I lay claim to the geek label on a fairly regular basis so it’s probably not much of a surprise that some of my fondest memories of being a teenager are of the tabletop role playing games we used to play. I remember having marathon sessions of Dungeons and Dragons where my best friends and I would create these characters and have them go through all kinds of crazy adventures. It’s one of those hobbies that’s slowly becoming more popular but is still a bit like mentioning you lived in your parent’s basement. And yet I think that for a lot of us, it was our first introduction to geek pop culture and something we can usually remember fondly. So it is my absolute pleasure to talk this week about the fantasy graphic novel series Rat Queens. Rat Queens is written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated by Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic. It’s a funny, raunchy take on the old school adventurers’ tale and features a group of mercenary adventurers known as the Rat Queens and all the trouble that they can stir up. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be discussing the first two volumes of the series which cover issues 1-10. It’s an ongoing series so thankfully the story is nowhere near done.
The Rat Queens band is made up of four women: Betty the Halfling rogue with an overfondness for magic mushrooms, Dee the Human necromancer whose parents worshipped a giant flying squid, Hannah the Elven mage, and Violet, the Dwarven fighter. All four women love two things most: drinking and fighting. Unfortunately, the town that they use as a home base, Palisade, is also home to a number of other bands of adventurers. All of them compete for the most lucrative jobs and as a result, Palisade goes through a nightly ritual of drunk adventurers, raucous brawls in the streets and damaged property to assess in the morning. After a particularly egregious evening, Mayor Kane decides that enough is enough and gives each group a quest that they must complete in order to continue living in Palisade. As you might expect, things don’t exactly go according to plan and it turns out that someone in Palisade has it out for the Rat Queens and all the other adventurers in Palisade. The Rat Queens must track down whoever is behind all the mayhem and the dark forces supporting them.
Without a doubt, the greatest strength of Rat Queens as a series is the characters. Anytime that I get a series with strong female characters, I have to do my little happy dance because damn do I love them. And with Rat Queens, there’s four of them! Each of the women is a fully formed character in her own right, with issues and foibles specific to them and not just a token dwarf or token mage problem. I desperately wanted them to be real so that we could be friends and hang out and they could tell me all their crazy adventuring stories. While the first volume focuses on introducing the characters, the second volume gives you the back stories you desperately craved. The relationships between the Queens and those around them were handled well, with surprisingly serious moments for a series that otherwise focuses on the raunchy and humorous. I most admired that Wiebe emphasized that whatever their little squabbles, the Queens support and depend on each other and felt exactly like a band of best adventuring buddies should.
As a fan of Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying games, I have to give major kudos to Wiebe for simultaneously satirizing and celebrating those classic D&D moments like being assigned quests and penalties to dice rolls. It was handled so perfectly in the first volume that there were countless moments while reading that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and excitedly show it to anybody who would stand still long enough. The roleplaying references take a backseat to character development in the second volume but the quality remains incredible.
And it’d be a crime to talk about Rat Queens without mentioning the superb work by Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic. Upchurch gave the first volume of the series a style that was at once comic and strangely pretty given the amount of gore and violence inherent in a story about adventurers killing monsters in epic style. Unfortunately, it turned out that Upchurch has had some problems and after being arrested for domestic violence, was replaced by Stjepan Sejic. I don’t know the particulars of Upchurch’s domestic violence issue but the quality of the artwork remained great with Sejic and I’m glad that Image Comics and Wiebe didn’t just sweep the issue under the rug. Being committed to the celebration of strong female characters just makes Rat Queens that much more impressive to me.
Rat Queens is one of those series that I fangirl over so much that it’s impossible for me to point out any flaws. Nothing is perfect or will appeal to every reader but Rat Queens is so damn close that I’m afraid I’m unable to be unbiased in my review of it. It’s a series that I force on anyone who will listen and is easily my favorite fantasy series in the graphic novel genre. And if you’re looking for strong, female characters, then Rat Queens has it all. If you like fantasy as much as I do, read this beauty immediately!