Apparently, it only takes a few phone calls and emails to expand the number of women working in comics.
Obviously, Gail Simone did. When she had the opportunity to put together a team of all-female writers to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the fantasy character Red Sonja, she ended up assembling such an impressive list that, as one of the writers put it, the comic is as much an event as it is a story.
Each of the five monthly issues of Legends of Red Sonja will feature a framing story written by Simone, with several short, related tales written by other women — and often drawn by women too. The creators come from comics, novels and video games, and (so far) include Devin Grayson, Carla Speed McNeil, Nancy A. Collins, Marjorie M. Liu, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Blair Butler, Tamora Pierce, Leah Moore, Rhianna Pratchett, Nicola Scott, Mercedes Lackey, Meljean Brooks and more.
will feature a framing story written by Simone, with several short, related tales written by other women — and often drawn by women too. The creators come from comics, novels and video games, and (so far) include Devin Grayson, Carla Speed McNeil, Nancy A. Collins, Marjorie M. Liu, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Blair Butler, Tamora Pierce, Leah Moore, Rhianna Pratchett, Nicola Scott, Mercedes Lackey, Meljean Brooks and more.
The first issue will feature stories by Simone, Grayson and Collins, who are working with artists McNeil, Jack Jadson and Noah Salonga.
Newsarama talked to the three lady writers to find out more about November's Legends of Red Sonja #1, and what it's like to be part of this giant jam session of female comics creators.
Newsarama: Gail, you've been getting some rave reviews for your first few issues of Red Sonja. Have you been surprised by anything as you've been writing the character these last few months -- by her as a character, by reviews and fan reaction, and/or by your experience on this title so far?
Gail Simone: Just how fun it is to write her, honestly. I've been fortunate enough to write dozens of characters I loved when I was first reading comics, but there's a small handful that are especially precious and I feel like I could write them forever--characters like Black Canary, Deadpool, and Wonder Woman. Red Sonja, I knew it would be great fun, I had no idea she would be on that short list so quickly.
I've said it often, but I like a Red Sonja who is on fire, emotionally. There have been a lot of great stories with her as a removed ice queen. I prefer her as someone who is impulsive and rowdy and sometimes a bit raunchy. It's fun having a character who is essentially nitro on two legs in situations where she is called upon to use tact or restraint.
Nrama: How did you come up with the idea for the "anniversary" series that starts in November? And how in the world did you get all these fabulous women involved?
Simone: Oh, man. I have asked myself that last question a bunch of times. How did we get this amazing line-up? I have no idea, honestly.
What happened was, I had this very off-hand idea that it would be fun if all the covers to the Red Sonja series were done by female artists. Every year, I see more and more ridiculously talented female artists, and they are rarely called upon to do covers for something this pulpy and bawdy. Dynamite, bless them, ran with that and suddenly we had some of the best artists in the business and it was just a sensation, people collecting them for display. Amanda Conner, Colleen Doran, Becky Cloonan, on and on.
When I heard that it was going to be the 40th anniversary of Red Sonja, it just got me thinking. Could we do something similar, but with writers? And again, Dynamite was down with it immediately.
So, I just wrote to a bunch of my writing heroes, women who have done work that inspired me in different fields. I had a wishlist with a huge back-up list because we all knew there was no way everyone would be willing and available. Long story short, I never made it to the back-up list. Almost immediately, everyone started replying, "I'm IN." It was great, just a very happy moment every time I looked at my email.
It's amazing...seriously, I doubt this line-up will ever be put on the same project again. It's monsters of prose like Tamora Pierce and Meljean Brook. It's great writers from games and TV, like Rhianna Pratchett and Blair Butler. It's the top names in comics, like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Marjorie M. Liu. It's superstar artist Nicola Scott's first full writing credit. It's Mercedes Lackey's first comics’ script. But perhaps most satisfying to me, it's also the return of two of my very favorite comics writers, who have been away from comics for far too long.
So, the theme of the first issue, for me, is "Returning." Nancy A. Collins and Devin Grayson doing their first comics work in ages, that is a dream come true.
Nrama: Nancy and Devin, when you first heard about the idea behind the Red Sonja 40th Anniversary project involving female writers, what did you think of it? And what made you want to be part of it?
Nancy A. Collins: I thought the idea was a natural. Red Sonja has been an iconic "strong woman" in comics for decades. It's about time her story was told by women as well.
When Gail contacted me about the project I knew I had to be a part of it. I've been a Robert E. Howard fan for 40 years. I've always wanted to do a straight-up heroic fantasy comic, but I've never been in the position to do so until now. How could I pass up a chance like this?
