Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword Omnibus Vol. 1
- (Dynamite Entertainment, 2010; 464 pages, collects Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword #0–18 originally published in single magazine format; includes bonus content)
- Written by: Michael Avon Oeming with Mike Carey and J. T. Krul
- Illustrated by: Mel Rubi with Noah Salonga, Pablo Marcos, Lee Moder, and Stephen Sadowski
- Coloured by: Caesar Rodriguez, Richard Isanove, Imaginary Friends Studios, Mike Kelleher, Brian Buccellato, and Blond
- Lettered by: Richard Starkings of Comicraft
- Collection Cover by: Michael Turner
- List Price: $29.99 (US)
From the Back Cover: This massive omnibus features issues 0 through 18 of the hit series that re-introduced RED SONJA to today’s audience from the creative talents of Michael Avon Oeming (Powers), Mike Carey (X-Men, The Torch), Mel Rubi (Spider-Man/Red Sonja) and more!
Also included is a complete cover gallery by the biggest and best in the industry: Alex Ross, Jim Lee, John Cassaday, John Romita Sr., Michael Turner, Arthur Adams, Billy Tan, Marc Silvestri, and more!
What Worked: There’s a basic appeal and accessibility to sword-and-sorcery stories that are unmitigated in the tales compiled in this collection. And if nothing else, this is one beefy volume for a relatively reasonable price.
What Didn’t: The collection’s credits page touts Red Sonja as being “created by Robert E. Howard.” This strikes me as a bit disingenuous on the publisher’s part. The notoriously reclusive Texas-born writer and Conan creator did write a story featuring a character named “Red Sonya,” but that character was a buccaneer whose adventures were set in quasi-historical 16th century Ukraine (the story was titled “The Shadow of the Vulture,” and it appeared in print in the January 1934 issue of the short-lived Weird Tales pulp offshoot, The Magic Carpet Magazine). The metal bikini-clad Hyborian Age itinerant warrior “Red Sonja” that most comics readers are familiar with—and the one featured in Dynamite’s comics—was actually created by Marvel Comics editor and staff writer Roy Thomas in 1973 for Marvel’s licensed Conan the Barbarian comic book. The “Red Sonya” moniker was appropriated (albeit in a slightly altered form) by Thomas from the Howard short story.
Thomas’ Red Sonja was a pastiche of sorts, and even her nickname of “She-Devil with a Sword” is drawn from that of another Howard creation, the Hyborian Age Shemite pirate queen and one-time Conan lover Bêlit, described by Howard in 1934′s “Queen of the Black Coast” as “[t]he wildest she-devil unhinged.”
Without knowing the licensing details of Dynamite’s deal to publish a Red Sonja comic book though, I’d venture a guess that the decision to credit Howard, and not Roy Thomas, as the creator of Red Sonja is likely tied into the complicated intellectual property rights issues surrounding the character (and other Hyborian Age characters created by Thomas and other writers for Marvel’s licensed Conan the Barbarian comic book and Savage Sword of Conan magazine).
Beyond the issue with creator attribution, my biggest misgiving with the omnibus concerns the art. Mel Rubi is a truly competent and capable artist, with a solid resumé that spans all manner of genres, but his work on this title just strikes me as unremarkable. It’s not bad, but there’s a disappointing lack of variety in the faces and figures he draws, and the lead character’s generic features are indistinguishable from that of most of the other females. The back cover blurb proclaims that the book has a cover gallery featuring contributions from the industry’s biggest artists, but the reproductions are frustratingly small; up to four covers are crammed into one standard-sized comic book page. A reader would probably be better off tracking down and printing out high-resolution promotional scans of the “bonus” images.
Oeming and the other writers try to address some of the idiosyncrasies the character inherited from her 1970s origins. The ridiculously sparse “bikini” armor, for instance, is explained as a tactic for distracting male opponents in combat. Oeming even brings up how disturbing this seems for a character who had been sexually assaulted as a child.
I would think that there are any number of problems with how the stories portray women, even as it features a supposedly empowered and strong female protagonist, but such gender issues are somewhat endemic to the larger superhero/action-adventure comics genre and are beyond the scope of this review: laying them out here would be about as productive as complaining about the lack of vegetarian options in my local KFC. The use of sexual assault as a plot device in some of the stories feels exploitative, but given the conventions and expectations the writers labored under as well as the baggage they inherited, I suppose it could easily have been much, much worse.
The Verdict: While it seems like I have nothing but complaints about the book, I think it is a solidly entertaining and reasonably priced read for what it is. “What it is,” though, is something that comes with caveats. Howard purists will probably dismiss the book outright. Fans of Red Sonja as she appeared in Marvel’s old Red Sonja and Conan the Barbarian comics and the Savage Sword of Conan magazine will likely be baffled by the book’s glaring lack of Conan or other distinctive Howard creations (Conan’s comics publishing rights are currently held by Dark Horse Comics). Besides readers who have already tried the single issues for this series, found them to their liking, and are now looking for a compiled edition, those new to the character would be best served by this book. Still, even at 400+ pages, $30 is too steep an entry price to pay for a reader coming into the property cold or for a casual sword-and-sorcery fan. Fortunately, discounted purchase options abound for those willing to take a chance at Dynamite’s take on the property.