Mark Russell has a Writer's Commentary on this week's Red Sonja Volume 5 #15, on sale now from Dynamite Entertainment.
I love establishing shots. They not only keep the location of the story straight in the reader's mind, it gives the artist a chance to tell them something about the culture, about the world, that we are dropping them into. Bob Q's elaborate architecture lets people know that Khitai is an ancient and highly developed civilization, in contrast with Scorpio, the Hyrkanian raider whom we see in the very next panel.
This page does a lot of work. It sets up, in very stark terms, Red Sonja's dilemma not only for this issue, but for this series. Can she serve the man she hates most in the world in order to save the people she loves? It's actually probably the same question that a lot of grocery clerks and assistant managers have to ask themselves on a daily basis, but posed here in grander, more life and death terms. In order to secure food to the starving population of Hyrkania, she has to become the Master of War to the king who killed Domo, her mentor and a father figure to her. As Hannah says on Page 1, an unpleasant decision, I know. Also, mad props to Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou for the lettering on this page, particularly how Sonja's balloon overlays Hannah's to cut her off. Hassan's lettering always gives these issues an energy they wouldn't have without it.
I like to use flashback scenes in Red Sonja because it gives the story that extra dimension of history. That these characters have reasons to love and hate each other that goes back years. It also gives me as a writer a chance to set the table with characters who will become more important later on (like Zo'Ran) and to show Sonja's journey from a warrior who thinks only about the fight right before her to a military mind capable of seeing the bigger picture and protecting those under her command, which requires a very different skill set than someone who just charges into a battle head first, trusting her ability to fight more than her ability to think. This is the evolution that Sonja makes over the course of this series. She becomes someone who fights with her mind first.
I love this page. It's epic and beautiful world-building and one of my many favorites of Bob Q's and Dearbhla Kelly's in this series. I also really love the contrast between Sonja simply cutting a rope on Page 6 and it sending a huge bridge toppling on Page 7. It reinforces one of the themes of my run of Red Sonja, which is that seemingly little actions set forth huge consequences we can scarcely foresee. So think carefully about them.
In this scene, we see Domo's mentorship of Sonja. She's just come back from a victory in which she more or less single-handedly defeated a band of tribal raiders and is probably expecting some kind of medal, but instead, Domo checks her cockiness. He reminds her not to be results-oriented. That a stupid gamble is a stupid gamble, even if it pays off. That if she is going to be entrusted with the lives of others, she has to be more careful with how and where she puts them at risk. It's a lesson she learns well and puts into practice as the series goes on.
Sonja decides to make her faustian bargain. She chooses to serve the living rather than honor the dead, just as Domo would have her done. She signs on to serve the man who killed her mentor in order to feed the starving thousands back home. An unpleasant decision, I know.
Here we learn, as does Sonja, more about Khitai and how it runs. A great and once stable empire, it has done away with its former balance of powers and has instead invested total power in its young new king who, in a lot of ways, represents the opposite of what Domo trained Sonja to be. He's arrogant and impulsive and sees the role of his court to be less about advising him and more about bailing him out from his own poor decisions. It culminates in the unveiling of Khitai's new emblem which, replacing the three interlocking hands that represented the stability of the old order, is a single clutching hand grasping at the air. This is also a visual theme of the series. One might recall that this is similar to the design of the Tower of Wigur-Nomadene. A single hand clutching at air is used throughout the series as a visual theme representing ambition and its ultimate futility.
One thing that a long run on a title allows you to do as a writer is to spend some time developing minor characters, which don't seem so minor once you get a chance to see the world through their perspective. Here we get the backstory of Tortoise, King Jo'Qhan's Advisor. he has hitherto been presented as a villain, and perhaps he is, but he has been placed where he is by the machinations of empire. This was perhaps always his destiny just by virtue of when and where he was born. That, as a boy, he was sold to the government in exchange for food so that his family might not starve. As Sonja will note in a later issue, all empires are ultimately built on the backs of children.
A brief flashback to remind us of how bad things are unraveling in Hyrkania. With all the food gone, Hyrkanians are faced with the temptation to eat their horses. This presents a grim dilemma for Isolde. It seems cruel and over-the-top to execute a starving man for eating a horse. But if she does not, then everyone will devour the horses which, being people of the steppes, would ultimately condemn them all to starvation.
Given how grave the situation is Hyrkania, Sonja understands there is no time to lose. She sends her companions back to Hyrkania with the promised food aid and abdicates her throne as the Queen of Hyrkania. Sonja has made her decision and is prepared to accept, like Tortoise, the life she had to choose to save those she loves from the slow death of starvation. It's sad to say goodbye to Hannah and Scorpio, who accompanied her to Khitai, but Sonja fully believes she will never return to her homeland.
As the new Master of War, a banquet is held in Sonja's honor. This calls back to a scene in an earlier issue where Sonja was attending a banquet with her mentor, Domo. The rabbit sigil that Sonja is wearing is the same that Domo was wearing. As he explained, it was a reminder to him that speed is more important to victory than strength. So she adopts the rabbit sigil in honor of him. But, as I've mentioned earlier, small actions have big consequences, which usually defy our ability to foresee them. The banquet is disrupted by members of the tribe that Sonja defeated years ago as seen in pages 3-6. They try to use this banquet as an opportunity to settle a score and assassinate Red Sonja and, taking her by surprise, nearly succeed.
But our actions have unforeseeable consequences, for bad and good. An old face from the past emerges to keep an eye on Sonja. Zo'Ran, who fought alongside Sonja years before, reveals himself to her. She survives ultimately, not because of her own fighting ability, but because of the loyalty she's inspired in others. And I love the emotional subtlety with which Bob Q conveys Zo'Ran's admiration and care for Sonja in this final panel. You know that this is someone who is going to loom large in her life.