I shouldn’t even like the Rat Queens: they love to wreak havoc, mostly think about booze and drugs, and seem to care about nothing more than getting wasted during giant parties. Yet, the Rat Queens comic books is one of my favorite Fantasy series, and character creation is actually one of its strongest points. A bit of an explanation is due here.
Swords and Sorcery is one of my most favorite genres, and I am eager to find good comic books in that vein. However, they usually suffer from a number of flaws: the characters are often archetypal and forgettable (the brave paladin, the morally ambiguous rogue, the mage with a mission), they easily lean towards the macho side of things (after all, Conan is one of the founding pillars of the genre), and attempts at levity and humor have systematically relied on parody and second-degree, as if the genre could either be dead serious or mocking itself. And then, just as I was starting to despair, I stumbled upon the Rat Queens, absolutely by chance.
When you first venture into the series, the Rat Queens is a group of four adventurers: Violet - a Dwarf fighter, Hannah - an Elf mage, Betty - a Halfling rogue, and Dee - a Human cleric. Not very original, eh? Except, they are not just labels put on your standard D&D characters. They are Violet, Hannah, Dee, and Betty. Violet also happens to weave a sword and be a Dwarf, and when you think about it, the D&D ‘character sheet’ is obvious, but it’s only secondary to the character. And this is the first streak of genius in the series. The characters are instantly memorable, and stick out as identities on their own. In short, they seem like real persons. No wonder they can be so infuriating and disappointing at times!
So, you never feel like dealing with the usual tropes, even though it all remains familiar. Hannah may be a mage, but she has also strange affinities with necromancy and demonic stuff. Violet is a warrior, but she is also the captain of the team, desperate to bring cohesion, efficiency, and a semblance of normality to the Rat Queens. Betty is both adorable and crazy, ready to jump on the first foe to bite it in the leg, but with deduction and observation skills on a par with Mr. Holmes. Dee invokes the darkest powers of the Old Ones to fuel her healing powers, but she also tries to escape the religious commitment of her people to these entities she fears and feels disgusted by.
As you see, your typical expectations quickly fall apart. And this is probably the strong signature of the series: it always surprises. In a genre where everything usually feels on rails, the Rat Queens series excels at bringing up fresh situations, improbable entanglements, delectable twists and subversive takes on Fantasy adventuring. When you start a volume, you just don’t know where it will take you.
The Rat Queens is also a fun series. And it’s interesting how it walks the line between parody and faithfulness to the genre. There are some obvious parody elements; for instance, when a Bard starts singing ‘Sweet blood on my blade’ in a tavern, because he only knows battle songs; or when the Rat Queens, to pay the rent, look at the available quests and many resemble the dumb side quests you find in most cRPGs. But it doesn’t hesitate to reach a truly epic scale at times, nor to explore some darker tones with gravity and depth.
What is interesting about the Rat Queens series is that, much like its wonderful cast of characters, it grew and persisted through the hardships it came by. Originally, the series was created by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch. Wiebe doing the scenario, Upchurch the art, but both shaping the series as a whole. However, over the course of Volume 2, Upchurch got arrested for domestic violence – something that didn’t sit well with the feminist tone of the series. Stjepan Sejic replaced him for the remaining issues, but then Tess Fowler got hired for Volume 3. She should have kept going but… here things get murky. Tess Fowler says she’s been evicted because Wiebe wanted Upchurch back. Wiebe says Fowler was taking over too much on the story side and he felt the series walked a path he couldn’t recognize. From the reader's point of view, it is true that Volume 3 is rather different story-wise, and it indeed resonates with some other works by Fowler (whose works I truly appreciate), but then, I don’t want to take sides in a business I don’t know about.
With Volume 4 (with Owen Gieni in the art, who did an excellent job that got only better with each volume), the series got rebooted. I guess this was the legal shortcut to drop Fowler out of the series which has now been called Rat Queens: Volume 2, back to Issue 1... Things felt completely out of place: dead characters were now alive, past events that should have critically altered the series were ignored. Volume 3 did and did not happen at the same time. It was very weird. But with Volume 5, something brilliant happened. The series embraced this weirdness in full. It mended the gap with a bold scenario trick that was bound to carry over in the next volumes. It felt enthralling and deeply satisfying: finally, everything felt whole.
Fast forward to Volume 7, the series is taken over by a new team, with Ryan Ferrier for the story and Priscilla Petraites in the art (very decent artwork, except now Betty looks like a Barbie doll). It was inferior to the previous volumes, the jokes feeling clumsier and forced, but the story was still quite entertaining. And then…Then came the final and eighth volume. This might be the crappiest piece of comics I have ever read. The story makes no sense, the art is ugly and inconsistent, it’s now clearly parodical and second-degree, completely falling over the thin line the series excelled at, it’s all gross, it’s… well, it’s a pity. But let’s forget about it, shall we?
So, as I said, the core strength of the series lies in its character cast. Violet, Hannah, Betty, Dee, and then Bragga and Madelyn, all feel incredibly fleshed out (well, maybe less so for Madelyn). The series tells their personal stories, first and foremost. It’s not about saving the world or engaging in an all-important quest. It’s about these characters. And the series is at its best when it really switches the Central Perk coffee shop for a dungeon and when a perilous adventure seems just a way for this group of friends to hang around and have a good time together. The scenes that happen during breakfast are, oddly enough, sometimes more essential to the series that the fights and the dodging of traps.
The Rat Queens is a series that has flaws, downtime, a more than unsatisfactory ending (at least, so far…), but it all builds up to something that has a true identity of its own, and, while remaining ultimately faithful to the dungeon crawl genre, brings in a level of upbeat craziness that feels incomparably fresh.