Friday, February 27, 2009

Famous First Fridays: Red Sonja's Metal Bikini

Red Sonja, She Devil With a Sword! Ya gotta love a groovy chick who carries a sword and can beat up barbarians, right? Back in 1972, Roy Thomas took an obscure Robert E. Howard character, Red Sonya of Rogatino from "The Shadow of the Vulture" (Magic Carpet, January, 1934), changed the spelling of her name, placed her in Conan's time, and created what would soon become one of the hottest characters of the Groovy Age! While "Big Red" hasn't set the world on fire with her comicbook sales, she's had series and mini-series galore from 1975 right up to today's excellent Red Sonja comics by Dynamite Entertainment. She's starred in a feature film (with another--hopefully better--one on the way), co-starred in Conan's short-lived TV show, and even enjoyed a series of paperback novels back in the 1980s. Big Red has also been a regular attraction at comicbook conventions for over 30 years, with hundreds of lovely ladies appearing in her famous "metal bikini". Oh, that metal bikini...

Sonja didn't wear that controversial costume in her earliest, Barry (Windsor-) Smith drawn appearances in Conan the Barbarian #'s 23-24 (November-December, 1972). She wore a much more practical and less revealing costume consisting of a chain mail shirt and red satin shorts.

The origin of the metal bikini was one of those twists of fate that so often lead to comicbook history being made. According to the intro Thomas wrote for Dynamite's Adventures of Red Sonja Vol. 1 tpb, Spanish artiste Esteban Maroto surprised him with a pin-up piece featuring Sonja in the now famous costume. Thomas dug it, commissioned a new piece from Maroto with Sonja in the same outfit and ran it in Savage Tales #3.
Never one to waste, Thomas wrote a Red Sonja script for Maroto to draw and ran both the new story and the original Sonja-in-the-metal-bikini piece in Savage Sword of Conan #1 (hey, you're getting two "famous firsts" in one here, Groove-ophiles!). To top it off, Thomas' story for SSoC's debut ish teamed Conan with Big Red, this time drawn by John Buscema and inked by Pablo Marcos. Oh, and some cat by the name of Boris Vallejo got to paint Sonja in her armored undies on the cover, as well. Hey, the first issue of Savage Sword of Conan could just as easily have been called Savage Sword of Sonja, couldn't it?

Sonja in her shiny new duds was a certified hit, and she was soon awarded her own comic, first starring in all seven issues of the second version of Marvel Feature (August, 1975-August, 1976), then in 15 issues of Red Sonja (October, 1976-February, 1979). Marvel Feature #1 was cool, with a new Big Red story drawn by Dick Giordano plus a color reprinting of the Sonja story from SSoC #1, but Sonja-mania burst wide open when the magnificent Frank Thorne took over the art with MF #2 (October, 1975). Thorne and Red Sonja became inseperable super-stars almost overnight, and Marvel came up with some pretty cool merchandise to cash in on the craze, like this magnificent button from 1976!

Thorne was a smart guy, too. He helped promote Sonja at various comicbook conventions by dressing up as a wizard and posing with the beauties who'd come to the cons dressed as Big Red. Fangirls, models, and even ElfQuest co-creator Wendy Pini made that metal bikini look good, man!

Thorne drew the remainder of the MF issues, as well as the first 11 issues of Sonja's self-titled comic. After Thorne left, the mag was canceled four short issues later. Despite having top-notch writers like Thomas, Bruce Jones, and Clara Noto, Sonja and Thorne had become so linked in fan's minds that we just couldn't imaging Big Red without him.

As I said in the intro, though, Red Sonja is just too great a character to languish in literary limbo. Marvel kept her going through the 80s and 90s in guest spots, mini-series, and short-lived series. Novels and a movie starring Brigitte Nielsen kept her in the public eye. Since 2005, Dynamite Entertainment has kept Big Red alive and well--and in her metal bikini--for a new generation of fans. Here's hoping Rose McGowan gets put in the right costume in next year's flick!


  1. I love Thorne's art. Even when he moved to adult comics he kept that great style - especially in the way he doesn't use boxes for the pictures. The intricate panel borders were always great.

  2. Double WOW on the metal bikini! Good Lord! How can I get my girlfriend into one of those?? ;-)

    Thorne was definitely unique. However, I tend to prefer Buscema's take on the character (which is no surprise, since I prefer Buscema's take on a LOT of characters!). The art by Adams and co. is beautiful, too. Marvel was turning out some beautiful b&w work for awhile there!

  3. Thanks for posting this!

    IMHO Thorne' s Sonja is THE Red Sonja. The treatment of his work in the Dynamite reprints was damn criminal! The coloring was over- rendered and covered up Frank's wonderfully loose and delicate linework. His type of line-rendered art needs a FLAT application of color, not a lot of airbrushy photoshop shading.

    Would LOVE to see more of those lovely original,unaltered Thorne pages on this site!

  4. Oh man, how I love Big Red! I just scored a Topps sticker of her on Ebay!! Thing is, I really don't consider her a REH character; Rascally Roy really just used Howard's character as a template and did his own thing, so I've always thought of her as another Thomas original (more or less). As to the upcoming movie: I really don't have much faith in Rose McGowen. I think it should've been a newcomer who could make the part her own. Guess we'll have to see...

    Regarding the Dynamite books... how are they? I'm a Thomas/Noto/Thorne maven, so I never picked them up. Big mistake on my part, or did I play it smart?

  5. You're really spoiling us this time: Buscema, Maroto, Thorne, Boris and a lovely BWS page from one of my fave Conan's, The Song Of Red Sonja.Keep up the good work!

  6. I still have a "coin" Wendy tossed into the crowd at the '77 New York Con (held that year in Philly. Long story.)as she ranted and waved her sword on her way to the stage for one of the RED SONJA lookalike contests. Earlier, when my 18 year old self asked her for her autograph, she pointed out she had no pen. "Where would I put it?" she asked in her chain mail bikini. (The coin, btw, was chocolate. I ate the candy and carefully rewrapped the foil around a real nickel.)Met her again twenty years later at a Chicago Con and this time she was very soft-spoken and seemed almost shy!



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