March 1, 2014

, , , ,   |  

Rat Queens is Comics Royalty

Rat Queens 
Written by Kurtis Wiebe
Illustrated by Roc Upchurch
Image Comics

Rat Queens is a serious, thoughtful meditation on the nature of what it means to be --- sorry, I'm just messing with you. Rat Queens is actually a wildly funny, sweet, raunchy, moving, violent, silly fantasy tale written by Kurtis Wiebe that's winning a lot of people over with its combination of fantasy tropes (deconstructed and otherwise), strong female characters and relationships, and laugh-out-loud humor. All of this is winningly illustrated by Roc Upchurch, who excels in this series at both violent, intense action, and small moments.

It's the story of four women, Violet (a dwarf), Dee (a human), Hannah (an elf) and Betty (a halfling) who live in the town of Palisade. They comprise the "Rat Queens", a crew of adventurers whom the local merchants have come to despise as they seem to bring trouble wherever they go. Pretty quickly in the series we learn that someone's trying to kill not only the Rat Queens, but the other local bands of adventurers as well (those include Peaches, the Four Daves, the Brother Ponies and Obsidian Darkness - all great names, particularly when you see the groups of adventurers).

The Rat Queens and their fellow adventurers fall siege to attacks, and what's left of them regroup and try to figure out who's trying to kill them. They go about trying to figure this out, and eventually have to deal with a related problem, which is that (FYI) when you kill a troll, his girlfriend might just come after you (so think about that before you do anything rash). In the current issue of the series, we get epic battles, occasionally gory violence, nice resolution and respite for our characters (including some drinking, drugs and dwarf-on-Orc sex), and we get an intriguing setup for the next arc of the series.

There's a lot that's great about this series. Start with the Rat Queens themselves - each of them has a distinctive personality and throughout the series we get a lot of great, meaningful background and back story for each of the Queens that's nicely integrated into the main story (for example, any self-respecting female dwarf has a beard - I didn't know that).

We get humor, a lot of humor. This is a hilarious book. I actually thought the initial issue may have laid the humor on a little thick, but as the series has progressed the humor has been nicely balanced with a lot of both heartfelt and dark moments. Some of the humor comes from completely anachronistic points- Betty the Smidgen (great, optimistic, hilarious character) is tasked with bringing dinner for everyone and she opens up a bag filled with candy and drugs, or when Hannah gets a call on a mystical rock which functions like a cell phone.

This series has some fun deconstruction of the fantasy genre: Among other moments, one of the Rat Queens (Violet) makes a "badass" pronouncement of bloodlust, and Betty grades her poorly on it; Violet admits that she had been holding onto that particular quote for a week.  There's a danger in having too many of these "meta" story beats; making the book overly self-referential and "winking" can take the reader out of the story.  However, the creative team seems to have found a nice balance, as this isn't just a satire or send-up of the fantasy genre; come for the humor and occasional D&D jokes, sure, but stay for the deeply characterized friendship between the Rat Queens.

These are characters who work well together, have known one another for a long time and clearly love one another. All of this comes across well in the story, such as in a sad and touching scene where Betty turns away from a woman she cares about because of the loyalty she has to her friends; you really feel her sadness and her loyalty.  I wish most superhero team books were this effective at portraying friendship and allegiance between characters.  The effectiveness of this scene is really carried by Upchurch's fantastic depiction of facial expressions - emotions are really spot-on here.  So, even if you're not naturally drawn to the Fantasy genre, this is a great, warm, funny, action-packed and bawdy series, well worth a look.