The slug-line description of Rat Queens that I heard continually at Vancouver Fan Expo last weekend as “LOTR as if it were written by Tarantino”. That might sound intriguing, but the more I thought of the comparison, the more flattering it became. Tarantino, as anyone familiar with his work will know, is much more than just a “shock jock” writer who uses vulgarity to get cheap laughs. He’s in fact one of the best writers of character and dialogue to work in Hollywood since the glory days of John Milius. So, I picked up the recently released trade paperback “Sass and Sorcery” from Image comics collecting issues #1-5 by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Set in an ostensibly Medieval Fantasy environment, this comic could in many ways have just as easily been written as a Western or a Samurai book. The essential scenario (a small town called Palisade is threatened by evil monstrous forces so the powers that be enlist the help of bands of mercenaries to defend them) is classic hero myth material. But that’s like describing Archer as “a show about a spy agency.” Everything interesting, funny, compelling and uproariously entertaining about Rat Queens is in the characterizations and the dialogue.
The mercenary teams in question, despite their classic fantasy appearance (and the art in this book is absolutely first-rate), have names that range from “Obsidian Darkness” to “The Four Daves”. (Guess what their names are?) The Rat Queens themselves are four hilarious and wonderful female characters, Betty (a “smidgen”, or a small nymph type character), Dee (who magically channels a tentacled God), Hannah (a mage, and the story’s main character) and Violet (the red-haired and apparently naturally red-bearded warrior). The characters may seem like fantasy archetypes, but they’re most assuredly not. Archer is actually a reasonably apt comparison, especially with Betty, taking the character space pioneered by Pam Poovey. Betty’s happy, sarcastic indulgence in magic mushrooms and candy masks a fierce little warrior who loves to challenge the characters around her. Hannah is the major character in terms of motivation and personality, often speaking for the group and making decisions. And taking “calls from her parents” on a magically infused relic.
It’s difficult to even discuss this comic without directly referencing some of the best dialogue, such as when an Orc prepares for battle by saying, “Orcs only know one language: blood. And I’m the fucking alphabet.” (That line is so good that even another character in the comic compliments her on it.) Or later, when a wounded character wakes from her magic healing sleep to announces, “I want to get drunk tonight. I want to get high. I want to have sex with Orc Dave. They can happen in any order or all at once.” Or calling a group of men over to the Rat Queens’ table at a bar by simply calling out, “Hey! Booze here! Share a story!”
With that tone to the dialogue, the character interactions also ring absolutely true. The story begins with each of the major mercenary groups being assigned their mission of the week by the Captain of the Guard, Sawyer. One by one, all of the groups are ambushed by a black-clad assassin, and many of them are simply killed outright. The Rat Queens, and the Four Daves, survive along with scattered members of other teams. The rest of the comic is dedicated to the search to uncover who is behind the coordinated assassination attempts. Along the way, during one of their several battles, they kill a giant Troll. This ultimately backfires, as the Troll’s girlfriend leads a Troll army to take Palisade in revenge. This leads to the final huge battle at the end of issue #5, with shades of the Helm’s Deep sequence from Lord of the Rings, but it doesn’t solve the mystery of the assassins. That mystery, although revealed more to the reader than the characters, will have to wait until the next story arc for resolution.
Given that Rat Queens presents fantasy archetypes like Mages and Rangers and Orcs and Trolls and warriors with swords engaging in fights to the death, the characters respond to those situations much as any thinking person would. Bravado at first, but vulnerability later. The character renderings and facial expressions, by Roc Upchurch, are absolutely top-shelf. I would love to see Upchurch do a Buffy comic, for example, since he seems so at home in the self-aware fantasy world but can deliver such expressive acting. The scene in which Betty prepares a line of drinks and gives a speech while shaking the mixer, complete with asides and sarcasm, is utterly convincing acting. So many comic creators seem to forget that great fight scenes and settings and involved plot contrivances are all well and good, but don’t amount to much without characters who the reader identifies with and cares about. Rat Queens doesn’t make that mistake. When characters are in peril, there’s genuine suspense. When characters undergo emotional rejection (Betty’s crush doesn’t return her gestures until late in this story arc) it rings true, all of which makes the inevitable slash-and-grunt fight sequences much more interesting.
It’s clear that the story told in these five issues only represent one of many types of tale that could take place. Wiebe and Upchurch have created some great characters and a wonderful universe for them to play in. Rat Queens feels like a comic that’s just getting started, and I hope that’s the case, because there’s much here to enjoy.