We last left the Rat Queens at a wild party, having defeated an evil army, brought one of their members back from the brink of death and they celebrated appropriately. (Or, as we soon find out in the new issue #6, somewhat inappropriately.) Having established strong characters and such a great, frank Archer-like tone for the book in the first five issues, the challenge for Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch is to take these characters to a new emotional level. To challenge them and give us some additional insight into a different facet of their lives. Wisecracking warrior women are awesome, of course, but a more discerning reader will demand some level of emotional investment at some point. The good news is that these characters still work their charm very effectively, and their banter and rapport continue to be a highlight of the book. The better news is that they’re starting to feel more like “people” and less like character types. Full marks for the Rat Queens creators.
The first page is one of those great “morning after” montages that shows Violet asleep, in the nude of course, with Orc Dave (of the Four Daves). Little Betty is also in post-coital bliss with her human girlfriend. Bitter and tough-talking Hannah is getting dressed from a night of romping with Sawyer, the town guard and her sometimes-boyfriend. And Dee, whose family worships a tentacled God (more on that one later), sleeps alone. Breakfast follows in what amounts to their “frat house” atmosphere, each of them nursing four-alarm hangovers. Hannah receives a great deal of “guff”, to use the Robert Mitchum-era word, for “sleeping” once again with Sawyer, who she studiously ignores and abuses in public, but they are torn away from their flapjacks and recrimination by a summons from the Mayor of their town, Palisade.
The Mayor informs them that they are in trouble for breaking the penis off the statue that stands in the town square in a fit of drunken debauchery. As it turns out, he’s not actually that upset about that, since he was getting complaints about the shaft anyway. He presents each of the Queens with a bag of fifty gold in payment for saving Palisade from the orc invasion in issue #5 and offers them fifty more to defeat an army of killer mushroom people. They take the money, fight the monsters, and Betty, of course, chows down on the mushrooms.
Meanwhile, Sawyer is actually pursuing the real source of the threat to the town, the unknown forces behind the events of the previous issues, who hired assassins to take out all of the heroes who would presume to defend Palisade. His most urgent mission is to find the Widow Bernadette, whose husband, as it turns out, he killed. Bernadette, as we saw from last time, has a relationship with some fairly dark mystical forces. It appears that the nature of these mystical forces are going to advance from “background threat” to “foreground threat” over the next few issues, given what occurs here.
But just as important as plot is character, and here Wiebe writes some wonderful connecting scenes featuring lots of interaction between the Queens before, after and sometimes during their battles. It’s here that Rat Queens shows its distinctive stripes as a fantasy comic. Although the art may consist of stock shots of women in armour and heroic poses, waiting for the coming battle, the dialogue reads (for example), “It’s like you deliberately say things to get under my skin.” And addressing some post-trauma stress on Betty’s part, who was scared by how Hannah’s eyes had turned black in an earlier battle as if she were possessed by some dark, evil force. Hannah admits that it’s dark, and probably a little evil, but it comes from the fact that her parents were necromancers. But this black-eyed fury is brought on by stress, and in this case it was the stress of caring about what happened to her fellow Queens. This leads Betty to do the very un-Rat Queen thing of warmly expressing her love for Hannah and giving her a big hug. Hannah gulps and responds, “Stop melting my stone heart already.” None of that interaction really has anything to do with the main plot (although I suspect the black eyes haven’t made their final appearance), but it has everything to do with building characters we care about, which is something this book does very well indeed.
In fact, the reason Dee was sleeping by herself and generally in a bad mood (she just wants peace and quiet, she claims) is because she has a husband. He makes an appearance late in this issue as something of a reveal. He’s an older man named Mezikiah, and what his influence will be on the group remains to be seen.
Character moments abound after the giant killer mushroom battle, including an entire page of Hannah looking for Sawyer in the rain (to apologize? for more sex?) and not finding him. Sawyer is, in fact, deep in the heart of darkness, having followed clues into an ominous dungeon complete with candles, skulls and cult symbols dedicated to a tentacled God. He finds Bernadette, the widow, gagged and blindfolded and being held by human figure in an evil-looking mask. Sawyer is tossed a ring, that the figure explains is from “a grieving husband”. Sawyer, astonished, utters the name “Gerrig” before he is silenced by a tentacle growing out of his mouth reducing him to a prone figure on the stone floor, helpless before some pretty dark magic.
The dark magic is revealed to the Queens when Hannah, having not located Sawyer but spotting the Widow Bernadette in the streets, notices that Bernadette’s eyes have been changed to empty, teeth-filled sockets. Her blood-curdling scream fills the panel that ends this issue.
It appears things will get very dark indeed in upcoming issues of Rat Queens, but with a solid focus on character and the usual top-shelf dialogue, this is a book that’s still very much worth your time.