Archive for September, 2012

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.

Island of the Damned

Actually this is Anderson Island, and it’s a pretty well-settled place with a population of about 900. Mind you, there’s no cell phone reception or Internet (save at this small coffee shop where Beth and I are sitting), but damn it’s beautiful and the weather is perfect. An absolutely flawless place to spend Memorial Day Weekend before the floodgates open and I’m swamped by customers who demand my attention because their Macintosh won’t run Guild Wars 2. Or something like that.

My intention in coming here was to finish a draft of my novel and get it closer to shape for the agent, and so far it’s gone pretty well. The house is beautiful, situated in the depths of the forest well away from the temptations of civilization (save for coffee shops, of course), and the only way off is by ferry, leaving me trapped here with my word processor and a book that’s screaming for a rewrite.

I hope to take some pictures tomorrow so I can do another boring vacation slideshow. In the meanwhile I’m going to enjoy my holiday weekend and hope I don’t get torn limb from limb come Tuesday. Wish me luck.