Rat Queens Vol 1: Sass and Sorcery
Rat Queens Vol 1: Sass and Sorcery (Collects Rat Queens #1-5)
Credits: Kurtis J. Wiebe (writer), Roc Upchurch (artist), Fiona Staples (cover art)
Publisher: Shadowline (Image Comics)
Release Date: March 26th, 2014
The city of Palisade has an infestation, but not the normal kind with bugs or goblins or bandits. No, this peaceful city has been overrun with bored adventuring parties with too much time on their hands. To keep them out of trouble, the mayor has assigned the groups different quests to get them out of the resident's hair. The Rat Queens are a one of these eclectic bunch of hooligans, made up of Hannah the elven mage, Violet the dwarven warrior, a human cleric (and atheist) Dee, and thief Betty the halfling (here called "smidgens"). When they leave town on their errand, they find something other than goblins waiting for them...
Rat Queens is a comic book first released in Fall of 2013 and met with almost universal acclaim. It received a 2014 Eisner Award nomination for best new series, and Sass and Sorcery was nominated for the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. The series has been praised for its positive portrayal of women and transgender characters, winning the 2015 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book (beating out some of my other favorite series, including Hawkeye, Lumberjanes, and Saga). Rat Queens is probably one of the most risqué things I've reviewed so far, so it's worth mentioning that this comic book is not safe for work. Besides the usual violence and bloodshed expected from a "sword and sorcery" style fantasy adventure, there is also copious amounts of uncensored language, drug use, sexually explicit discussions, and (in later issues), brief nudity. In other words, it's just like many D&D campaigns devolve into.
Despite the generic "Medieval fantasy" setting, The humor, language, and even fashion are inherently modern: the back cover description gives the characters a label based on their style (rockabilly, hipster, hippy) but this does little to express the depth each Queen is given. We get hints to each character's background and motivations, and while we don't get too deep into the story, everyone has a moment to shine and show that there's more to each character than badass one-liners and cleaving baddies in twain. There's a scene that I absolutely love at the end of the book where the Queens are throwing a huge party,and we see that Dee isn't fond of large social situations. Moments like these are what elevate the book from a simple genre story.
Rat Queens falls right into my wheelhouse: it's funny, it's fantasy-themed, it's character design is phenomenal, and more importantly it's just fun. It's the kind of book I would find myself returning to when I'm feeling down and need a pick-me-up, much in the same way that I re-read Nextwave.
I would be remiss if I didn't quickly touch on the controversy that the original Rat Queens artist created. Almost a year after the release of its first issue, artist Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence and subsequently removed from the project. The Sass and Sorcery volume is the only story arc where he was the lone artist, and midway through the second storyline he was replaced by Stjepan Šejić. Šejić also eventually stepped down for health reasons, and he was replaced by artist Tess Fowler. There was drama surrounding writer Kurtis Weibe's continuing work with Upchurch, and rumors about whether or not Upchurch would return and replace Fowler. A deeper discussion of this can be found in this article from The Mary Sue. Either way, the constant changing of artists and the uncertainty of the storyline began to hurt the book creatively (more on that when we eventually review subsequent volumes). The last issue of Rat Queens released was #16 back in April 2016, and the future of the series seemed uncertain. but the comic is scheduled to return with a soft reboot and new artist Owen Gieni in March of this year.
Surprisingly, there are not a lot of fantasy-themed comic books, or at least not the sword-and-sorcery Dungeons & Dragons kind outside of Conan and Red Sonja. Dynamite Entertainment's excellent Pathfinder series (based on the RPG) is the closest, and the only other series I can think of that matched Rat Queens in self-awareness and subversion of the common fantasy tropes would be John Roger's short-lived "Fell's Five" Dungeons & Dragons comic. And yet compared to these comics, Rat Queens stands alone in its audacity. It is simultaneously humorous, raunchy, clever, and fun, and just like any good session of D&D, it's full of surprises.