Monday, February 26, 2007

Looking To The Stars: Random Thoughts While Dashing Out The Door

Forgive me for keeping it brief this week, but I have a rather busy weekend ahead of me. Still, there are a few things I had to get off my chest before I left the office for the weekend.

1. Ghost Rider

For those of you who were wondering after last week’s little parody, I actually did enjoy Ghost Rider for the most part. As two hours of entertainment, it really isn’t that bad of a film. I just had to point out that the die-hards were ill-pleased about it and that the film did have a number of flaws – apart from the fact that nobody involved in it had ever been to Texas. It wasn’t perfect, but it is nowhere close to even making the Top 10 Worst Comic Book Movies Ever Made. I’d still recommend waiting for the DVD or the dollar theater, though.

2. Countdown

No doubt most of you have already heard about Countdown: DC Comics up-coming new weekly series. Now, there are many good reasons to be excited about this title, not the least of which is the fact that Paul Dini writing anything is cool and the idea of the opening chapter centering on Jimmy Olsen vs. The Joker is an interesting one. But what really got my little fanboy heart a fluttering was this bit of information.

Will we get the perspectives of any villains?

DINI: That’s seen from the point of view of two of the more illustrious members of the Flash’s rogues’ gallery, which are the Trickster and Pied Piper, who have at various times kind of cleaned up their act and fought on the side of angels. Even though they’ve never really gotten along, they find themselves forced to cooperate in Countdown. So much like Jimmy Olsen is the view of the common man, Trickster and Piper is the view of the common criminal.

It’s a little known fact that I am one of the proud few fans of The Trickster. I flinched when James Jesse was written as a B-list Joker in the Flash live-action series. I was one of the few who cared that he was portrayed as a bumbling basketcase in Justice League Unlimited. And I was one of the few who groused when Geoff Johns undid all of Mark Waid’s work in Underworld Unleashed and had James Jesse go straight, lose the ponytail and become... an FBI agent. And then Geoff Johns undid his undoing and put James back to the unheroic soul he was back in the day.

The truth is that Trickster as a character is not a Joker rip-off and there is a good deal of difference between him and... gag ... The Prankster - apart from better fashion sense and the fact that James has issues with killing people that Oswald Loomis doesn’t.

Suffice it to say, I could write a whole column about why I think The Trickster is a cool character. In fact, I did. So in lieu of an extensive article today, please go back and read one of my earliest works. I’m afraid it doesn’t amount to much more than a recapping of the best of James Jesse’s heroic adventures pre-1999 (I was still finding my style back then) but I think that should answer any questions anyone has about “Who is The Trickster and why should I care?”


There are two web comics I’d like to pay a complement to this week.

The first, Deranged Comics, is a new comedy series written by the mysterious Doctor Deranged. A comrade and former writing partner of Something Positive author R. K. Milholland, Deranged displays the same sense of twisted humor and smart comedy. His main comic - Stellar Worlds - centers upon the comedic aspects of science. And lest you think that’s a very limited subject not well given toward comedy, here are a few of the plotlines the good Doctor has touched upon so far.

* On-set troubles on the set of the fake moon landing
* A Frank-Miller inspired parody of the recent astronaut love-triangle murder-plot.
* A war between dolphins and humanity once a car that runs on water is made
* George W. Bush pressuring NASA to get a man on Mars before he leaves office.

If you’re of the geeky persuasion and like smart comedy with absurd leanings, you’ll enjoy Deranged Comics.

4. Punch and Pie

Honestly, I can’t review this yet because as of the morning I write this, the comic is still not up yet. But I expect it to be nothing short of glorious given that it combines the talents of Aerie from Queen of Wands and Chris Daily from Striptease. It’s supposed to be up Monday though, so by the time you read this, it should be ready to go.

Tune in next week! Same Matt Time! Same Matt website.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Looking To The Stars: The Ghost Rider Movie In 5 Minutes


We are in Texas. Somewhere. Good luck figuring out where though as the scenes will jump from deserts to costal plains to hills to big cities at random. It’s not anywhere near Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth or Austin – we can tell you that much. Suddenly, SAM ELLIOT – one of the first of many fine actors who is going to do things they are not proud of here – speaks.

SAM ELLIOT: The West was built on legends, but that’s got nothing to do with this movie... except maybe in the sense that comic book movies are also built on legends. Some soar to the Heavens and others Fall to the Earth. Some inspire us to better the world around us and others make us want to gnaw off our own limbs to escape the theater. Some stick very closely to the spirit of their source material and some are pseudo-Westerns made by Yankee pissants who never spent a day in Texas that wasn’t at a comic book convention. Which is this? It’s by the same man who made Daredevil and wrote Elektra. What the hell do you think?


We see an old fashioned carnival big-tent stunt show. In the crowd, a YOUNG LATINA HOTTIE looks on as YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE jumps through a flaming hoop.

