Monday, July 25, 2016

She-Devil With A Sword

One of the indelible images of the Sword & Sorcery genre is the lady barbarian warrior in the armored bikini. Regardless of changing times and attitudes, there never seems to be a lack of interest in the hot chick in the skimpy clothes, waving a sword or an axe as of that were able to offset the essential sexism and fanservice of the trope. The most popular, well-known, and enduring of these characters, is the red-haired swordswoman known as Red Sonja.

Often claimed to be a creation of Robert E. Howard, the claim is only half true. Howard created a character named Red Sonya of Rogatino in the story “The Shadow of the Vulture” in 1934. She was at the historical Siege of Vienna in 1529, and was depicted as a fully-clothed warrior woman of the period. The comics apparently took her name and her hair, as those were too good to pass up, and they mixed in the persona of another Howard warrior woman named Dark Agnes de Chastillion to create a whole new character.

The original story was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Howard Chaykin in 1973. The story set the new Red Sonja in the Hyborean Age, and made her part of the Conan mythos in the comics. She appeared in the main Conan the Barbarian comics, then in Savage Sword of Conan, and her popularity led to her getting her own series in Marvel Feature: She-Devil With A Sword in 1975. It did not run that long, but by the time it was done, her image was set. Originally a more practically-garbed heroine, art by Esteban Maroto established the “bikini armor” look, and it was carried on with gusto by the eccentric genius of Frank Thorne.

Thorne, born in 1930, is an unsung artist in the mainstream, mostly because his tastes ran to steamier, more controversial subjects than comics were comfortable with at the time. He set the tone for Red Sonja, but from the beginning he rankled at the limits put on her.

Because Sonja’s origin, as penned originally, is deeply problematic. When her family is killed by bandits, Sonja is raped viciously, and then calls on the goddess Scathach to save her. The goddess grants her great skill in battle so long as she never has sex with anyone save someone who can defeat her in combat.

So while she is depicted as a walking advertisement for sex, Sonja is canonically unable to have any control over her own sexuality. Her only sexual experience has been forcible, and to keep her powers and skills she can have no other kind. It demeans her by making her prowess a gift rather than something she earned, and allows her no say in her own sex life.

Thorne reportedly hated this, and it may have led to his early departure from her story. Then something marvelous happened, and Thorne went to Fantagraphics – an alternative comics publisher – and began producing the wonderful Ghita of Alizarr.

Ghita is a very deliberate deconstruction of the Red Sonja tropes. Ghita is a dancer and sometime prostitute in a very Howard-esque fantasy world. She travels with her companions pulling off cons and robberies, until one day she is gifted with superhuman warrior skills and strength and becomes a kind of wandering superhero. The difference is that while Sonja was unable to have any sex, Ghita fucks everything that moves, and is always in control of what she is doing. She feels no holy urge to be a hero, and often has to be backed into helping people when she would rather be drinking and dancing.

Fueled by Thorne’s fantastically detailed artwork, lusty sensibilities, and sly humor, Ghita is the overheated, bloody, exciting epic that he was never allowed to turn Red Sonja into. It’s been collected numerous times, and I highly recommend it.

Meanwhile Red Sonja herself has limped through a number of reboots and incarnations. There have been several series of comics, all of them focusing on her pinup status rather than anything gritty or exciting. There was the underwhelming 80s movie with Bridgette Nielsen, and there have been rumors of another movie for some years now. Bryan Singer is said to be developing a TV series, but who knows if anything will come of that, or be worth watching if it does.

So a character was created by Howard more than 80 years ago, adapted by the comics, mutated into a sex prop, and keeps on going even though there has never been a definitive or really first-rate story about her. Yet the image of the chainmail bikini remains to plague Sword & Sorcery as a tiresome and juvenile stereotype, and I doubt it will ever entirely fade away.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Scion of the Black Tower

Alzarra went into the drowned lands on a dying horse with a broken sword, under sentence of death and a blood moon. She rode through the wastes that burned in the high summer sun and down to where the river rove deep valleys that led to the sea. Once, long ago, a great empire dreamed on those obsidian cliffs, washed away when the seas rose and devoured them, and now it was a devil's land of swamp and jungle and sinking ruins older than the memory of man.

She stood at the edge of the wastelands and looked down, seeing the land descend into a verdant green nightmare kingdom, while behind her the desert shimmered in the heat of day. Her horse was on his last breaths, head bowed and sighing, eyes glazed with pain and the extremity of weariness. She looked north, into the emptiness, and there she saw the shadow of her pursuers, closer now as they sought to ride her down. The men called the Lions of Gazan would not be easily kept from her trail, and they would not turn aside until they slew her. She had fought and wandered through many lands, but never encountered enemies so implacable.

