Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery
Written by Kurtis J Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch
“Orcs only know one language, blood. I'm the fucking alphabet.” Braga half orc barbarian
So first graphic novel, I decided to avoid a superhero novel. Not because I dislike superheroes, I love them but because I wanted to give an example of a graphic novel not based on a superhero comic. Just to kinda remind people that there is more to graphic novels then superheroes. I saw Rat Queens after a rather frustrating hour tutoring a very nice lady at Barnes and Noble, mainly because I was explaining things badly. I paged through it and started chuckling. That's when I realized, this was it. Then I did some research for this comic and realized I would be walking into a complicated situation... I've decided to resolve this in the approved Marine manner, attacking it head on.
Written by Kurtis Wiebe, a Canadian from Vancouver who started writing comics professionally in 2009, this is actually the first series of his I've read. In 2012 he won the Joe Shuster Award (named for the Canadian born creator of Superman) for writing. Honestly from what I'm reading here... He's earned it. I hope to see more from him in the future and I honestly hope this is the beginning of a long and awesome career for him. The art of the first issues were created by Roc Upchurch... Who in 2014 was arrested for domesticate violence. He was removed from the comic soon after by Wiebe. I bring it up now because my experience is if I don't bring it up and discuss it, someone else will and then it dominates the conversation. Upchurch claims that his ex-wife hit him first. If she did (there is no independent evidence for that) then she did terrible thing, to suggest otherwise because of her gender is frankly a sexist argument (I won't get into this, this is a comic review). But that doesn't excuse his own hitting his ex-wife. Let me be blunt here, don't hit your loved ones, I know we all get emotional, but we're adults learning to control yourself is part of that. Let me repeat that, don't hit your loved ones. Mr. Upchurch is from what I can find in counseling to learn better, all I'm going to say on the matter is I hope for the best for his ex-wife, his kids and for him. Let's move on.
The Rat Queens is a fantasy comic series about 4 murder hobos who are embarking on the process of growing up... While killing monsters for money and loot. It's the best kind of growing up! But you ask, frigid, what's a murder hobo? Well reader, a murder hobo is a slang term that came out of the D&D tables to describe what it was that our characters were actually doing. See, while most of us start off wanting to do our own version of Lord of the Rings, you know a band of good and stalwart men and women coming together despite their differences to confront a great evil and stop it once and for all. We quickly move on to becoming rowdy mercenaries who fight and kill things for wealth and power. Your average adventurer group has a lot more in common with Robert E Howard's Conan then with JRR Tolkien Aragorn. Most GM's would settle for us deciding to act like John Carter of Barsoom. Not entirely moral, very greedy, hedonistic and perhaps enjoying violence a little to much to be acceptable to wider society (this is actually the main conflict of the book). Rat Queens doesn't feel like an epic fantasy story, it feels like the running in character journal of a really cool tabletop game and honestly I really love it.
While the setting is mostly medievalish, the characters are unrelentingly modern. From our four main characters (Hannah the elf wizard, Violet the dwarf warrior, Dee the human cleric and Betty the halfing thief) to the various supporting and side characters (“old woman” Bernadette the 39 year old elf shop keeper for example) are people who would fit entirely into Phoenix, Arizona in the year of our Lord 2015. As long as we ignore the point ears and so forth. Hannah is a rockabilly girl who is constantly being called by her mother and says things just to piss off her father. Violet is a hipster who turned her back on her traditionalist family to live a lifestyle they don't approve of. Betty is an utter hedonists whose favorite things are sex, drugs, booze and candy, not necessarily in that order. Dee is a woman from an intensely religious family who left due to having a crisis of faith and is currently an atheist. As a side note, Dee's family is the only one we get a glimpse of here and I really like how they are portrayed. Most writers would have been happy to write this as story of a confused young woman run out of house and home for her doubt (does this happen? All to often, but you would be amazed how often it doesn't). Instead it's Dee who decides she have to leave and her mother telling her that her family and her god (who is a blood drinking alien squid... Because of course) still love and believe in her and she can come back whenever. Stuff like that makes Dee and the others feel more like people then stock characters, their backgrounds have humanizing touches and shades of gray all over them.
