Archive for the ‘ Fantasy ’ Category

The beautiful Linda Behrle, living up to Frank Thorne’s fantasies.

Okay, time to wrap up this series. My apologies for the delay — it’s been a busy few weeks. And oh yeah — if you didn’t get it from the title, we’re getting into some nakedness today so this entry ain’t for kids or folks at work. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So what to say about Frank Thorne’s Ghita, a sword-and-sorcery warrior woman, with all the baggage, good and bad, that accompanies such a title?

I guess that depends very much upon whether you see her as an independent character, or as an outgrowth of Frank Thorne’s Red Sonja obsession — an evolution, an homage, a pastiche or an entirely different individual.

When I first discovered H.P. Lovecraft in my youth I took it upon myself to read every story that the master had written. Unfortunately, in my haste I ended up absorbing those stories that were, in those days anyway, marketed as “posthumous collaborations” between HPL and his chief champion, August Derleth, and Mr. Derleth’s spin on the dark cosmic horror of the Lovecraft universe was a bit off kilter.

Don’t even bother trying, Conan. You’re not getting any of that.

Both Derleth and others who have followed his lead such as Brian Lumley saw the Lovecraft universe, not as a dark dead-end for the human race in which we are less than worms beneath the feet of incomprehensible cosmic forces, but as simple tales of good versus evil. Much of what used to be considered HPL canon was the result of Derleth’s meddling, and his creation of such entities as the Elder Gods, whom he saw as the ceaseless foes of the Great Old Ones like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. Dwelling on a distant star (Betelgeuse, I believe), the Elder Gods were benevolent defenders of mankind against the ceaseless cosmic evil and diabolical plots of Cthulhu and his minions. It was Derleth who popularized the term “Cthulhu Mythos” (Lovecraft himself never used such terminology) and invented other aspects of the lore, such as insisting that the Old Ones were based on the classic elements (Cthulhu was water, Shub-Niggurath earth, and so on — since he couldn’t think of a fire deity, Derleth invented Cthugha the fire-god) and speculating that bands of heroic humans could face down the evil machinations of the Old Ones and their minions.

A sketch of Ghita. I think we can all agree exactly where Frank Thorne’s head is at, can’t we?

Okay, taking a universe of dark and hopeless cosmic horror and turning it into good versus evil Saturday morning serials is all well and good, but I’m of the opinion that if you don’t like what an author is doing, you should write your own stories, not pastiches that tell a completely different story. The book that I’m currently rewriting is my own effort to put Lovecraftian concepts into a slightly less dark and hopeless universe, for example.

So after that long-winded introduction, how does that relate to Ghita re: Red Sonja? Well, I guess it’s this: if Ghita was Frank Thorne’s “Derleth Mythos” — an attempt at doing Red Sonja “correctly” or “as she should have been” then I’m not terribly thrilled. If it was an attempt to take elements of the Red Sonja book and make something new out of them, I’m less put off.

More Sonja, cuz I say so.

Keep in mind that Red Sonja as we know her is really a creation of Marvel Comics, and there are some aspects of her that I find kind of offensive. As noted in previous entries, Marvel’s Sonja is a victim who picks up a sword and is blessed by a goddess. She wields her sexuality as a weapon, an enticement, and a motivation for her to go slice men’s heads off.

This notion that a woman can gain that kind of power only by being raped really bugs me. Conan was never raped (that we know of, anyway) — he picked up a sword because he was a Cimmerian, and that’s what Cimmerians fucking do. The same can be said for REH’s other heroines — Dark Agnes, Belit, Valeria. God damn, the man could write kickass female characters. The Marvel Sonja might have come from his pen, but she’s definitely a lesser character than the others, who fight because they want to, not because some wandering goddess made them do it.

That said, Ghita’s actually a little less offensive and sexist in some ways that Marvel’s Sonja. Of course, she starts off the book as the sexy, golden-haired concubine of King Khalia, lounging naked in her bedchamber with her lover, a bearded, slightly paunchy, aging wizard named Thenef…

Ghita basks in the afterglow with that wizard who looks kinda like a certain artist we all know and love…

Hey, wait a second! A bearded, wisecracking, aging wizard? Could it be that… No, no… It can’t be more self-portraiture from Frank Thorne, the wizard who conjured the five Red Sonjas…?

