I cannot remember what book or movie first kindled my love of fantasy, but I have no doubt that over the years that fire was lit primarily with hours and hours of Dungeons & Dragons. It is a sad truth that most fantasy works have little in common with the collaborative stories tabletop roleplayers create with their friends. The trappings are the same–orcs, clerics, fireballs–but the tone is wildly different. For all their virtues, Tolkien, Jordan, and their ilk rarely show their characters bantering through the tedium of yet another forest slog to mop up yet another goblin tribe. They leave out the moment where the adventurers share a rueful grin because they know their leader’s plan is just as dumb as her last three, but it will still be fun to watch it fall apart. Most of all, epic fantasy misses the congenial core of a tight group of friends leaping wholeheartedly into something gleeful and foolish.
Writer, Kurtis J. Wiebe, seems to see fantasy my way, as the Rat Queens (Betty, Dee, Hannah, and Violet) are just a close group of friends. They’ve banded together, not out of shared ideals or a need to save the world, but they just want to make a buck by killing monsters. During fights, they rely less on planning and preparedness than stubbornness and luck. In their off hours, they display all the character flaws you’d expect of someone who’d rather fight a troll than get a steady job. Hannah’s would-be boyfriend is mad at her for wiping his memory, Dee’s not on speaking terms with her evil cultist parents, and Betty thinks a sack full of lollipops and hallucinogenic mushrooms makes for an acceptable lunch.
All these anti-heroic foibles are good for a laugh, but the five issues that compose this first collection also take the time to develop meaningful characters and relationships. For example, I love that Betty, a halfling with the giant daggers and sack full of psilocybin mushrooms, is deeply troubled when another character suggests that the Rat Queens might not be good company to keep. Her concern is justified and compelling. The Queens teeter on the edge of virtue and likeability and are more interesting characters for it.
Roc Upchurch’s art hits just the sort of playful and messy aesthetic this story requires. His characters mug, smirk, and bleed profusely. Eyes are gouged out and arms are terribly mangled and Upchurch strikes a nice balance between enjoying the fantasy violence and wallowing in the gore. Between well-directed action sequences, I appreciated his emotive faces and character designs that inject just enough modern hipster into the Rat Queens’ clothes, hair, and tattoos to match the characters’ attitudes and the book’s meta-fictional anachronism.
Upon reaching the end of this volume, I was ready to recommend Rat Queens to everyone I know. And then, I pared out those who would be turned off by the fantasy setting, those who would be distressed by the violence, and those who would be offended by the profanity and drug use. Basically, this book isn’t for everyone. It’s well aware of its niche status and swings for the fences within that particular audience. On the other hand, the strength of Wiebe and Upchurch’s execution should push Rat Queens to wider acclaim.