Friday, 11 April 2014

Comic Review: Rat Queens Volume 1 - Sass And Sorcery

  As much as the world in general still thinks of comics and superheroes as interchangeable terms, you, fine and learned reader, are well aware that comics tackle a huge variety of genres, from journalism and biography to noir and sci-fi. However, perusing the shelves of your local comic book store or library, you will notice that for a medium with lot of demographic crossover with properties like Lord of the Rings, high fantasy is a little under-represented.

  Particularly when it comes to the larger US publishers, modern urban fantasy outweighs your traditional sword-and-sorcery stories by a hefty portion. I'm sure there's a whole blog post to be had in diving into the possible reasons behind this, but I won't be doing that here. The notable point is this: for a medium where a larger-than-normal section of the audience have probably played Dungeons & Dragons, comics seem to be leaving some money on the table.

  That's why a comic like Rat Queens comes as such a breath of fresh air. Written by Kurtis J Wiebe with art by the fantastically named Roc Upchurch, and lettered by Ed Brisson, Rat Queens is a gloriously visceral approach to fantasy comics, blending traditional high fantasy trappings with a decidedly modern outlook. The comic owes a lot to Dungeons & Dragons and similar games - the comic follows an adventuring party with the classic make-up of a fighter, a thief, a wizard and a cleric, and includes such traditional trappings as rival adventurers, quests handed out by town officials and magical relics. However, the comic is shot through with an affectionate self-awareness and an almost Tarantino-esque violent streak that marks it apart from both the sterility of something like Lord of the Rings and the grim reality of Game of Thrones.

  The other immediately notable thing about Rat Queens is the female-heavy cast. All four main characters are female, as are numerous members of the supporting cast, all of them well-developed. Upchurch's art presents a wide variety of body types and his facial expressions are fantastic, capturing glee, rage, flirtation, grim determination and everything in between perfectly. Not only is the friendship between Hannah, Violet, Dee and Betty at the core of the book, but their relationship with other women is also important - Hannah has a complex rivalry with Tizzie, the leader of a rival adventuring group, and Betty's "courtship" of Faeyri forms a sweet subplot that runs through the volume.

  Within this first arc, Wiebe manages to not only tell a compelling story, but do a great job establishing characters and building the world the story take place in (things like Hannah's mobile phone-equivalent being the product of dark necromancy are among the nice touches). Likewise, Upchurch is a great storyteller, with dynamic panel structures that splinter and skew the more furious the combat grows, and wonderful quieter moments like the page where Betty applies a Sherlockian eye to a local guild-leader's office. 

  In fact, the only place where the book falls down a little is in the blurb on the back of the trade that reduces the characters to simple archetypes like "Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage" and "Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter". While this helps sell the modern sensibility of the book, it suggests a much less elegant story without the affection Rat Queens shows for both the genre and its characters. And while Violet may be a hipster (she shaved her beard off before it was cool), the characters are so much more than these simple descriptors suggest.

  While I'm not about to leap to buying the single issues (maintaining such a light, raucous tone means it's harder to build the kind of stakes monthly serialisation requires) I'll definitely be buying the next collection of Rat Queens, and I can only suggest you catch up now before all the other cool kids do.

FULL CREDITS: Rat Queens Volume 1 - Sass & Sorcery is published by Image Comics as part of their Shadowline inprint. It is written by Kurtis J Wiebe, with art and covers by Roc Upchurch. Ed Brisson is the letterer, and Laura Tavishati is the editor. Jim Valentino is the publisher and book designer.

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