Naaaah, that would be silly…

Well, Thenef isn’t really a wizard, he’s a stage magician who’s convinced the brave and handsome (but apparently rather stupid) King Khalia that he’s a powerful sorcerer, and he slips a little to Ghita whenever Khalia is off slaying trolls.

Unfortunately it just so happens that Khalia himself has fallen in battle with said trolls, and they’re about to sack the ancient city of Alizarr. Mortally wounded, King K is brought back to the palace, insisting that Thenef perform a ritual to resurrect Alizarr’s ancient hero, Khan-Dagon. His advisors agree that this is a great plan. What could possibly go wrong?

Khalia gives Thenef the ancient stone, the Eye of Tammuz, said to have the power to resurrect the dead, but he predictably bungles it, leaving it to Ghita to grab the gem and inadvertently bring Khan-Dagon back from the dead.

Khan-Dagon doesn’t turn out to be what the dying king and his advisors expected — upon arising naked from the slab, he sets his piggish little eyes on the bountifully-endowed Ghita, declaring “Woom-an! Wet notch! Smooth melon-teats! It has been too long! Where is the gin-mead? My jungs are afire! I must have her!”

Khan-Dagon, sword and sorcery fratboy.

Apparently Khan-Dagon was on the varsity football team in high school, because instead of stepping in to save his beloved city from the troll hordes he grabs Ghita, tears off her clothes and has his way with her, bellowing “I shall ride this mare till sunup!!”

Okay, so Ghita’s origin as a sword-slinging heroine starts off with her being raped as well. Thorne definitely plays it for laughs, but I’m not sure how many people might find it funny. Being a bit timid, Thenef grabs a dagger but doesn’t kill Khal-Dagon but instead passes the dagger to Ghita, who stabs the resurrected king, reducing him back to mummy status, takes his sword and retrieves the gem.

As in so many similar stories, Ghita shrugs off being raped by an undead ancient god-king as if it was a minor inconvenience. “By the fates, Thenef,” she declares, “he was swollen like a horse’s wad.”

Well, as the walls have fallen and the trolls are busy ravaging Alizarr, I guess there are more important things to worry about, and so Ghita and Thenef scavenge weapons and armor prepare to slip out of the city.

Ghita! Be careful! That thing’s sharp.

In the tunnels leading out they encounter a sycophantic half-troll named Dahib who immediately decides that Ghita is a goddess. Ghita bandages Dahib’s injured leg and in return Dahib modifies some of the armor that she stole from the tomb so that she can wear it. Presto! Ghita now looks a lot like you-know-who and her extremely minimal panoply.

Now Ghita’s acting kind of strange. Apparently Khan-Dagon’s spirit passed into her when he raped her, and now she’s carrying him around with her, along with his insane martial schemes and desires for violence. Her first victim is the sword she stole.

“I must press the blade between my breasts,” she says “I would run it along my belly. My crotch will rub against it… This death-shaft will be my lover. I will kiss and fondle it… It is a great penis! Eternally erect. Forever hard!”

Gah. Our narrative is about to break what the MST3K guys called the goofy meter, and in a slightly unsettling fashion.

Well, she does what she says, humps the sword and orgasms all over it. Did I mention that 1984 magazine was clearly marked “adults only”? It was a pretty bizarre book, let me tell you… Maybe I’ll discuss it more fully someday.

So now fully equipped with magic gem, warlord’s soul and penis-like sword, Ghita and her companions fight their way out of the city. She was never much of a fighter before, but now Ghita’s a hot blond vege-matic, slicing and dicing dozens of trolls while also making hundreds of julienne French fries. She realizes that it’s Khan-Dagon who’s making her do this, and she isn’t thrilled.

“Khan-Dagon,” she says, “you are within me, and I loathe your presence.”

Keep it classy, Thenef. Keep it classy.

Drunk, overworked and still dealing with that whole possession thing, Ghita passes out once they’ve escaped and Thenef slings her across his saddle bow, charming saying as he does so, “You’ll ride with your bare bum looking at the stars, and you owe me the privilege of kissing it!”

From there, our trio seeks out an army to retake Alizarr. Dahib suggests his own fellow half-trolls, who hate the trolls and would follow her. After wandering about a bit and never missing an opportunity to take off her clothes, Ghita rejects the advances of a real, live unicorn (he’s important later in the saga), then does the hoochie-koochie for a bunch of evil trolls in a tavern, shaking her “teats” (also repeatedly referred to as “paps” and “nubs” every chance that Thorne can get) long enough to distract them, then cuts them into tiny pieces. An attempt to raise slain human warriors with the Eye of Tammuz fails, so Ghita and company end up in a refugee camp with a bunch of other Alizarrian expatriates.

