Monday, 31 March 2014

Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery Review (Kurtis Wiebe, Roc Upchurch)


Firmly set in the fantasy realm of magic and dragons, our heroines are: Hannah the Elven Mage with Amy Winehouse hair, Violet the Dwarven warrior (who’s shaved her beard off), Dee the human cleric who doesn’t believe in the gods her parents worship, and Betty the Smidgen thief, a teeny tiny girl with the ability to quaff major amounts of beer and ‘shrooms. Together, they are the Rat Queens, a band of mercs who quest hard and play hard! 

Except the playing has gotten out of hand lately in the town of Palisade and after a particularly heavy night of drinking and brawling, the Queens and the other mercs are sent on missions that are setups to get them wiped out once and for all. Will the Rat Queens survive and discover who’s behind the arranged assassinations? 

D&D, fantasy, and stuff like that generally isn’t my bag - I enjoy Game of Thrones and a few other things like that but I’m not a huge fan of the genre. And here’s the thing about Rat Queens - it’s definitely generic but it’s different because its a character driven story and Kurtis Wiebe has done a marvellous job of writing some of the most likeable and entertaining characters I’ve ever read in fantasy. 

They are bitches though - they drink, use drugs, behave callously and exactly like the young people with money they are, and normally that would put me off them. But somewhere around the second or third issue I began to really like these characters in spite of their off-putting behaviour. They are distinctly their own characters with their own voices and personalities and it’s remarkable how quickly and effortlessly Wiebe establishes this. Even though there’s magic and goblins and whatnot, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a fantasy comic; you’re reading a group of real friends having a laugh and having adventures who happen to be in a fantasy world. 

I recently read Jim Zub and Edwin Huang’s Skullkickers which is another fantasy comic and, while it’s not a bad book, I never connected with it and I think that’s because the barbarian and dwarf characters were more or less archetypes rather than unique characters (they didn’t even have names, they were simply “barbarian” and “dwarf”!). Skullkickers has a fantasy framework and the characters are part of that framework; Rat Queens has a fantasy framework but the characters transcend the framework to become something else, something much less generic. 

The plotlines work really well and develop interestingly - I love how there are consequences to their actions in the most unexpected ways. While on their main quest, they get sidetracked which plays into later issues where in the one scene when they kill a troll, the troll’s girlfriend shows up later with an orc army to besiege Palisade and avenge her fallen man. 

It also feels like a very lived in world that’s very relatable to ours. The magic Dee uses derives from a cult she has left behind but her parents are still in, like most young people with religious upbringings choosing secular lifestyles, while Violet’s fashion choices seem decidedly hipster-ish in a charming, and not annoying, way. Betty’s love troubles are very sweet - hell, her entire character is really sweet and I was rooting for her to get her girl in the end! - as is Hannah’s. Ah, awkward romance!

Roc Upchurch’s (and what a great name!) artwork is really excellent, lots of strong lines and great placement of characters in panels - he’s always doing something interesting with every character - and his comic timing perfectly suits Wiebe’s style (my favourite scene being when “old lady” Bernadette yells “I’m only 39!!!” and Hannah’s response is to stare at her for a moment and then burst out laughing in the next). I know artists hate comparisons but if I said Upchurch’s style is reminiscent of Fiona Staples’, I hope this book’ll get some more attention from the Saga community (for whom this book is really well suited actually)! 

This book has a great plot but to be honest by the end I was so invested in the characters, I wouldn’t mind if Wiebe eschewed it in the next book to focus on the everyday lives of the Rat Queens - that’s how well he writes them and how enjoyable they are to read about! 

I suppose if you’re a fantasy fan you’ll love Rat Queens but I don’t want to recommend it to a niche audience only as it has enormous wide appeal to readers outside of the genre. It’s got great characters who’re tons of fun, has a great balance in tone between fun and dramatic, it feels strangely contemporary and has great writing and art. Rat Queens is an undeniably awesome comic, guys, check it out!

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery TP

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