Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Song of Red Sonja: Conan the Barbarian 24

As a public service, today's post might be considered as falling somewhere around (if not just past) a rating of PG-13.  -- The Management

Conan the Barbarian #24 (March 1973)
"The Song of Red Sonja"
Roy Thomas-Barry Smith

Doug:  Hot pants and chain mail is what all the Hyborean babes are wearing this time of year, isn't it?  Well, at least between these covers it is.  And speaking of the front cover...  Wow.  That's not bad, huh?  I really like the sepia tone of the mob as it offsets the protagonists.  Genius.  And hey, filed under "great minds think alike", our colleague Andrew Wahl had lusty rogues on the brain just like I did, apparently.  Please jump to his site to not only catch his thoughts on Conan the Barbarian #'s 23 and this one, but also on the lead story of Marvel Feature #1 (you'll recall that I reviewed the other tale last month). But enough hyperlinking -- let's get to some sword-slinging!

Doug:  We open in Makkalet in a tavern, where Conan and the other denizens cheer on the beautiful yet deadly Red Sonja as she dances atop a table.  As the tempest rises among the drinkers, a hulking figure makes his way toward Sonja.  Called "Big Jax" and sporting a nasty wound on the side of his skull, he takes Sonja by the arm.  Defensive at first, she relaxes when she sees it is him.  But Conan of Cimmeria is not so understanding.  On a sidenote, it's been awhile since we looked in on Barry Smith's version of the barbarian.  You know, fans have frequently commented that Smith's Conan was leaner, even lithe, compared to the depiction of the warrior by John Buscema.  I'd argue that in the previous issue and this one, that Conan is perfectly suited to segue into Buscema's epic run -- which commenced in the very next issue.  It's unclear whether Conan protests to Big Jax out of chivalry or his own sexual desires (unclear -- yeah, right) for the warrior-maiden; but regardless, it's soon three pages of "game on!"  Best line in the scene, from our hero = "You!  Bald-pate!  Let the wench finish her dance!"


Doug:  Conan and Sonja steal away from the brawl, and make their way to a pond to cool off.  Sonja tells that chain mail is not the best thing for bathing, and emerges from the depths sans her top.  It's been well-documented that Barry Smith originally drew Sonja topless; >

From the Comic Book DatabaseNotes: Artwork here was censored by unknown Marvel artists, uncensored Windsor-Smith original version was subsequently printed in Marvel Treasury Edition #15 and Savage Sword of Conan #82, but recent Dark Horse TPBs used the censored version. Cover here is also colored by Windsor-Smith. Some sources credit John Buscema with the censoring work.

< the Comics Code Authority would have none of it, however, and several panels had to be redrawn showing a) Sonja's breasts covered and b) Conan's hands above the water, rather than cupping her bottom. In addition to the doctored up sex scene, some commentators say that there are apparently hints of masturbation abounding in this tale (see the last art sample for one instance I've seen referenced).  As I was finalizing this post to run yesterday, I received my digital copy of Back Issue! #61, which celebrates the treasury-sized books of the Bronze Age (and is, incidentally, published in tabloid form!).  Perusing it quickly, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the very panels I've referenced above, and including the uncensored version that ran in MTE #15.  I've included it, below the version that was on the newsstands.  The author of the BI! article containing these panels is comics scholar John Wells, and in the text he reports that the artist who did the re-do was none other than art director John Romita.  Look closely -- you decide:  Romita or Buscema?  In the same paragraph, Roy Thomas is quoted in regard to the uncensored version running in the Treasury (treasury-sized books were considered magazines, and were not subject to the Comics Code Authority), saying "I'm pretty sure that running the uncensored version was an accident." 

Doug:  At any rate, the romance-that-doesn't-happen is interrupted by the sound of horses.  It's the night watchmen come to find out what all the ruckus is about.  While interviewing the innkeeper, Conan and Sonja steal one of their horses.  And Sonja now tells Conan what she'll have him do this evening (which is not at all what Conan wants to do) -- ride to the royal palace, on business.