She took the hilt-shard of her broken blade and cut her horse's throat, bore it down to the earth and drank the blood for what strength it could give her. When she stood she felt awake as she had not in days. Now life coursed in every muscle of her tall, powerful frame, even beneath the many small wounds and the skin burned dark by days of unrelenting sun. She wiped blood from her mouth and held up her left hand. Scaled to the elbow like the skin of a serpent, it was the mark that gave her another name – Dragonhand.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Savage Sword

By the 1970s the Sword & Sorcery boom in literature was in full swing, and bookstore shelves were heavy with tales of fleshy barbarians and barely-covered damsels. The whole genre had become a kind of cartoon of itself, filled with pastiche, imitation, homage, and outright theft. The original works and artists of the genre were becoming obscured by their progeny.

Comic books were hugely popular, and for most of their existence have been far more imitative than innovative, content to follow trends. Still, S&S was a tough sell in the heavily censored medium of the American comic book. One person who was not afraid to push the envelope was comics writer Roy Thomas.

Then a staff writer/editor at Marvel Comics, Thomas was a fan of Howard and especially of Conan, and he may be more responsible for the popular image and longevity of the character than anyone else. In 1970 he recruited artist Barry Windsor-Smith and launched Marvel’s well-received Conan the Barbarian comic series, which at the time was seen as a bit of a risk. Conan was, after all, a kind of antihero without superpowers or a flashy costume. His world did not officially bear any relation to the Marvel universe, and his stories were often violent.

Still, the book did well. Even softened versions of Howard stories retained their energy and power, and the comic kicked off a minor wave of S&S stories in the comics that ran through the 1970s. The title eventually ran for twenty-three years, comprising 275 issues, only fading as the comics landscape changed in the infamous 90s.

But Thomas’ greatest creation was undoubtedly the other Conan series he began in 1974. Capitalizing on the success of the mainline comic, Marvel began to issue Savage Sword of Conan. Published in a full-sized magazine format, the book was technically exempt from the Comics Code then unavoidable in the industry, and allowed for bloodier, grittier stories. Further, the larger size of the artwork was attractive to artists.

A veritable who’s-who of 70s comics luminaries crowded the pages of the magazine: Neal Adams, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and Walter Simonson. The fully-painted covers were colorful, lurid, and eye-catching, produced by such lights as Earl Norem, Joe Jusko, and Boris Vallejo.

The magazine was a huge hit, and rode a wave of popularity as well as some critical respect for twenty-one years. The title featured adaptations of almost every Sword & Sorcery tale Howard ever wrote, and was the first encounter many young fans of that generation had with his work. Unfettered by censorship, the magazine had a more adult feel, and it contained some of the greatest, most lavish artwork of any comic of that era.

Building quite openly on the template laid down by Frazetta, the artists of Savage Sword set the tone and style for Sword & Sorcery art and that tone carries through to the present day. If many of the cliches of the genre seem old and tired – naked barbarians, nakeder heroines, bad haircuts, bulging muscles and bloodied swords – the genre lives on in large part due to the enthusiasm and creativity of Roy Thomas, and all those great comic artists who worked hard to bring it to life on the page.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Wolf Winter

The blizzard howled down from the mountains like the curse of dead gods. Winds moaned like the dead and clawed at the trees and the rocks. Vraid followed the frozen creek through the forest, unable to see anything more than an arm’s reach ahead of him. The sky was black at noon, and the winds bellowed and tried to drag him down. Time and again his boot went through the ice at the edge of the creek, and by that he knew where he was. Ice formed on his face and in his beard, tried to freeze his eyes shut.

He pushed onward because he was an enormous man, and his sheer power forced a path through the piling drifts and the ice-rimed undergrowth. The wind could not stop him, though it tried. In his left hand he used his unstrung bow as a staff, feeling his way through the storm.

When he first saw the light, he thought his eyes were failing him, and he scrubbed at them with one cold fist wrapped in freezing rawhide. He ground the ice from his eyes and blinked into the wind and he saw a light again, so he knew it was not an illusion. He changed his course, knowing he risked becoming lost in the trees, and struggled toward that momentary glint of yellow.

The wind reached a screaming crescendo, and it shoved and clawed at him, forced him down in a drift as tall as his shoulder, pushed him back when he fought out of it. When he stood again he could not see anything, and he had lost his orientation. He did not know which way he was going, and so he simply guessed and battered his way through the snow and the wind. Even if he chose wrong, there was a chance he might strike the creek again and find his way back.

Instead he collided with a wall, well-dressed logs fitted tightly. He felt his way along it, wading through the snow, until he found a window. The storm had blown back the shutter, and through the oiled rawhide he saw the yellow gleam of a fire. He shoved the shutter back in place and forced the hook down to hold it, then he stumbled along the wall, feeling his way until he found the door.