A couple weeks ago, while scrolling through Tumblr, I read about a comic called Rat Queens. The poster described it as a high fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons-esque story about an all-ladies mercenary group, the titular Rat Queens, that included diverse racial representation, queer characters, and realistic female characterization.
Needless to say, I was sold on the idea, and so I picked up Sass and Sorcery, the trade collection of issues #1–5, when it came out a week or two ago.
Rat Queens Volume 1 follows the Queens as they get to the bottom of a conspiracy in their hometown of Palisade. After all the mercenary teams in the city are thrown in lockup for starting brawls in public for the nth time, Palisade’s mayor offers them all a chance to get out of jail free: all they have to do is complete some troublesome errands for the town. However, upon arriving at the locations of their respective quests, the teams are all set upon by assassins who want to eliminate the troublemaking mercenaries for good. The teams that survive the assassination attempts band together to figure out who wants them dead and how to stop them. (Of course they succeed, but we find out in the last few pages that the conspiracy goes farther than they imagined.)
Rat Queens does have everything I was promised: the Queens and their supporting cast are racially diverse, at least one of the Queens is queer, and the main story is interesting. I would have preferred if the queer character, Betty, wasn’t also comically horny all the time, but her relationship with her on-again-off-again girlfriend doesn’t come off as awkward or fanservice-y.
Above and beyond that, the art is beautiful: the characters’ faces are expressive, their designs are varied and different instead of them all being carbon-copy hourglass figures, the colors are bright and engaging, and the clothing is character-appropriate—the only scantily-clad characters are the ones who would choose to wear revealing attire, and it’s all still appropriate for fighting.
However, I came away from the book somewhat unimpressed, and I think the fault lies in the storytelling. The writing stumbles in several places because the author feels the need to allude to or briefly info-dump character histories and motivations in what seems like a very unnatural way. For example, in the middle of the story I described above, the Rat Queens’ dwarven member Violet is set upon by a man who turns out to be her brother. For the space of five pages, he duels with her and derides her decision to leave home and shave her beard and act undwarfly, and then disappears without being mentioned again. Later, Dee, the team’s resident atheist cleric, explains, ostensibly to her friend and fellow Queen, Betty, how she is able to draw on the magical power of a deity she doesn’t believe in. It has nothing to do with the scene that follows, and even the author seems to acknowledge that this was a desperate info dump rather than an organic piece of the story.
The way these little asides are constantly dropped into the story smacks to me of a lack of confidence on the author’s part. It would be far more natural for the progression of the story for each of these character moments to be addressed in turn; first, complete the opening story introducing us to the Queens, then build conflict while allowing us to learn about each character slowly. Maybe while they’re celebrating victory after the first story arc concludes, Vi’s brother shows up to fight and puts a damper on the celebration—while at the same time providing the basis for a new plot arc that gives us Violet’s backstory. I would like to know why Violet left dwarf society and joined a band of mercenaries, or what led Dee to lose faith in N’rygoth, but interrupting the flow of the story to drop awkward allusions makes it seem to me that the author doesn’t have faith in his characters or readers. If he believed his characters were interesting enough to capture and hold readers’ attention, he would let the story unfold organically and explain things as they became relevant rather than desperately exposition-dumping all over the place.
Also, as a very strange aside, Dee’s character design, especially when paired with a connection to a pseudo-Lovecraftian squid deity, seems very, very familiar.
I had very high hopes for this story, and I was honestly surprised and confused when I read it and disliked it. I actually had to read it a second time to put my finger on what exactly was bugging me. Unfortunately, despite the concept of this comic appearing tailor-made to appeal to me, it just didn’t deliver writing equal to the promise the concept showed. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next volume.
Art by Fiona Staples?
The cover art on the trade (which is what that first picture is) is by Fiona Staples, yep! She did a variant cover for one of the issues. The rest of the art is by Roc Upchurch.