DADDY BLAZE: She’s all bad for you son. Educated woman with all her teeth like that won’t stick by you when you’re in a wheelchair crapping your pants. Find yourself a nice Carnie girl like I did.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: Yeah – my mom the soul-selling amateur witch with a family curse.

DADDY BLAZE: Actually, that’s just in the comics. That won’t come up in the movie at all.


DADDY BLAZE: Yeah, but it’s alright. In the comics, I’m supposed to be dead by now and you’re supposed to get raised by my old partner.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: Well, I’m glad you aren’t dead, daddy.

DADDY BLAZE: Not yet anyway


DADDY BLAZE: Nothing, son. Just stay away from that girl.


YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE and YOUNG LATINA HOTTIE make out under a tree, in which he has carved their initials and the word “Forever”.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: I love you, but my dad doesn’t want me marrying outside of the family.

YOUNG LATINA HOTTIE: I love you, but my dad doesn’t want me getting involved with Carnie trash.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: Well, we can go run off somewhere together. Meet you tomorrow?



YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE is fixing his bike so he can elope with the YOUNG LATINA HOTTIE. Suddenly, he stumbles across a letter saying that DADDY BLAZE is dying of cancer.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: Oh no! I can’t run off and leave daddy behind. If only there was something I could do.

PETER FONDA: Maybe I can help.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: Peter Fonda? Why are you here?

PETER FONDA: Because there are some parts Christopher Walken won’t take. Actually, I’m The Devil and I can cure your daddy’s cancer.


PETER FONDA: What if I cure your daddy’s cancer AND guarantee you’ll finally get to make a superhero movie?

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: I’m still not sure that’s a good idea.

PETER FONDA: What if I cure your daddy’s cancer, guarantee you’ll finally get to make a superhero movie AND that you’ll be able to write your own dialogue?



DADDY BLAZE: Great news son! I no longer have cancer! I feel great! I have a totally new zeal for life!

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: That’s great daddy!

DADDY BLAZE: Sure is! But I have work to do.

DADDY BLAZE tries to jump through a hoop of fire. He falls off the ramp, grazes the hoop slightly and despite not catching fire or looking the least bit burned, dies as YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE runs up.


YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE then hops on his bike, drives fast, and crashes. Miraculously, he does not die. PETER FONDA appears.

PETER FONDA: Your father died in an accident after you sold your soul to stop him from dying of cancer. How deliciously ironic in a Faustian way.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: That’s not ironic! It’s just mean! And why didn’t I die?

PETER FONDA: Cause your soul is mine and I don’t mean to collect until you’ve made your movie. Deal is a deal, after all.

YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE: So I still get to be Superman?

PETER FONDA: Oh no. I said you’d get to be in a superhero movie.


PETER FONDA: Ghost Rider.


YOUNG NICHOLAS CAGE hops on his bike and rides off, driving past the waiting YOUNG LATINA HOTTIE, slowing just long enough to look sad and drive off. We close in on his eyes as he slowly morphs into NICHOLAS CAGE in a bad toupee.


The NASCAR arena is filled fat, hairy good ol’ boys and bleach-blonde bisexual girls who grind on one another as country rock fills the arena. These are, of course, the only kinds of people you see at NASCAR events.

NICHOLAS CAGE attempts a big stunt. He crashes, breaking his helmet on his front wheel as he flips off the bike and crashes head first into a wall. His best friend MACK runs up.

MACK: Nic, are you alright?

NICHOLAS CAGE: Yeah? Is the bike fine?

It is this moment that it becomes apparent that NICHOLAS CAGE is unable to do a Texas accent and is instead opting for a really bad Elvis impression. This is not helped by his toupee, his white jumpsuit or the Elvis-style sunglasses he dons as he waves to the crowd as he exits the arena.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentleman; Elvis’ Former Son-In-Law has left the building!


MACK: I don’t get it, Nic.

NICHOLAS CAGE: You mean how I keep surviving so many dangerous crashes?

MACK: Actually, I meant how you’re a rich and famous daredevil with his own line of video games, sportswear and crash helmets and yet live like a big Autistic man-child watching the same monkey movies over and over, listening to The Carpenters and reading old books on dark magic while eating ju-ju-bees out of a Martini glass instead of drinking and screwing groupies. But now that you mention it, the not-dying thing creeps me out too.

NICHOLAS CAGE: You want me to change the next stunt where I jump over a football field full of cars?

MACK: Would you?



The roof of the arena opens to reveal a ton of Army helicopters.

NICHOLAS CAGE: I got rid of the cars. Now let’s do this.

MOB OF REPORTERS: Mr. Cage, Mr. Cage! It’s a very slow news day and we having nothing better to do than cover this event.

MACK: Sorry, folks. Mr. Cage does not do interviews.

