After the dark twists and turns and plot developments that featured so prominently in issue #7 of Rat Queens, ending in an attack on the town of Palisade by the tentacled god himself, issue #8 really shifts gears. It’s a narrative tool common in TV and comics to walk the reader/viewer right up to a big climactic moment and then suddenly take a detour into a completely unrelated story, or a character’s back story. Joss Whedon did it a few times on TV, and if anything they over-use that device in the Buffy and Serenity comics. Which is a long way of explaining that I recognize what Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch are doing with this type of story, and they’re in very good company.
In the case of this issue, we spend all but one page in the world of Violet, the red headed warrior Queen, learning about her culture and something about her reasons for leaving it, just as in the previous issue we learned more about Dee and her tentacled god cult. We’ve already seen the gender-bending warrior culture a little bit, at least enough to know that Violet, like all the women of her people, grows a thick red beard. By shaving it, to look more like the other women she sees, Violet has committed an act of cultural rebellion akin to leaving the state religion. In this issue, we not only see more of her culture, but learn a bit more about why Violet would choose to dissociate herself from her family.
It’s all an elaborate digression, using the old trope that one’s life “passes before your eyes” just before death, because as we cut back to Violent in Palisade, things are looking grim for her in that fight. I suppose. We’re given essentially no information about the battle or how it’s going, other than one panel. I would say “spoiler alert”, but frankly I have no spoilers to distribute.
The backstory itself is sweet and funny and as entertaining as this comic gets. Violet’s family, all sporting red beards, are the Royal family of her people, and as we join them they are preparing for some elaborate games in the style of a medieval tournament. As Violet’s father puts it, in a classic Rat Queens line, “Now, let’s move on to the part everyone gives a shit about… beating the hell out of each other!” Another quintessentially Rat Queens moment occurs just after, as the King introduces all the various competitors in the tournament, with their odd names and stern ridiculousness.
Probably Wiebe’s greatest writing achievement here is making Violet’s family and culture both hilariously over the top and a spot-on lampooning of the portentousness of medieval legends, as well as a familiar and touching close to home set of emotional beats. The interactions are all very familiar: sibling rivalry, deciding which sibling is assigned to babysit their “drunk Mom”, having to obey a blustery and old-fashioned Father and generally having to live up to sometimes wildly off-base expectations. Gender roles are a big factor, as they often are in the real world. Even though the women in this culture grow beards, hoist flagons of liquor and often fight in real battles, at public events such as the tournament, Violet is expected to perform in the Gala, rather than fight as she wishes.
The themes of gender-based power and humiliation return when we actually see the “Gala”, in which Violet smashes apart a wooden figure with a sword to demonstrate the workmanship and entertain her father’s drunken guests. Her last humiliation is to have her brother hit her on the shoulder with his sword to demonstrate her armour’s capacity. This is all very boring and dull stuff to Violet. One of the men comments, with a leer, “I could bang on her all night!”, to which Violet mutters, “Every. Fucking. Year.” She finally loses patience with her father’s chucklehead friends and hits one of them, beating him half, or perhaps more than half, to death.
Violet, like the other Queens, may act tough in the context of the comic, but back home she’s lonely and humiliated, suffering under the weight of expectations. That’s also what Dee expressed in the previous issue, and we know enough about Hannah to include her in this category as well (Hannah’s parents “call” her on a magic device way too often, for example). In Violet’s case, it’s the expectation that she’ll entertain her father’s guests, that she’ll defer to male authority and, of course, that she won’t shave. When Violet, through tears, says, “Fuck tradition,” and starts cutting into her luxurious red beard, it’s an odd mixture of metaphors, partially the young girl cutting off her long hair in defiance, partially the opposite sort of metaphor, the girl who stops shaving. It’s all a very visible challenge to authority, standards, gender norms and above all, expectations.
The lovely little scene where Violet’s mother comforts her, and actually helps her finish the shaving job on her beard, is followed immediately by us being yanked right back into the present, with Hannah dragging her through the streets of Palisade in the rain, in the middle of an epic battle.
In only eight issues, Rat Queens has carved out a very special niche in comics and popular culture, spawning oodles of cosplay and a devoted following. This is all richly deserved by a book that has as much heart as black humour, and levens truly touching moments with ample helpings of snark. What’s coming up for the next issue? An interview published this week with artist Roc Upchurch gives a hint: “Violet doesn’t use a razor.” That’s a description that wouldn’t match very many comics, and certainly not in the fantasy genre.