I think it’s fair to say that Red Sonja is something of an iconic character in the comic world these days, and a well-traveled one: she’s met Spider-Man, the Witchblade, Vampirella, even Betty and Veronica. The fact that she has become such a comics phenomenon is amazing, because her original concept was to be an interesting occasional side character for Conan the Barbarian to encounter in his comics.
Ballad of the Red Goddess gives us a striking re-telling of Sonja’s origin story and first adventure; it focuses on how Sonja came to be the force of nature she’s now known as, while also telling the story of the ill-fated King Thallos. An unnamed bard weaves the two stories together, creating the titular ballad. It also includes extensive character and scene sketches at the end, as well as introductions from the creators. Red Sonja/Tarzan covers the kind of encounter Sonja is known for: wild, funny, and unexpected. Sonja encounters Eson Duul, who takes her special dagger, kills her horse, and doesn’t realize what an enemy he makes in the process. Cue time traveling shenanigans that lead Sonja to meet Tarzan in the Victorian era, then travel to other places and times hunting down Eson.
Now, the art of Ballad is absolutely stunning, but the content does cover a difficult topic, some of the art can be considered exploitative of women, and it uses some language that is generally derogatory towards women. A character is raped, and it’s shown in a way to still make the character seem attractive and sexual, which can be difficult for some readers. In general, there are definite problems with sexualized violence. Thankfully, the Tarzan collaboration does not suffer from the same problem.
Red Sonja/Tarzan does suffer from some fairly inconsistent art, unfortunately; there are several pages throughout where details change from panel to panel. In one instance, Sonja is shown putting on a boot only to kick someone with a bare foot in the next panel, then standing with boots on the panel after. The writing in this comic is pretty great though, standard Gail Simone humor mixed with darkness and just very normal human moments.
It seems like because of Sonja’s origin as a side character who shows up at random, her comics history is one of very episodic stories with no strong connection between them. There have been short runs of comics with reboots of her origin story periodically, but it’s just as likely to see her on an adventure with Spider-Man for a few issues, as mentioned before. As such, I don’t really feel it’s important to have any other Red Sonja comics in a library collection to want to add either of these works. Ballad is one version of her origin story, after all, and Red Sonja/Tarzan covers enough background to get a reader with no familiarity up to speed on just about all characters involved.
Otherwise, in terms of potential collecting, Ballad is on the tall side, at almost a foot tall, which means the pages are nice and large to be able to see all the beautiful detail of the art, but it might make it difficult to fit on a shelf easily. Red Sonja/Tarzan is thankfully the standard trade size, so no issues there. I can’t say I strongly recommend either; I enjoyed both for different reasons, but both were problematic as well in their own ways. Red Sonja in general is a great addition to a collection that has other fantasy comics, especially works like Rat Queens, which could be used as a comparison piece for a comics-based book club even.
Red Sonja: Ballad of the Red Goddess
By Roy Thomas
Art by Esteban Maroto, Santi Casas
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani
Publisher Age Rating: Teen+