Monday, March 6, 2006

While You Were Reading The Big Two - Red Sonja vs. Thulsa Doom #2

Hey everyone. It’s the ever-loving Starman here. No, this isn’t a very special Looking To The Stars. That comes later. No, this is the first of a new series of columns that will rotate between the staff on a weekly basis. I think the name speaks for itself, but the basic gist is that this column will be devoted to reviewing notable titles by companies other than “The Big Two”.

Hopefully we’ll be able to review a wide range of titles in a more in-depth way than previously possible. And having the writers taking turns on this feature will help instill maximum freshness. To the extreme!

Yes. I just mixed two decades worth of slang. For I am Starman and can do such things.

Red Sonja vs. Thulsa Doom #2 (of 4)
Company Name: Dynamite Entertainment
Writer: Peter David and Luke Lieberman
Artist: Will Conrad

There are three ways in which one can view a series such as Red Sonja vs. Thulsa Doom. The first is the path of the scholar; the die-hard Robert E. Howard fan who views the story not only in terms of aesthetics but also in how it fits into the geography and continuity of Howard’s world. The second is the path of the fanboy; one who cannot tell you the difference between Turan or Hyrkania but who knows what they like in terms of story and art. The third is the path of the speculator; one who sees an alternate cover with a gorgeous redhead bathing herself and thinks of how much he can sell it to those who have never known the touch of a woman for five times the price in a month’s time.

Sadly, all but the later of these will be dissatisfied with this book.

The Howard fans have been grumbling about this book since its announcement and their concern cannot be said to have been unfounded now that the book is here. Their chief concern has been the fact that in the Howard cannon, Thulsa Doom was an enemy of King Kull - another Howard hero whose adventures came several hundred years before the time of Conan and Red Sonja. This did not stop Doom from becoming the villain in the first big-screen Conan movie and the character has been wrongly associated with Conan ever since.

Another cause for worry was that co-author Luke Lieberman described himself in an interview as being “Howard enthusiast more than a purist” The fact that Lieberman also owns the rights to the character’s use at this time and is currently working on making a movie devoted entirely to Thulsa Doom fueled worries that the book would not only violate Howard’s continuity but also reduced Sonja to bit-part status since early interviews seemed to show Lieberman as being more interested in promoting Doom (and, by proxy, the movie) than the newly returned Sonja.

While I’m not quite a Howard purist or a scholar, even I saw some flaws in the dialogue regarding place names and climate. For example, Doom claims to be a native of “the jungles and deserts of Zingara” in Howard’s world, Zingara is a nation like medieval Spain, with no jungles or deserts at all. And in 26 pages, Sonja seen in barely half the comic. Of those 15 pages, she is nude in over half, as well as on the cover. While Sonja has always been a sexual character, this issue is a far cry from the vampish days of Roy Thomas’s Conan and is closer to an issue of Danger Girl than anything.

But ignoring the concerns of die-hards and purists, how does it read? Not well, I’m afraid.

The plot involves Sonja returning to her homeland of Hyrkania to find her people scared and a city destroyed. She attracts the attention of Thulsa Doom, leader of the invading army, who then disguises himself as a slave in hopes of getting closer to Sonja, who just happens to hook up with the resistance right before the caravan holding Doom comes by. This issue shows Doom trying to win his way closer to Sonja even as he gives his men orders to attack the Hyrkanian capital.

The story is muddied as things occur but we are given little reason behind the how and why. I had to reread the first issue and this several times to keep some characters straight. There is also a totally pointless and out-of-left-field subplot about a crooked vizier who is apparently intent on stealing the throne of Hyrkania for himself. For a book written by Peter David and a writer who says he was taught by Stan Lee about the importance of character, this book features a lot of characters who are as flat as the woman on the cover is rounded.

The artwork is similarly confused. When this series started, Thulsa Doom started out looking like James Earl Jones. Now he seems to be nothing less than a muscular Samuel L. Jackson. Sonja, in a similar metamorphosis goes from looking like a muscular female body-builder in her first splash page (no pun intended, as she is indeed splashing a pond surface) to an sunken-bellied supermodel in later scenes. The coloring is nice and the action panels are lively, but there is very little sense of perspective and the inking is far too heavy.

All in all, everyone is better off sticking to the regular Red Sonja series than reading this mini. The Howard fans will be pleased by the adherence to the particulars of the Hyborean world. The casual readers will find the art crisper and the writing more energetic. And the cover to Red Sonja #6 by Billy Tan does a similar shot to much greater effect for you speculators and men-child seeking sexual fulfillment from a comic book.

Score: D

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