By GW Thomas
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.