A new year brings new looks for three of the most famous female heroes on the Dynamite Entertainment roster: Red Sonja, Dejah Thoris and Vampirella. All three are recognizable characters with decades of history in and out of comics, and all three have received contemporary reinventions that are considerably more modern and noticeably less cheesecake-y.
The revamps were headed by frequent collaborators Gail Simone and Nicola Scott, with the former providing new story paths for each character, and the latter illustrating bold redesigns. These new takes will be featured in new series starting in 2016, starting with Dynamite's latest "Red Sonja" #1 in January from writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Aneke, followed by a fresh "Dejah Thoris" #1 in February from writer Frank J. Barbiere and artist Francesco Manna. A new "Vampirella" #1 is expected the following month, written by Kate Leth and illustrated by Eman Casallos.
CBR News spoke in-depth with Simone about her involvement in reshaping these characters, her love for pulp heroines, how it was "never about taking away the sex appeal," and the work she did in recruiting the writers for each series, similar to what she did for Dynamite's "Swords of Sorrow" event series, starring many of the same characters.
CBR News: Gail, how did your involvement in this movement to reimagine and redesign Vampirella, Dejah Thoris and Red Sonja start?
Gail Simone: The short answer is, I love the pulp heroines and I want others to love them, as well. And the long answer is, I have loved the pulp heroines my entire life, and I want others to love them to the ridiculous degree I do.
The truth is, all three of these classic characters had their looks designed decades ago. I love 'em, I have nothing against cheesecake and I have a real affection for classic looks of characters. But they do present a bit of a wall for many new readers. If you are used to manga and video games and someone gives you a comic with almost any Golden Age hero, there's so much there that is a barrier to you jumping in. The look, the style, the dialogue, the designs… it can be charming, it can be quaint, but it can also make the characters look dated.
I'm not saying that's the case for everyone, but we heard it a lot, and it makes it a harder sell for retailers. So that's all a factor. I think of it as part of a natural evolution… the Beatles never wanted to make the same album forever.
But the biggest one was simply wanting to polish the characters up a bit and do something fun and visual and exciting. That's always my motivation, what new thing can we offer with these amazing characters?
One of the things that struck me about "Swords of Sorrow" is that, while a story starring female heroes written by all women writers, many people might see the covers featuring a lot of barely clothed characters and not make it to the actual story. When did it strike you that it was time to change up these characters?
Again, I have a way higher tolerance for cheesecake, if done with charm and humor, and balanced out with some decent eye candy of other kinds especially, than a lot of people do. But almost no characters from decades ago have made it to this point without an updated look. Batman's a robot or something right now, I mean, art is alive. How many times has an updated version of Sherlock been presented? Seems weird to me to leave only these three characters in a bubble forever.
For me, it was never about taking away the sex appeal, or we wouldn't have asked Nicola Scott to do the redesigns. She draws some of the sexiest people and outfits in comics. And we wouldn't have chosen the writers we picked, who also are known for bringing the heat in their work.
All of us like comics that have some spice to them.
It's a chance to do a blockbuster update, those can be a lot of fun.
Do you plan to stay involved with these characters past providing the direction for the revamps? And like "Swords of Sorrow," were you involved in recruiting talent like Marguerite Bennett, Aneke, Frank Barbiere and Kate Leth to the respective titles?
I got to hand pick the writers, Dynamite has been wonderful. It would have sucked if we'd gone through all of these creative hurdles and gotten someone who didn't want to hit the throttle along with us.
I provided the initial new directions for each of the three books, and I have told all three writers that if they need me for anything, I'll be there, no matter how small or how large. But the truth is, we picked writers with vision, and it's fun just to watch them tear up the rulebook. That's what we were hoping for.
Let's look at the three characters individually, starting with Red Sonja, a character you've got a long history with. Given how long Red Sonja has had the iconic chain mail bikini look, how did you and Nicola Scott approach reinventing her while retaining signature elements? Since you're so familiar with the character, was it easy for you to recontextualize her in this way?
Oh, yeah. Again, I never thought of the bikini as "armor," and my feeling was that she lived in the Marvel version of Hyboria, where almost nobody wears any clothes. So the exposed flesh was never the big deal. It's just a look she's had for a long time, and it wasn't even her first comics look.
We went for something that had both a nod to her original costume, the one before the bikini, as well as some elements that would fit a more modern idea of fantasy. It's a bit more "Game of Thrones" or "Outlander." I think it looks just fierce, and it feels a lot more believable to me.
We gave her a cloak that she uses when she doesn't want to be recognized, so her famous hair is under that hood. When she takes it off, it's like Wolverine popping his claws. It's just kapow.
Giving up "Red Sonja" killed me, and it would have been impossible if we hadn't snagged the wonderful Marguerite Bennett, who has been killing it on "Bombshells," "A-Force" and so much more. She couldn't be in better hands.
Vampirella has a very famous and distinct traditional appearance, and her new main look is a departure. What influenced this approach? And how do you see recasting her as a Hollywood celebrity shaping the character's motivation in a way that hasn't been seen before?
Vampirella is the funnest one for me, in some ways. The truth is, I just adore here weird swimsuit outfit. So we had this problem. She needs an update, lots of people will never take her seriously in the old look, but I love that look for the history (it was designed by one of my heroes, the great Trina Robbins) and for the simple eye-pop of it.
So what we've done with Vampi is come up with a really interesting story that gives her essentially, a public identity, where she wears the classic outfit, and a private, more dangerous one, where she hunts in the new garb. It's just a ton of fun, and deals a lot with our weird, home-made media culture. It's smart, sexy, scary and funny, by the wonderful writer of Hellcat, Kate Leth, who is bringing a modern, indy feel to the book, and I love it.
Dejah Thoris is frequently seen as pretty much naked -- how do you see this new look impacting the way the character is portrayed and perceived? Did you see the most potential in exploring new terrain with her?
To be fair about Dejah, in the books, pretty much all the Martians are naked, or nearly so, in the original novels. But it's often been presented in a really cheesy way, and really, it's hard to present a great adventure story in comics form without it looking a little dated and silly.
We gave Dejah a whole new story here. It's in continuity, she's not a different character, but she's forced to put away everything and everyone she knows, and go live incognito as an entry-level soldier in the middle of nowhere. Of all the story directions, this is the one I think could be a real game-changer for the character. What happens when a princess who has everything, has to leave it all behind, even her name, in shame? To go fight a border war in a desolate land?
This kind of stuff is why I love comics in the first place. And we got a great writer in Frank Barbiere. He's going to destroy on this book.
These are famous characters in pop culture that have been around for decades and portrayed in a variety of media, and have very clear visuals associated with them. How significant of a step do you see it for the comic book industry as a whole for them to be re-presented in this contemporary way?
I think it's essential. There are very few iconic comics characters that haven't had some type of updating. Spider-Man (brief diversional costumes aside) is one of the few exceptions. But almost everyone else has changed with the times, and was better for it.
These are some of my favorite characters. I am as moved by Dejah and Sonja as I am by Batgirl and She-Hulk. I love adventure stories, I love kickass heroines. We have some of the best of all those things.
It's just that they went shopping. [Laughs]
Dynamite Entertainment's new "Red Sonja" debuts in January, "Dejah Thoris" launches in February, and "Vampirella" is expected to begin in March.