Trolls are evidently quite easy to distract. But then, so are most guys.

Among them is the devastatingly handsome pretty-boy Temmen who wants to join her army. Ghita looks him up and down, notes that he doesn’t wear very many clothes either, and lets him join up as they ride to find the home of the vengeful half-trolls.

Once she’s (pretty easily) won over the half-trolls to her cause, Ghita slips away with Temmen for some “tumbumping” (another term that gets used to great excess) while the disappointed Thenef watches from the bushes.

Fortunately for the heartbroken Thenef, it turns out that Temmen is actually a troll assassin in disguise, and when he tries to stab the blond-haired goddess, she turns the tables and rids the world of him. She and Thenef go off for some drunken shagging (excuse me… tumbumping), and after she passes out from too much gin-mead, Ghita is kidnapped by high priest Sef, who doesn’t want his fellow half-trolls worshipping a chesty blonde bimbo instead of their traditional god, an amorphous thing called Drill (???).

Thenef watches his snuggle-muffin doing it with an empty-headed young stud. Hey bro, I know those feels.

Sef has a pretty unhealthy relationship with Drill (or at least with Drill’s psuedopod). “Love of mine,” he tells Drill as he offers Ghita’s naked (naturally) body to the god, “my faithfulness was tested by this vile woman. She tempted me. She would have me fondle her and desired that I frig her in each of the seven gates of her wretched body. I blush to say how many times she begged the use of my stout rod. But I did not succumb to her allure. Nay, I was true to you, my love.”

Hey, Sef — you’re supposed to love your god. Not LOOOOOOVE your god…

Dahib and Thenef arrive just in time to intervene in the sacrifice, but unfortunately Ghita and Sef go tumbling into the darkness, toward the god Drill who lies below.

Sef doesn’t mind, as the caption tells us. Sef cackles triumphantly as they plummet downward toward his god-lover. With his free hand he rapidly strokes his scaly penis to an instant bespattering climax. Finally union with his deity will at last be realized and Ghita, the debauched false goddess, will be delivered to the fires of purification.

Now say what you will about Sef, but the ability to rub one out while plummeting toward your death is nothing to sneeze at.

Sef the Love-Troll, ladies and gentlemen.

It turns out that Drill is actually a vast protoplasmic creature that lives in the depths and Thenef figures out that the Eye of Tammuz can be used to control it. After dispatching Sef, Dahib helps Ghita escape the pit and with her army of half-trolls and a gigantic slimy amoeba at her command, she begins the assault on golden Alizarr.

Before the attack Ghita allows herself to be captured by the trolls in the hope that they will bring her before their king, Nergon. It’s also an opportunity to see her captured, stripped and variously humiliated by the trolls, but she eventually gets close enough to Nergon to behead him as her army and it’s monocellular battering ram bash through the city walls and liberate the oppressed humans of Alizarr.

What the fuck is a “thrush-muffin” anyway?

In the aftermath, Ghita returns Khan-Dagon’s sword and tells him what a prick he is, then rejects an offer from the goddess Tammuz to continue to fight as her champion. Ghita’s first adventure ends with her being declared empress of Alizarr, and choosing to rule jointly with Thenef and Dahib.

The second story in Eros’ Ghita collection is called The Thousand Wizards of Urd, and is actually a pretty decent story, moving beyond the farcical sexual aspects of the first and actually dealing with some fairly thoughtful emotional issues. The Eros volume concludes with The Deathman’s Head, clearly created several years later (possibly especially for this volume), with art that is more delicate and nuanced than Thorne’s earlier work.

So to recap, what are we to make of Ghita? On the surface, it’s Frank Thorne sexualizing his beloved Red Sonja, but on closer inspection there really isn’t a huge amount sex in the book — it’s all very R-rated, much tamer than his stuff in “Iron Devil,” for example.

Ghita kicks some troll ass, while of course showing off some of her own.

