging” with the “g” intact, but “trainin'” and “providin'”; he says “bettah” for “better” but not “undah” for “under.” Admittedly, this is a small problem, but it makes the book look sloppier than its thoughtful construction and character moments would otherwise suggest.
In sum, “Red Sonja” #1 is a lovely kick-off to volume #3. Bennett and Aneke have differentiated themselves from previous runs while keeping true to the spirit of the character, and they’ve dropped enough hints and clues to keep me curious for issue #2. “Red Sonja” fans have nothing to worry about.