By Long Shot contributor Valentino Zullo
As comic book fans we know that summer has arrived when the newest company-wide event series begins. This is usually a major crossover that includes or at least impacts most of a publisher’s titles. Of course Marvel and DC are both offering big crossovers—Convergence and Secret Wars respectively—this year (though DC’s crossover did end in May). For any non-comic book reader confused about the “event series” or “crossover,” don’t worry, even long-time comic book fans can get confused! All you need to know is that these crossovers allow for a publisher to place a number of their characters into something of a giant playground where they must work together to defeat a common foe (that’s more or less the idea!). Before I digress too far into those two other crossovers, though, I want to turn to the reason why I am writing this guest blog. As I way saying, for comic book fans we know that summer has officially begun when we see the newest event series on the shelves at the comic store. As DC and Marvel offer their crossovers, which aim to change the landscapes of their respective universes, Dynamite Entertainment is taking a slightly different approach to their summer event this year. While universe hopping is still a focus of Swords of Sorrow (Dynamite’s big summer crossover), one of the main purposes of this crossover is to showcase the work of a number female creators working in comics right now and additionally to bring together the many female characters housed under the Dynamite Entertainment imprint. I recently finished reading the newest installment of the Swords Of Sorrow crossover and I want to try to take a stab (all pun intended) at reviewing and exploring some of my thoughts while reading this series so far.
Before I begin I have to confess that while I have read comics for about twenty years now, I have never read a comic published by Dynamite Entertainment. However, as I was reading Gail Simone’s social media posts about this upcoming event and the announcements circulating around it, I became intrigued and invested in it before it began so I decided to give it a try. I was thrilled to see a book that featured so many female characters and the work of numerous female creators. I knew that it would be a wonderful experience even before reading it because of the writers attached to the project, which includes Gail Simone, G. Willow Wilson, Marguerite Bennett, Nancy A. Collins, Mairghread Scott, Leah Moore, Erica Schultz and more! As a quick aside, it seems that Swords of Sorrow is one more example of what is truly a paradigm shifting moment for the female hero in comics. Marguerite Bennett and G. Willow Wilson, who are writing some of the Swords of Sorrow spin-offs also debuted their A-Force series for Marvel last month—a comic which features an all female Avengers team. We are clearly in the age of the female hero as female creators, characters and consumers finally hold the spotlight.
Back to Swords of Sorrow: the main series is written by Gail Simone, who many know as the writer of various female led books including Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Tomb Raider, and Red Sonja. I must admit that even though I have been a fan of Simone’s work for some time—Birds of Prey #62 was my first DC comic book as I had only been reading Marvel as a kid—I have never read any of her work for Dynamite before Swords of Sorrow. Simone has a magic pull, though, she has been able to get me into DC and now Dynamite (Oh! and Dark Horse because I recently began reading her Tomb Raider series). I digress, but thank you Ms. Simone!
For those of you not yet reading Swords of Sorrow, here is a brief introduction. The story goes as follows: the villain, who calls himself the Prince, has found a way to gain control over reality itself. In order to insure the success of his plan to perfect his newfound power and take complete control of reality, the Prince has gathered together a team of female villains that are wreaking havoc across the universes, attempting to stop anyone that would get in his way. In response to the formation of this cabal, the Traveler, a female hero, assembles her own group of female heroes from across time and space including Red Sonja, Lady Zorro, Irene Adler, Vampirella and many more of Dynamite’s characters. Each one of these heroes is granted one of the “Swords of Sorrow” in order to defeat the Prince. The two sides have only begun to form but this is the basic premise thus far!
As comic book readers we recognize this classic storyline executed to create a fun romp across time and space that brings together characters that otherwise may not be given a chance to interact. Not only is there such fun dialogue that emerges between characters who would otherwise not meet, but it is wonderful to see so many female characters interact with one another. More importantly not only do these women interact with one another, but they learn to work with another. We witness this countless times in the main series and the many spin-offs. For example, one of the goals of the evil Prince in the Swords of Sorrow: Masquerade and Kato one-shot is “turn them against each other.”—the “them” in that sentence being the two women who are learning to work together. The Prince has learned of The Traveler’s plan to thwart his evil scheme and attempts to split the heroes from one another so that they cannot stop him. In the short space of time, though, Masquerade and Kato learn about one another and in turn learn to care about each other. A similar point is stressed in the second issue of the main Swords of Sorrow series as one of the female villains working for the Prince, Bad Kitty, says to him “They’re introducing themselves but they don’t seem to like each other much, Prince. You leave them be and they might well do themselves in and save us the trouble.” She is referring to Red Sonja and Dejah Thoris who have just met one another and have not yet learned that they are on the same side. Once again the villain’s emphasize the need to separate these women and create splits between them. Of course, Dejah Thoris and Red Sonja do begin to work together by the end of the issue. Through some growing pains these women learn to trust one another and begin to work together.
