Monday, December 28, 2015

Sword and Sorcery Cliche No. 2: Barbarian Bikinis [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I believe the movie was Spartacus (1960) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. In an early scene, the trainer of the gladiators is showing the new recruits how to kill an opponent. Using a large paintbrush, he dabs on color in three spots, explaining these are the three most vulnerable places on the body. With a cruel switch he cuts at the throat, the belly, and the knees. Why do I mention this? Because if you look at Red Sonja's steel mail bikini you'll see it covers none of these.

Red Sonja was created in 1973, not as an adaptation of a Robert E Howard character, but as an amalgam of Howard's Sonya of Rogotino, CL Moore's Jirel of Joiry, and just plenty of sexy '70s goodness. And who am I to argue with the commercial results of selling sexy babes to fan boys everywhere?

But it raises the question: where did such ridiculous armor come from? Whether it is Sonja's steel attire drawn by Frank Thorne or the equally common fur version for less divine opponents painted by Frank Frazetta? The fur and steel bikini is our second sword-and-sorcery cliché and it has its own history, of course.

The 1960s was a time of expansion, even explosion, for fantasy, whether in print or on the silver screen. It was also a time of changing ideas about sexuality, freedom, and identity. So for every feminist staking out more territory for women there was a paperback with a sexy lady on the cover or a movie with a semi-clad starlet in it. In this way, Ray Harryhausen was one of the first filmmakers to have a beautiful young woman as the centerpiece to the film. Not that he had to animate them. Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC (1966) was quite capable of wearing her own fur bikini. This was not a sword-and-sorcery film, but when Harryhausen would produce later films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) or Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), he was sure to include Caroline Monroe and Jane Seymour in revealing Arabic garb.

In the paperback world, an area of increasing expansion since World War II, artists like Gray Morrow produced numerous fantasy scenes for novels costing only ten cents to a quarter. His work was solid, but nothing compared to the furor that Frank Frazetta would create when he began painting covers for the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs for ACE and the story collections of Conan for Lancer. Here women wore as little as possible, regardless of whether they were on the sands of an alien planet or in the snows of Cimmeria. This sounds as if I am putting down Frazetta's work. Nothing could be further from the truth. To look at a Frazetta is to peer into a frozen moment of action and magic. His work sold as many books as the thundering great words of Howard or Burroughs.

Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) was a classically trained painter. Unlike the goofy-looking SF covers of a decade before, Frank's images were so believable, so real in the moment of time in which they happen. You didn't stop to say, hey, isn't that gal a little cold standing there in the snow as she's about to be eaten by wolves? That was the power of Frazetta's brush. A power so enchanting that Betty Ballentine published best-selling collections of his work. I can't imagine the '70s without those volumes containing his paintings and sketches.

Whether they captured your imagination or not, Frazetta did perpetuate the fur bikini-ism of Harryhausen, as lesser artists jumped on the Frazetta bandwagon. What Frank could pull off in a flurry of excitement, they could not. And so the cheesy sword-and-sorcery gal with the impossibly huge sword became a favorite of artists making their money at SF conventions (along with that other fave, the gal with the incredibly large bust and a smoking laser rifle).

The transition from fur to steel occurred quite by chance. Red Sonja appeared for the first time in Conan the Barbarian #23 (February 1973), drawn by Barry Smith with a full shirt of mail and sexy hot pants. But Smith left after Issue #24, and Roy redesigned the character's attire when simple dumb luck put an image in front of him. This was an unsolicited, single page, black-and-white illustration by Spanish artist Esteban Maroto. Unlike American (or British, if we included Barry Smith) comic artists, Maroto brought a Roccocco flourish to his art. The bikini Red was wearing looked more like something you'd hang on your porch to catch the wind than a suit of armor.

Roy Thomas saw the potential and so the first issue of Savage Sword of Conan (August 1974) bore a Boris Vallejo painting with steel bikinied Red Sonja and Conan fighting a crew of undead warriors. (These Boris Conan covers are oddly important to me for as a fourteen year old I had a T-shirt emblazoned with a Boris decal that declared to the world my status as a sword-and-sorcery nut. I never quite got around to having a Frazetta painted on my van though.) The look had arrived. Red Sonja, wearing steel coins where any reasonable person would want thick leather and metal armor, danced across Marvel publications, sword in hand. Artists like Frank Thorne would draw Sonja in regular sized comics, attend conventions with steel-bikinied fangirls (including Elfquest's Wendy Pini) and even do his own racier version of Red called Ghita of Alizarr in the '80s.

We are stuck with the fur and steel bikinis. They are part of sword-and-sorcery's history. (As is the terrible movie version of Red Sonja starring Brigitte Nielsen from 1985. Strangely, Brigitte never wore the ridiculous steel bikini but a Romanesque leather corset with fur trim. Not sure why this was so. Red's steel attire was part of her draw. Plenty of cosplay costumes proved it was possible to make such a garment. Perhaps Nielson refused to wear it?) I like to think that we can set this cliché aside now, laugh at our simplicity back in the day, and return to something closer to what Catherine Lucille Moore conceived with her Lady of Joiry back in 1933. But if Dynamite Comics, the latest copyright holder of the She Devil with a Sword, is any indication, I'd better not hold my breath.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.


Anonymous said...

And they didn't fight with much more armor in Spartacus. But sure, fantasy has to conform to reality. That's why Conan often wears less than her in comics starting with Conan the Barbarian #23/24 where Sonja was introduced and later when she's in her usual togs and Conan is still in his nappy.

Unknown said...

In point of fact the chainmail bikini may be more realistic than many people believe.

Anonymous said...

The artist who popularized (and probably originated) the brass brassiere style was Earle K. Bergey, who was the cover artist for numerous science fiction pulps in the 1940s


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