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Frank Thorne, fantasy artist and Red Sonja legend, dies at 90

By Matthew Jackson
Frank Thorne Red Sonja cover

Frank Thorne, a fantasy comics artist best known for his time with the Marvel Comics iteration of sword and sorcery heroine Red Sonja, passed away Sunday at the age of 90.

Current Red Sonja publisher Dynamite Comics tweeted news of Thorne's passing this morning: "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."

Fellow comics legend and longtime friend Walt Simonson posted about Thorne's passing in a Facebook post yesterday, and revealed that Thorne and his wife Marilyn died within six hours of each other. 

"They were a lovely couple," Simonson wrote. "We had the great privilege of getting to know them over the past decade or so thanks to the kind auspices of John and Cathy Workman. Frank was a wizard of comics in any number of ways and one of the first artists whose work I loved long before I knew who he was or could attach a name to his comics."

A New Jersey native, Thorne began his comics career in the late 1940s and built a name for himself working on everything from romance books to pulp magazines to advertising to a Perry Mason newspaper strip. His pre-Red Sonja credits include work on The Green HornetFlash Gordon, adaptations of Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Twilight Zone

Then came the character with which he'd most frequently be associated throughout his career. Thorne began drawing Red Sonja, an offshoot of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian success, in Marvel Feature #2 in 1976, following the legendary Dick Giordano's early work on the character. He then followed Sonja over to her own self-titled series alongside writers Roy Thomas and Clara Noto, and continued working on the character for much of the rest of the decade. As Multiversity notes, he would later describe his time on Red Sonja as an experience that opened up his desire to draw beautiful, often sexualized, warrior women in fantasy stories, something he'd embrace through more adult-oriented work later in his career. 

After his time on Red Sonja, Thorne's knack for warrior women continued as he contributed to PlayboyHeavy Metal, and The National Lampoon, and launched ambitious projects at Fantagraphics Press that included his own original warrior woman character, Ghita of Alizzarr, which was more recently reprinted by Hermes Press.

As editor Paul Levitz notes, Thorne was also an influential presence in the cosplay community, often appearing at Red Sonja lookalike contests at conventions in character as "The Wizard." Levitz, in his own tribute to Thorne, dubbed him "probably the first working mainstream artist" to embrace cosplay as a key part of fandom. 

Though he moved on to other projects throughout his career, and though the character herself has since moved on to another publisher, Dynamite Comics, Thorne is still best remembered for his time on Red Sonja, where he helped develop the character's overall look and persona across years of stories that still echo through new tales today. Though he was not one of her original creators, he remains an essential part of the Red Sonja story, and the story of fantasy comics as a subgenre over the course of five decades.