Devin Grayson: Being asked to participate in this project was honestly one of the most exciting proposals I have ever received in my inbox. Everything about it resonated: there was a great character, a story structure specifically designed to encourage creative freedom, a supportive editorial team, a jaw-dropping list of co-creators and then Gail at the helm of it all. I probably would have agreed to do it just because of Gail—I have so much respect for and trust in her and have had so much fun working with her in the past—but I might not have jumped up and down squeeing for quite so long had it not been for that co-creator dream team list. It was such a huge surprise and honor to be summoned into that company! Gail’s idea of pulling in talent from outside of comicdom was brilliant. Usually when I get the chance to work with someone I so intensely admire, it’s a comics artist whose influence has to be carefully explained to the non-comic-reading “civilians” in my life. This was maybe the first time I was able to call up every single person I knew, blurt out the name of one of their all-time favorite writers and get to hear them squee back at me.
Nrama: Devin, you're a fan-favorite female comics creator, particularly for your work in the world of Batman, but we haven't seen much of your work in the comics industry lately (although I know you participated in "Girl Comics"). What tore you away, and why did this project fit well for you join the club again?
Grayson: After a really long run of ridiculously good luck, I was actually fired from DC in 2006. More than a little heartbroken and in desperate need of health insurance, I turned my attention to my other love, gaming, and worked in that industry for a few years. I never stopped writing, though, and have been doing so full time again for the past few years. In addition to penning a few novels for DC’s licensed publication division, I wrote several essays (the best one probably being the one published in She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff ), contributed to both Womanthology series (“Heroic” and “Space”) as well as Marvel’s Girl Comics, as you mentioned, wrote a script for the History Channels’ Mankind: The Story of All of Us graphic series and scripted the two graphic novels for Scott Westerfeld’s New York Times best-selling Uglies series, both of which were over 200 pages long. It was a little surreal to finish 438 pages of comic scripting and then try to figure out how to answer people who asked why I wasn’t still writing.
Nrama: Phew! You've been busy! But this is a little more high-profile, particularly for fans of your superhero work that might not have see those other projects.
Grayson: Yeah, Legends of Red Sonja is certainly the first high-profile mainstream comic I’ve done in a long while, and it was such a pleasure to work on. I’m really excited by and pleased to be participating in what I see as a paradigm shift in the nature and definition of female-centric projects in mainstream superhero comics. We’re finally in a place where women are the driving creative forces behind these ventures, and they’ve gone from the slightly skeevy publishing stunts of yesteryear to these amazingly unique creative endeavors that also work as powerful community building tools. Being on the project Red Sonja email list with these talented, inspiring and hysterically funny women for the past few months has truly been one of the highlights of my writing career.
Nrama: What's your history with Red Sonja? Have you always been a fan? And why do you think her 40th anniversary is important to commemorate?
Grayson: I'm probably one of the least Sonja-literate writers in this cabal, but I know Hyboria. My knowledge of Red Sonja before this project was pretty much limited to the 1985 movie, but back in ’08 I was part of a small group of fanfic writers tearing up the message boards Funcom had set up in anticipation of the release of the Age of Conan MMO. Because the boards were active before the game went live, those of us on the RPG boards were leaning on our knowledge of Robert E. Howard’s work and the Conan movies to craft our tales. Before the game went live, though, Funcom wiped the boards. My group had a wonderful round robin story going and we all woke up one morning to find that it had been completely scrubbed. Unable to imagine a more immersive RPG experience than the one we’d created, none of us ever actually played the game, but I held on to a love of the period and the kind of ancillary characters it could support and was super-psyched to get the chance to revisit it with Sonja.
As for celebrating Red Sonja’s anniversary, I think any woman wielding a broadsword at 40 deserves more than a little fuss made over her.
Nrama: Good point! OK, Nancy, before I ask you the same question, I just have to point out that fans of your Sonja Blue novels might be surprised to see you writing another Sonja. Are there similarities between vampire Sonja Blue and the comic character Red Sonja, beyond their names?
Collins: Red Sonja was one of several influences that went into creating Sonja Blue — along with Patty Hearst, Emma Peel, Philip Marlowe & Iggy Pop. I picked the name "Sonja" because it is rhymes with "Tania" (the name the SLA gave Patty Hearst), and picked a color as a surname as a tip-of-the-hat to Red Sonja.
Outside of that, both characters are strong women, both physically and otherwise, who know how to handle themselves in a fight and don't take crap from anyone. (By the way the revised Paint It Black, the third volume in the Sonja Blue Chronicles, will receive its ebook release on October 17th.)
Nrama: Good plug! And now what's your history with the character, Nancy? And why do you think the character's worthy of a 40th anniversary commemoration?
