A quick note: this essays aim to be an in-depth analysis of why a given comic series rocks. This means there will be spoilers. Lots of spoilers. I’m pretty up-to-date on my comic readings, and if I’m writing about a comic it’s because that comic came out this past week and I couldn’t not talk about it anymore. Double negatives aside, that means I’m going to use every tool at my disposal to figure out why a given comic works or doesn’t. Savvy? We good? Great. Also, this particular article is probably not safe for work. You hear me? NSFW. Because of one image, but don’t take the chance. Alright? Alright. Let’s get this going.
I was torn this week – Death Vigil, Prez, or Rat Queens was going to get the sort of analysis we do here this week. There was a facebook poll and people wanted Rat Queens, so Rat Queens it is. Secret Six was in contention, too, before I realized how much I wanted to talk about Gail Simone in connection with Red Sonja, but we’ll get to that.
Right now, there’s Rat Queens to discuss.
There’s some controversy over this title, having to do with the original artist. We’re not here to discuss that. There’s plenty of other places that have, and if you don’t know why the original artist left, well, you’re better off. When it comes to Rat Queens there’s only one thing you really need to know: these comics fuckin’ rock.
Back before World of Warcraft there was Dungeons and Dragons. Creatives the world over would get together with their friends and create characters, and then go on adventures, battle monsters, and grab loot with those characters. It was a good way to get together with a group of friends and share stories with one another, to bond over a game that actively encouraged imagination.
As silly as it is to think about now, there was a scare way back when about Dungeons and Dragons. Tom Hanks even starred in a made-for-tv-movie about the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons, but, thankfully, there was an expose about what your average play session was really like, and there’s plenty of those going around now.
And this is because these games are a good idea; that initial game spawned dozens of others – Rifts, the World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, Pathfinder, the Iron Kingdoms, In Nomine, Don’t Rest Your Head, the Triune Legacy all come immediately to mind. Hell, Dungeons and Dragons itself has had multiple editions, most recently the fifth.
All had their own mechanics and their own fluff and that can differ heavily from one game to the next, but one thing stays true: the creativity of the players.
You get people that run or play their games in ways that no one can ever truly expect or prepare for. Half the fun is heading off on different tangents, when things change due to some random bit of chance. Stories can go off in radically different directions, for good and ill. Gamers take on a language of their own as the events of the game change and twist, in-jokes develop and camaraderie is born.
There are as many comics that have tried to capture the feel of these games as there are games themselves: Skullkickers, Demon Knights, He-Man… even licensed ones based on games, like Dragonlance, Exalted, or and even Dungeons and Dragons itself.
And yet, none of them have ever quite gotten the chaotic feel of what it’s like to actually play one of these games.
None of them until Rat Queens.
On the surface, Rat Queens is about a company of adventurers who go by that name. They operate out of a small town that has a few other rival adventuring companies, and they all cause as much trouble as they solve. They get co-opted as trouble makers by the town they live in and go on adventures because they have to, and if that were the full of it Rat Queens would be an okay comic that wouldn’t be getting this write up.
No, what sets Rat Queens apart is those characters: the adventures are secondary, playing to the narratives of each individual member of the Queens and how it effects them as a whole.
The leader of the group is mostly an elf named Hannah, and it’s that mostly that haunts her. She’s a mage and a necromancer, so she’s already going to get a bad rap because most people hear necromancer and think bad things. Seriously, necromancy gets a bad rap, but there can be good necromancers and Hannah is one of them.
She comes across as reactionary and tough, yes, but it’s all rooted in trauma. See, the other half of that mostly is demon – in Dungeons and Dragons there’s a race of half-demons called Tieflings, and Hannah is descended from them. They’re not any more evil than anyone else, really, but distrust runs rampant against them, and the guard of a town murdered Hannah’s mother in front of her for consorting with demons.
From behind, mind you, as she was comforting her daughter, after being driven out of a store where she’d been trying to buy things. I think we’ve mentioned before that comics are one of the most visceral forms of social and political commentary…?
What we know about Hannah from there is that she grew up alone, somehow got into mage school, graduated, and started an all-female mercenary company. We also know that she has a connection with the leader of the town guard in her new home, a complicated one that was built on love and ended because of this:
Yeah, it’s hard to trust anyone completely when those closest to you have been either killed or rejected you because of what you are. Hannah is tough because that’s how she copes. There are moments where we see the extent of her sadness, how utterly broken she is, and her strength in fighting and holding her own is admirable. Heroic, even.
A conflict rooted in racism, trauma, and abuse would be enough for most comics, but Rat Queens starts there and builds.
The next character in our four person party is Dee, a cleric. Typically, in Dungeons and Dragons, your clerics are priests and healers who call upon the powers of whatever god they worship to keep the party going. Dee is kind of not that. Yes, she calls upon the power of a god, but it’s a god she doesn’t really believe in. Dee, the cleric, is an atheist. At the very most, an agnostic.
