Monday, April 20, 2020


Writer: Roy Thomas | Artists: Esteban Maroto & Santi Casas
Letterer: Tom Napolitano

Did you know that Esteban Maroto created Red Sonja's iconic "chainmail bikini" look? I had no idea! I knew that John Buscema was the first to draw it in the monthly CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic, but I'm pretty sure I read someplace years ago that it was Neal Adams who came up with the famous metal two-piece. Turns out, according to the foreword to this volume, Adams inked the outfit's debut, but Maroto penciled it at the request of writer/editor Roy Thomas.

Now I'm sure this little tidbit has been known in general for quite some time, but it was news to me, so I thought I'd share it before we move along into THE BALLAD OF THE RED GODDESS, an original graphic novel created first for the Spanish market and eventually translated into English by Dynamite. This story reunites Thomas, Maroto, and Sonja several decades on, and teams them with another artist, Santi Casas, for good measure.

Again per the forewords (there are three; one by each creator -- plus an afterword by Maroto as well), the story was created in the "Marvel method" -- and that means the purest form of that method, from the dawn of the Marvel age. It was plotted by the artists, Maroto and Casas, and then scripted by Thomas. But the overall package is pretty seamless, and it's nigh-impossible to tell the collaboration was done this way.

The story features an extended framing sequence at both ends, drawn by Casas, while the middle section, illustrated by Maroto, tells the origin of Red Sonja. Thomas's script makes sure to let us know that this is but one version of the legend of Red Sonja, and there is no way for characters in-universe to truly know where she came from.

Unfortunately, this is the version originally created by Thomas at Marvel back in the seventies, which features young Sonja gang-raped by a group of bandits, then endowed by a goddess with the power and skill to take her revenge. I've never liked this backstory for Sonja; it's really creepy and uncomfortable to read -- but, it is what it is. Thomas also throws in a weird "explanation" for Sonja's outfit: she wants evil men everywhere to know that it is a woman who is killing them, so she chooses not to wear traditional armor to allow them to see her figure.

I've always found justifications like this bizarre and unnecessary. Why does Red Sonja run around in a chainmail bikini? I don't know; why does Conan run around in a loincloth and nothing else? Why does Power Girl have a cleavage window on her costume? I don't know, why does Iron Fist run around with his entire chest exposed? This isn't the real world. These are comic book characters! Who cares?? They look that way because it's cool. It needs no in-universe explanation or justification. Creators who try to provide them are grossly overthinking the matter.

(And specifically with regards to Conan and Sonja -- barbarian warriors, men and women alike, have been fighting hordes of enemies with pointy weapons while wearing next to nothing for decades. It's a long-established trope of the genre! In fact I'd argue that in such sword-and-sorcery realms, it's the men who set the standard of adventuring bare-chested. If women do it too, it's only because their male counterparts had been doing so for even longer.)

While I like Maroto's artwork, his segment of the story doesn't really do much for me. I already knew this version of Sonja's origin, and while there may be some new tidbits thrown in, they aren't enough to keep me engrossed. I would've much preferred to see Maroto draw an all-new adventure instead of a retelling of the origin.

So the framing sequence by Santi Casas is more in line with what I like. (Though "framing sequence doesn't really do it justice -- the two bookends together total twenty-one pages, while Maroto's flashback is nineteen.) It's set not long after Sonja's origin, and features her riding into a town ruled by a despotic king. She sees his people on the verge of an uprising, sees the corpse of the girl who was to be his bride until he beheaded her, and declares that enough is enough. Sonja kills the king's guards, then the king himself, before moving along on her wandering way. It's short and to the point, and beautifully drawn.

I didn't realize it until I was typing in tags for this post, but this isn't my first encounter with Santi Casas. he also drew portions of DC's AME-COMI GIRLS, which I looked at here a few years back -- that series was mostly drawn in a pseudo-anime style, which makes sense, as I had intended to note that Casas's work here is clearly very strongly influenced by manga. The fact that the story is presented in black-and-white (with some red) serves to further illustrate the manga influence. It's really fun to look at, and I'd gladly give a try to anything drawn by Casas in this sort of manga style.

I guess in the end, I was expecting something more momentous from a Thomas/Maroto reunion than a simple re-telling of Sonja's origin. But Maroto's artwork is lovely in any case, and the stuff by Casas is pretty much worth the price of admission on its own, even if the rest of the story is a bit of a let-down.

No comments:

Post a Comment