Killing Red Sonja

Having made my second post-pandemic trip to the local comic shop, I’ve finally bagged issues two and three of Killing Red Sonja – which, for those unaware, is a miniseries spinning off from Mark Russell’s current run on Red Sonja. The premise is that Sonja has killed an emperor – as sword and sorcery protagonists are wont to do – and in doing so left behind a twelve-year-old orphan, Prince Cyril. Now, with a few adult companions, Cyril has set off on a mission to avenge his dead father and kill Red Sonja.

The comic is a touch oddball for a Red Sonja offshoot, and not merely because Sonja herself is confined to short cameos in daydream scenes: as a casual flip through an issue will show, Killing Red Sonja is one of the most light-hearted renditions of the Hyborian Age to ever have Robert E. Howard’s name slapped on it.

Prince Cyril is accompanied by a talking boar straight out of a Disney film, and the first major threat encountered by the characters is similarly comedic: a mother giant and her two squabbling sons. Craig Rousseau’s illustrations are gentle, whimsical, and even a little Ghibli-esque. Dearbhla Kelly’s colours, which alternate between soft pastels and bright primaries and secondaries, fit the mood.

But for all its outward softness, Killing Red Sonja is also a brutal comic. Right from the get go, it introduces a character hell-bent on slaying the protagonist of the main series, and yet makes him sympathetic. The idyllic fairy-tale world is frequently disrupted by bouts of blood and gore, exemplified in these two issues by a flock of lethal parrots capable of reducing their victims to pecked-clean bones, piranha-fashion. Suffice to say that the small band accompanying Prince Cyril is fast becoming smaller still.

All of this is just ripe to be packaged as some wacky, out-there new take on Robert E. Howard’s mythos – but to me, the interesting thing is that it’s the opposite. Howard himself freely picked-and-mixed from various different genres, inserting Conan into everything from cowboy stories to pirate stories to lost-world stories (each dressed in appropriate Hyborian drag, of course). With countless other writers continuing his work in the eighty-four years since he died, it’s only natural that we see the process extended, with the world of Conan and Sonja overlapping with still more genres.

With Killing Red Sonja, Hyborian Age brutality bleeds into the world of whimsical, reassuring children’s picture books. This isn’t something Howard himself tried, and I doubt he would’ve tried it even had he lived to a ripe old age, but it’s a concept at least adjacent to his magpie-like approach to worldbuilding.

Alas, Killing Red Sonja was one of the titles that suffered from the disruption caused by the pandemic, leading to a months-long delay between the first two issues (plus further delays for those of us outside the US, hence why I’ve only just bagged #2-3). On top of this, Mark Russell – who co-wrote the series with Bryce Ingman – has since cut his ties with Dynamite over a Comicsgate-related controversy. This won’t impact Killing Red Sonja as the scripts for the five-part series would have been finished by that point, but it’s a shame that Red Sonja’s world has lost a writer who could come up with a spin-off as novel as this.

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