VOICE: Not even for old friends?


NICHOLAS CAGE: Eva Mendes? Why are you here?

EVA MENDES: Because there are some parts Jessica Alba won’t take. Actually, I’m the YOUNG LATINA HOTTIE you left behind, all grown up and hoping to hook up again. Incidentally, my face is up here.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Boobs. Sorry... what? Huh?

EVA MENDES: Oh forget it!

EVA MENDES storms off as NICHOLAS CAGE jumps a football field’s length over the spinning blades of several helicopters. This would actually be kinda cool if the CGI weren’t of such poor quality. He then goes chasing after EVA MENDES’ news van and nearly causes a wreck on the Interstate trying to stop her.

NICHOLAS CAGE: I’ve recovered my cool and my recklessness in chasing you down has now made you change your mind on your original idea about trying to win me back.

EVA MENDES: You’re right. That was hot. Meet me at a fancy restaurant at 8 PM. Don’t be late.


We pull in on a very tough biker bar. We will find out later that this is in the same general area as the big city NICHOLAS CAGE lives in, despite their not being any large Texas cities that have a big arena that are in an actual desert.

BOUNCER: Woah, son. Can’t let you in there. This is a Hell’s Angels bar.

BLACKHEART: Really? What if I were to tell you that I am Blackkheart the disowned son of the Devil himself?

BOUNCER: I’d say you’re a liar with the name of a Care Bears villain and that you look like a gothed up Sean Maher going to a Vampire LARP.

BLACKHEART touches the bouncer. He bloats up into a corpse through the use of bad CGI. BLACKHEART then goes on to do the same thing to the entire bar off-camera. This gets the attention of three fallen angels bonded to the elements of air, earth and water.

BLACKHEART: Come my friends, and we will take over Hell and Earth after we find my dad’s contract of San Peckinpah.



NICHOLAS CAGE: I’m gonna get laid, I’m gonna get laid, I’m finally gonna get laid.

PETER FONDA: Guess again! It’s time for you to become Ghost Rider!

NICHOLAS CAGE: Noooooooooo!

PETER FONDA: Yes! Now go beat up Blackheart so I can declare your bargain honored and we can both go back to making better movies than this.


EVA MENDES drinks some wine while waiting for NICHOLAS CAGE.


NICHOLAS CAGE screams as his head bursts into flame. He is transformed into a big flaming skeleton. This CGI looks horribly cheap. He then hops onto a bike and rides off.


EVA MENDES begins drinking because she just realized what a big mistake she has made agreeing to be in this movie.


NICHOLAS CAGE blazing along the streets of the city, breaking windows as he sonic-booms past, melting asphalt in his wake and startling a poor cop whose speed trap he blazes past.


EVA MENDES begins demonstrating how to play the official Ghost Rider drinking game, by taking one sip for every cheap CGI effect.


NICHOLAS CAGE saves a PUDGY GOTH GIRL, the only unattractive woman with lines in the whole movie, from a mugger. She waddles off camera.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Look into my eyes!

The Mugger looks into his eyes and suddenly the audience is treated to all sorts of horrible images of bad things the mugger has done, render in bright orange CGI with various flame effects and fire noises that render the whole thing unwatchable. The mugger passes out or dies. We’re not sure.

FANBOY 1: Hey cool! He just used the “Penance Stare!”

FANBOY 2: Wait a minute! Only the Dan Ketch Ghost Rider had that power – not the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider!


The FANBOYS scream as their heads burst into flame.


Overwhelmed by all the cheap CGI of the last 5 minutes, EVA MENDES has finished the bottle. She fumbles at the wine steward.

EVA MENDES: You think I’m pretty, don’t you?

WINE STEWARD shakes his head.

WINE STEWARD: Sorry ma’am – like all background movie waiters, I’m gayer than a tree full of monkeys!


NICHOLAS CAGE gets his butt kicked by BLACKHEART’S minions. He is still able to kill DIRTY DEMON before running off, getting to the graveyard where his dad is buried and passing out.


NICOLAS CAGE: Was the hell just happened?

SAM ELLIOT: Well, I can tell you it wasn’t a dream.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Sam Elliot? Why are you here?

SAM ELLIOT: Because there are some parts Lee Marvin won’t take.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Lee Marvin is dead.

SAM ELLIOT: Lucky bastard. Anyway, I’m here to deliver the exposition and look bad ass. And I’m all done looking bad ass.

NICHOLAS CAGE: So what the hell is going on?

SAM ELLIOT: Once every generation – or every 150 years depending on where we are in the script – a Ghost Rider is chosen. 150 years ago, one Ghost Rider refused to give The Devil his due and deliver the contract of San Peckinpah. He’s got you hunting down his abandoned son, who is close to finding it.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Why doesn’t The Devil just get the contract himself?

SAM ELLIOT: Fallen angels can’t come on holy ground.