Collins: I was first introduced to Red Sonja 40 years ago in Conan the Barbarian #23. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a female character who could hold her own against the bad guys and be an equal partner in the good guy's adventure. There weren't a lot of proactive role models for young female readers back then, so she really stood out. And she's continued to evolve as a character in the decades since Roy Thomas and Barry Smith first introduced her. If Red Sonja was nothing more than a chainmail bikini and a great rack, she wouldn't have endured four decades.
Nrama: Gail, how did you choose who would be in each issue? And can you describe how you're going to bring all these stories together?
Simone: This is what is so exciting to me. I'm absolutely sure someone has done this before, but I've searched my brain and not found anything quite like it. Each of the women is telling an individual story, a "Legend" of Red Sonja, from different narrators and different periods of her life. And there's an over-arcing story that frames the entire series, and weaves in and out of the individual tales.
It absolutely should be an editorial nightmare, but because these women are all such amazing pros, it's been a joy.
?It's five issues, with stories by different authors and the framing story by me. When it's all done, it'll make one beautiful 'braided' novel. And I chose the individual stories by how they fit together thematically.
Nrama: Then let's talk about the themes you guys are exploring In November. What's issue #1 like?
Simone: This issue is a blast. It starts off with a group of badass mercs from all over Hyborea. They're sent to track Red Sonja back to be tortured and killed for a treason she has allegedly committed. They're called the "Grey Riders," and it's drawn by Jack Jadson, who is doing a great job on all the framing sequences.
Along the way, they hear Nancy Collins' horrific story of a heist gone wrong, a fantastic Savage Sword-style story by this Bram Stoker award-winning novelist. It feels very classic, very barbarian, and the art is by the wonderful Noah Salonga.
Collins: My story's called "The Eyes of the Howling God", and it was written as a tribute to the early days of the old Savage Sword black and whites. It's a straight-up sword and sorcery story, set during the earlier days of Red Sonja's "career," back when she was a thief.
Simone: Then they encounter Sonja in an amazing pirate story, by the incredible Devin Grayson. We were blessed enough to get Carla Speed McNeil to do the art. I mean, Devin and Carla, together. Come on.
Grayson: My story is a nautical tale of betrayal and revenge, in which a young woman discovers a startling contrast between how she imagines her future and how it is being imagined for her. Unable to change her fate, she rashly settles for extracting revenge, which, between you and me, is just a terrible, terrible idea when you’re on a boat. But she takes matters into her own hands, quickly losing control of the situation and thereby setting Sonja — a woman with great personal agency who nonetheless honestly would have much preferred to just drink her way through the voyage — into damage-control mode.
I guess at its heart the story is about personal conduct; what it feels like when you’re not in control of your destiny and what it looks like when you are.
And there’s a giant cephalopod in it, because, seriously, how cool are they, right?
Simone: It's very delightful to me to have these two women come back to comics especially for this project. When I was still a hairdresser, I corresponded with both of them and they gave me completely invaluable advice on starting out as a writer even though I was a complete stranger. Nancy's Swamp Thing and Devin's Batman are key characters in my evolution as a comics reader. And they came back for this. That's thrilling to me.
Nrama: It sounds like a lot of fun, especially the opportunity to all email each other.
Simone: One of the funnest things was, we all had a fangirl moment over someone on the list. The comics writers were squeeing over being on the same project as the prose writers, and the prose writers are big fans of the comics writers...I don't know, I never knew comics could be this fun.
But there's something important going on, as well. I have heard many excuses over the years for why there are so few females writing mainstream comics. Many, many, many.
It took me 15 minutes to compile this list of names and email them all, and within a day and a half or so, we had compiled one of the most impressive line-ups of female writers to ever appear in a comic. I mean, it was that fast.
I think it just shows it can be done. So many people said yes so fast, that we had to leave a bunch of wonderful creators out of the project this time. Hopefully we can try something like this again someday!
Possibly the most fun project I have ever been part of in comics, for real.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you three ladies want to tell fans about your work on Legend of Red Sonja?
Collins: Just that I had a lot of fun writing the story, and I hope they enjoy my addition to Red Sonja's canon.
Simone: It's sex and swordplay and serpents and all the stuff you love about Game of Thrones, except without that obnoxious Joffrey brat. It's fun comics by people who did this project out of love. And I can't wait to talk about the artists we have lined up for upcoming issues!
Grayson: I hope fans get to see more work like this, but none of us can guarantee it. The quality of the project, the lineup of talented writers — many of whom do not normally work in this medium — and the gems of original story-telling carefully collected and strung together into a red-carpet showpiece…it’s an incredibly unique, hugely exciting and artistically striking project that will also end up being a great read full of action, adventure, humor, danger, magic, mayhem, flying red tresses and chainmail bikinis.
Legends of Red Sonja is an event, and you do not want to miss it.