What there is, I think, is a lot of vulgarity, with its talk of “paps,” “jungs,” “tumbumping,” “wet notches” and “teats,” its sword-humping, its sacred prostitution, casual rape and Thorne’s shameless self-portraiture. Sex in the Thorne world is pretty tawdry, not at all romantic and to me not terribly sexy. Others I’m sure find it appealing, but it really doesn’t do much for me.

But there’s also gold here, and a halfway decent tale of vengeance, possession, swords and sorcery. Part One, The Golden Goddess of Alizarr is a bit of a diamond in the rough however, and the increasing sophistication of The Thousand Wizards of Urd — a tale that actually put me somewhat in mind of Fritz Leiber’s saucier fantasies — makes one wonder where the series would have gone if Thorne had kept up.

Thorne continued along the erotic route after Ghita, doing an SF series called Lann for Heavy Metal and a bizarre hardcore book called Iron Devil for Eros. He also brought us Danger Rangerette (National Lampoon) and Moonshine McJuggs (Playboy) which were about what you’d expect from the titles.

Worst… Issue… Ever…

Unsurprisingly Thorne’s Ghita had detractors. A couple of letters to 1984 are reproduced in the Eros book, saying variously “Series such as Herma and Ghita are insults to any mature person. Only an incompletely developed, grossly warped point of view could have led to the base fantasies found within your magazine,” “How could you even consider presenting a no-talent hack like Frank Thorne in the copy of such excellent artists as Richard Corben, Rudy Nebres, Alex Nino, Alfredo Alcala and Wally Wood?” and “I know it won’t do any good for me to beg you not to publish more of Thorne’s grade-z imitation garbage.”

In the pages of Dave Sims’ Cerebus the Aardvark, the warrior-woman Red Sophia declared that no man would have her who had not first defeated her in battle. Needless to say the titular Aardvark does exactly that, so Sophia ends up marrying him. At one point in the series, the demented wizard Henrot creates a magical clone of Sophia, and explains it to Cerebus thusly:

Henrot: I wanted to remove the negative parts and accentuate the more (ahem) positive aspects

Cerebus: You wanted them to hang to her knees.

Henrot: Precisely! I mean: Don’t be a wiseass aardvark. But it didn’t work. She started calling me “Foul toad-humper, when are you gonna croak? Huh? When?” and coming home drunk and drinking at all hours of the night, singing and making lewd noises with various parts of her anatomy. I named her “Geeta” after an old Borealean word meaning “She of the foul mouth and dynamite knockers.”

Wendy Pini’s Red Sonja outfit. Now if only she’d illustrated Elfquest while she was dressed like this, some fans fantasies would be complete.

Sims was a fan of Thorne’s but I read an interview in which he mentions that he created Geeta as a response to Ghita, as he didn’t much like where Thorne had taken the character.

Did Thorne take the beloved Red Sonja and get her all sexed up? My answer is no – at least no more than did Roy Thomas and the folks at Marvel. The tough-talking, no-nonsense warrior woman from Shadow of the Vulture certainly traveled a long way, and the notion of turning her into an outraged rape victim was, I think, a somewhat greater crime than making her a sacred warrior-whore.

The idea that a goddess would directly intervene in human affairs and make Sonja her champion is a lot more of a comic book idea than anything like what Howard wrote, anyway. While I’m a huge fan of REH, I’m anything but an expert and I don’t have an encyclopedic memory for the details of the Conan saga. That said, I do not remember gods intervening directly very often and even then their presence is minimal – Conan himself is pretty cynical about the whole thing, even being surprised when he meets a priest who actually believes in his god (in Jewels of Gwahlur, I believe). So to have a goddess personally manifest and gift Sonja with her unique (and uniquely frustrating) curse – no sex until she’s beaten in combat – is a little odd.

I REALLY need to start attending more comic cons. BTW, Brittany Love’s version of Sonja clearly has the “Fight in high heels” feat…

But (and as I’m currently amassing the complete Savage Sword of Conan collection from Dark Horse it might be a topic for future entries) that’s pretty much par for the course, as the comics Conan loses some of his punch and drama when compared to his literary counterpart. Let’s face it – the only guy who really did justice to Conan was his creator – all the others, be they pastiche writers, revisionists or comic book creators, can’t ever equal REH’s understanding of the character.