NICHOLAS CAGE: So you know where it is?

SAM ELLIOT: Reckon I might.

NICHOLAS CAGE: You sure seem to know a lot about what is going on.

SAM ELLIOT: I read ahead in the script. Anyway, you’ll become The Rider whenever it’s night and you are in the presence of evil. Or whenever you’ve got part of your body in a shadow. Or whenever it’s convenient to the plot.


NICHOLAS CAGE walks along, looking at the carnage he caused the night before. He finds EVA MENDES interviewing the PUDGY GOTH GIRL from before.

PUDGY GOTH GIRL: And he had these flames around his head, like what I drew on my journal cover.

MARK STEVEN JOHNSON: Ha-ha! Stupid crazy goths! Surely this will be good for a cheap laugh.

MARKETING PERSON: Actually, most of the core audience for the Ghost Rider comics is gothic teens and tweens.


NICHOLAS CAGE: I can explain

EVA MENDES: Nothing to explain. Obviously, you are not interested so I don’t want you anymore.


EVA MENDES: I changed my mind. I must have you.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Can I explain first?

EVA MENDES: But I wanna get naked!

NICHOLAS CAGE: I sold my soul to the Devil to save my dad’s life, but he died anyway and now I’m the Devil’s bounty hunter and I turn into a big flaming skeleton I spent all of last night fighting demons and all of evil.

EVA MENDES blinks.

EVA MENDES: If you’re gay, you can just tell me.

NICHOLAS CAGE: I’m not gay!

EVA MENDES: So either you’re crazy or a liar and I don’t sleep with crazy men or liars! I’m leaving.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Oh great! How can this get any worse?

A dozen Police cars appear.

POLICE: NICHOLAS CAGE, we tracked you down using a burnt license plate. You are under arrest for... uh... trashing most of the city, we think.


NICHOLAS CAGE: You can’t put me in that cell. Bad things will happen!

THUG #1: Hey! It’s Nicholas Cage! You know, I paid eight bucks to see ‘Wicker Man’.

THUG #2: Me too! Let’s get him!

NICHOLAS CAGE transforms into Ghost Rider and beats up all the irate fans and escapes by melting the bars of the jail cell. Miraculously, no police hear the noise of a fiery explosion, melting metal or many thugs screaming in pain and terror.


A massive chase/fight scene ensues with NICHOLAS CAGE outrunning and fighting most of the police force of this nameless Texas berg. He drives up and down the side of a skyscraper in a scene that will surely thrill those Ghost Rider fans who are still sitting through this in the hopes things will improve. He kills SMOKY DEMON and spares EVA MENDES as he attacks the mob surrounding him.

BLACKHEART: So... he clearly loves this woman! I shall use this and defeat those cursed Care Bears. I mean, Ghost Rider!


EVA MENDES: Nic, I believe you now.

MACK: Believe what?

EVA MENDES: What the – who are you again?

MACK: Nic’s best friend. I haven’t been in the movie for about an hour, and yet I still know Nic’s been acting even stranger than usual for the last two days.


NICHOLAS CAGE: What the – you weakened EVA MENDES!

BLACKHEART: And killed your friend MACK.


BLACKHEART: Doesn’t matter.

NICHOLAS CAGE: Look into my eyes!

BLACKHEART: Sorry – that only works on people with a soul. Nice try. So yeah - bring me the contract tonight or she dies!


NICHOLAS CAGE: Sam, I just figured out the reason you know so much is that you’re the original Ghost Rider. I need the contract to pull a bluff on Blackheart.

SAM ELLIOT: Well, even though you’re new at this and have proven to be borderline incompetent, I guess I can trust you with the thing I gave up the afterlife to protect.

SAM ELLIOT AND NICHOLAS CAGE both transform into Ghost Riders and ride to:


SAM ELLIOT: It’ll be dawn soon, so keep to the shadows and you can still change. And now, I must be going off to Heaven or Hell or someplace else.

NICHOLAS CAGE: I thought you were going to help me in the fight?

SAM ELLIOT: I see an opening out of this film and I’m taking it. But here – take my shotgun. It could help.

NICHOLAS CAGE: In fighting Blackheart?

SAM ELLIOT: No, in providing a very subtle nod to the comics that will keep the die-hard fanboys quiet.

A big damn fight ensues with NICHOLAS CAGE killing DRIPPY DEMON and BLACKHEART getting the contract.

BLACKHEART: Ha ha! Now I have control of all the damned souls in this city. They’re all inside me!

NICHOLAS CAGE: I smell loophole!


NICHOLAS CAGE uses the Penance Stare on BLACKHEART. BLACKHEART dies.

PETER FONDA: Nicely done, Nic. Now we can end this movie.

NICHOLAS CAGE: But I don’t want to end this movie... I like this franchise. In fact, I’m going to make another one of these movies. Heck, I’ll make a whole series of these movies! And you can be the bad guy in all of them!



