Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Review: RED SONJA #2 Needs to Slow Down
In last month's Red Sonja #1, Sonja hunted desperately for a cure for the King of Hyrkania, her homeland. The people struggled. Nearby kingdoms raided their borders, waiting for the king to pass before they would invade fully. Sonja was offered leadership of the nation... and she declined. Hyrkania got a new king, and the country appeared to find peace and prosperity. But what need has a peaceful nation for a She-Devil? And at what cost has this prosperity come?
Free from the set-up of the first issue, Red Sonja #2 is able to dive more directly into those costs. Gail Simone's recent run dealt heavily with Sonja's origins and her adventures outside of her homeland; Marguerite Bennett's new take deals heavily with Hyrkania - and, fittingly, given some of the national conversation stirred up by demagogues in the lead-up to the 2016 American Presidential election, Bennet's story seems to be about jingoism, about the way national pride can tip over into aggressive nationalism. Mandatory military service has helped create a powerful force to repel invaders, but it also means there's a massive, powerful army policing Hyrkanian streets and wielding undue influence on local businesses and the arts. Those arts therefore bend to fit that military mold, pushing hard on ethnic stereotypes for foreigners and a lack of empathy for people who don't love their country enough, or in the right way, and the people, flush with new wealth and influenced by the arts and the crowd, begin to bend similarly.
It's a fascinating direction in which to take the story. Because, well... there are certainly arguments for this burgeoning Hyrkania. After all, the nation was a disaster before the current regime took over, and now, the streets are safe, the children are educated, the borders are secure. To those on the inside, those in a position of power, all that is great, their lives immeasurably improved. They were on the bottom, now they are not; their hearts are not breaking because someone else is on the bottom. It's a fundamental failure of empathy, but an understandable one. But Sonja, our hero, is a perpetual outsider, so she naturally comes in contact with those who are on the bottom - and she finds that the bottom is a much harsher, crueler place than it once was.
Unfortunately, Bennett's story is rushing from place to place - it took roughly 20 pages for Sonja to go from 'learning that something rotten runs beneath Hyrkania' to 'confronting the new king face to face.' I like the direction Bennett is going in building out the world, particularly as it dives into the theater, but the story is rushing from location to location without taking a moment to punctuate many of its scenes. Another few pages may have made the riot at the theater feel more naturalistic, the action of Sonja escaping the riot may have had more room to breathe, the new character Sonja met at the theater may have had more of a chance to make an impression. Rushing from beat to beat gives us more plot in any given issue, but it actually gives us a little less story; we know what's happening, but we don't really feel it.
The art, from Aneke, is clean and works well with Jorge Sutil's vibrant colors, with gorgeous figure-work and a solid sense of energy. But some of her layouts, particularly in conjunction with letterer Erica Schultz, can be hard to follow. The book strongly favors two-page spreads with unconventional layouts. In the latter two, Schultz uses the word balloons to guide our eyes along the path we're supposed to follow, which helps mitigate the chaos a bit, but in the first two, there's no guidance at all. One conversation between a pair of people in a theater troupe, is nearly impossible to figure out the precise order in which it should be read, which is frustrating for such a thematically important conversation. And even when Schultz does do an admirable job guiding the eye, Aneke sometimes struggles to make the most of the now-even-more-limited page space for action - one classic adventure trope, Sonja swinging from a chandelier, is rendered in such a visually confusing way (I thought that chandelier crashed - twice - before she swung on it) as to negate any of the thrill of the moment.
Red Sonja #2 is, largely, quite good, and the ideas that Bennett, Aneke, Sutil, and Schultz are putting forward are both timely and legitimately interesting. It's a great use of fantasy tropes to tell a rousing adventure story that also has clear modern resonance. But two issues in, and I'm not totally certain that the creative team is gelling. Aneke tends to over-rely on complex layouts that don't always sit well with the material, stranding some of Bennett's dialogue in strange places and disrupting the book's pacing. I think Aneke's layouts would be killer in a slower-paced story, but Red Sonja is traditionally an adventure book and Bennett is pacing it as one. As much as I like what the new Red Sonja run is doing overall, I think the creators are still figuring themselves out. This could easily grow into an essential fantasy title given the direction it seems to be headed, but right now, growing pains hold it back a bit.
Red Sonja #2 was lettered by Erica Schultz, written by Marguerite Bennett, colored by Jurge Sutil, and illustrated by Aneke. Published by Dynamite!, Red Sonja #2 was released on February 17th, 2016 with a cover price of $3.99. No review copies of this book were provided, and the reviewer feels like he would make a strong candidate, just and reasonable, for kingship, so if any of you have one lying about...