Doug:  On the grounds of the palace, Conan and Sonja stop at a phallic-like obelisk (I guess since Barry Smith had decided he was done on the book, he was going to go out all guns a'blazing).  Sonja tells that inside are enough riches to allow these two to retire from their mercenary ways.  Conan, eyeing the sleek black finish of the tower, figures that Sonja needs him to scale it.  He kids here, though, in asking what he should need her for.  Putting another ill-fated move on her, Conan is told at first that it's business now and play for later; then he's pummeled!  "By Crom, girl -- I've killed men for less than that!"  "For what?  For not letting you kiss them?"  Priceless.

Doug:  Conan scales the tower without incident, and soon drops a rope to Red Sonja; she in turn scampers up to the top.  As they enter the treasure chamber, Conan is astounded at the sheer wealth at his feet.  But something seems amiss, as Sonja asks him to leave the room -- to inspect the corridors for guards.  Conan buys it, and vanishes.  With corruption in her eyes, Sonja recalls the commission she had received from the king of Pah-Dishah -- to go to Makkalet, pretend to be their allies, and then steal back the serpent tiara that had been given previously as a dowry.  She finds the object of her quest -- and is transfixed by it's lifelike appearance.  And suddenly, it explodes into a living, breathing, writhing, thing of mystical terror!

Doug:  Barry Smith finishes this story, and his tenure on the regular title, in a flourish of awesomeness.  Conan fans would be treated to the Thomas/Smith team only one more time, in the magnum opus "Red Nails" (printed in color in the Chronicles of Conan, volume 4, which I am using for this review).  Conan re-enters the treasure chamber to find Sonja backed against the wall by the menace of the serpent.  Apparently the thing is real enough, as it bleeds at Conan's blade.  Our heroes soon find that along with its dagger-like fangs it is also a constrictor.  As Smith shines here, so does Roy Thomas -- Sonja: "No!  I'll help you-- whether you want my help or not!"  Conan: "Then bat your sea-green eyes at that thing -- or maybe wiggle your hips!  That worked with me, at any rate!"  As the barbarians battle, Conan is finally able to deliver a death blow, which breaks the spell and returns the beast to a tiara.

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.

Doug:  This story has been lauded by many critics and commentators, and I'll happily stand in that line.  This is full of action, it's sexy, it has brawling and sorcery aplenty, and as said above it's a tour de force sort of send-off for the team that had evolved this strip over the previous two years.  When you think back to the style Smith was using on the earliest issues, and look again to the top of this post at the cover to this issue...  Again, we know that Roy Thomas and Barry Smith collaborated on Conan the Barbarian one more time; but if they'd not, then I think we'd all feel OK that this story was their legacy.


Anonymous said...

Loved this. First read it in monster size in that Treasury edition I bought unexpectedly from a newsagent’s window. As you say Doug, Sonja’s second appearance and first real outing and Smith’s last issue. Might rank as the best bowing-out issue ever?? At the end of a major run, I mean.

Ref. Conan’s physique...well, if my gym got me into that shape, I wouldn’t be demanding a refund.

“ By Ishtar Girl, you’ll pay kisses a-plenty...”
Funny, you wouldn’t have thought Conan was the kissing type.

I love the lightness of touch in the writing. Sonja using her wiles on Conan could appear slutty, but as she was only ever tricking him, it does not, ultimately. Likewise, Conan never stops pressing his advantage (shall we say), but the fact that Sonja is clearly a match for him never makes it seem rapey. Very well written. Maybe questionable for its audience in the early 70’s, but if your parents were letting you read something called ‘Conan the Barbarian’ they can hardly say they thought it was about bunnies, can they?

Hmmm. ‘No man’s lips shall ever touch mine’. Y’know how I said this was Sonja’s first outing....


