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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Super Blog Team-Up: The Redemption of Red Sonja - a Review from SSoC 1

Savage Sword of Conan #1 (August 1974)
"Curse of the Undead-Man"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Pablo Marcos

Welcome to the first Super Blog Team-Up of 2019. I'm somewhat of a seasoned veteran of these interweb collaborations, but this is my first appearance as a solo act on this blog. I'd encourage you to check out my previous participation as one half of the Bronze Age Babies. This time around we're discussing Redemption. When Charlton Hero of the Superhero Satellite approached me about joining today's fun, and of course knowing my focus on black & white comics, it didn't take long to choose today's topic.

Several years ago on the Bronze Age Babies blog I'd reviewed Conan the Barbarian #24, "The Song of Red Sonja". That post, as well as quite a bit of reading of Savage Sword of Conan mags, made this almost obvious. Here's a snippet from the end of that Conan post:
Doug: Sonja explains that the wizard of Pah-Dishah had given her an incantation to keep the serpent tiara an actual crown. However, she forgot what to say as she first held the precious bauble. Sonja offers Conan to take as many jewels as he can carry - he declines, saying he has to live yet in the city. Then he tells her that he fought tonight, after all, for other rewards. Leaving the tower, Sonja rappels quickly downward, far faster than the Cimmerian. He calls to her to slow down, but as she hits the ground she quickly lights the rope afire. It literally burns through Conan's hands, and he falls hard to the ground. Stunned, with legs that won't work quite right, Conan nonetheless reaches Sonja - who is not atop her mount. He tells her that she'll pay him now with kisses aplenty.  She explains that no man shall have her, lest he first best her in battle. And that is something (as she rides away, knocking Conan down yet again) he shall not do this night.  Beyond angry, Conan smoulders as he limps back into town - vowing to have that woman, even if she least expects it.
Today I want to delve into Sonja's next appearance, her 3rd overall. This would come in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan #1, of course in the black & white format. It's worth noting that the shift from the color monthly to the B&W mag also brought a change in artist, but perhaps more notably a completely revamped look. And what a look! Designed by Esteban Maroto and approved by Roy Thomas, John Buscema brought the chain-mail bikini to the masses - and in the first full-panel reveal, an iconic image. Let's look then, at a 100-Word Review:

Zamora’s “Maul” finds a certain Cimmerian in search of debauchery. Approached by a trio of ladies of the evening, Conan contends that he has no money for… drinking. Enticed, Conan strides deeper into the Maul in search of “skulls to crack”. However, a cacophony of screeching, fleeing priests draws our barbarian into adventure. Soon overwhelmed in a brawl of swordplay, Conan’s would-be murderer is himself run through – by Red Sonja. Renewing grudges, our Hyborian heroes set off to solve the mystery of a severed-but-bejeweled finger. Sonja tells of a wizard executed and a curse – the Curse of the Undead Man, upon the head of Berthidla the Brythunian.
As is my general habit in writing reviews, let's examine this 18-page tale in a 3-tiered judgment.

The Good: I think it's appropriate whenever reading a John Buscema-penciled story to heap praises on the art. This story would be no exception! I'm not always the biggest fan of Pablo Marcos's inks, but his performance is pretty solid over Buscema here. On Savage Sword, I've generally preferred Alfredo Alcala and sometimes Tony DeZuniga over Buscema. But Marcos doesn't fail Buscema or the readers in this story. Anyway, the panel layouts are typical Buscema - no barriers broken, but a nice double-page spread in the midst of the action. Red Sonja is suitably sexy, although with little left to the imagination in her new "outfit". I preferred her in her original Barry Smith-designed garments (regardless of how impractical the hotpants were).

John Buscema excelled at two things in the sword and sorcery genre - beautiful women, and ugly bad guys. There is no shortage of either here. From the prostitutes who greet Conan on page 2 to the thugs overpowering him in the first battle, Buscema just turns it loose. The choreography of the execution of the wizard Costranno was also top shelf. Another excellent scene that turns up time and again in Buscema-illustrated Conan yarns is the bar brawl. We get that, and are better for it. This one is especially fun, as it's Sonja who deals out lessons.

I enjoyed the interplay between Conan and Red Sonja. Conan was of course still smarting from her treatment (and besting) of him in their previous adventure, and her rescue of him near the beginning of this story only poured salt in that wound. But Roy Thomas writes some effective banter, the two mercenaries support each other in battle, and the last panels of the story leave just enough open to the reader's imagination to believe that all previous transgressions are forgiven and that a flagon of wine will indeed be shared. Red Sonja had redeemed herself in the eyes of the barbarian. Now, whether or not he got that kiss is another matter...

The Bad: I'm really waffling on the plot here. I've read this story three times, and each time I just feel that my cup's not quite full. Don't get me wrong - I like it. It's just different from a lot of Conan stories. Conan himself wasn't wronged, no one is out to get him, he's not after some treasure of any sort, he isn't seeking to protect a female "friend" (although he does venture deeper than he needs to out of a sense of honor). This one is a sort of mystery. Again, that's not bad... just different. I didn't mind that Conan and Sonja had a chance encounter - those things can always be explained away. See what I'm doing here? Waffling. To firmly put my finger on it, I guess I'll say that there was nothing new here. Wizard, thugs, monster, tons of swordplay... just a solid Conan story. There was a slight twist at the end - that Berthidla the Brythunian wasn't all that thankful toward our heroes for the rescuing. But even that seemed to be easily written off by Conan and Sonja.

