Friday, May 15, 2015

Recommended Reading for 5/15: Rat Queens

So, I'd have to figure some of you, my loyal readers, are also Dungeons and Dragons players. I've played D&D on and off since high school, and have been part of a regular Thursday game group for years now, playing various RPGs and board games. And while there are plenty of fantasy comics, I can't think of many that really capture the spirit of the D&D campaign. Even the D&D comics seem to be more idealized versions of what a campaign is/should be. But Image Comics has come to the rescue with Rat Queens, a fantasy series written by Kurtis J. Wiebe that captures all the fun, action, and completely bawdy humor of a great RPG campaign.

The core conceit of Rat Queens is pretty simple: a party of four female adventurer/mercenaries go out and have mercenary adventures. But what makes the book phenomenal are the personalities, the world building, and the completely off the wall sense of humor. The comic has picked up a dedicated female fan base for its strong characterization of female characters and treatment of them. But it reaches a wide audience by being a crazy fantasy comic with a ton of action, character, and charm.

Each of the four Rat Queens (which is the name of their team/guild/party, not an indication of any affinity to rats) is of a distinct fantasy race and class. The closest thing the group of chaotic characters has to a leader is Hannah, who is an Elf necromancer. Violet is a warrior Dwarf, although she shaves her beard to stand against the old dwarf order. Dee is a human cleric of a tentacled dark god, N'Rygoth, although at the beginning of the series is an agnostic, unsure of where her magic comes from and doubting the existence of the god of her parents. And Betty is a Smidgen, this world's answer to the halfling or hobbit, who is a rogue with a knack for mixing drinks and taking all sorts of mind altering substances.

The first issue of Rat Queens opens in the town of Palisade, where the ladies live, and the first time we see them, they're standing among a group of vanquished foes... after a bar fight. And the mayor and the people of the city are very much not happy with this. I love the fact that this is an issue. So much high and low fantasy ignore the ramifications of the heroes rolling into town, but it's a major plot point here. Sure the Queens kill monsters, but they also get really drunk and cause a ton a havoc when in between jobs. After getting locked up for all the destruction, along with the other adventurers in the city who they were fighting, the Queens are given an assignment to get out of jail. So we get an inciting incident and a convenient way to meet the rivals and supporting characters, including the local captain of the guard, Sawyer, who shares a will they/won't they chemistry with Hannah. The other adventurers include groups called the Four Daves (four adventurers named Dave), and the Peaches, who are shinier looking then the Rat Queens, and are led by Tizzie, who was friends with Hannah at one point before a falling out that has yet to be explained.

The plot structure of the first two volumes is cleverly done. While trying to figure out who sent assassins to kill all the adventurers of Palisade in the first volume, and pissing off the matron of a troll clan along the way, there was a scene dealing with the merchant's guild. The very end of volume one reveals exactly what the merchant in charge was up to, and it was subtly played out throughout that volume to perfectly set him up as the big bad in volume two. It was smart plotting, and there's a lot of that here. A lot of little things that come back to prove important later on done with subtlety. Of course, in a lot of ways, that's one of the few subtle things about this book.

The joy of Rat Queens is it's lack of subtlety in some of the best ways. The ladies fight. They swear. They drink. The have sex. And it's all presented in the same way it would be if they were male characters. These are fantasy adventurers and they blow off steam like all fantasy adventurers. The swearing is one of the most hilarious aspects of a very funny comic, mixing real world swear words with fantasy situations. Issue one features Sawyer saying the chaos has made him not just annoyed, but, "hotter than a dragon getting his dick tickled." That is not anywhere near the most inventive or graphic one either, just the first. It also proves you should be careful what you say, since happy-go-lucky Betty is confused by it, pointing out that would probably make said dragon happy.

The humor is also situational, not just word games. A character met at the beginning of the first volume is "Old Lady Bernadette," a local shopkeeper who keeps getting her store wrecked by the Queens' antics. Of course, Bernadette keeps pointing out she's only thirty-nine, which falls on deaf ears. Gary, the incompetent member of the city guard, is one of those perfect comic relief characters. And Betty's reactions to the stream of mind-altering chemicals she takes just leave you breathless from laughter.

The action and violence also pull no punches. When pushed to the point of true rage, Hannah uses her powers to beat a troll to death with her own club. The fight scenes are as gory as you would expect in a world where everyone fights with blades and clubs. And it's well choreographed. The action scenes are all set to be easily followed and to allow for enough space to let the Queens banter while fighting, which is a key component to a book where so much of the humor is in the banter and the character interaction.

And there's the thing that elevates this from what could have been a simple D&D pastiche and fantasy send-up into a truly excellent comic. All of these characters are wrought with care and have interesting backstories and inner lives. It would be easy to have thrown them into the situations they're in and just played it all for laughs. But it's clear that there's so much beneath the surface.

Hannah is standoffish with a dark sense of humor, appropriate for a necromancer (that's a spellcaster who uses the power of the dead in their spells for those of you who aren't fantasy types). She has what seems to be a strained relationship with her parents; she carries a runestone that works like a cell phone, and there are a couple of very funny exchanges between her and her mother. Her relationship with Sawyer is deeper than the typical, "are they going to get together" thing; they are clearly sleeping together, but the reason she refuses to get involved more deeply is something that is teased out until the end of the volume two. But, like all the others, she's fiercely loyal to her friends.

Dee and Violet are both interesting in how the stand against their upbringing, yet still embrace aspects of it. Dee has given up on worshiping the Lovecraftian horror that her family does, while Violet wouldn't stand for being left to model armor while her less adept brother, Barrie, got to represent their clan in tournaments. But just because they're similar in history doesn't mean their personalities are similar. Violet is outgoing, a woman of action who drinks and carouses with the best of them. Dee is quieter; in one scene at a victory party, she's sitting in a corner reading a book and blows off the guy who hits on her. As someone who has spent more parties curled up in a corner with a book than he can count, I feel a kinship with Dee.

And then there's Betty. Betty is absolutely hilarious. Watching Betty make her way through life, taking every magic mushroom she can, mixing her signature drink, "The Betty," a drink it's better not to ask what's in it. While we haven't gotten as deeply into Betty's backstory as the others, she's sweet and romantic. We see her with her nascent girlfriend, Faeyri, in volume one, and how the other Rat Queens and their temperament gets in the way of that budding romance. But it works out in the end. She's also as savage a fighter as the others, and since she fights dirty, she's all the deadlier.

Original series artist Roc Upchurch did an excellent job not just setting up a gorgeous world design, but establishing the look of each of the Queens and their distinct fighting/magic using style, and new artist Stejpan Sejic runs with it even harder. The designs of each character fits their skill set and the tradition they fall in, but are distinct not just to the world, but within it as well; Hannah doesn't dress like other spell casters, and Dee's outfit mixes both the look of the city and the look of her demongod worshiping clan. They also have very distinct body types and racial characteristics. They're not all the generic superhero comic buxom look; as a matter of fact none of them are.

Rat Queens isn't like any other comic on the racks. It's a rousing, character based fantasy story with a sense of humor and action that skews decidedly adult. If you've ever played a tabletop RPG like D&D , or even an MMO like World of Warcraft, and want the feel of those sessions with friends put down on paper as a great comic, it's the perfect book to try.

Two trades of Rat Queens are currently available, Sass & Sorcery and The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth, each collecting five issues. The series is released semi-monthly from Image Comics, and is available in both formats in better comic shops.

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