I Read Comics: Rat Queens, Issues 1-5

Rat Queens #1

Rat Queens #1. Image is property of copyright holder, displayed under fair use only.

I hope my friends in Tucson had a great time at the Festival of Books last weekend. I certainly did, though I was only able to attend on Saturday. So let’s talk books!

Today I want to offer an enthusiastic recommendation for Rat Queens, an ongoing series of fantasy comics from Image that I picked up a few months ago after reading a review of the first issue at the Mary Sue.

Set in a D&D-esque universe, Rat Queens begins with the plight of the town of Palisade. Once beset by monsters, the community is now facing a new crisis–the adventurers who cleared out the monsters have refused to leave and are becoming a public nuisance. The comic follows the exploits of one rough and tumble adventuring party of four snarky gals, the Rat Queens, as they grudgingly carry out their community service only to stumble across a new, mysterious threat.

Aside from a few clunky expository moments in the first issue, the writing is fantastic, if what you are looking for is wacky escapism and witty banter. Writer Kurtis Wiebe has a firm understanding of what makes fantasy RPGs both appealing and absurd. The result is a great blend of humor, violence, and genuine drama, with an extra dose of Whedonesque subversion of tropes thrown in.

The Rat Queens themselves are vibrant and amusing characters who really feel like members of a real D&D adventuring party–the kind of raucous, scatter-brained, and snarky party that people would actually play. We get a little bit of character-building squeezed into the first five action-packed issues, enough to give the four gals a sense of depth and leave you wanting to learn more.

The art by Roc Upchurch really pops and does a great job of working with the writing to convey the personalities of the characters. It’s bright and cheery without falling over into cartoonishness and is able to clearly depict the sometimes complex action without getting lost in details. Probably my only complaint at this point is the fact that some of the violence has been unnecessarily graphic.

The first five issues cover a complete story arc that introduces the Rat Queens and their world, but it’s just the start of what I hope will be a long-running series. Given that Rat Queens has been consistently selling out each issue, I’d say odds are good that it will be around for a while.

Now is a fantastic time to start following the comic. The trade paperback collecting the first five issues, Rat Queens: Sass & Sorcery, is hitting shelves March 26. That gives you plenty of time to catch up before Issue #6 arrives in May. Check it out!

Things I Learned from Rat Queens, Issues #1-5

  • Humor can enhance drama. Rat Queens is funny, really funny much of the time, but because of that when things get serious the shift in tone packs an even greater emotional wallop. Furthermore, while the bickering between the characters is a source of a lot of the humor, it also often reflects deeper tensions that are driving their actions. It’s good to be reminded now and again that you can add some mirth to stories without sacrificing their dramatic heft.
  • Archetypes are there to be played with. The four members of the Rat Queens–Hannah the Elven Mage, Violet the Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Human Cleric, and Betty the Halfling Thief–are all based on classic D&D adventuring roles. But the comic uses those archetypes as a starting place to build the characters and question how they ended the way they are. Beer-guzzling, head-bashing Hannah has little in common with the typical bookish, frail wizard. But we also get an inkling that she is driven to act this way as a means of rebelling against her parents. Violet is something of a dwarf hipster (she was shaving her beard before it was cool), which is a manifestation of a deeper independent streak that has created rifts between her and her clan. Dee is an atheist who abandoned the Lovecraftian cult of her parents to seek out larger truths. Betty takes the hedonism and mischievousness of D&D halflings to a whole new level, which makes it hard for her to connect with people who’ve grown out of her hard-partying lifestyle. It’s an example of how even well-worn tropes can still be useful if you put in the extra legwork to flesh them out and play with them.
  • Don’t be afraid to make your magic modern. Although world the Rat Queens inhabit has a “fantasy medieval” flavor, the people in it have a thoroughly modern outlook. The same is true of some of the magic they employ–I’m thinking in particular of a sequence in the first issue where Hannah has a strained conversation with her mother through a channeling stone, which is conveyed with all the language and visual cues of taking an inconvenient cell phone call. It’s a funny moment, but its also a worthwhile way to think about how magic can be put to use. Just as sometimes modernity must look back to history for inspiration, so too should “historical” fantasy look to the present for ideas about how magic can be put to use in place of technology.
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