Today I just finished reading the Swords of Sorrow: Black Sparrow and Lady Zorro one shot, which depicts the burgeoning partnership between these two women. In the comic, Black Sparrow is transported a little bit over 100 years back in time where she meets Lady Zorro—a figure she has looked up to since her childhood. After the two escape a skirmish with one of the lackeys of the Prince, the two women regroup in the forest. As they are talking, Black Sparrow says to her new partner, “every little girl who wields a stick like a sword knows the Legend of Lady Zorro. Including me.” This last statement is so important because Black Sparrow acknowledges her debt to Lady Zorro and sees her as a powerful figure—one that inspired her own strength. By the end of the story the two women stand together as Black Sparrow states, “ Whoever the enemy…” and Lady Zorro finishes the sentence, “ We will be ready for them.” In contrast, to this support and partnership that evolves between these two women, the Prince is depicted as a jealous villain, often in rage, who cannot even consider working with others as equals. One particular scene in this comic depicts the Prince looking into a wall of mirrors, which allow him to gaze into the different timelines where he can see that the women, all the main charcters of this crossover, are working together. The reader sees him gaze into the mirrors, which depict the dynamic duos of Black Sparrow and Lady Zorro, Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler, Jennifer Blood and Vampirella, among the many other pairs of women. The Prince is infuriated by what he sees, because now Lady Zorro and Black Sparrow are also working together because his hired help could not stop them. The Prince says to his underling, “perhaps I put too much faith in you.” What is very important to note here is that the Prince’s rage at seeing these women work together successfully seems to suggest that what bothers him most is not simply that his plan is failing, but that these partnerships have emerged. This is notable because the Prince on the other hand has no ability to work with another (especially as an equal). Thus, in some ways this scene posits that it is certainly maddening to the Prince to see his plan fail, but in some ways it is ultimately worse in his mind that these women have begun to work together.
In these keys scenes, Simone and the other writers offer us more than a commentary on in-fighting between women or a lament on this ongoing problem. In fact, rather than a simple critique or a lament, these creators provide images of women working together and supporting one another despite the evil wishes of the Prince who hopes to separate them. I want to stress the importance of these moments and make this distinction between a simple critique and Simone’s Swords of Sorrows’ examples of powerful women working together because they offer an alternative to the classic image of women competing with one another for an object such as a man. Serendipitously, Taylor Swift releases her music video “Bad Blood” the same month as Swords of Sorrow began. You can watch the video here:
There is a similar effort and tone here as Swift, Simone, Scott, Collins, Bennett, Wilson, Moore and Schultz envision a world where women support one another and do not need to be pitted against one another. In fact, the only women that are competing amongst themselves are the villains. The Prince even says to his team of villains, “You are not here to work together. You are here to work for me.” These women are not supposed to work as a team for the Prince but rather as agents working independently, competing with one another while under him. In Simone’s a narrative then in-fighting is regulated to the ream of the villains while the heroes present a powerful alternative of women growing together. Again, I wish to stress the importance of seeing women work together successfully because in a world where so many films, comics and other media do not pass the Bechdel Test, it is so essential for women (as well as men) to see other women not only talk to one another, but spend time learning about one another and in turn developing together.
In an interview with The Mary Sue, Simone stresses the importance of this connection between women both inside and outside of a fictional narrative. Simone states in the interview, “I do know that when I started, several women I really admired were less-than-encouraging and it really stung. They felt me getting work meant they would get less work. I did vow never to be that person. And I should stress, women like Nancy Collins, Devin Grayson and Colleen Doran were never anything less than 100% supportive. It was just devastating at the time, I don’t want that cycle to continue.” And of course that cycle does not continue with Simone. Not only has she brought together a superb team of women writers that work with one another, but she has also gathered a number of female characters that work together in the story. In the same interview with The Mary Sue, Simone says that what she wants to do is provide a reader with many examples of what women can be. In answer to a question in the interview she claims, “Oh, the same thing I hope they got from Birds of Prey, and Wonder Woman, and Red Sonja. That there’s no real limit on what female characters can be in comics. They can be strong and weak, funny and dour, compassionate and cold, they can be all the fun things and the strong things and the bad things” Simone and the other female creators certainly do this well as there are many types of women in these comics—heroes, villains and everything in between. Certainly we have come a long way from putting women in refrigerators!
I find after reading the first couple months worth of issues that I am truly invested in this series because I want to know more about these characters and how they will evolve together. In fact, I want to read the tie-ins so that I am able to spend more time with these women (and of course because I want to see where the story goes). I have to say for someone that has never read these characters before I am intrigued about each one. Simone does a wonderful job of setting up the story and continues to keep me wanting more.
I’ll likely go more in depth into some of the following issues in a future blogs but I wanted to take time to highlight this wonderful series with such brilliant creators.
If you’re not reading Swords of Sorrow and you want a fun summer romp across time and space with some excellent characterization then check it out! The next installment of the Swords of Sorrow series comes out on Wednesday 7/1/15 with the Swords of Sorrow issue 3.
I want to thank the Doug Vehovec, The Longshotist, for allowing me to write for his blog! Thank you to Dr. Vera Camden for the numerous Women’s Literature courses at Kent State University and our countless discussions on women in comics. All the ideas presented here are hers, I just filter them through the world of comics. Thank you to Amy Dawson and Jean Collins, two women warriors in their own right, and my partners at the Cleveland Public Library and the Ohio Center for the Book for their support of comics in Cleveland! All thanks to The Mary Sue for their fantastic interview with Simone that I cited heavily here. Of course thank you and congratulation to Gail Simone, G. Willow Wilson, Marguerite Bennett, Nancy A. Collins, Erica Schultz, and Leah Moore for all of the wonderful work that they have so far produced on the Swords of Sorrow series!
* * * * *
Thank you for reading the thoughtful article contributed by my friend Valentino Luca Zullo. We first met at Wizard World Cleveland and got to talking about comics (of course). Valentino does a wonderful job combining his interest in superheroes with his studies in sociology, leading several discussion groups through the Ohio Center for the Book’s Get Graphic program at Cleveland Public Library, like the Women Warriors series and this summer’s Trauma and Transformation series. Be sure to follow Valentino on Twitter for updates on those.
Special thanks to Valentino for sharing his insights and analysis of this new comic series. As Long Shot readers know, i’m a huge comicbook fan myself, so i’m especially happy to provide a space for him to write about his own perspectives and enjoyment of the genre. And, it’s always very exciting to have a new contributing writer here! If there’s any pop culture topics that fascinate or inspire you, and you’d like to write about them, please consider and Take a Shot yourself!