CRT: Red Sonja by Mark Russel and Mirko Colak

chachachad 2

Hey there!

Recently, I picked up the Humble Bundle Red Sonja offering, despite not ever being a Red Sonja fan.

Now I have more Red Sonja than I’ll ever need!

Even when it comes to her better known spiritual cousin Conan, I’ve only ever really picked up a random story here, a trade paperback there, never really devoting much time or energy on the sword and sorcery genre. Also, there’s a certain cheesecake factor about Red Sonja that’s never been my scene. So what made me bite on the bundle? Going in, I had a few reasons.

1) The most recent Red Sonja series is written by @manruss, aka Mark Russel, an author whose work I’ve really been enjoying as of late. The Flintstones, The Lone Ranger, and his independent book Second Coming are all high on my quality books I’ve read recently list.

I also knew the Bob Q! had handled some of the art duties, and he did such a bang-up job on the Lone Ranger series, I thought this might be worth my time. It’s been on my radar for sure, but the whole “it’s about Red Sonja” thing held me back from picking up the series. Seeing it here weakened my resolve to save cash by not picking up another book. For the price of these individual issues, I get the series plus a heck of a lot more–including a Humble Bundle exclusive story by Russel!

2) Humble Bundle is a great way to try out books digitally with a very low cost buy-in. The digital bang for your buck is here for sure. HB offers multiple levels, depending on how far you want to go with their selections. I ended up opting for the premium package because my primary objective was to get that latest series, but they also offered the Frank Thorne’s artists edition of some classic Red Sonja work as well. I was more intrigued by the artist edition concept and wanted to check one out. Here, for an additional $3, I could do that thing. It beats the $100-150 price tags some of the other artist editions I’ve seen can fetch in print form.

3) In addition to supporting Humble Bundle and Dynamite, there’s also a charitable aspect that makes these efforts all that much more appealing. In this case, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and National Coalition against censorship were able to secure half of my donation.

4) If I did end up liking Red Sonja, there’s a metric ton here to keep me going. The list of creators whose work I respect made me suspect that Red Sonja might not just be a cheesecake factory after all. Gail SImone, Peter David, Michael Avon Oeming, Marguerite Bennet, and a host of other top end creative teams have apparently worked on Red Sonja over the years.

5) Maybe I’m just being a condescending dink and avoiding a book, a character, heck, a genre based on prejudices that might not be true. It’s been a goal of mine recently to stretch more beyond the big 2 super heroes for my reading material. Why not give the whole sword and sorcery staple a go?

So I did.

So lets look at the milkshake that brought me to the yard: Dynamite’s new Red Sonja series. Written by Mark Russel, with art primarily by Mirko Colak, although Bob Q assists on some flashback tales. Bryce Ingman hopped on board for the exclusive 0 issue as co-writer and Craig Rousseau handled art duties.

This one’s the ‘sclusie!

As is tradition by Dynamite, there are a bajillion different covers for each issue. Some are cosplay variants, some are retailer variants, and some are just varying…variants. In physical form, the variant cover thing drives me crazy. One, it’s hard to pick sometimes and I feel like I’m missing out on a good cover. Also, if there’s a series I’m getting back into, I’m frequently duped into buying the same issue twice because of the different cover wrappings.

In the digital form, it’s not an issue as most of the variant covers are included.

That’s one way to turn a frustration to something positive. I wish this was standard practice with the physical editions, too. Now I can enjoy the extra art from the Amanda Connors, the Joe Lindsers, etc.

But not all the covers because there are too damn many.

The story starts and clearly verges into familiar Mark Russell territory. He frequently focuses his stories on ideas of faith, questioning the whys behind the decisions of those in power, as well as an exploration of the impact on the common folk among us. It’s always very humanizing and humorous, and once it revolved around dinosaur vacuum cleaner and bowling ball. (I really need to do a Flintstones write-up one of these days!) Here, it happens in a fantasy setting with lots of beheadings. One king buys into a prophecy that states that he will die when his empire stops expanding, and so in his mind, it’s not unreasonable to keep expanding that empire.

Red Sonja accidentally (?) stumbles onto a kingdom of her own when she returns home after a recent war. The Council of Elders decides she’s better prepared to face this emperor who leaves dead royalty in the wake of his ever expanding empire. They’ve seen this destined in the stars. Plus, either she gets rid of their problem, or the problem gets rid of Sonja. It’s a win/win scenario as far as the elders are concerned. They didn’t get to be elders by not protecting their own hides.

After being relatively unceremoniously crowned as queen, Sonja actually puts her best foot forward to help protect her people. As told through flashback stories from her now deceased mentor, Sonja demonstrates that her strength isn’t what’s going to keep her enemies at bay or her kingdom running–it’s her wits. That’s wits. with a W. I appreciated that Russell doesn’t really dive into emphasizing the whole warrior with strategically missing portions of her armor, nor does the book really exploit the potential cheesecakey-ness. I actually thought the art had a restraint that made me not feel guilty about a titular heroine who would have to stay over-stocked on sunscreen all the time. Sun exposure kills over the long term, people. Sonja, too, operates with restraint as she leads her home village that is short on supplies, manpower, money, and materials but big on cunning. The story operates not on exploitation but instead on the humanity of the characters. That’s nice.

