It’s been 45-years since Red Sonja and her iconic chainmail bikini first graced comic book pages. The sword-wielding fighter was first seen in the 1973 issue of Conan the Barbarian #23 by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Dynamite Comics began publishing Red Sonja in 2005, with writer Gail Simone joining in 2013 to spearhead a reimagining of the character. Since 2013, Red Sonja’s gotten a few updates, from wearing clothes in the winter (imagine that) to reclaiming her agency in the bedroom. Panelists assembled at the Javits center to talk about what keeps Red Sonja so interesting all these years later.
Joining Gail Simone on the panel were past Red Sonja writers, letters, and editors including: current Red Sonja writer Amy Chu, Larry Hama (Editor), Louise Simpson (Writer), Janice Chiang (Letterer), Erik Mona (Paizo Entertainment) and Joseph Rybandt (Editorial Director, Dynamite Entertainment). The panel was moderated by Dynamite’s PR strategist, Janie-Mackenzie.
The panelists agreed Red Sonja’s origin story was incredibly “rape-y.” For those unfamiliar with the story of Red Sonja, she is raped at the age of 17 after her family is killed by a group of mercenaries. She only gains her powers and ability to wield a sword (which she is previously too weak to hold) from a goddess character in her quest for revenge. Addressing this problematic origin story, which centers Red Sonja’s power on men, was one of the first goals of Simone’s revamp in 2013.
Simone’s revamp is more firmly rooted in empowerment and personal agency. Sonja decides who she wants to sleep with, it’s not based on an obscure condition from a goddess requiring her to sleep with a man who bests her in combat. Of the revamp Simone says, “She’s her own woman, she’s no prize to be won. It’s probably the most feminist thing I’ve ever written to be honest.”
Could a chainmail bikini really be empowering? It was the obvious elephant in the room, acknowledged by the panels moderator. For the editors and writers collected, the answer was yes. As long as it was done for Sonja and not for the purpose of satisfying the male gaze.
“I wanted her to own that costume. I wanted to make sure there weren’t what I call Penthouse poses in that chainmail bikini,” Gail said.
“Yes, definitely no licking of the sword,” interjected Larry Hama, who edited the series during the ’80s.
“Yah, none of that. We wanted to really get rid of all of that and also establish that there were things that could be much more inappropriate to her than a chainmail bikini” said Simone.
If anything, the changes made to Red Sonja have served to amplify the characters power and voice. As Erik Mona–who came to the Red Sonja series via Dynamite’s Pathfinder comic–noted, the revamp has let Sonja’s power shine through by allowing it to come from within. “Her power isn’t given to her by God or something like that, instead it’s something that’s been inside of her all along.”
Chu’s Red Sonja has been brought into the modern era, where she rides a motorcycle but still retains her sword. Something that Chu had address, “If you are running around half-naked with a sword in New York what’s gonna happen to you? You’re gonna get shot.”
Many of the updates have to do with making her feel like she belongs in her current modern environment, while staying true to the characters legacy and who she is at her core. Revamping and updating Red Sonja hasn’t been so much about changing who she is but rather ensuring she reflects her own evolution and journey. Comics are a product of their time and it makes sense, says Joseph Rybandt, for them to show and adapt to changes in society.
“It’s not enough today to simply have a woman with a sword, there’s got to be more to her than that. You’ve got to clean up the subtext,” said Erik Mona.
During the question and answer session a gentlemen stood up in the back. Gail looked at him, “Oh I hate when he does this.” It was her husband, but not to fear, he didn’t ask her any embarrassing questions. He wanted to know what crossover series the panelists would most like to see.
Simone raised both her hands up and shouted, “Wonder Woman!”
The audience cheered.
For Chu, it wasn’t so much about which crossover she’d like to see but rather what direction she’d like to see the character go in. “I’d love to see her go to a sci-fi future, she’s already done one jump, I’d love to see her do another.”
What audiences love about Red Sonja is her fierceness. I mean, she’s a sword-welding, alcohol loving, bit of a horn ball warrior–it’s hard not to find something to like. Take away the antics and what remains is a good friend, a character who changes and is changed by their environment, and someone who leaves people better off than they were before she got there. That is what ultimately keeps old and new fans coming back for more.
Andrea Ayres writes about comics, video games, and representation in pop-culture.