40 Years of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur: The First Issue and an Unforeseen Consequence

When I decided in early 1976 I wanted to start a Robert E. Howard fanzine, there was already a bunch of them being published, including Amra, Cross Plains, Fantasy Crossroads, The Howard Review and REH: Lone Star Fictioneer. Entering such a crowded field was not exactly a logical thing to do, but I was never much for logic, so I dove in. With little money and no contributors, I started out by contacting other fanzine editors (Jonathan Bacon, Arnie Fenner, Dennis McHaney, Byron Roark and Wayne Warfield).  I had been in contact with Glenn Lord for about a year prior to starting TGR. I asked them all for advice and referrals for contributors and artists. I also reached out to a few friends who shared my interest in Howard.

At least two of the fanzine editors tried to talk me out of starting a new REH zine saying there were already too many of them (toward the end of 1976, one of them proclaimed everything about Howard was already written and there was no future for Howard studies and fanzines).

I managed to get contributions from Warfield, Roark, Bill Wallace (a book dealer, collector and fellow Howard fan), James Bozath (a local artist and Howard buff) and Elaine Kuhns (my aunt and a professional astrologer). I wound up writing well over half the issue myself. Not something I intended, it just worked out that way. Howard fiction was in the works, but I was anxious to get the first issue out, so I charged ahead. That first effort was a meager one, but I could see the potential for improvement as I was adding more names of potential contributors to my Rolodex (link to information on a Rolodex added as a courtesy to younger readers).

At the tail end of the issue there was an article I wrote comparing the two versions of Red Sonya — Howard’s and Marvel’s. It was actually a filler piece – I had a few pages I needed to fill to get the issue up to a 44 page count.

At that time, various other Howard fanzines were getting plugged in the letters sections of Conan the Barbarian and other Marvel publications featuring Howard characters. So I sent Roy Thomas a comp copy of the first issue with a cover letter hoping he would do the same for REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. I was in for a rude awakening when I received a reply from Thomas.

Apparently he took umbrage at my criticism of Red Sonja and decided since it was not in line with the Marvel way of thinking, he was not going to plug REH: Two-Gun Raconteur in any of the Howard related comics or magazines. Of course I was disappointed and thought it was unfair, but as someone once told me, “fair is a place where they give blue ribbons to pigs.” But it was Thomas’ sandbox and he got to decide who played there so I quickly moved on with no hard feelings toward Thomas.

Here is a slightly abridged and lightly edited version of that infamous article:

Red Sonja is based on an original Robert E.  Howard character named Red Sonya. Red Sonya appeared only once in a story called “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine, January 1934). “Vulture” is a historical yarn set in the 16th century during the siege of Vienna by the Turks. The story is one of Howard’s best and when it was adapted into comic form [Conan the Barbarian] it still retained most of the excitement REH wrote into it.

The Conan version appeared in Conan the Barbarian #23 with Barry Smith’s beautiful version of Red Sonja. The following issue also featured Sonja, but after these tales, the “She Devil” went downhill. We next saw her in The Savage Sword of Conan #1 sporting a ridiculous new costume – a scale-mail bikini. Her first solo tale appeared in that same issue and she popped-up again in Conan the Barbarian #’s 43-44 in a tale based on Dave English’s “Tower of Blood.” A second Sonja solo story was published in Conan the Barbarian #48 and she was at last given her own series in Kull and the Barbarians. After that magazine folded, readers were screaming for more of Red Sonja and so Marvel Feature was created with Sonja in her own four color series. Four rather dull issues have appeared to date.

My main gripes with Red Sonja are the lack of realism and the fact that the strip has no direction. Howard’s Red Sonya was like all his other characters – real in the sense that she was an individual. Sonya dressed realistically; REH described her thusly:

She was tall. Splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine, Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was carelessly thrown a cloak.

As you can see, there are a number of differences between the two. Personally I wish Thomas had left Red Sonya in the sixteenth century since Howard created her for that era. The sword woman from Rogatino did not get her fighting ability from an “angel,” but rather in numerous fights where she had to be quick with a sword or pistol. In fact, to my knowledge, none of REH’s heroes or heroines had their fighting skills given to them – they learned them the hard way.

The lack of direction is another problem. Most of Red Sonja’s adventures take place in “Darkwood Forest” and I am sick of all the trees. Get her on a ship or in a sizable city; anywhere would be an improvement over that inane forest. Sonja, like the other Howard characters in Marvel Comics, should have a quest or goal in her wanderings; this would make the “She Devil’s” tales more interesting.

I think, with a few changes, the strip could improve 100%. First, get Red Sonja back into some decent clothing, that thing she is currently wearing only appeals to the adolescent readers. The original Barry Smith version of Sonja would be ideal, but I doubt if anyone would listen to my suggestions.

In the Howard version of “The Shadow of the Vulture,” Red Sonya hated her sister Roxelana because she was Suleyman’s mistress. Perhaps vendetta or quest could be worked into the Red Sonja comic; a goal or constant protagonist would greatly improve the tales.

I am not trying to tear the strip down, just offering a few opinions. The stories are fairly good swordplay and sorcery; however they are not very Howardian. Bruce Jones and Frank Thorne are a good team, but neither is suited for this type of heroine.

But when you come right down to it, the readers of Red Sonja like her as is. Hopefully some of them will realize that the so-called Howard character is pretty far removed from anything he wrote.

Damn, I wrote this piece nearly forty years ago. I’m old.

Editor’s Note: As I noted in my editorial in the current issue of the TGR print journal, there will special postings here from time to time in the coming months on the publication history of the print journal. This is the first of those posts leading up to the publication of 40th Anniversary edition of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur next June.