Rat Queens Vol. 1: SASS and SORCERY
Rat Queens #1-5
Writer - Kurtis J. Wiebe
Artist - Roc Upchurch
Editor - Laura Tavishati
Creators - Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Please note: this is another collection that is not appropriate for children.
Another installment of adorably inappropriate collections in the Eisner Awards, Rat Queens was intended as a Kickstarter campaign before Jim Valentino optioned it for Image Comics. Described as Wiebe’s love letter to his old D&D and Fantasy-reading days, he also described it as a mash-up between Lord of the Rings and Bridesmaids, citing the rowdy quartet of women that the story primarily focuses on. With its first issue releasing in September 2013, it quickly received both fan and critical praise; this review covers its collected trade, entitled “SASS and SORCERY”.
Level of Artwork and Craft
There’s a very distinct charm to the combination of cuteness and violence in Rat Queens, and Upchurch crafts a fantasy universe that feels fun and accessible at all times. “Accessible” is the keyword here: the artwork hits a happy medium that appeals to both new readers and established comic followers alike, adding a sense of familiarity and visual in-jokes to keep both types of fans happy. The effective use of blood splatter on many of the pages adds another layer of complexity, and these details make readers subconsciously excited for the piece, especially in times of combat. A prime example of this is in the fifth issue, as Violet takes an arrow through the side of her neck. The look of shock, the dried and crusting blood of orc mingled with her own, and the subsequent panels all build a stage for amazingly expressive and detailed storytelling.
Story Pacing, Movement, and Cohesion
No real complaints in this department. I do have a bit of a gripe about the summation of the volume, especially in the transition of tone from issue four to issue five, but that’s more of a stylistic gripe than anything else. I personally felt that the major plot points were solved in a very abrupt manner, but this was to my delight in the long run, since it afforded time to learn more about the backgrounds of the Rat Queens. The overarching story of the volume pales in comparison to all of the off-hand side stories that were hinted at; as someone who is constantly picking apart narrative this is a refreshing change of pace, but does cause some concern, since many stories strive for this balance but come up short. A great example of a story that reaches this main story/side story balance is Peter Panzerfaust, which is another piece that Tavishati has editorial work in. I hope she can strike gold again with this book in the future.
Wiebe and Upchurch create this oddly specific mash of modern ideas mixed with fantasy stereotypes and tropes in the Rat Queens, and their characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the book. The group consists of four women: a Hippie Smidgen (read: Halfling) Rogue, an Atheist Human Cleric, a Hipster Dwarven Fighter, and a Rockabilly Elven Mage. I understand that it sounds cringe-worthy, but I promise you that it is handled much better than expected. Their portrayal with each other and with others is the best part: fiercely loyal to one another, yet a real danger and nuisance to anyone else. These are the kind of girls at the bar that you wish you were partying with, and may the fantasy gods have mercy on the man who tries to buy them a drink. (Hint: It will end only one of two ways - either with a hospital visit or an extensive tour of their bedroom, depending on what type of mood they’re in.)
What is most alluring about these women are their pasts, their desires, and their needs. In only five issues, we learn about the yearning for love and a normal life, twin brothers and birthrights, the search for identity outside of religion, and parental relationships, all in bits and pieces that the reader can string together. This is completely glossing over the fact that their quirks and personalities define the narrative even further, getting to know about their ridiculous drug habits, social anxieties, and their quest for counter-culture through a series of mishaps and chance luck. All four of these women feel like unrelenting forces of nature, and it’s definitely a treat to see them aimed at certain tasks and finding the most creative and disgusting ways to overcome obstacles.
Depth of Theme and Thematic Reach
If you’re looking for a thought-provoking piece to mull over, you have absolutely come to the wrong place, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is only the first five issues of what appears to be planned as a long ongoing series, so depth of theme is only touched on at times, and not present for most of the story. This is unadulterated lady-aggression at every turn, and the estrogen is cranked up to eleven the entire time. I hope that this genre of no-nonsense and vulgar women really takes off, because the genre is in sore needs of not only women that young girls can look up to, but women who defy stereotype and social convention as well. I am in no way saying that I want my future daughters to emulate the Rat Queens in any way, but I am saying that they should be afforded a ridiculous outlet for their women-rage, in a way that’s equivalent to me watching mindless action flicks. I’m definitely looking forward to how Wiebe and Upchurch will make this intellectually challenging, but I wouldn’t want you to expect that from this volume.
Utilization of Sequential Art Medium
In-panel, the artwork works well with the subject material, in a way that’s intuitive and inventive at the same time. Readers are led to be involved with the book in fun ways, like imagining tone and voice and unfolding the main mystery alongside the characters, while the absence of sound and music lets the reader take in the story on their own terms. Two great examples of this is the fight between the assassin and Sawyer and the “perception check” that is assessed by Betty, the Smidgen Rogue. Sawyer is only ever shown to fight once, and promptly dispatches of a master assassin in three to four panels. With such a serious and dark tone applied to the scene, the penultimate panel is Sawyer slicing the hands off of the assassin and, well, reacts in a very atypical vernacular. It’s up to the reader to decide on tone and amount of hilarity, and leaving it to the reader’s imagination has always been a strong indicator of a great comic.
Mentioned above, Betty gets to portray what a Perception Check would actually look like performed, and the use of inset panels and repeated pictures lends well to the scene. What made the scene noteworthy was not what was relevant to her task, but was wasn’t relevant, since the citing of the missing wedding ring offers a glimpse into the character’s psyche that didn’t involve candy, drugs, or random sexual encounters. Through all of this ridiculousness and vulgarity, the placing of panels weave a story of their own, either with our imagination’s consent or without it, and never has the reader miss out on its simple enjoyment.
This was a hilarious, estrogen-fueled tale to begin with, and there was never a time that I wasn’t enjoying myself. Filled with characters that you wish you could meet, a backdrop of adventuring, and the loyalty of friends and loved ones, this has all of the qualities that it needs to be a successful series, and its first five issues have had a great start. Written with cleverly vulgar dialogue and accompanied by an art style that contains both simplicity and complexity, I understand why this is such a fan-favorite, and am excited to see more adventures of the Rat Queens. I’m sure the narrative will become more complex later, but in this particular volume, I suggest sitting back and enjoying the ride. You know, while also making sure that there are no young and impressionable children around.