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Comic Character Red Sonya in Court Today

  Entertainment  -   POSTED: 2007/07/16 17:28

This week, two claims will enter a federal courtroom in Delaware. One claim will leave.

And the victorious warrior will get to take home a red-headed "she-devil with a sword" and, perhaps more important, all the revenue she can generate in merchandising and comic-book and movie-ticket sales.

The true identity and ownership of Red Sonja -- or perhaps Red Sonya -- is the focus of a federal trademark case set to begin today in U.S. District Court in Wilmington.

One company, Red Sonja LLC, owns Red Sonja -- the statuesque, sword-wielding character made popular in comic books, novels and a 1985 movie starring Brigitte Neilsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The other company, Paradox Entertainment, a Swedish firm that owns the rights to Conan the Barbarian -- and almost every other work by the late fantasy author Robert E. Howard -- has the rights to Red Sonya, spelled with a "y."

That character is from a little-known short story written by Howard in the 1930s, which was the inspiration for comic-book writers who created Red Sonja -- spelled with a "j" -- in the 1970s as a feminist answer and rival to Conan.

Mike Newcomb, 21, who works at the Comic Book Shop on Marsh Road in Brandywine Hundred, said from what he has seen, Red Sonja regularly outsells Conan. He attributes her popularity to her gender. "She's more attractive to look at," he said, something that appeals to the male comic-book-buying demographic.

Store manager Tom Trettel, 37, said the writing on Conan has improved, while the current version of Red Sonja "is basically a sexy woman in a bikini who fights monsters."

Both said the sales of Red Sonja and Conan pale in comparison to those of better-known, "A-line" comics such as Superman, Spider-Man and Batman.

But Richard Balough, the associate director of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said millions of dollars in revenue are at stake. "Anything out there in the pop culture and selling, we are not talking about small sums," he said. "That is what it all boils down to -- who will profit from it."

The claim by Red Sonja LLC seeks $5 million in damages.

The lawsuit, meanwhile, is a comic book geek's dream, and far more entertaining than the average civil filing. The briefs are filled with a detailed history of the Red Sonja character, including reproductions of covers, pages from the comic books and interviews with the creators.

In legal terms, the fight has been almost as brutal as those in sword-and-sorcery epics, with the defendants abruptly dumping one army of attorneys in the middle of the battle in favor of another and lawyers on both sides hurling charges like "bad faith" and "abuse of the process" -- the legal equivalent of body blows and uppercuts.

And more than 20 docket entries have been treated like dangerous black-magic incantations, labeled "sealed" so parts will never see the light of day.

Trettel said it sounded as if both sides adopted the Red Sonja ethic of "attack your enemy non-stop."

The lawsuit was filed in April 2006 by Red Sonja LLC, shortly after Paradox Entertainment issued a news release announcing it had completed a deal with Howard's estate to acquire the rights to all of Howard's work, including Red Sonya with a "y."

That Red Sonya appeared in the single 1930s short story "Shadow of the Vulture," in which she is described as "a tall, Russian warrior woman who carries a saber, a dagger and two pistols," and who lived in Vienna in the 16th century and fought invading Turks.

Most media outlets missed the spelling distinction and reported that Paradox had acquired the rights to Red Sonja -- with a "j" -- the one who prefers to wear a chain-mail bikini when she heads out for a flagon of ale.

According to the plaintiffs, this was intentional. They charge Paradox even posted one of the news stories with the incorrect information on its Web site. At a recent hearing, attorneys for Red Sonja LLC said Paradox also had tried and failed to acquire the rights to Red Sonja with a "j" just before the announcement.

As a result of the Paradox announcement, the plaintiffs claim that a deal for a new Red Sonja movie was put in jeopardy.

Paradox responded by not only denying the claims -- charging that Red Sonja LLC had let its trademark lapse -- but alleging that Red Sonja LLC had infringed and damaged Paradox trademarks by making references to Paradox-owned characters -- such as Conan -- and author Howard, who did not technically create Red Sonja with a "j."

According to court papers, the birth of Red Sonja with a "j" came around 1973, when one of the authors of Conan the Barbarian comic books was looking for "a roughly equivalent female hero" and stumbled on the 1930s story.

Roy Thomas changed the "y" to a "j," took away her pistols and transported the tall, red-headed warrior back in time to be a contemporary of Conan, according to the lawsuit. The rights to that character were sold by Howard's estate in 1982.

Paradox also filed for a trademark on the "Age of Hyboria," the fictional time when both Conan and Red Sonja with a "j" existed, setting up the possibility that Red Sonja LLC could win the rights to the character, but she would never again be allowed to exist in the world that has been her home since she was created.

Newcomb said whatever the outcome of the ownership fight, he expects Red to survive. "You have enough of a demand for the Red Sonja comic ... it definitely won't end," he said.

Trettel said he thought it was all kind of silly that both sides had not reached some kind of resolution by now.

Currently on the official Web site of Conan, owned by Paradox, there is a letter to "All Conan and Robert E. Howard Fans and Licensees" headlined "Clarification regarding the character of Red Sonya" that explains the difference and the different ownership of Red Sonya and Red Sonja.

Both sides agreed to a bench trial instead of a trial by jury.

While opening arguments are set for Monday, lawyers involved in the case said the trial may be pushed back due to a family emergency involving one of the attorneys.

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