See, she grew up in a death cult that worships a squid headed god, and was raised to be the high priestess of the next generation. At some point she started questioning her faith and left. She recognizes that the god she worshiped is evil and that a lot of the things she took for granted don’t actually work within a larger context, so she’s stuck trying to define her morality without the faith that she feels she’s outgrown.
Funny thing is, we see her family from time to time, and they’re living and supportive even if they are confused by their estranged daughter and sibling. Her brother even comes to town to check on her and make sure she’s doing okay, and doesn’t press her to come home and leaves when she asks him to.
It’s hard for her, because she’s dealing with a family she dearly loves but cannot reconcile with, and they can’t understand why but feel the need to respect her decision. There’s a sadness to both her and her family, their faith keeping them apart. She’s decided to have faith in herself and that’s power enough to funnel her healing and any other magic she needs to call upon.
This, again, would be a strong enough story all by itself for another comic, but Rat Queens is still just getting started.
Another character with family related issues is Violet, a dwarf fighter who’s shaved her beard. She’s bitter, angry, and suicidally violent – throwing herself into danger and frequently needing Dee to hear her during and after the fights that she gets into. She’s calmly self-destructive, and we learn that comes from her family.
She’s part of a rather wealthy clan that luxuriates in the quality of the things they produce, but have forgotten what those things are actually for. She was trapped by tradition and expectation, and those expectations were slowly killing her. She actively avoids and rejects her family in order to maintain her freedom, but her family is important to her and their distance is just as deadly as their presence was.
Violet is, effectively, a cutter – she gets her enemies to cut her and them murders them, spitting in death’s eye while seeking to punish herself through death and pain. She never vocalizes this, and when her family forces their way into her life she sends them packing, on her own terms, pointing out their flaws while keeping a brave face.
In this, she shares theme with Braga, a half-orc from one of the other mercenary companies in town, a mighty warrior who we’ve recently found out is transgender. The characters who are aware of the change keep it quiet, but Braga was once the champion of a whole tribe of orcs who would kill her because of who she is.
Fighting gender norms and family expectations to stand apart and self-define? The anger and frustration that comes with needing to be something so far out of one’s kin’s understanding that they not only abandon, but actively hate you? The courage and strength it takes to hold true to yourself, knowing that there might never be any sort of reconciliation while secretly hoping for same?
All of that, again, would be a strong enough story to explore in and of itself. When it’s woven with the other characters, though, it turns Rat Queens into something exceptional.
There’s still more, though. The last of the Rat Queens is Betty. She’s called a smidgen here, but in any other world she’d be a halfling or a hobbit. Tiny and childlike, Betty is full of an alcohol and drug-fueled innocence. She’s carefree because she refuses to engage in any sort of drama, but that sort of lifestyle is not something that is easy for others to accept.
Her friends in the Rat Queens accept her for who she is, mostly, but there’s other people that she loves that cannot accept her because she doesn’t consider immediate or long term consequence. Is it possible to maintain relationships without respecting the boundaries that come with close ties? That’s an interesting hook.
It makes Betty a fascinating character to watch, because she accepts everything, even those that don’t accept her. She’s aware of their non-acceptance, but doesn’t hold that against them. She moves, she is, and she is the light of the others, the person that keeps them all moving no matter what else is happening.
There’s a power in seeing to the heart of a tie without being caught in the drama of it, and Betty fully embraces that power.
Quick recap: this is a comic that deals with racism, abuse, faith, expectation, and responsibility starring a group of women that are carving out a place for themselves in their world, all with a great degree of success. It’s trans-friendly, gay-friendly, with a whole whack of underlying themes that could spark any degree of conversation. There’s even some nice stuff with corporate greed and political corruption serving a doomsday cult, how media can pervert truth, and there being consequences for actions.
Again, that’s all neat, but what truly ties it altogether is personhood and crass humor. These characters feel like people, and as any group of Dungeons and Dragons players can tell you, crass humor and modern references are things that happen. So there’s all this character and statement stuff going on, and it’s mingled with jokes and viewpoints that parallel modern conflicts. We can look at what’s going on here and find references to our own experiences, and draw strength by knowing that we’re not alone.
That’s why this comic works – it’s an echo of our games and our lives, it’s fun and twisted and complicated, it’s crass and ridiculous and utterly perfect.
And that is why, Kurtis J. Wiebe, we thank you for this story. The quality and strength of it make it worth waiting for, and make every moment reading it something to enjoy and cherish. Readers will laugh and be touched, often on the same page, and they’ll be entertained all the while.
One can ask no more from a story than this.
Previous God of Comics analysis includes: