Ambivalence and Found Family (a Rat Queens Review)

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One of the delightful things that happened at Olamot Con 2016 is that I happened upon a copy of the first Rat Queens TPB at one of the stands. The name rang a bell, so I flipped through it and eventually surrendered to temptation and took it home with me. This title has been vaguely on my radar for a while, but the scarcity of comic book stores and my general disengagement with the medium produced an obstacle of availability. What am I gonna say, there is so much entertainment media out there, you have to work hard to catch and keep readers’ attention.

Our intrepid heroines (Rat Queens #1).

Conventions, however, exist to circumvent the barriers that make mass media vastly more available for consumption than more niche markets, and I took full advantage of this fact. I bought the first two TPBs, covering Rat Queens #1-#10, and a full story arc with a satisfying conclusion. Frankly, that’s already more than most comics can boast.

Rat Queens follows the story of a group of professional “adventurers”, not unreasonably treated as brawlers, trouble-seekers and generally a menace to society. While their exploits remain faithful to a whole array of fantasy tropes, primarily those of a role-playing persuasion, this one change undermines the whole enterprise, turning it into something quite different. Fantasy has long thrived on the idea that chaos-spreading glory hounds should somehow be considered respectable professionals in their field, even when they make their income from grave-robbing and extorting rewards out of innocent bystanders.

On opening, we discover that the Rat Queens have gotten themselves in trouble with the town watch, and not for the first time. Theirs are faces that are known to the authorities, as it were. Hannah, an elven sorceress, seems initially to be the group’s leader as she invokes the requisite font of sass and sexual tension at the guard captain. Later on the situation becomes less clear. As part of their generally informal and disorganized nature, the Rat Queens lack the organic chain of command native to bands of plucky outcasts.

Our four protagonists are an elf, a human, a dwarf and one member of a group unique to this setting, which fulfills the role of tiny, menacing comic relief. This in itself is one of the genre’s obnoxious recurring patterns, as these substitute nations never seem to capture the role of Tolkien’s hobbits as everymen. In the world of the Rat Queens, this role is taken on by the populace of Palisade, their inventively named hometown. Betty the smidgen is a kind of hard-drinking lesbian kender, and the team’s designated lock-breaker. Hannah is a practitioner of dark magic, the daughter of necromancers. Violet is a beardless dwarf warrior, and the team’s tactician. Finally Dee is the only human, a traditional RPG faith healer, from an untraditional Lovecraftian cult, with an even less traditional crisis of faith.

Aside from lampooning some of the genre’s fond absurdities, the book also manages to extract the essential properties of its predecessors and approach them with elegance. Like so many adventurers before them, the Rat Queens are runaways one and all. Alienated from their homes and families, to varying degrees and each after her own unique fashion, they make this frontier town their home and each other their family. Secrets and lies trail them everywhere, undermining the group’s cohesiveness, damaging their personal relationships, and ultimately putting the entire town at risk. A classic device, flawlessly executed.

In this first story arc, it’s Dee the healer who bears the burden of secrets. She is not shy about her past as a cult member, but her past still manages to catch up to her in a nasty way. Through ten issues, the narrative wrings the cast of their secrets, providing just enough answers to be satisfying while leaving plenty to intrigue. The final issues expose the characters’ hopes and fears, from guard captain Sawyer’s sketchy past, to Violet’s highly politicized reasons for shaving her beard. The root of hostility between Hannah and her fellow elf adventurer Tizzy, and even the secret of how she gets her hair to do that.

At the denouement, no one remains unchanged. Hannah and Sawyer’s relationship is transformed, and Dee finally experiences something like closure regarding her faith, or lack thereof. Even the arc’s antagonist earns a final moment of grace. The setup neatly leads up to the following story arc in issue #11, which I have already started impatiently nibbling into.

However loyal they are to their chosen family and new lives, none of the queens are able to dissociate from their families of origin. Not only because their past follows them home and demands to be resolved, but because the narrative acknowledges that the characters, like we readers, are a product of their environment. Hannah might be the sarcastic butterfly of an angsty teen goth pupa, but she still talks to her mother daily on her magic cellphone. Violet “ironically” carries the designer sword forged by her father. Dee especially struggles to reconcile her theological doubt with her cultural roots, a conflict that resonates especially for me, as a secular Jewish reader.

Rat Queens provides a delicate mix of adventure, human drama and darkly irreverent humor. While it fails to address the inherent flaws in the ubiquitous fantasy “race” system, Violet’s arc as a dwarf shield-maiden neatly deconstructs sexual objectification, going deeper than any analysis I’ve yet had the fortune to read. Dee’s arc presents from the get-go a more complex treatment of faith than a pray-for-healing fantasy dynamic can rightly claim. All the characters are sympathetic, and the hints of further backstory leave me wanting more. All in all, it’s been a while since I’ve had such a satisfying comics reading experience.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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