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.