The bonus issue deals with Queen Sonja dealing with the day to day problems of her people while sussing out a pair of trouble-making magical dwarves. Dwarves can’t be magic, apparently. They’re not elves.

Is the word dwarf frowned upon? So much I don’t know.

I have so much to learn about this fantasy stuff. I don’t know any of the rules.

Mark Russel is a great writer for pulling out the humanity in the humble characters Sonja meets as well as Sonja herself. By showing the Sultan’s family, he manages to make even the evil emperor a relatable character.

While the story is simultaneously funny, restrained, and grounded, the art does a great job of handling the ridiculous and fantastical and occasionally gruesome with a similar artistic aplomb.

The storytelling is purposefully occasionally muddled, but not so much as to distract from what’s going on or to distract from the power in the story. On the power note, Sonja has a power and beauty about her that never comes across as exploited, either. The stylistic elements serve the story well, as it’s not so based in reality that it was unnerving, yet not totally unhinged as to jot have an impact. Mirko Colak is definitely a name I’ll keep on the radar moving forward.

Bob Q! is just good at comic books. He keeps that streak alive here in the flashback tales.

So in the end, is this enough to turn me into a Red Sonja fan? Am I going to rush out and buy the rest of the issues to catch up on the series? I’m not sure…yet.

This was very good. I’d be confident giving the first 5 issues a solid A score. The warrior practicing lessons from a master element was quite fun. It reminded me of the Daredevil/Stick training sessions that are so often revisited in that book. The scrappy yet humble ruler outpacing the bigger, more powerful emperor was fun. The evil emperor is so ridiculous, it’s hard not to root against him. The art teams are quality artists. Humor, action, hubris, strategery–they’re all there. Even the tons and tons of covers are solid.

Russel, Colak, and others bring their A game to Red Sonja.

I don’t have many complaints with the book. Still, I have a mental block that says this is one to keep on the radar but not to go all in. Maybe I’ll check in with the next trade. If I stumble upon issues in discount bin, I’m all ‘bout it. Or if I hear really great things from an issue, I’ll pick it up then. I still can’t shake that this story feels like the exception in the sword and sorcery genre, not the rule. The fact is my comics-buying dollar is constantly stretched and at four bucks a book, it’s harder and harder to justify adding things to the read list.

This was solid, but it didn’t make me feel like I need to carve out a spot for Sonja in my steady read pile just yet. While I enjoyed this Sonja story, I’m still not sure if I would really enjoy another. Couple that with the fact the series is supposed to be ending soon, I worry about the long term impact from these tales. I don’t want to become a Red Sonja fan only for the next series to be a one way ticket to cheesecake town.

What I will do is check out more of the bundle to see what other great writers and artists are doing with the character. Russel and Colak have definitely opened the door for me to see that there can be really great Sonja stories that aren’t exploitative or embarrassing to have on my ipad. Maybe the Gail Simones and the Mark Waids and Margarite Bennets can open that door all that much more.

That’s a good start. Just like this series. If you’re a previous Sonja or Conan fan, or someone who swims in the waters of swords and sorcerers, I would recommend you check this series out. If not, these are still quality comics worthy of your time and attention. I guess for me the jury is still out on if that continues to be the case.

Until next time, I’ll be checking out what other solid stuff came with the bundle!

2 thoughts on “CRT: Red Sonja by Mark Russel and Mirko Colak

  1. Glad to hear you (kinda) enjoyed Russell’s take on Sonja. I’m a huge fan of the character and am really enjoying Russell’s run, even though it’s not quite like any take on the She-Devil before. Russell’s writing is much more cerebral and has more and sharper humour than any Sonja run before it. He’s writing on a much larger scale and I liken the vibe of his arc to Game Of Thrones more than a standard sword and sorcery tale. He’s also carried out a ton of research into ancient history and that really shows in his stories and enriches them. I haven’t heard anything about his run coming to a close, although Mirko’s finishing up with #12, I think, and has been off the title between #7 and #9, replaced by Bob Q.

    If you like Simone, you’ll probably like her Sonja work but I thought it sucked – she seemed to spend more time focussing on tearing down the conventions of her predecessors and making jokes about how Sonja is really, really stinky than putting together a good story. She removed Sonja’s cunning and dignity and everything that made Sonja unique, turning her into a female Conan in the process. Different strokes for different folks, though, she brought a lot of new fans to the book. Just a shame most of them left when she finished up her writing duties.

    Carey and Oeming’s work was loads of fun, though, and Luke Lieberman, who owns the rights to the Red Sonja trademark, always infuses his Sonja stories with a welcome dose of horror. Amy Chu’s run was good too. There’s a wealth of good Sonja material included in this package and I feel that Sonja is too often unfairly ‘tarred’ with the cheesecake brush. Some artists have a prurient style than others but that’s very rarely reflected in the writing, and Sonja herself is always portrayed as the biggest badass around, regardless of her looks and gender.

    1. Wow! That’s a lot of thoughtful Sonja feedback! Thanks!

      (Seriously no sarcasm intended!)

      After the way Russel’s Lone Ranger arc ended, I might just be on edge that his books are always limited affairs.

      As far as your recs go, I’ve liked other Oeming stuff in the past, and Lieberman is a name I’m not familiar with, so I’ll be sure to check those out. I’ll keep Amy Chu’s name in mind as well.

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