Strangely Dressed Ladies: Gail Simone’s Swords of Sorrow
by Travis Hedge Coke
Jack Kirby predicted it! C L Moore made it possible! Dynamite published it! Chad rated it three out of four stars on Good Reads! But the laurels, the cape, the mask and arms and credit go to Gail Simone, godmother and auteur of the saga of interleaved pop narratives called, Swords of Sorrow!
I almost skipped Swords of Sorrow, a five hundred page crossover Event made up of interlocking miniseries and one shot comics, bringing together various properties owned or licensed by Dynamite, from Sherlock Holmes supporting characters to Red Sonja, developed for and formerly of Marvel Comics. If I had to judge by the cover of the collected edition, I likely would skip it. The cover is horrible. The cover is, in many ways, what the comic and its introduction by Simone are making fun of. The talent involved in the actual comics brought me in, and two cover artists in particular (Tula Lotay and Robert Hack – I have to stop and stare every time!). Simone put together some beautiful teams on the various comics: Nancy Collins, Dave Acosta, Emma Beeby, G Willow Wilson. And, Dynamite owned a dynamite cache of characters for them to pull from.
1939 America. Victorian England. Ancient fairytale times. Barsoom. San Francisco. Hell.
Vampires. Werecats. Masked vigilantes. Sword and armor warrior. Secret agent. Adventurer. Jungle friend.
Swords of Sorrow works a balance beam made of intellectual structuralism and experiential emoting. It is an adventure comic, a horror comic, a comedy, a tragedy, and pop spectacular. Swords of Sorrow is simultaneously a look at women in pop media over the centuries, in the adventure, science fiction, horror, mystery genres. The opening introductory text, credited to no one, addresses us as “fellow travellers,” and offers explanation for the ordering of the comics and a suggestion that they can or should be reread in other orders. I love when a comic wants you to flip back and forth. Rather than read each page before the next, to selectively move through the package, from page 20 to page 72, from page 200 to page 43. And, it brings us in. We are not readers, nor a passive audience, not even passengers, but travellers. Explorers. We are intrepid AF.
But, also, as we explore Swords of Sorrow, we learn that traveller as more meanings than only the traditional. For one of the two motivating parties of this entire affair, a war across time and space between a woman and a man, is called, “Traveller,” but as we come to know that this man, this woman, that this is the story of Snow White, and he the handsome prince with necrophile tendencies, who is she? Is this traveller, Snow White?
Swords of Sorrow reminds me of one of my favorite novels, Charlotte Lennox’s 1752, The Female Quixote, a work easily overlooked for being “a female version,” and daring to have “female” right there in the title, but a work that helped from the anglophone novel, and one whose narrative and concerns ring still valid and relevant today. The Female Quixote is about an Eighteenth Century fangirl, patriarchal society, and the almost inevitable condescension of men. Arabella reads too much Romance, and has all kinds of ideas, but after much comedy of errors and back and forth verbal sparring, when there is a genuine genre-style crisis, who takes action? Arabella. Arabella knows what to do if brigands attack, if a princess needs hiding, if she and her friends stay out too late in the city. When a priest tells her that by arming themselves against rape, she is inciting her friends to danger, she tells the man abstaining from all sex and protected politically and socially to shut up.
As a new Nancy Drew dawns on television, it can be hard to remember that there are worlds of difference between Drew as she was created, the Nancy of the 1950s revision, later television and comics uses, the feature films of old and less old. There have been myriad Nancys Drews, and the original was young, quick, daring, drove too fast and committed small crimes to solve bigger ones every day like it was lunch. The 1950s saw rewrites to keep her at the speed limit on the roads, and also to wipe out some of the racism, beginning a long delineation of Nancy as the nicer than nice girl. I love the 2007 Emma Roberts movie, which also gets overlooked for its surface appearance despite being helmed by the writer/director of Bad Dreams, The Craft, and Hamlet 2.
Arabella and Nancy do not appear in Swords of Sorrow, but this is the same conversation had with different characters, the same approach of the genre girl in the multi-genre world, and how it’s always girl, even when it is clearly women.