The whole of the Internet bursts into flame as FANBOYS EVERYWHERE declare vengeance upon writer/director Mark Steve Johnson.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Looking To The Stars - Red Sonja: Feminist Icon or Misogynist Fantasy? Part Two

Last week, we explored the history and mythological themes behind Red Sonja’s oath of chastity, save to any man who can best her in combat. We examined Peter David’s claims that Sonja is a screwed-up character to swear such a thing as well as Roy Thomas’ notes that his whole inspiration from the oath came from myth and that the concept of Sonja is very sound in terms of the same epic legends that inspired Robert E. Howard.

We then concluded with a rather striking concept – is Sonja’s oath a test of any man who would fight her or is it a test of Sonja herself? This is a very important question, for any claims of Sonja’s inherit sexism hinge upon this very concept.

I think a mistake that many supposedly feminist readers and writers make is in thinking that the impetus behind such an oath is to objectify Sonja – to make her a prize to be won by any idiot with more muscles than brains. The problem with this idea is that it defies all reason if Sonja made her oath to a goddess and not to herself. And recent issues of the comic have confirmed that Sonja’s goddess is real and not the hallucination of a stressed-out peasant girl.

To my mind, it seems a rather odd thing for a goddess, supposedly good, feminine and feminist to empower a young girl to defend herself only to say “Yes, I’ll give you the strength to stand on your own and stop others from being hurt as you were... until some twit beats you and then you must be his love slave.” In fact, Sonja’s goddess did not say that and the goddess’ last words after describing the general oath - pledge not to love any man, save who defeats you in fair battle – are quite telling.

”Something that no man is like to do after this day.”

It seems the goddess’ expectation is that Sonja is not going to fail. She is not trying to create victories for great male warriors or literal trophy wives. She is trying to create a worthy servant for herself – an avatar. And in that context, Sonja’s empowerment makes sense – why bother blessing some revenge-craving teenage girl if she’s only going to get beaten by some rube with an axe and a loincloth?

So why require the oath in the first place... except as a test of Sonja’s own resolve? To answer this question, let’s pause a moment to look at Sonja’s past and defuse some of the more popular misunderstandings regarding Red Sonja.

1. Sonja is a man-hater.

To refute this, one need only look at Sonja’s long friendship with Conan in his own comic series. As antagonistic and at odds with one another as they were, the two did have a healthy respect for one another. Even in her own series, Sonja has had a number of male companions whom she allied herself with. Oddly enough this is one of the few aspects of the character that the infamous movie got right...

Swordmaster: Hatred of men in a lovely young woman... Such could be your downfall.
Sonja: I don't hate ALL men, Grandmaster.

2. Sonja is not interested in sex or is afraid of sex.

In some cases, there was a definite romantic attraction Sonja and her male companions. One disposed prince she helped restore to the throne offered to make her a queen but she refused him saying that she was too much of a wanderer to ever settle down as a queen. In the case of one particular rogue – a bard named Tusan - Sonja allowed him to cuddle with her under the same blanket and even kissed him full on the lips. Of course when he suggested going any further, she rebuffed him...

Tusan: But how will we keep warm out here all alone until morning?
Sonja: You’ll build a fire, my man... you’ll build a fire.

Indeed, in Sonja’s second appearance (The Shazam Award winning “Song of Red Sonja” in Conan the Barbarian #24), Sonja seemed to be admiring Conan for reasons that had nothing to do with his skill as a fighter or a thief as she wondered about ‘some of the tall tales she’d heard about Cimmerians’.

It seems likely then that despite her traumatic past, Sonja does have a young woman’s normal sexual urges and attractions.

3. Sonja will lose her power if she is ever defeated.

There is nothing in Sonja’s oath to suggest an either/or end to her divinely-granted prowess. It merely says that she cannot physically love any man who can not prove her better in combat. Quite honestly, it seems counter-productive to the aims of Sonja’s goddess for her to take away power from a faithful servant for losing one battle. Of course if Sonja were to willingly lose a fight, all bets would probably be off.

Regardless, Sonja HAS been beaten several times and never lost her skills. Conan himself had her dead to rights in two separate battles. In the first, in Marvel Feature #7, he hesitated in killing her as he owed her a life debt and decided to spare her.

In the second, in Conan the Barbarian #115, he bested her after she made cutting remarks about his recently dead love Belit and a duel ensued. The victory was somewhat uncertain (Sonja slipped on a wet bar floor) but Sonja was convinced enough of the victory to return to Conan’s inn room, where Conan found himself too despondent over Belit to enjoy the victory.

If “What If” stories may be counted, Sonja lost a battle to a time-displaced Wolverine and still retained her fighting skills despite this.

