Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery
Collects: Rat Queens #1-5 (2013-4)
Released: March 2014 (Image)
Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607069454
What is this?: The mercenaries of Palisade are targeted for death, and four female adventurers — the eponymous Rat Queens — search for answers.
The culprits: Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and drawn by Roc Upchurch
I like fantasy settings, as everyone who has read my Conan the Barbarian reviews has guessed. (Why else would I keep reviewing them?) I like humor comics, or even comics that think they’re funny. But I am a bit of a Marvel zombie, which explains why I had yet to read Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery two years after it was released.
To be fair, I still wouldn’t have bought the book had I not needed something to get free shipping on an Amazon order with a birthday gift for my mother. But the price point was right, it sounded like fun, and I hate paying for shipping, so here we are.
Rat Queens is set in a low-fantasy world, and writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are not interested in extensive, Tolkien-like worldbuilding. The characters and institutions are given names that wouldn’t be remarkable in our world. The world is restricted to the city of Palisade and its environs, with a few hints of the world beyond: a magical college that Hannah, an Elven wizard, attended, and … well, wherever Dee, the priest, grew up. We see four civilized races — humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Smidgens, the Halflings / Kender / Gnomes of the world — but we don’t see what makes these races different from each other. (Dwarven females can grow beards, which … OK, is not that unusual.) The non-civilized races are generics: goblins, orcs, and trolls.
The entire book feels like an RPG that the players aren’t taking seriously. The protagonists are named Hannah, Dee, Violet, and Betty; other adventuring groups are named “the Four Daves” (the members are all named Dave), “the Peaches” (they all dress in peach-colored clothing), and “the Brother Ponies” (four guys with ponytails). The humor is usually sophomoric — no complex wordplay here — and the characters concentrate on (mostly) sanctioned killings, booze, drugs, cursing, and sex. If someone had told me Rat Queens was based on a real Forgotten Realms campaign set in a city like Baldur’s Gate or Waterdeep, I would have believed it.
The humor is largely successful, even if it is unsophisticated. Being funny will make people forgive a lot of faults — just look at the women who date unattractive comedians — and that’s what happens here. Rat Queens is very self aware, knowing its fantasy RPG tropes and amping them up: gleeful carnage with grisly injuries, showing frustration rather than fear when confronted by unnecessary battles, not looking very hard at the shaky mechanics of divine spells. When the reader is laughing, it doesn’t matter that the setting looks like D&D splashed with whitewash or that adversaries are as deep as an oil slick but without the breadth. The book rarely takes itself seriously, and the jokes proceed at a healthy pace — because Anubis knows if they didn’t, readers would start looking around and wondering about the story.
There’s actually nothing wrong with the plot, but Old Lady Bernadette does point out a large flaw: the Rat Queens (and other mercenaries) get away with too much on their violent sprees. Readers customarily identify with the protagonists, but it’s hard to disagree with Bernadette. We see them inflicting major property damage without much punishment, and we’re left to infer that they don’t pay restitution; one of the Rat Queens tries to impersonate the head of the city guard and gets a few hours in jail, while another of the Queens robs the Merchants’ Guild and gets away with it. No wonder someone’s trying to kill them, since death is the only punishment that will stick, and it will actually make Palisade safer.
Wiebe doesn’t neglect giving the protagonists depth and backstory. We get a sense of each character: Hannah, the Elven mage and Rat Queens’ leader, is vengeful and powerful; Dee is a priest who doesn’t believe in the squid god who gives her spells; Violet, a Dwarven warrior, lacks repartee skills despite her preoccupation with what’s cool; and Betty, the Smidgen thief, is an amoral mushroom addict whose real problem, according to the woman she wants to date, is her awful friends. The characterizations fit well in a world that doesn’t take itself seriously.
Occasionally, however, the story will snap to a halt for a serious character moment — Violet’s conflict with her twin brother, Dee leaving her home and faith behind — before the plot’s gears grind, and the humor slowly ramps up again. (Hannah’s more serious moments with the captain of the guard, her ex, and Betty’s attempts at romance work much better, perhaps because they aren’t taken quite so seriously.) Some characterizations are unexplained (or perhaps unexplainable). Dee, the atheist priest, somehow develops a crippling, unexplained social anxiety between the book’s beginning, when she brawls and drinks in bars, and issue #5, in which the Rat Queens host a party. Betty is extremely perceptive but still wears an awful shirt. Hannah is described as “rockabilly” on the back cover. As she has no connection to music, and she seems neither a rocker nor a hillbilly, I have no idea what this can possibly mean. (Perhaps it’s a reference to her pompadour-like hairdo? I doubt many rockabilly musicians were heavily tattooed and wore corsets, though.)
Upchurch’s battles are a mixed bag. On one hand, he never skips on the violence and blood; these battles are savage and dangerous, and his art always communicates that. However, his battle choreography is frequently confused, as it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other or to other landmarks.
Perhaps more contentious is his depictions of the Rat Queens. Blurbs on the back contain praise for the protagonists’ looks from the Mary Sue and CBR column / tag Comics for Girls. Each admires Upchurch’s ability to make the protagonists look like real women. I’m not sure of that; they look more like real people than the women in most superhero comics do, yes, but they are still abnormally attractive females, and they wear impractical, sexualized clothes — Hannah wears thigh-high boots, a miniskirt, and a bustier into battle (and the rest of the time, but it’s not quite as impractical in day-to-day life), while Dee always wears a loincloth that exposes most of her legs. Betty wears a top more suited to clubbing than adventuring. Even Violet, the practical one, has what appears to be boob armor from certain angles. Additionally, the characters are introduced in Sass and Sorcery in a series of pin-up poses. There’s nothing wrong with the way these women look, but it’s strange that Upchurch is being praised drawing characters who always wear the same sexy clothes, regardless of the situation. Agency solves the problems the humor doesn’t, I suppose.
I enjoyed Sass and Sorcery, enjoyed it enough to read the next volume. It’s fun! It’s as deep as a mud puddle and nowhere near as reflective, but even if that doesn’t change in future volumes, the series is still worth reading.
Rating: (3.5 of 5)