In her introduction, Simone mentions taking care not to title the Event something like, GirlFrenzy (a real – no wait, two real events published by DC Comics!) or HotChicks! The cover they collected it under looks like a cover for HotChicks.
Swords of Sorrow actually opens with a pean to bad girl comics, characters from the Chaos Comics stash. Bad Kitty, Mistress Hel, Purgatori are enlisted by the Prince to stop our “good” women, in this story without heroes. Even here, in this prelude, none of the women are necessarily working for the highest of reasons. Successful, they will receive a wish come true, and one of their lot wishes the destruction of the world, so while she is fighting for the end of the Earth, the others are allying with her to not die, and not lose every Starbucks and whisky distillery all at once. Ain’t that but motive!
On the better side, the Traveller’s agents, the wielders of magic ebon swords crafted for them, for specific roles in a great spell, and their allies amongst the action-minded women of history and present, traveling through time, place to place, to save the world and their own necks. Vampirella, Kato, Lady Zorro, Miss Fury, Dejah Thoris and more pile on to stop evil machinations!
No one brought less than their A game for this Event, something you cannot always, or even often say. Events have fat to trim, they have wilted bits and someone is always dropping something in the soup that messes with the whole taste. Events are sloppy. Even controlled events, something curated by one strong artist or writer, Events in the careful hands of well-meaning editors. And, Swords makes no effort to unify under one genre, one tone, even a speed of narrative. It shoots forward, slows, dances around, wrecks itself, checks itself, gets scary, gets funny, goes thrilling on its own terms, comic to comic, scene to scene, sometimes panel to panel. No one tries to write like someone else, no one is drawing like another artist. There is neither a house style nor house element, no looming branding exercise or re-branding commercial diktat.
Erica Schultz, who lettered virtually everything, and wrote some of the comics, took full advantage of similarities between some of these title characters and their differences, the variety of settings the story makes available. Two characters may be Latin, in broad strokes, but from different eras, different places, and now thrust into a wholly separate and alien landscape and strange conflict, what does that mean there and back home?
“They DON’T make sense together, that is really the fun thing about it,” Simone told The Mary Sue, “When I was a kid, action figures were expensive and rare around my house, so Darth Vader ended up playing with Barbie and G.I. Joe, and when you’re a kid, that makes perfect sense. It’s fun, so who cares?”
Swords maintains a simple skeleton plot, so that it can play both types and famous faces from across pulp entertainment against one another and against their own and strange environs, to enliven them and to comment on our world, our situation. Leah Moore could jump on her miniseries as if it is a paratext of her insanely quality Damsels, but instead turns two adventurers from different worlds into a study of aristocracy and a hunt for monsters, men, and the future. Mirka Andolfo explores open vistas and titanic characters (at the explicit order of the writer she is teamed with, Marguerite Bennett) while Rod Rodolfo crams panels and pages tightly with angles and objects, a dense, full and inescapable world. There is a fire of creativity burning on every page of Swords of Sorrow, and also a concatenation of fannish enthusiasm. This is a place for all versions, and for believable versions of characters we have loved elsewhere, known in other works, from radio, from newspaper, comic books, movies and prose. The un-virginal Red Sonja, the great Gail Simone revision, is a remarkable strike against some of the dumbness, something earmarked as made by men of the original. It seems kind of funny, but Nancy Collins draws out some elements, including sexual, that many male writers would be coyer with, even in a Vampirella tale, especially if they were looking for some prestige or seriousness.
Truly, “Nancy Collins goes for the guts of the thing,” should not even need saying. One of the founding writers of the Vertigo imprint, Collins is a genius and brave genius.
Noah Solanga and Jorge Sutil’s colors pop and guide and make us fall in love with fights, with nightscapes, cities and snow.
It is difficult to delineate bravado from confidence, surety from quality, capability from achievement, particularly the more hands you have in action at once. Swords of Sorrow, on the talent side, on the character and genre sides, is an all in comic. It spares no expense. It is madness. It is fannish.
Strangely Dressed Ladies: Swords of Sorrow
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