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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.