Indeed, there is only one story where Sonja’s defeat in battle caused her to lose her skills. In Conan #197, while traveling with Conan, Sonja was defeated by an warlord named Bakht, who was attacking her merely to lure Conan into a trap. Despite the ambush tactics used by Bakht (to say nothing of the magical help he had in the battle), Sonja is injured to such a degree that she believes that her skills left her and proves to be more burden in the coming travels than help to Conan and his party. Still, when attacked in camp in Conan #200, Sonja goes berserk and proves capable of defending herself when pressed. Her confidence returned, she quickly returns to her old self.

Given that this is one incident stacked against many others and the fact that Sonja’s “loss of skill” seems to have been more traumatic than spiritual, it seems likely that Sonja will not suddenly become a shrinking violet should any man ever best her in battle.

4. Sonja is a lesbian.

Honestly, there’s nothing in the history of the character to have suggested this, even in the more recent stories. Of course most of Sonja’s stories were published at a time when exploring such things would be completely forbidden by a major publisher like Marvel.

Even today the closest anyone has come to approaching the subject was in Frank Cho’s “Queen of the Frozen Wastes”, and that was only to have Sonja recoiling and spitting after being kissed by a female vampire. Quite honestly, that could just as easily have been a reaction to being kissed by an undead cannibal who doesn’t brush as Sonja’s reaction to being kissed by a woman.

Regardless, all of the textual evidence so far is that Sonja is heterosexual. Any examination of the questions regarding if she can freely love women or if she must offer herself to any woman who beats her in a fair fight are likely to be reserved to the kind of fan-fiction this author will not link to, assuming that it exists.

5. Sonja is above using her sexuality as a weapon/promised reward.

Despite all indications that Sonja maintains a healthy interest in sex but enough personal control to keep to her oath, she is not above exploiting her own myth or her sexuality. In her first appearance with Conan, she persuaded Conan into helping her with a theft with a promise of romance later on. Of course she knocked him out and ran off with the loot before fulfilling any such promise.

On other occasions, Sonja allowed several brutish sorts who thought they could overpower her to get close, only to lure them into a fight, taking a good deal of joy in the brawling with a man who did not respect her.

In the more recent Dynamite Comics (Issue #9 to be exact), Sonja made a rather striking confession to a young teen – also an orphan who lost her virginity to the soldiers that killed her family. This girl asked why Sonja dressed as provocatively as she does and if that was not an invitation to repeat the past. This seems to mirror Peter David’s concerns, to say nothing of repeating the old myth of “dressed like that, she was asking for it.”

“I hadn’t really thought of it before. I always said it was a good distraction. Men would watch my body closer than my blade. But perhaps... perhaps I am seeking that attention again. Maybe because I have sworn to not lay with a man who could not best my sword... or... Or maybe I am calling to those who would force themselves on a woman... like a siren calling sailors to their deaths. Calling such men to my blade so that I may slay them again and again...”

This quote seems to doubly confirm that Sonja is interested in sex and that she is more than willing to use her body and myth to attract and kill the same kind of men responsible for turning her into what she is. Of course, such a woman would undoubtedly be considered a sexual predator today but such behavior is fair in just in the lawless, magical world of Hyboria.

Indeed, in looking at Sonja’s past in the comics, we see a relatively well-adjusted and modern woman. A healthy young woman who, despite her tomboy past and traumatic teen years, still has the normal urges that most women do. She still feels attraction to men though for obvious reasons her attraction only goes towards those men who consider her an equal and do not treat her like a prize to be won.

And this last quote seems to prove what Sierra said looking at the painting we examined last week. Despite Sonja’s commitment to her goddess and fighting evil wherever she finds it, there is still a part of her that actually wants to have a normal life, at least in so far as being able to choose a good man and make love to him.

That is what makes Sonja’s oath a test of Sonja herself. It would be all to easy for her to throw a fight and let herself be won by a man she was attracted to. But because Sonja values her independence and fighting the evil in the world, she does not.

Indeed, in Conan the Barbarian #115, she tells Conan that she must part ways with him after a battle in which Conan gave up a chance to resurrect his dead lover Belit because to do so would require Sonja’s death. She told Conan that she feared staying near him because she knew that sooner or later they would come into conflict and weapons would be draw. She further said that having seen his nobility and how he would give up that which he most wanted for her sake that a part of her wanted to lose that battle and that was something she could now allow. She valued her freedom more than the chance to find love with one of the few men she truly thought worthy of her.

Recent events in Red Sonja #15 seem to have finally settled the issue once and for all. An issue earlier, Sonja and two fellow warriors confronted Kaleval – head of a forgotten pantheon of gods. Defeated easily by the weakened warrior god, they secured his promise of help against the rising of a coming darkness and Kaleval himself guided Sonja to a mystical blade needed in the coming conflict. As they rested, Sonja removed her armor and offered herself to Kaleval, who was all too eager to indulge in Sonja’s ample charms.

