‘Conan Red Sonja’ #1 Has All The Action, Violence And Belts That You Want [Review]
Conan and Red Sonja are the chocolate and peanut butter of the sword-and-sorcery genre. Wait, no. Now that I write that down, it seems like swords and sorcery would probably be the chocolate and peanut butter of the sword-and-sorcery genre, but you get the idea: They're two characters who tend to go really well together, which makes sense given that they're both characters that have more or less defined the genre since they were created -- particularly in comics.
That's why it shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone that Conan Red Sonja #1, despite a somewhat annoyingly un-punctuated title, reads like it came together effortlessly. Written by Jim Zub and Gail Simone, with art by Dan Panosian and Dave Stewart, the first issue breezes through the mandatory fight before the inevitable team-up in a way that's actually pretty engaging, setting up an adventure that seems every bit as exciting as the two characters deserve. And also just full of belts.
I'll get to the plot in a minute, but first I want to take a minute to talk about all those belts. While Red Sonja and her scale-male bikini have become reasonably iconic and therefore unchanged for a good long while, there have been a lot of designs for Conan in comics over the years. You've got everything from Barry Windsor-Smith's original furry underpants and disco medallion to my personal favorite, Cary Nord's take of a dude who had a sword, a loincloth, and zero other accessories. This time, it's artist Dan Panosian, whose work I'm mainly familiar with in pinup form thanks to his work at Comic Twart, who has done something pretty interesting: He's drawn Conan in a way that I don't think I've ever seen before.
Part of it is that, by my count at least, everyone's favorite barbarian is rocking a grand total of six belts, because that is what it takes to restrain the abs of a true Cimmerian born!
Even though the massive amount of belts is pretty endlessly delightful, that wasn't the only thing that caught my attention about Panosian's designs. The main thing is that his Conan looks a little more slick and a little more handsome than the usual model. Instead of the traditionally craggy version, Panosian's Conan has a lantern jaw and a wry smirk, and his hair's slicked back into an exceptionally long pompadour. He's a Conan who looks like a romance novel cover that's still going to eviscerate someone for talking trash, a dude who looks like he could be played by Kurt Russell or Bruce Campbell in their prime.
Basically, he's a Conan who has product in his hair and smells like apples. Seriously, he looks like he's going to finish fighting an evil sorcerer and go play Gaston at Disneyworld.
Which is actually pretty awesome.
Panosian's Red Sonja is as scantily clad and pouty-lipped as she usually is, but standing next to this particular Conan, they look like they belong in the same story. Sonja is almost always written and drawn to be on Conan's level in terms of being a badass warrior, which is certainly welcome, but it's rare that it goes the other way, bringing Conan to her level in terms of attractiveness. He might not show quite as much skin (those belts gotta cover something), but the end result is that they're two noticeably pretty people tearing their way through the Hyborean age, which feels like a change from the status quo.
Incidentally, while I mentioned mostly being familiar with Panosian's artwork from his pinups, his sequential work is really strong here, particularly in the way that he stages the fights. One of the hardest things to pull off in comics is a believable back-and-forth battle where both parties come away from it on equal terms, especially when you only have a couple of pages to work with, but he pulls it off. The mandatory fight between the two leads has some really nice staging, and a kineticism to the action that makes it a fun read even when you know it's coming from the moment you see the cover.
As for the story, there are a lot of familiar beats here. I mentioned the necessary fight and the inciting incident that's going to lead to the real meat of the story down the line, and that's all stuff that's there on page one of how to write a crossover, but what Gail Simone and Jim Zub do with it ends up being a whole lot of fun.
If the job of the first issue in this four-issue crossover is to set things up, then they do their level best to make that setup as entertaining as possible, and get as much about the characters on the page as they can by telling the story through action. Conan and Red Sonja don't really need a whole lot of introduction, but they manage to weave those signature character traits into the story in a way that underlines their contrast.
The setup for it is simple: Sonja and Conan are both on a mission to kill the same man, and it's the way that they go about it that sets the tone for each character. Sonja is more subtle, using a disguise and sneaking her way in, while Conan is, as always, a blunt instrument with six belts and a broadsword, with no time for subtlety. It's a clash of characteristics that comes up again in the fight scene, and even though they're things that we already know about the characters (assuming that you're familiar with them at all), it's made into something that's engaging and fun.
I'd be lying if I said that I wish it hadn't gone a little further into the ongoing plot, but at the same time, it's a solid enough opening chapter that I'm ready to see more. The promise of Conan's long-time arch-nemesis and a plot involving sinister weeds is pretty exciting stuff, especially with Panosian drawing it, so at the end of the day, I'm more than willing to forgive the book for not quite getting all the way into it here in the setup.
Final rating: Six out of six belts.