So I’m giving Frank Thorne a pass here. Ghita is a lot of things – vulgar, overwritten, self-indulgent, with crude language and gratuitous sword-masturbation, and as a consequence not as sexy as I’d like her to be. On the other hand, Ghita is also intriguing, well-plotted, beautifully illustrated and had the potential to go in some very interesting directions. But if you’re looking for Red Sonja, you really can’t do much better than to read the master himself, Robert E. Howard, and wonder what might have been had he lived on.

A page from Frank Thorne’s Red Sonja series, suitably recolored.

It was in the mid- to late-70s that I both discovered Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons and Dragons, and about that time I started collecting comics, including titles like Savage Sword of Conan (President Obama’s favorite, I’m told), Conan the Barbarian, Claw the Unconquered, John Carter of Mars, and other more adult-oriented titles such as Heavy Metal and Warren’s odd and disturbing 1984 (later called 1994, possibly because the calendar was catching up with them). Among the books I read back then was of course Red Sonja, since from the very start of my swords-and-sorcery obsession I have loved women warriors. Red was a pretty good example of the said warrior woman genre, with that mix of independence, female liberation and sexism that I speculated on in my previous entry.

Sonja had moved more than a little away from her historical origins as Sonya. The Hyborian version was a recovering victim of sexual violence, gifted with a sword by a goddess and sworn to never lie with a man who had not bested her in combat. Personally I think there’s so much wrong with that concept that it needs to go to therapy, but Marvel managed to run with it reasonably well and the books were a lot of fun.

Most of Red’s solo run was illustrated by Frank Thorne, who manages best to encapsulate the whole contradictory nature of the sword and sorcery genre with its exploitive obsession with sex, and its bizarre simultaneous objectification, veneration and liberation of women.

Frank Thorne, hard at work. Heh-heh… Heh-heh… I said “hard…”

Born in 1930, Thorne’s first job in comics was illustrating a Perry Mason book which I have been unable to track down. He gained fame as Red Sonja’s artist however, though his tenure with the title was relatively short for reasons that will be discussed presently.

Even today, when he’s well into his 80s, Thorne is quite the character — articulate, lusty, and pretty honest about his intentions and outlook. Let’s face it — he liked drawing hot, chesty women and even 30 years ago was pretty much a dirty old man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — I’m well on the way to that title myself, though I think some of my views diverge from Frank Thorne’s radically.

Thorne was by his own admission fascinated by Sonja. He’s quoted as saying stuff like “to cast Red Sonja aside as a sexual dream of adolescence is missing the thrust of this mythic figure. Granted, Sonja is a dream, but beyond lie the Himalayas. True, among those peaks roams this magnificent, near-naked woman. The child’s infatuation with nudity is there, combined with the mature wisdom of combat. Venus with a sword, stalking through the once and future kingdom. She is formed energy; she is the sound that Siegfried harkened to. Red Sonja represents the total possibilities in all of us.”

Holy crap. Combine that sort of statement with his assertions that Red is “the ultimate woman” and “the epochal female” and Mr. Thorne starts to sound like a man with an obsession.

The wizard tells us all about Sonja.

Thorne’s fixation on the divine Sonja was further evidenced by a unique presentation that he used to give at comic conventions. Thorne played a bearded wizard, along with a bevy of attractive Sonjas — played by actress and model Linda Behrle, dancer Angelique Trouvere, author Diane DeKelb (now DeKelb-Rittenhouse), artist Wendy Snow, danish actress Gita Norby and — I kid you not — Elfquest artist Wendy Pini.

In the show, which is chronicled in Savage Sword of Conan number 29 (and reprinted and recolored in Dynamite’s Giant Size Red Sonja number 2 — presumably the title refers to a “giant sized” comic book, rather than a “giant-sized” Red Sonja, as that is a fetish that I don’t intend to address in the current article), an unnamed wizard gives a quick intro to the red-haired she-devil and tells us that he’s going to summon her to his cozy little wizard’s lair. For what purpose I can’t say, but the fact that the wizard was played by Thorne, and his artistic rendering bears a striking resemblance to Thorne, I have a couple of pretty good guesses.

(It’s also worth noting that the Dynamite reprints of Red Sonja include much more sophisticated inks and colors than the older Marvel pulp comics and make Thorne’s work look damned nice — finally, I think, putting to rest the rumor that inkers are just “tracers.”)

