The Rat Queens series is either a commentary on what it means to be a modern feminist woman or a commentary on the breakdown in communications in the post modern world. No matter what its philosophic or sociopolitical message might be, it is exceptionally entertaining and fun to read. It also makes me insanely jealous and happy.
It makes me happy for obvious reasons. The reasons it makes me insanely jealous are a little more subtle and stem from the fact the Rat Queens are a quartet of adventuring women. And they are not simple one dimensional characters who that cling to one end of the spectrum of sexual activity or the other. There is neither a slut nor an ice queen in the group, nor are they all in the same spot in the middle. It is probably sexist to make this a point, but all too often authors are incapable of making such subtle gradations so it is worth noting.
This deft handling of women characters should not make me jealous. I should simply enjoy a good story written by a good writer. But I know from personal experience how hard it is to write believable women so every ounce of joy I take in reading the exploits of the Rat Queens is faintly tainted by my jealousy of the skill with which Kurtis J. Wiebe writes them. Add to that the fact that the Rat Queens are also a fresh take on a classic D&D adventuring party made up of an elf sorceress, a dwarf fighter, a human cleric and a smidgen (apparently Halfling is too boring) thief and the book becomes an epic that is almost impossible to put down.
But maybe it will be easier to discuss the Rat Queens one by one. First is Hannah, a sort of elf Betty Page lookalike. Like all of the Rat Queens, she’s not just the pretty face she appears. In fact, she’s not an elegant, ethereal being her race would suggest but rather a foul mouthed hot head who fairly regularly attempts hair brained schemes that as often as not are a necessity because her big mouth has written a check her cute elf ass can’t cover. She also seems very young sometimes and subtly overwhelmed by the situations flying at her and the duty of leading the Rat Queens. Like most of the Rat Queens, both family and romantic issues haunt her. The former stems from the fact that her parents are necromancers and the latter stems from the fact that she has an on again off again romantic relationship with the captain of the town watch, a man who is often torn by his duty to the town and his interest in her.
Much like Hannah, Violet is fleeing from the life her family wants her to lead. In her case, it is not anything as unique as evil necromancer parents but the genre standard dwarven duty and honor. A dwarf fighter, she is, surprisingly, perhaps the least drunken of the Rat Queens and the one who gets hurt the most. In fact, she gets hurt so much it sometimes feels a little like she is not good at her job. But then her job is getting in the way of the bad guys and taking the hits so maybe she’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to. She is also reamarkably loyal and dependable. Also like Hannah, Violet falls in the middle of the sexually active spectrum, she ends up hooking up with another character by the end of the series for a very classic reason, meaning she’s no ice queen, but she also doesn’t spread her affections around meaning she’s not slut.
The last of the four Rat Queens with serious family issues, and very serious they are, is Dee Dee. Perhaps the most unusual take on any of the classes, Dee is a human cleric who just happens to be an atheist. Her family is basically in a cult. Of course the classic, “people in a cult don’t call their cult a cult” issue is briefly explored. At one point, the moment when Dee leaves her parents and cult is shown. Her reason for leaving everything she knows is essentially that she doesn’t know if she really believes what she believes if everyone she knows believes the same thing. Of course, their god is a flying squid monster who demands that they drink human blood, so there is definitely what most people would consider some cultiness in her background. Exactly how a person who doesn’t believe in a god can cast divine magic when it is specifically defined as not being the same as arcane magic is just one of the things in the book that aren’t really discussed. It’s just taken as a given, the sort of thing in the book that makes the world feel real. The people in the book are just as confused by it as the readers. Dee’s only explanation is that she’s “goddess enough on her own.” In one of the nicest reveals of the book, it turns out that Dee has a certain level of social anxiety, no doubt because of being raised in a small, insular community. What makes this nice is that, through the first 4 issues she is essentially only around her friends and it isn’t until the end of the last issue that she’s really around a lot of people. This personality quirk doesn’t even become an issue until then. Perhaps because of this social anxiety, she is the Rat Queen who is least interested in hooking up.
Betty, on the other hand, seems the most likely to fall into a random hook up. Though she is not from a classic D&D race, she is a classic combination. She’s from a race called “smidgens” but that’s pretty obviously just another name for halflings/hobbits. And as is appropriate for such a species, she’s a rogue. She’s not a malicious thief though but almost an accidental rogue. She simply seems to have a knack for being inconspicuous and taking things, no doubt aided by her diminutive size. That’s not to say that she doesn’t massacre the opponents of the Rat Queens, very often getting the killing blows through backstabbing sneak attacks. Even that seems more like events that happen to her rather than plans she’s made to do damage or hurt people. Her attacks seem more like taking advantage of opportunities than a deliberate quest for violence. She’s also a pretty serious drug user. While all of the Rat Queens are prone to getting drunk between adventures, Betty is prone to throwing some magic mushrooms into the mix, and not the kind that are spell components. Impressively, this doesn’t seem to have any effect on her adventuring abilities. One of Betty’s best scenes is when she very impressively plays Sherlock Holmes, deeply analyzing a person and location with only a few glances. While there’s never any mention of the smidgen’s family troubles, she does have relationship issues. She seems the most prone to hooking up but paradoxically is the one with the most serious relationship. The only problem is that it is relatively new and her potential girlfriend is not fond of her friends. Given the amount of violence and chaos that follows the Rat Queens and that Betty seems to be swept into it more because they’re her friends than any definitive choice, it’s hard to deny that they’re a bad influence on her.
The way the story narratively portrays each of the Rat Queens with distinct differences is good enough by itself. What is just as impressive but makes me much less jealous is the way that Roc Upchurch, the visual artist on the book does such an excellent job of making them distinctly different visually, as well. This isn’t just differences in hair styles and colors, either. For that matter, it isn’t just two of the other shortcuts many artists take to differentiate women, namely different faces or different body shapes. Instead, they each have a different body type, distinctly different facial features and hairstyles. The Rat Queens look as different as any four friends in real life. And, while all of the Rat Queens are lovely, no doubt fit because of their profession, none of them have the impossible figures that are traditional in comics.
The other women and men in the world are not ignored, in this regard, either. They are also differentiated both in features and body types from each other and each has a distinct character and personality. Even the side characters in this comic are more interesting and more fully developed than some of the D&D characters I’ve played over the years, including the Rat Queens’ love interests and some of their rivals.
The world around them is nicely detailed without detracting from the focus or action, as well. Many of the panels have a wonderful sense of motion and magic is well represented visually.
One of the most interesting things about Rat Queens is that this sideways view of a standard Dungeons and Dragons adventuring group is set in a very traditional Dungeons and Dragons style adventure in the first arc. The plot feels like one that could happen if I just sat down with my friends to play in my home game one night. While there is no dungeon crawl, the Rat Queens are very much a standard band of “Murder Hobos” despite having a home base. They’re confronted by assassins, a red herring, trolls and an orc invasion. Sass and Sorcery even ends with a hint of a larger evil that will no doubt come back to haunt the Rat Queens when they’ve earned some more experience and leveled up enough to face it.
Despite my jealousy inspired hatred for the writer and artist responsible for Rat Queens Sass and Sorcery, or may because of it, I love this series. The first 5 issue arc only made me want to read more about these highly self-confident and mostly competent women of the Rat Queens. Oh, and we’ll assume “Sass” is meant as a term of respect and not a diminutive.