Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Rat Queens Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery

I rather enjoyed this trade paperback, containing the first five issues of writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch's ongoing series, but I also found it pretty disappointing.

That likely had a lot to do with my expectations being rather elevated. While I'm hard-pressed to point to a particular review of the series online, I've gotten the impressions from blogs and online media that it was a pretty popular and well-loved series. That, and I have a friend who has referred to it as her favorite thing ever, and indeed had gone so far as to always having it in her bag so that she can begin re-reading it yet again at a moment's notice.

So while yes, it's pretty funny, it's not the best thing ever, and, in fact, there's not a whole lot to it.

Rat Queens is essentially just a typical sword-and-sorcery genre comic, set in a Tolkein-descended world so heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons that I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Wiebe wrote it with role-playing game source books and oddly-shaped dice. Its title characters are an adventuring party representing your four basic character classes (Fighter, Magic User, Thief and Cleric), each belonging to your four basic humanoid races (Human, Elf, Dwarf and "Smidgen," Rat Queens' version of a Halfling or Hobbit, save they lack the big, fuzzy feet).

There are a few things that differentiate their comic from, say, IDW's officially-licensed D&D comics.

First, and perhaps most notably (if not noteworthy), the characters are all women. I suspect that has a lot to do with the book's popularity among many readers online, and it has certainly played into the marketing of the book (the copy of the back cover of my trade says that it is "like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!", for example; I recently saw a quote from Wiebe referring to it quite marketably as "Lord of The Rings meets Bridesmaids," which did make me wish it were being adapted into a film right this minute). While the characters are all women, the comparison to Tank Girl is an apt one. They are violent, hedonistic and the creation of two men, appearing as male fantasy characters; they're women who could just as easily be men. The gender neutrality is admirable, of course, but it's also nothing to stand up and cheer about.

Second, there's more than a hint of the self-aware to the comic, which doesn't take itself all that seriously, and regards the conventions of role-playing games and sword-and-sorcery settings as something each and every character involved are as aware of as the readers might be. The main conflict of the first story arc involves the troubles suffered by the town of Palisade because of all of the adventuring parties that have made their home base there.

Thirdly, and most significantly, is the language. The Rat Queens, the name of our heroines' party (oh yeah, and each party has a name of its own, as if they were a gang, rock band or roller derby team), swear like extremely creative sailors. Sailors who have spent the majority of their time at sea quietly thinking of new and terrible and insults, so as to make more colorful the blue streaks they swear...which accounts for a majority of the dialogue. The swearing—and thus the dialogue—reminded me quite a bit of the work of a Transmetropolitan-era Warren Ellis. I can remember few plot points from Transmet, which I haven't re-read since it first came out, but I still remember the phrase "two tugs of a dead dog's dick."

Perhaps related to that is the fact that while our leading ladies are definitely the protagonists, they're not exactly heroines. I'd have to dig a player's manual out of a dusty box in my mother's attick to consult to be sure, but they all seem to be more along the lines of Chaotic Neutral or Chaotic Good than your more typical Lawful Good; they main thing that compels them to be decent human beings humanoids is their loyalty to one another.

In this first chunk of the series, we open at a Palisade town meeting, where the townsfolk and merchants discuss what should be done about al the adventuring parties that have been hanging around, getting in bar-fights and destroying stuff. Five such parties are arrested after a rather epic drunken brawl, and each handed an assignment to do in order to work off their sentences.

All are ambushed by assassins, which lead those that survive to suspect they were set-up, and thus an investigation ensues. Each of our heroines additionally has her own sub-plot running through these issues, which will remain unresolved by book's end.

Smidgen Thief Betty wants to commit to a serious relationship with a girl she likes, but that girl thinks the Queens are a terrible, terrible influence. Dwarven Fighter Violet has run away from her home and family, and her brother seeks to bring her back. Their leader, Elven Magic-User Hannah, seems even more reckless and callous than the rest of her team, and has a strained love-hate-love relationship with the sexy captain of the town's guard. And, most amusingly, human cleric Dee atheist.

That was the one aspect of the book that I thought really transcended the more surface-level action/violence-and-colorful swearing pleasures of the book. Clerics, in D&D parlance anyway, are a player class of warrior-priests with access to powerful magic that comes from their devotion to a particular deity. They're something of a cross between a fighter and magic-user then, as they are able to use many weapons and to cast spells; clerics literally kick ass for the(ir) lord.

So an atheist cleric is, in and of itself, a pretty good, pretty subversive gag. And the fact that Dee's particular god is N'Rygoth, a Lovecraftian squid god, but that she and her family talk about him people in the real world would talk about God or Jesus is, well, it's a joke that never stopped being funny to me.

Upchurch's artwork is quite strong, and he does a fine job of creating a wholly compatible world out of the various races and their vaguely medieval-esque setting—which honestly looks more like a Western artist's conception of a Japanese video game RPG-based manga world than something straight from Tolkien or Gary Gygax. The action's good, the acting's good and he manages to draw the women as sexy without ever descending into exploitation—in fact, given the attitudes of the characters, the artwork seems like it could probably bear to be a little more exploitive.

The one character I did not care for, in terms of visual design anyway, was Violet. Female dwarves don't get a lot of attention in narratives in which dwarves play big roles, so it's nice to see one prominently featured here. That's a glass ceiling no one ever thinks of breaking!
Upchruch's female dwarf, however, doesn't look all that...dwarven. She's slightly shorter than the human character, and slightly thicker—but here "thicker" just means curvier, not more stocky. (For what it's worth, Upchurch's male dwarf doesn't look all that dwarven in stature either). Additionally, she has apparently shaven off her beard, which was a surprise to me, as she never has a bit of stubble, five o'clock shadow or even the occasional nick from shaving. How does she get such a clean shave, and why can't I have one? I generally look like a bloody kiwi after shaving. Do they have enchanted razors in the Rat Queens-iverse?

Upchurch has since left the book after his November arrest for domestic violence. I don't suppose that knowledge will make anyone who hasn't yet read this first volume terribly eager to seek it out, but whether he's guilty an ultimately convicted or not, I suppose it has little bearing on how well he draws. He draws well. That knowledge did nevertheless hang over my reading experience like a pall, however.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with my friend then, this is not the best thing ever, it's not even the best comic ever, nor even the best subversive Dungeons & Dragons-style comic ever (certainly not compared to Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim and company's Dungeon, or Joe Daly's Dungeon Quest), nor even the best feminist Dungeons & Dragons-style comic ever (DC/TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, since collected into trades by IDW, has it beat on that count).

But it's pretty good and, as I said, I rather enjoyed it.


Anonymous said...

Aw, man... I knew Upchurch had gone off the book. Hadn't heard any explanations. Just figured, y'know, deadlines. Grim.

Agreed on the series, sadly: Rat Queens is pretty fluffy. I dug on it for a while but have since let it drift for lack of any real forward momentum.

Anonymous said...

(Honestly? It made me extremely nostalgic for Snarfquest.)

Bram said...

I can see how it might be a bit of a letdown after all the hype several issues in, but it was awfully fun to watch play out, not knowing anything about it, and only knowing the writer from more serious stuff.

Plus, yeah, it's fun. How many series do we actually say that about?

Ha! Snarfquest. I defy anyone to not want to break out the Dragons and d20s after reading.