This led to some outrage amongst Sonja fans as questions were raised about how this allowed Sonja to stay true to her oath. Are male gods not considered men? Does three mortals against a god truly count as “a fair fight”? And why would Sonja be offering herself to the god if he were not insisting on her honoring her oath...

... unless she WANTED to sleep with the god?

It seems likely, given what we know of Sonja that having finally been beaten in battle by a man – albeit a handsome and divinely-powered one but still a man – that she decided the letter of the law, if not the spirit, had been fulfilled.

It also seems likely that Sonja was more than a little curious about what it would be like to experience physical love as it was meant to be – particularly since the next morning she would be going into a battle against evil the likes of which the world had never seen before where the odds were against her surviving, even if her side won. Michael Avon Omeing, current writer of the Red Sonja book, said as much on his own message boards.

"Kaleval kicked her ass. She didn’t stand a chance. We could have made it more clear, but I thought him standing on her back while holding her two buddies over his shoulder would be enough. But for some reason a lot of people didn’t get that.

Then she wanted some. So she got some.”

Given all of this, I think my girlfriend was right on when she looked at the painting of Sonja and saw something that I, for all my geekiness, never considered. That even though she is a swordswoman in a chainmail bikini, Sonja is still a woman and as such, she still has a woman’s needs and urges though she represses them in the name of a greater good. As such, Sonja is more than a cheesecake heroine and is a suitable icon for any feminist comic fan.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Looking To The Stars - Red Sonja: Feminist Icon or Misogynist Fantasy? Part One

My girlfriend Sierra’s favorite comic book heroine is Red Sonja-


Sir, get your jaw off the ground! You may attract birds to nest there.

As I said, her favorite hero is Red Sonja. This fact seems to astonish some people, like our large-mouthed friend there, because the conventional wisdom of late seems to be that the only people who collect Red Sonja are men.

Now, I’ll admit to having believed this in the past myself. It astonished me when, early in our relationship, my lady said that one of her favorite movies growing up was Red Sonja. Yes, it was cheesy and she knew that but there was still something about the idea of Sonja that appealed to her. Sonja is strong, physically and spiritually. She is uncompromising and independent, more than capable of standing on her own. And above all else, she is a survivor.

Here you have this young woman, who is raped while her entire family is killed right in front of her. And where many would break or give into despair, she emerges from this determined to do what she can to stop men like those who killed her family, wherever she can find them.

Take away the rape and it sounds just a little bit like Batman, doesn’t it?

Still, what really convinced me that there was more to the character than just cheesecake was when Sierra showed me an image, shortly after I introduced her to the Red Sonja comics, for despite liking the movie, she never knew about Sonja’s time as a comic book heroine. It was a Boris Vallejo painting, used as a book-cover for one of six very-rare Red Sonja novels.

Now, I had seen this image before - a red-haired woman, taking a rest from a journey of some kind. She looks beautiful and powerful – typical Vallejo.

Sierra saw something quite different – she saw the city in the background and how Sonja seemed to be looking at it wistfully. She thought that Sonja looked lonely and that she was looking, not at the place she was going to, but the place she was leaving and thinking about how a part of her would like to stay there and have a normal life, and being a little sad that she could not.

It was the whole post-modern female conflict laid bare – the natural desire to nurture, have kids and settle down versus the need for a career and independence from the expectations of society – all in what I dismissed as simple cheesecake.

And while Sierra was the first woman I met who saw Sonja as a feminist role-model, she was far from the last. I’ve met many a number of women in my last few years as a writer and chatting on-line on various forums, who count Sonja as a personal influence. And yet there are an equal number of fans, male and female, who say that Sonja is not a feminist icon but a sexist one.

Now I’ve found that a lot of these comments do come from ignorance – people who, like me, assumed that there was no motivation behind the character but to sell a lot of books to desperate, horny fanboys. Still, there are some complaints were well-reasoned and about something besides the chainmail bikini.

And to give one brief tangent before we go any further, I believe it does a great disservice to women everywhere and the legitimate complaints I am about to discuss to assume that all complaints about sexism in comics boil down to “women don’t like to see women in skimpy costumes”. While the portrayal of women in comics artistically is a major issue with some feminist comic fans, it is also a complex one worthy of its’ own discussion. As such, it will not be discussed here right now.

There is a school of thought that says that Sonja’s method of dress and loud proclaiming of her oath to never bed down with any man who cannot best her in battle is nothing more than male sexual fantasy. They say that Sonja is an object catering to a man’s desire to dominate and control a woman who is seemingly out to torment him. And given that Sonja puts herself in this position and is smart enough to know what losing requires, that there is something more than a little screwed up about her.

Peter David said as much just over four years ago – before Sonja became a hot property in the comic world – in one of his columns. I quote:

"Sonja was raped. She was brutalized. Control over her body was taken by a man, who overpowered her and had forced intercourse with her.

