Relishing the Rat Queens

With most books – or movies or TV series for that matter – there’s normally an acclimatising period for the pop culture consumer. It takes a little while to come to grips with the universe presented on the page or screen; to feel comfortable immersing yourself in that world.

Then there are those books that feel like slipping into a hot tub the second you open them. No adjustment – no exposition – is necessary. Everything just feels right. The perfect fit, like that pair of jeans you’ve worn threadbare.

Rat Queens is one of those books.

Making its debut under the Image banner in 2013, this fantasy action comic has been marketed as “Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack.” That’s a pretty accurate description. Alternatively, you could consider it a game of Dungeons & Dragons, as played by the cast of Bridesmaids.

Written by rising star Kurtis J Wiebe and initially drawn by Roc Upchurch (up to Issue 8), the series centres on a company of young female adventurers calling themselves the Rat Queens. Like the other mercenary bands based in the settlement of Palisade, the Rat Queens are a tight-knit unit whose chief activities between assignments include drinking heavily, starting bar brawls and trashing the town. Not exactly good girl role models.

True to D&D tradition, the Rat Queens are an oddball mix. There’s Hannah, a hot-headed, foul-mouthed elf who learned to do mind-blowing things with arcane power and a hubbly during her time at Mage U. Violet is a driven dwarf warrior who broke from tradition and shaved off her beard before it was trendy to do so. Betty is a sweet-hearted halfling thief with a love for sweets, shrooms and sex. Finally, there’s Dee, a human cleric and socially awkward atheist who has turned her back on tentacled sky god N’Rygoth.

The Rat Queens argue a lot – and slurs are tossed about as much as Betty – but the ladies always have each other’s back. It turns out that this is an exceedingly good tendency seeing that in Sass and Sorcery, the first volume of the series (collecting Issues #1-5), someone is intent on exterminating Palisade’s adventurers.

In describing Rat Queens, I seem to have used a lot of clichés, or at least goofy contemporary spins on them. This said, the beauty of this comic is just how unapologetic, and messy, and layered the lead characters are. Even Violet, the most conventionally heroic of the Rat Queens, is allowed to emerge from a near death experience and demand to get wasted, get high and get laid (and she doesn’t care about the order).

At the same time, though, the Rat Queens aren’t remorseless, unlikeable caricatures in the Bad Teacher mould. These troublemakers are depicted as complicated ladies of action, and they feel authentic as a result. In-between the shenanigans, the reader receives touching glimpses into what motivates and matters to these women – their loves, their fears, their relatable idiosyncrasies. It's no surprise that Rat Queens instantly passes the Bechdel Test.

As an added bonus, the women's individual personalities shine through in their practical, non-salacious clothing as well. Yup, Rat Queens passes the “Do you think they dressed themselves?” Test with flying colours as well.

Within a half dozen pages, I already wanted to hang out with the Rat Queens. Party with them. Train with them. Adventure with them. Be a Rat Queen! I wanted to live in their world, where being a hulking female orc is just as acceptable and admired as being a delicate high elf. All body types are welcome. Meanwhile, relationships span all races and sexual orientations, and are treated with universal tenderness. The legitimacy and lack of judgement that permeates the series in fact earned it the 2015 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic.

It’s no coincidence that the Rat Queens logo includes a heart. In the midst of the coarse humour, expletive explosions and liberal splattering of blood, the series still manages to squeeze in moments of surprising sweetness and emotional sincerity.

Rat Queens is the well-rounded real deal – truly inclusionary and female-friendly. By comparison, mainstream superhero comics seem to be lagging behind. The major players are stuck making largely cosmetic changes to their bro-heavy hero rosters by introducing the likes of Spider-Gwen and the female Thor. Still, for the most part this is really just a reskinning of the status quo, and the women characters remain uncomplicated, “safe” role models. (For the record, you can read this thought-provoking piece on comicdoms bland heroines).

Rat Queens, however, is true progress in terms of how women – and other groups outside the white male hetero norm – are depicted in comics. It offers a treatment that mixes risk-taking and respect. From the first page, you encounter flesh-and-blood characters; not simply types that thoughtlessly tick off boxes through their inclusion. Every aspect of these women’s personalities is perfectly integrated to create a believable, layered whole.

The only real downside to Rat Queens is that Volume 1 is so delicious - so easy to consume - that you’ll easily devour it within 90 minutes. It goes down that easy. And then you crave more.

Fortunately, Rat Queens Volume 2: The Far-reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth (collecting Issues 6-10), was released just a week or so ago, so you can indulge in one more big serving at least before recommencing your diet.

Really, I can’t recommend this Eisner Award nominee enough. 

For anyone who has superhero fatigue but still craves some dynamic, beautifully illustrated comic book escapism...

For anyone who has ever delighted in derailing a fantasy role-playing session with their contemporary real-world sensibilities...

For anyone who is simply seeking a decent story made special by superb characterisation and snappy, snicker-inducing dialogue...

Rat Queens is edgy, warm, and, best of all, loads of fun. Recruit your adventuring party, or go it solo, but get your hands on this gem.


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