On March 7, 2021, the world lost an artistic icon. Frank Thorne gave us the Red Sonja we know and love today, plus so much more.
“It is with a heavy heart that we learn of the passing of Frank Thorne. No creator played a more prominent role in shaping and defining RedSonja as we know and love her today. His indelible artwork was a perfect match for the character and influences many to this day,” tweeted current Red Sonja publisher Dynamite Comics earlier this week.
Thorne was a well-decorated artist with work across many genres. He received the National Cartoonists Society award in 1963, a San Diego Inkpot Award in 1978, and a Playboy editorial award. He and his wife Marilyn had been married since 1956 and were still very much in love with one another. In fact, the couple passed away six-hours apart from one another.
Frank Thorne: The Beginning
Born in New Jersey, Thorne began his artistic career in the late 1940s and built a name for himself working on everything. His early projects included drawing for romance books, pulp magazines, various advertising campaigns, and a Perry Mason newspaper strip. His pre-Red Sonja credits also include work on The Green Hornet, Flash Gordon, an adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Twilight Zone.
Then came the character that would become the staple of Thorne’s career. Thorne began drawing Red Sonja in Marvel Feature #2 in 1976. Though Barry Windsor-Smith was Red Sonja’s original artist, Thorne gave us the Red Sonja we know and love today. He then followed Sonja over to her own self-titled series and continued working on the character for much of the rest of the decade. He would describe his time on Red Sonja as an experience that opened up his desire to draw beautiful, often sexualized, warrior women in fantasy stories.
Thorne was also a strong presence in the early cosplay community, often appearing at Red Sonja lookalike contests at conventions in character as “The Wizard.” Paul Levitz, former President of DC Comics and comic book writer, in his own tribute, dubbed Thorne “probably the first working mainstream artist” to embrace cosplay as a key part of fandom.” Given that cosplay is a HUGE industry today, Thorne’s influence certainly left its mark.
Although he would always have a love for Red Sonja, in 1980 Thorne began the work that he would go on to call the favorite of his career- providing cartoons for Playboy magazine. Thorne did many of the racy one-page gags that Playboy is known for and created a comedic character named Moonshine McJugs who had her own sexy backwoods adventures.
An Industry Remembers
Numerous professionals in the comic industry expressed sadness at Thorne’s passing on Facebook. Paul Levitz wrote, “Bidding farewell to Frank Thorne, an artist who progressively developed his style into a more and more personal expression. I had the pleasure of working with Frank in his later DC days, when he did some magnificent work for the mystery titles, and stepped in to pencil for Jim Aparo on The Spectre, matching his storytelling approach carefully to Jim’s,” Levitz wrote. “But Frank had the best time of his career on Marvel’s Red Sonja, who he made both powerful and sexy,” he continued. “He was probably the first working mainstream [artist] to revel in [cosplay], becoming the Wizard who acted with Wendy Pini’s Sonja at show after show. A man of talent, charm, and great wit. Good journey onward, Frank, you will be long remembered.”
We can’t sum up Frank Thorne any better than his friend Walt Simonson, who shared his thoughts about Thorne on Facebook when he heard the news. Here’s how it ends:
He was terribly modest about his work, but I was a big fan, following it throughout the years, and it was a delight to me and Weezie to get to know both him and his wife. Godspeed, Frank and Marilyn. Thank you for both work and friendship. I’m glad you could go together.”