I don’t often do advance reviews here, but this time round I’m offering an early look at the first issue of Rat Queens, a new fantasy-comedy series being released by Image Comics in September. As has been thoroughly documented by me, Image is on fire right now, and has a slate packed full of exciting upcoming titles. Amidst all those, this title seems to have slipped under the radar, as I never heard anything about it until a review copy found its way to me. But if you take one thing from this review, it should be that you really ought to give this title a try along with the more heavily-publicised upcoming Image debuts.
Kurtis J. Wiebe is a writer who has been around a while, quietly establishing a reputation as a top notch idea machine. The Intrepids. Green Wake. Peter Panzerfaust. Grim Leaper. Wiebe has a talent for coming up with comic premises so irresistable that it feels like when he gave the elevator pitches to editors, he should have punctuated them with a “BOOM!” at the end. I personally like to imagine he punctuated them with a CSI Miami “YEEEEEEEEEEAH!” at the end, but that’s just me. And he’s struck gold again with Rat Queens, a kind of fantasy/grindhouse mashup about a ragtag group of rowdy, lewd, ass-kicking adventurers with a fondness for sex, drink and drugs, who happen to all be women.
I loved the script for this. Perhaps the best thing about it is how very modern the dialogue all is. The obscenity-laden slang makes no concessions to ye olden speak, and any of the rare moments where dialogue slips into anything resembling fantasy trope, dry humour undercuts it. My personal favourite example of this is a piece of wry narration taking a sideways jab at The Hobbit, marking a scene transition with “Skipping past the part where Violet sang a dwarven forest adventuring song of old.” Wiebe even manages to slip in a play on today’s smartphone/social media culture. The faux-modern aesthetic extends to the storytelling, as this feels more like, say, The Warriors than your typical fantasy, right down to the introduction of various rival “gangs” that populate the township of Palisade – introduced with some stylish lettering, might I add.
Another thing Wiebe handles very well is character. Very quickly, each of our four leads has a distinct personality established. Hannah is the ill-tempered de facto leader who has issues with her parents, from whom she’s inherited a talent for witchcraft. Violet is the earnest dwarf-girl adventurer who seems to stumbled into this world from a “proper” fantasy and is periodically wondering to herself how the hell she fell in with this crowd. Dee is a castaway from a demon-worshipping cult who brings a hefty dose of skeptical sarcasm to the table. And perhaps my favourite of the bunch is Betty, a cheerful hobbit-type who likes the simple pleasures of getting laid by hot women or dining on candy and drugs for dinner, and who treats every life-or-death situation as a bit of light-hearted fun. The plot is pretty much incidental, though it does offer its share of intrigue and fun moments. At this stage, the main joy is just in following these instantly engaging characters.
But perhaps the real revelation of this issue for me was the splendid artwork of Roc Upchurch. Right near the beginning of the issue, a jaw-dropping double-page splash title page announces his arrival on the comics stage not so much with a polite declaration as with a joyous roar, demonstrating the keen eye for framing the page in a way that gives a scene depth and rich incidental detail that characterises his visuals throughout the issue. He has a really interesting art style, one that is both stylised/cartoonish and highly-rendered and detailed. His coloring is crucial to this hybrid effect, giving lifelike texture to skin with clever use of shine and shading. His action scenes are big and dynamic, leaping off the page. I think this is done by having characters projected forwards, be it through having backgrounds cast into a distant haze behind them, and by having them bursting forth from the edges of the panels barely containing them. It makes the action feel highly kineting and exciting, which is just what you want from a romp like this.
Upchurch also makes a substantial triumph out of his character design. Just as Wiebe’s writing giving everyone a unique voice, Upchurch’s character designs give each a distinct presence in the story. Each costume has a different design philosophy, with cheesecake kept to a minimum on each of them. And when it comes to facial expressions, he soars, with some goofball reactions really hammering home some of the issue’s finest comic moments. Roc Upchurch is an artist who I hadn’t heard of until this week, where he appeared on my radar both for the cool cover he did for Drumhellar – another upcoming Image book – and for his stellar work on this. The first time I became aware of Riley Rossmo was on Wiebe’s Green Wake, and he’s gone on to become a real artist of note, so it’s clear Wiebe has a fine taste in artistic collaborators. I personally eagerly await to see more from Roc Upchurch.
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: Skullkickers. I’ve not read Jim Zubkavich’s critically acclaimed series, but the “revisionist fantasy/buddy caper” synopsis does suggest some degree of overlap with Rat Queens. But all I can say, from my limited perspective, that Rat Queens reads like a breath of fresh air, and I would hope there is more than enough room in the hearts of comic readers for two delightful deconstructions of fantasy convention. Image have done it again. When September comes, read this, love it, tell your friends!