And she swore that no man would ever touch her except-- who? A man who could beat her. Overpower her. Defeat her. That's creepy.

A gentle man does not have a chance with Red Sonja. A poet couldn't woo her. A singer could not sway her. A man of grace or charm, a man of breeding and education who would never think of striking a woman, much less raping one, won't get to first base with her. In short, the sort of man who, with patience and understanding, could put the pieces of this woman's sex life back together again is automatically out of the running.

Instead, the only man that she will have sex with is a man who can re-enact the single most traumatic and devastating event of the woman's life. Someone who is capable of overpowering Red Sonja, as her rapist did, is the one she will give herself to. She has doomed herself to disdain all normal sex, searching instead for someone who can remove control of her body from her once more and force her to relive her rape."

Yes, Sonja’s actions are mad in a modern, civilized Western world that has all the benefits of an active police force, psychiatrists and Donna Karan. The problem here is that David is trying to force modern sensibilities upon the quasi-medieval world of Hyboria - a world where man and woman alike are at the mercy of the powerful.

The meek may inherit the Earth, but the only way the meek will inherit Hyboria is if all the blood-thirsty warlords, cunning thieves and treacherous wizards kill each other off and leave a scrap of untainted land intact.

David does have a point though, in that doubtlessly there are some men who fantasize about “winning” a woman under such circumstances as there are some women who fantasize about being overpowered. But any student of psychology can tell you that rape is about control, not sex and there is a world of difference between a man who fantasizes about proving his worth to a dream girl and a man who forces himself on women out of a desire to dominate.

Roy Thomas himself certainly had no sexual fantasies in mind when he created the character of Red Sonja. He simply wanted to create a female adventurer to match Conan, whom could be used early on in his career without conflicting with the exact chronology of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. He found her while adapting one of REH’s historical tales into a Conan adventure, changed the name slightly, and changed Red Sonya of Rogatine to Red Sonja of Hyrkania.

When Sonja proved popular enough with readers and critics alike to warrant her own series (the second-part of her first story won The Shazam Award for Best Individual Story in 1974), Thomas turned his eye to expanding Sonja’s background and giving her a full history.

I quote Thomas, from his introduction to the recent trade-paperback collection of the first few Red Sonja stories:

"Some feminists (and a few guys, too) have taken me to task over the years for that vow, but that’s never bothered me. The lineage of the concept was flawless, literary and respectable – a statement attributed to the warrior-queen Aoife in William Butler Yeats’ beautiful early 20th-century verse-play On Baile’s Strand, one of whose protagonists was the legendary Irish hero Cuchulain – so I never faltered then or now in my support of the oath. If I didn’t know the motivations of a heroine that I, at the very least, co-created, then who did?"

The line in question is, in fact, He said a while ago that he heard Aoife boast that she'd never but the one lover, and he the only man that had overcome her in battle. But Aoife is not the only warrior woman in myth to have such lofty requirements of potential suitors.

* Atalanta, an Amazon Huntress in Greek myth, put forth a challenge that she would only marry a man who could best her in a running race and would kill any man that lost to her.
* Some versions of The Labors of Hercules have Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, offering herself to Hercules after being beaten in battle.
* The idea of an Amazon having to offer herself to a man who vanquished her in battle was around long before Wonder Woman, who lost her powers when bound by a man, was published.
* In Norse Myth, Brunhilde, valkyrie and daughter of Odin, created a test for any man who would have her. Cursed to sleep eternal until kissed by a man who would love her, she was placed inside a magical ring of fire that would burn any but the most fearless and worthy of warriors.
* Valkyries in Norse Myth were expected to remain chaste if they wished to remain empowered with prodigious fighting skills by Odin.

Given that I believe Thomas to be a man of his word and that he did draw upon the same rich literary traditions that Robert E. Howard did in the creation of Hyboria, I think it can safely be said that the intent was to mirror epic legend – not to play fan service to the boys with a crush on Big Red.

I think Peter David’s fault lies in that he believes Sonja’s oath was made, not to the goddess who blessed her, but to herself. Were this the case, he would be entirely correct to think that Sonja is disturbed, even by Hyborian standards.

Indeed, for many years there was a theory that Sonja’s amazing skill in battle was natural and not part of a divine blessing and that the goddess Sonja saw was merely the tormented imaginings of a young woman under great stress. However, recent issues of the current Red Sonja comic have eliminated any doubt as to the true existence of Sonja’s mysterious and unidentified goddess.

Still, the question does remain; was Sierra right about Sonja in the painting? How does Sonja feel about her path in life? Does part of her long for normalcy? Is Sonja’s oath not a test of any man who would have her but a test of Sonja herself?

We’ll discuss all that and more next time. Same Matt Time! Same Matt website.

Read Part Two HERE.