So after some very Thornian (and I think that “Thornian” sums up Mr. Thorne’s feelings about Red pretty well) declarations about Sonja, calling her “the most magnificent vessel of wrath ever to stalk the ancient kingdoms… The ultimate woman — with hair of crimson,” he casts his spell (“innvolo legemmmmm opton rialc arummmm!”) and cries “Come, Sonja! Come! Come! Come!”

I’ll pause here so people can make appropriate comments.

Frank and his Red Sonja’s — aka “Cosplay: The Early Years.”

…And we’re back. The wizard’s spell, it seems, succeeds too well and not one but five Sonjas are summoned — the first being our current model Linda Behrle, playing pretty much the straight Roy Thomas Sonja, telling us how she was raped and now won’t let a man touch her alabaster body until he’s beaten her in a sword fight (which frankly might end up being kind of self-defeating, but who cares?). The second is Angelique Trouvre, who was a nightclub dancer and also played Vampirella at cons — she talks like a southern honey, saying things like “Ya know, Wiz, you remind me of a fortune teller I once knew…” which just doesn’t quite sound like a Hyborian to me.

Diane Dekelb plays at least a version of Howard’s Russian Sonya from Shadow of the Vulture, and is the most modestly dressed, in boots, pantaloons, a chain shirt and bandanna. She claims that the original Red was her ancestor, and has a quick and bloody sword fight for the wizard’s benefit with an evil monk. Wendy Snow’s Sonja wears the familiar “portable coin collection” costume, but with extra armor for her abdomen. Finally Wendy Pini’s Sonja dances about quoting poetry and swinging her sword, prompting the wizard to conclude that they’re all authentic Sonjas, representing the respective “body, humor, spirit, mind and soul of the great Hyrkanian swordswoman.” The show ends with the five Sonjas chasing the wizard offstage in frustration.

Enter Ghita. She’s supposed to be a blonde but for some reason they couldn’t resist making her a redhead. I wonder why…

If nothing else, Frank Thorne put his own spin on Red and while he did pay some lip service to the original REH creation, his vision of her, along with that of Roy Thomas, had wandered pretty far afield. Apparently Thorne’s obsession proved a bit much fo Thomas, and Thorne’s run as Sonja’s artist ended with Issue 11.

“And a good thing too,” says artist/author R.C. Harvey, “because Ghita, a more fully-realized version of Thorne’s vision of Sonja, would not have appeared among us otherwise.”

So it was that Frank Thorne responded to his inglorious termination by taking his Sonja obsession to the next level. He did his own version of the character, and boy howdy what a change it was.

Though Ghita was not Sonja in the flesh, she was certainly Sonja in the sex-obsessed mind of Frank Thorne, and with her appearance in the pages of Warren’s 1984, Sonja’s journey was complete. Robert E. Howard envisioned her as a tough-talking, sword-wielding, pistol-packing woman who was the equal of any man. Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith made her a rape victim out for vengeance on men. And Frank Thorne (at least in the person of Ghita of Alizarr) made her a divine whore with a sword. An epochal female indeed, and a radical departure from her original conception.

I’ll get into Ghita, my (and others’) mixed feelings about her and some suitably Thornian artwork in the next entry.

 

Why is Red Sonja here? Well, why the hell not?

Nope, I didn’t manage to get any photos of the paradisiacal Anderson Island, and the last couple of weeks have been a tumult of contractors repairing my house, digging a new sewer line, of mechanics working on my car, and my job blooming in its usual elaborately hectic fashion as it does every fall.

I haven’t worked on the Wulf site — I continue to be amazed that I managed to get the damned thing online at all, but I will be giving it a quick going over soon, and will also collect the last three stories into an ebook for everyone’s reading pleasure very shortly. It’ll be The Wizard of Shark Island and Other Stories, since that way I’ll be able to put together a cool Wulfy graphic with crossed swords or spears over a snarling shark face or something.

In writing news I’ve finished the rewrite of my Alex St. John urban fantasy novel, The Shepherd, and it’s out to my readers. So far response has been great, and I’m going to do one more polish before unleashing it on unsuspecting publishers/agents. I’ll keep chronicling that adventure here, and God knows there may finally be good news soon.

That said, I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to post here — I’ve got reviews of Beastmaster in the wings, and I hope to have both Barbarian Queen movies done soon, as well as Krull and some other surprises, including that recent flop, Conan.

And speaking of Conan, I’ve been busily rereading the original REH tales — the ones that have been released recently, unexpurgated, unedited, in the order that they appeared, without a bunch of pastiches, “posthumous collaborations” or rewrites of non-Conan stories by various and sundry authors.