The main conflicts in this book are also very gray and human. The story starts In Media Res (which is a fancy way to say in the middle of things). The town of palisade was once beset by danger and monsters and looked to a half dozen semi-organized groups of mercenaries and adventurers to fix this. The parties stepped right up and did their jobs, getting very rich in the process. Now the monsters give Palisade space and life is peaceful. Problem you still have a dozens of people whose skills can be summed up as “kill everything in a 20 meter radius” hanging around with nothing to do and money to burn. So they tend to get drunk and wreck the place in running bar battles. This upsets the good people of Palisade who want the adventures to behave themselves in public and not break their shit. This is complicated by the fact that the Captain of the Guard Sawyer (who got his job by being death on two legs) is Hannah's ex who is still carrying a torch (she ain't over him either). This leads people to believe that Sawyer takes it easy on Hannah's group (the Rat Queens) due to his squishy feelings... There's also the fact that Sawyer is taking it easy on the Rat Queens and a number of other groups because of his squishy feelings (and other spoilerish reasons).
Since they can't solve things the legal way, they attempt an illegal way, mainly hiring assassins and luring the adventurer groups out on false quests to kill them. I got a chuckle at adventurer groups on display, we have our ladies the Rat Queens, their main rivals the Peaches (Braga is a member, she is awesome and hardcore) the brony-awful Brothers Pony (in one panel and gone forever, no offense to the pony fans but I'm thankful for that), the 2edgy4me Obsidian Darkness (admit it, you played this group either in Jr. High or High School, it's okay most of us try it out at least once) and frankly my favorites The Daves (because everyone in the group is named Dave!). The Peaches lose half their number killing their assassin, the Rat Queens not only kill their assassin but the random encounter troll. We get to see the Obsidian Darkness (look... there's a lot about 15/16 year old me I don't like okay?) get wiped out. The Daves just kinda show up to the tavern intact like it was no biggie. It's during their rather hamfisted investigation that the Rat Queens start realizing that... The townfolks don't really like them all that much and see them as a problem on par with the monsters. Which for some of them is rather sobering.
One of the things I really like in this story is their actions have consequences both good and bad, finding Braga filled full of arrows and deciding to spend the last of their magical healing on her leads to the Peaches more or less burying the hatchet with them (the snarking remains of course). Killing the Troll leads to negative consequences that almost gets everyone in the town killed. Sharing information with the Daves leads to them running out into the teeth of an Orc horde to back up the Rat Queens. Violet is the one to voice the realization that they've become a very destructive force in their society and not to it's benefit and that maybe they should do better. That doesn't mean giving up on their wild parties or killing the shit out of monsters just maybe every now and again they should think some things through before wrecking the shit out of everyone in front of them. I really liked that and I can frankly see this as the reaction of a GM who has had enough of his players wrecking the shit out of his campaign so by God he is going to rub their noses in their mess ups until they get the picture.
That said the world feels rather tabletop generic. I'm hoping as time goes on and it gets more fleshed out that it'll start to take on it's own character and such. But for the moment I'm being carried along completely on the strength of the characters, the storytelling and if we're going to be frank the violence. They're really good, interesting characters in an good story though so it's not like this story has weak legs. That said, this is not an incredibly deep story, it's fairly basic about a group of young women learning to deal with themselves and other people... While killing monsters, but like I said it's well told and that's frankly enough.
Now I do want to say that this is a very adult story, there are graphic depictions of violence and gore here and the girls aren't virginal choir girls either. They remind me in many ways of a good number of my platoon mates in the Marines, which makes perfect sense to me as they're doing much of the same job and facing many of the same issues. The tone of the story despite the subject manner is actually fairly upbeat and happy and I found myself chuckling a lot. I also can't stress how very happy I was that the characters are for the most part fairly likable as a lot of fantasy stories in this vein tend to be about protagonists that I often find myself hoping die at the end of the story. Don't get me wrong, there's a space in fiction for loathsome protagonist (I completely adore hating Cugel from Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, oh that is some good hate!) but after awhile it gets wearing and tiresome... Especially if the asshole is always winning and he's got no redeeming character traits (Seg from the Warpworld reviews is an example of an asshole you can root for example). The girls are rough around the edges but in general are decent people which I can live with.
If you're a tabletop gamer like me, or you like fantasy and have a sense of humor (and enjoy watching massive slaughter lovingly drawn and inked). I would very much encourage you to pick up Rat Queens and give it a spin. That said, I would say this is an adult comic book so people under the age of 14/15 should maybe wait a few years (and if you're under 18 ask your folks first, do me a solid and don't get me in trouble here alright?). Rat Queens gets an B.
Announcement! So we're going to try something new folks! After a lot of encouragement I am going to try posting these on a schedule and frankly I think the inclusion of graphic novels might allow me to go weekly so I'm aiming for weekly releases on Friday. So this week is Rat Queens I, next week is Rat Queens II and after that at long last Ancillary Justice! Stay frosty.