Near the beginning of Conan/Red Sonja #1, there is an evocative image of a lion and panther battling in the arena for the pleasure of the prince of Koth. However, the panther and lion end up devouring their handlers instead of each other. This is a powerful metaphor for the comic as a whole as both Conan and Red Sonja do violence with their words and swords. Gail Simone and Jim Zub excel at writing biting comebacks for both heroes, and artist Dan Panosian uses a variety of storytelling device from using a “bar” effect to split a larger panel into smaller ones while retaining to a classic two page spread worthy of Marvel Conan artist Barry Windsor-Smith. This combination of inventive storytelling, caustic wit, and a story built around the characters’ low-born status and hatred of magic makes Conan/Red Sonja #1 an almost perfect intercompany crossover.
Simone and Zub get to write Conan and Red Sonja as young warriors in Conan/Red Sonja #1 so these characters’ more problematic elements are on full display. They both have their characteristic freedom fighter/champion of the people elements intact, but they go about in a much rougher manner. In an early scene, Red Sonja pretends to be a prostitute to the disgusting “Lord of Beasts” (aka the guy who put on the arena show) so that she can teach him a lesson about animal abuse. However, Simone and Zub make sure Sonja has the upper hand in the situation as Panosian uses a series of inset panels to show her stealth ability as she sneaks up on the beastmaster and then runs him through. It’s more problematic to her moral compass when she is actually kill him to get a great treasure. Along with his cocky attitude and emphasis on strength rather than finesse, Conan’s speech is a little misogynistic. However, Simone and Zub makes sure he gets his comeuppance while writing Red Sonja and Conan as equals.
Dan Panosian shows off his chops as a visual storyteller in Conan/Red Sonja #1 and uses panel layouts to show the differences and similarities between the characters. For example, Red Sonja’s opening action scene is more precise with the aforementioned inset panels to show how she takes advantage of a lustful, privileged courtier. Panosian uses bigger panels for Conan’s first appearance as takes out some guards and then makes sure they know his name and Cimmerian heritage. However, Panosian and colorist Dave Stewart also show their shared stealthiness by covering their initial moments in crosshatching and a shady overlay respectively. Zub and Simone also give both characters a post-mortem one-liner fitting their voices as characters to go with the similar and contrasting elements of either character. Stewart places red (for Sonja obviously) and black (to go with Conan’s hair) in different sequences to make sure their essences are present in pages that don’t feature them physically.
Conan/Red Sonja #1 is an incredibly stylish barbarian/heist story filled with plenty of humor and bloodletting. The villains of the comic are one-dimensional and incredibly lecherous, but they show incredibly flawed so-called civilization has been and will continue to be. There is also a background mystery that transcends these baddies. Gail Simone and Jim Zub show a true love for these characters with their physical strength and moral flaws as well as the big picture themes like freedom vs. tyranny or physical strength vs. magic. Dan Panosian and Dave Stewart add meticulous detail to the heroes themselves and their worlds so that readers can immerse themselves fully in a pre-historic world where two low born thieves become the greatest warriors of all. Conan/Red Sonja #1 is highly recommended for fans of fantasy novels, sword and sorcery pulps, or anyone who enjoys a technically sound comic with layered characters and universal themes in an action narrative.