Just as a sidebar, I notice that there seems to be a new purist movement when it comes to classic pulp writers like REH and HPL. Posthumous continuations and expansions seem to be slightly out of favor these days, or at the very least, they seem to have been put in the proper perspective. Poor HPL had to suffer through decades of August Derleth-inspired infamy, with dread Cthulhu and mighty Yog-Sothoth reduced to the villains in cosmic morality plays by authors who didn’t seem to fully grasp the subtle meanings or real horrific underpinnings of his tales, while Robert E. Howard’s barbarian had his “career” placed in careful chronology, with “gaps” in his history conveniently filled in, so that every waking moment of his long life seemed filled with evil sorcerers, horrid monsters and mostly-naked women. Not that I’m objecting, mind you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy the original, unaltered versions of Conan to the altered, edited and “improved” editions that we’ve grown so familiar with.

Barry Windsor-Smith’s original vision of Red. Okay, the top is okay, but she REALLY needs to put on some pants.

So that brings me to that other aspect of the mighty REH’s career — the fact that he wrote a metric fuckton of stories that weren’t about Conan, only a handful of which I have actually read. He wrote westerns, he wrote modern adventure, he wrote about ancient Romans vs. Celts, he wrote about sailors and boxers and cowboys, he wrote about the Crusades, about 16th century France, about werewolves and detectives, about Lovecraftian cosmic horror and pirates…

Hell, the guy could write. I suppose a cynical person with no adventure in his soul could point out that a lot of Howard’s stories read and felt the same, that he reused themes, characters, names and plots, and that a lot of what he wrote may not have been all that great, but that obscures the fact that Robert E. Howard was the closest thing to Conan the Barbarian ever to walk the earth, and that his was one of the most tragic, wasteful deaths in American literature. And yes, what he wrote was literature.

Which brings me to the historical stuff and another of his supposed creations — Red Sonja.

Shadow of the Vulture was first published in a magazine called Magic Carpet in 1934. It takes place in 1529, during Suleiman the Magnificent’s siege of Vienna, considered by many to be the high-water mark of the Ottoman Empire. More information about the story can, of course, be found on Wikipedia, here. You can buy it, along with a whole raft of other Howard historical tales here. And by golly when I get paid next week I’m getting my own copy, since I haven’t read Shadow of the Vulture in ages, and I lost my copy of the collection (Sowers of Thunder, I believe) in my last divorce.

Anyway, it’s not my intention to talk about that story too much, as magnificent as it and its sword-wielding heroine, are. No, I’m kind of following the legacy of Red Sonya toward the very odd place that she ended up.

More Sonja studies from Mister Windsor-Smith. You have to admit, he was (and is) a stunningly fine artist.

Well, Red and her sword may have remained a minor character in an obscure pulp adventure story if it hadn’t been for Marvel Comics. As with so many other characters, Sonja’s comics history is convoluted and rather confusing, especially to me, who hasn’t read any comics in well over a decade. Sonja — fortunately Marvel changed the spelling, so that “Sonya” remains an intact and distinct historical Howard character — first showed up in Conan the Barbarian issue 23, in a story ironically titled Shadow of the Vulture. If I recall correctly, Marvel writer Roy Thomas did what was then a time-honored trick, taking a non-Conan REH story, moving it to Hyboria and shoehorning in our favorite barbarian. Presto! Instant Conan story.

As portrayed by the great Barry Windsor-Smith, Sonja (aka “She Devil with a Sword” — you really can’t buy publicity like that) was dressed a little more decently than she was later, but when the legendary Spanish artist Estaban Moroto got his hands on her supple but powerful body, he dressed her in what has since become the classic impractical female barbarian outfit — the chainmail (or more properly scalemail) bikini, which left her legs, arms, midriff, and most importantly, her overflowing cleavage, entirely unarmored and unprotected.

I’ll take a moment here to comment on the whole “semiclad women barbarian” phenomenon, just to let you know I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t think anyone can blame me for liking to look at women, naked or otherwise. Years ago, I saw Gene Roddenberry at a big Star Trek presentation at the Portland Coliseum, where the Trailblazers normally play. It was full to overflowing with happy Trekkies and we all had a fine time.

A very cool interpretation, I think.