Garett said...

Enjoyed the review, Doug. Great cover, and interesting to see the censorship changes.

The computer coloring looks not bad here. I still find it distracting when they change black inked areas into color, like the water, or dust kicked up when fighting the serpent. It's more like the actual texture of water/dustclouds, but unbalances the drawing.

Hey Edo, I reloaded the captcha this time due to blurry number.

david_b said...

I'll be in a miniscule minority here, but I actually prefer the covered torso look to the chainmail bikini.

Not quite as distracting, suggesting much more depth in story-telling here.

humanbelly said...

No, no-- I'm much more on board w/ the mail shirt, too. I simply will never, never get past the absurdity of the chain-mail bikini, no matter how well-argued a case for it may be. Nope.

Truly a great cover. But, of all things, it kinda makes me think of. . . Groo the Wanderer-! Something about the composition, maybe??


Doug said...

If part of the allure of Red Sonja is sexiness, I find the clothes she's wearing (not wearing) in this story far sexier than the "no imagination required" later get-up.

I really find her personality different in this story than later tales, as well. Really, physically, if you put Barry Smith's depiction of the character next to Frank Thorne's, why would anyone even think it was the same woman?


david_b said...

Again, never been a Conan or Sonja fan growing up, but this issue REALLY looks like fun.

Agreed with everyone here, I'm preferring the Sonja's personality here, a bit more subtle and manipulative in style and approach. Much more refreshing.

Edo Bosnar said...

david_b and HB, over at Andrew Wahl's site, in one of the posts Doug mentions (and links to) here, we both commented on our preference for the chain mail shirt/blouse and short shorts for Red Sonja - and assumed we were in a tiny minority. Apparently it's not as small as I thought.
Also, I just have to say, while the panels posted here look quite nice, I'm generally not a fan of that computerized recoloring.

Anonymous said...

I gotta agree with you guys, the computerized colouring makes the book look sort of drab in a way.

The mail shirt vs iron bikini debate can go on forever. Let's just be glad that REH invented the original and Roy Thomas created the tweaked version! The one thing I've loved in both incarnations is the idea of a feisty hot tempered warrior woman!

- Mike 'my loincloth itches' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Fred W. Hill said...

I read Dave Sim's parody of Red Sonja, Red Sophia, in a collection of early Cerebus issues -- the scene where Sophia, trying to win Cerebus over, whips off her chainmail bikini and Cerebus comments, "they might heal if you stopped wearing that thing" (or words to that effect) was priceless. Eventually, I did get a copy of this very issue and, wow, Barry's artwork is exquisite and Roy does some of his best writing here. Like Steranko in some of his late Nick Fury tales, Smith was aiming for a more mature audience, but of course Marvel was still forced to hew to the CCA line and couldn't really challenge it this time as they had just a few years before with the Spider-Man drug story. In any case, The Song of Red Sophia is definitely a Bronze Age classic and a highlight in both men's comics careers.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I have got to agree with Humanbelly: A chainmail bikini is too impractical for me to take seriously. It ruins my ability to suspend disbelief.

Looks great on her though ... and Wendy Pini too:

Mike said...

I'm a little late to the party, so you guys basically said everything that this Conan fan would have said, and I concur with it all. I always considered this issue to be one of BWS's best, and it is THE definitive Red Sonja issue. This Red has everything that I like about her, including the outfit. BWS nailed it.

Excellent post, Doug!

artisan555 said...

A very interesting piece of trivia about the art in this story; Mike Royer probably inked the page where Conan and Sonja are leaving the pub and jumping into the pool. He mentions the incident in The Jack Kirby Collector #37. . . who'd have guessed???

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

The Treasury Edition seems to have had a bit of the censoring itself - the panel with the underwater explosion is cut short and the word "Wank" has been changed to "Wonk".

Maybe one day someone could take the uncensored bits from both versions to create a version of the story closest to the original vision.

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