After closing the book on the third volume of Rat Queens, I wondered how I lived without them. The bawdy, raucous adventures of Violet the Dwarf, Dee the Sorcerer, Betty the Smidgen, and Hannah the Necromancer is something I never knew I needed in the sword and sorcery genre. The titular Rat Queens are a group of strong-willed and independent women who love to fight, get drunk, and partake in psychedelic mushrooms. Kurtis J. Wiebe’s love letter to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is funny, beautiful, and powered by a script that’s absolutely divine.
Rat Queens succeeds because it frequently delivers the unexpected. It also has an amazing cast of smartly designed and developed characters. The Rat Queens operate outside of social norms, much to the dismay of their employers and more “straight edged” acquaintances. In volumes two and three, the Rat Queens use their skill, wit, and charm to save Palisade—again—from the clutches of Lovecraftian horrors from the realm of the abyss. After the town is saved, the women travel to Hannah’s magic school to uncover secrets from her past and try to save the life of her father, with whom they share a complicated relationship. These adventures (which would make spectacular D&D campaigns) are supported by vignettes that explore the backstory of each character’s call to adventure. It’s fascinating to see where these women came from because their past lives are anything but clear cut. Violet’s is my favorite, not only because it reads suspiciously close to Pixar’s Brave, but it presents Dwarven women in a manner I’ve never seen before; with beards! And holy cow, Violet rocks her fine, dwarven locks.
One facet of the Rat Queens comic that deserves talking about is its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ)-inclusive message. Everyone is created equal. Many of the characters in the comic enjoy and explore LGBTQ relationships and gender roles. This is done with respect and without pandering. In fact, not once does the script ever call attention to when same-sex circumstances occur. The (awesome) Orc, Braga, who is the subject of a one-shot comic in volume three, is revealed to be a trans woman. Her backstory is rather Shakespearian; she was once the son of an Orc tribe leader destined to be its new chief. Wiebe doesn’t dwell on details here; Braga’s transition is simply accepted, both by the narrative and by the other characters in the story’s present.
As if great characters and writing weren’t enough to make Rat Queens a winner, the third pillar of its success is the artwork. The volumes bounce between different artists after the first book (due to the original illustrator and creator, Roc Upchurch, leaving the series after being arrested on charges of domestic abuse) but they don’t lose their artistic stride. Artists Stjepan Šejic and Tess Fowler pick up the pen and each brings something great to the table. I adore Šejic’s artwork because his character illustrations are so finely detailed and realistic. He gives each woman a unique look and finds ways to let their personalities shine through their posture, body language, and facial expressions. Tess Fowler has a wonderful eye for color, which was lacking during Šejic’s run. While most of his panels look earthy and a little muted, Fowler’s color palette dazzles the eyes in every panel.
Rat Queens is an enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction, one that successfully blends adult humor with good, old-fashioned cartoon violence. The characters, be they the Rat Queens or the many ancillary characters (like the candy loving snow dragon) are the comic’s biggest draw because of their representation and development, as they are shaped by their experiences. The ribald tone of the world; in which drugs, alcohol, and casual sex are the norm, may distance some readers. Although Violet, Betty, and Hannah (especially Hannah) engage in varying levels of aberrant behavior, what’s more important is that they are still treated with the respect that as women—as people—they deserve.
Rat Queens, Vols 2 and 3
by Kurtis Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch, Tess Fowler, Stjepan Šejic
Vol 2 ISBN: 9781632150400
Vol 3 ISBN: 9781632157355
Publisher Age Rating: Mature (17+)