I don’t remember what the question was, but I think it was in regard to women on board the Enterprise, and Roddenberry replied that he was a huge advocate of equality for women. Women, he said, can do anything a man can do, and should not be restricted in any way shape or form by society, government, culture or prejudice. In the future women can and will command starships and lead governments. Men and women are both human, and all humans are equal.

Roddenberry added however, that none of this meant he would stop treating women as sex objects.

Actually, I’m okay with that. I think that people — men and women — don’t mind being sex objects, as long as that’s not their primary focus, and as long as that status doesn’t prevent them from doing whatever they want whenever they want. And with that in mind, those of you who have read my fiction will know that I love independent, powerful and assertive women. I also like writing about their bodies and about them having sex.

So I guess I kind of want to have my cake and eat it too. I want to be able to treat women with respect and dignity, and portray them as strong, capable and totally equal to men. I also want them to look at them naked. Or in chainmail bikinis.

So, yeah — Red Sonja’s outfit is kinda sexist and exploitive. It’s not practical and it’s actually downright silly. But consider the woman inside the outfit. She’s a warrior who’s every bit as capable as a man, who can fight Conan to a standstill, and who does everything that your average kickass barbarian hero is supposed to. And while I’m at it, I’d like to point out that if Sonja is cheesecake, then Conan is beefcake — so enjoy, ladies. Conan is hot and he’s usually mostly naked, too.

In that outfit, it’s not the wastes that are gonna be frozen…

And hey, I’m a big supporter of decent armor for female fighters as well — go check out this site and see some women that kick ass and take names.

That’s not to say that Sonja’s a perfect character. The original version of the character was brutally raped and visited by a goddess, who gave her all those awesome combat abilities.

Sheesh. If there’s anything I really hate it’s the old “woman warrior avenging her rape” story… It’s cliched and it’s offensive. Can’t a woman be a warrior on her own merits? Does her power have to only manifest itself after she’s been brutalized? That kind of bugs me.

(Mind you I’m working on a story now with a female warrior who’s a former harem slave, who strangled her master and escaped, but hopefully I’ll make it a little less obvious. She was a warrior to begin with, and she wasn’t avenging being raped so much as avenging being enslaved and treated like an animal… I know it’s similar, but I hope I’m not being too much of a hypocrite here.)

Okay, so Sonja fought her way through the Conan series. In the end, she was a very different character from Red Sonya of Rogatino, and I guess really shouldn’t be conflated with her. Anyway, Dynamite Comics publishes Sonja stories now (and has republished a lot of the old Marvel material as well) and apparently their Red Sonja is a descendant of the “original” Red Sonja, whom they killed off at some point. I don’t know — haven’t read the new series, though I might get back into it.

What Marilyn Manson isn’t getting any more of.

Sonja’s career at the movies followed a much rockier course, most notably when she was played by the pneumatic but ultimately disappointing Bridgitte Neilson. I remember being disappointed that while Arnold S was in the movie, he didn’t play Conan (due apparently to various legal and copyright issues), and even more disappointed that her outfit didn’t resemble the Marvel scale-bikini in the slightest.

A few years ago the news wires were abuzz with the story that Robert Rodriguez was going to direct a new Red movie, starring Rodriguez’s future ex-girlfriend (wait for it) Rose Freakin’ McGowan, but plans fell through our would-be Sonja was badly injured and the movie was cancelled. Sorry, Rose. I would have loved to see you in that outfit. It might almost have made up for my disappointment when you got engaged to Marilyn Manson (you broke up over “lifestyle differences,” huh? I wonder what they were…).

One more picture of Rose McGowan… Just one more… please…

Sonja also had her own series with Marvel for a while, running 15 issues from 1977-79. And that brings us to the next character in this passion play, the eccentric artist Frank Thorne (not to be confused with the famous mathematician Frank H. Thorne), who illustrated issues 1-11, most of Sonja’s solo run.

Frank Thorne has a very interesting visual style, and I suspect it’s the sort that one either loves or hates. He uses very bold, heavy lines with very little shading and I suspect does his own inking, as he’s usually described simply as “artist.” Thorne threw himself into the whole Red Sonja mythos with the verve of a real fanatic, and the world really wasn’t ever the same after.

So with that clumsy introduction out of the way, I think I’ll wait to work on part 2, since then we’ll be getting into the truly NSFW material. We are talking about Frank Thorne here, after all.