But you know what this really was? A vehicle. A vehicle to launch Red Sonja into a solo color book and further appearances in the B&W mags. Granted, it would take a little over a year for her Marvel Feature series to begin, but in the interim she showed up seven times in various barbarian-themed periodicals. If that's the worst thing that could happen, then my concerns are misplaced.

The Ugly: I think I always put a character's countenance in this section when I review a John Buscema tale. No human stood out to me, so I'll just mention the big hairy arm that rose out of the pit in an effort to pull Sonja below. That had to be scary, and what was on the other end of that limb must certainly have been unpleasant.

Please patronize the other blogs and podcasts in today's event. You won't be sorry to have invested a bit of time along the way!

Coffee and Comics: Green Lantern #100

Two Staple Gold: Just a Pilgrim

Comic Reviews By Walt: Shredder 

The Superhero Satellite: The Walking Dead - “Redeeming Negan”

Comics Comics Blog : Elfquest - Cutters Redemption

Longbox Review: Nightwing's Redemption

Between The Pages Blog:  The Secret Origin Of Spider-Man

The Unspoken Decade: What If V2 #46 and #47

The Daily Rios:

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: The Pied-Piper Reforms! Flash (vol.2) #31

Crapbox Son Of Cthulu:

In My Not So Humble Opinion - The Other Side of the Wind - The Redemption of Orson Welles

The Retroist Via Vic Sage

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Penance - The Redemption of Speedball


  1. As you say, Doug, the plot of this story is very much standard Conan fare but the artwork is indeed lovely. I'm not a great fan of Pablo Marcos' inks ( I think he could often overpower the pencillers he was working with ) but he does a fine job here and Buscema's many strengths shine through. Great stuff!

  2. Man, am I the only Bronze Age comics reader who doesn't have a low opinion of Marcos' inks?

    Anyway, nice review, Doug. I've read this one a few years ago (in my handy-dandy Savage Sword phonebook) and I can pretty much say I agree with your overall assessment: not a bad story, but not necessarily memorable. In fact, glancing over the pages you posted, I recall individual panels, but if you asked me what the story was about, I would have to say "...Um..."
    As for Sonja's attire, like I noted in the comments to the BAB post you linked, I also prefer her original chainmail blouse and short shorts - and while I can agree that the latter wouldn't be practical for a wandering swashbuckling warrior woman, they still make more sense that the sequined, hm, I guess you could call it a loincloth?

  3. To the inking of Pablo Marcos...

    I find it to my liking in this particular story. However, and thinking mainly of the Avengers color comics, Marcos had a run in the late 70s for which I did not care. Inking over Byrne and Perez, I definitely felt that he put too much of his own stamp on the work. If I recall, some of my distaste may also have had to do with the printing processes of the time, as I believe the comics I owned seemed a bit muddy - that is to say, there was color bleed between the pages that really detracted from the eye's enjoyment.


    1. Hiya,

      Inking is both, in my opinion, one of the hardest yet, at the same time, least appreciated or understood talents of the comic book industry.

      Currently there seems to be the attitude that the inker must reproduce with the utmost fidelity the work of the penciller. This means that the inker, who is an artist, is stifled to his own creative instincts while the penciller is now obligated to provide a complete page of cleaned, detailed artwork; the time need to do so often limiting the penciller to fewer books and a smaller income.

      During the Bronze Age the degree of completeness of the penciled page varied from artists to artist. To use the Avengers as an example, I think I remember seeing several different artists on this book and all were finished by Marcos. The men, all talented in their own manner were, in no particular order, Sal Buscema, Don Heck, and the previously mentioned, John Byrne and George Perez.

      Now if memory serves me correctly, and I offer no assurances that is does, that Mr. Marcos was often credited as the Embellisher rather than the Inker. Which would indicate that he was given more creative leeway regarding the finalized artwork because of the nature of the page that was given him.

      Logically speaking, if there was less Byrne then there must be more Marcos.

      This is is no way meant to be disparaging of your stated views. I quite understand them and, at the time and at the present, would have and do share many of them. Marcos had a rather loose, fluid style that did not necessarily agree with the renderings of the penciller. However, I do believe that Marcos was faithful to what was handed to him to finish, when the lines were more complete he was more faithful to what they were. When they were not he was faithful to his own style.

      By the by, I recently stumbled upon a truly unique curiosity. The splash page of a Kirby Thor comic that was reproduced both as raw pencils, the published version as done by Vince Colletta, and another finished version by Bob McLeod. It's an interesting study of interpretation, especially as Colletta is listed as being an Embellisher on the original page. Perhaps someday I can share it on your blog.

      To finish on a stunningly sad note, I can only assume that you saw the recent announcement of Mr. Perez' retirement due to pressing health issues. I hope that we can all appreciate the rich legacy that this artist has shared with us over his career and pray that it is not quite over yet.



  4. I enjoyed your analysis of that story. Could the story be "weak" because it fairly early in the era of Marvel Conan and stories and it was not based on a Robert E. Howard tale? I'm familiar enough with the entire Conan publishing timeline at Marvel to know where this falls in the different lines of comics and magazines.

  5. Nice review, Doug. Although I had this book originally, it's long gone now. And though that story remains somewhat familiar, it's the other Sonja tale from that book that really stands out in my memories: the Adams/Maroto masterpiece.

    PFG, great thoughts on the subject of inking. Ideally the work of a penciller and inker would be a case of "the sum being greater than it's parts". Didn't always work out that way. But I fully agree that the role of an inker is, and should be, more than just to trace over the penciller. And in the long run it all balances out. For every time that a fine pencil no job was lessened by unremarkable inking, there were cases of forgettable pencils being elevated by spectacular inks.


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