Friday, August 7, 2015

REVIEW: RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY

INTRODUCTION 
Humor is one of those things that I often stay away from in entertainment. All too often, it just doesn't appeal to me. I get the sense that writers think they're more clever than they actually are or that the sense of humor is so far beyond the boundaries of what I consider reality that it just doesn't feel authentic. For me, jokes are best served in the midst of misfortune or general angst. Life can definitely be funny if you choose to look at it in such a way, but its not all jokes and laughs all the time. Humor is an important part of the human condition and like any other human element, it feels flat when too much emphasis is placed  upon it. That's why when a work manages to create a silly tale that is balanced out with other emotional qualities, it resonates with me in the way that all fiction should. RAT QUEENS is a series that managed to make me laugh throughout it's pages while also feeling connected to the characters, story, and world.

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
As part of the BookTubeSFF Awards readalongs, I am picking two books from each of the reading months and participating in the group discussions. In the month of August, one title I took note of was RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch. One thing that stood out about this is that it was a graphic work. As I've mentioned in a previous post, I don't read a ton of graphic literature and this series seemed like a really great place to read something other than the INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US series. I also bought this in print (I didn't see any option for an eBook edition) so I got to experience this type of fiction in a new medium as well! I had high hopes for this because of all the good things people had to say about it, but went in with a relatively blank slate as to what I was really in for. So here's how it turned out for me:

HOW I RATED IT 

4/5  I wouldn't go so far as to say that I thought this was an outstanding collection of comics. I think it was a really good one that was immensely satisfying throughout, but still struggled in some key areas.

CHARACTERS 
The characters featured in RAT QUEENS are by far the most consistently exceptional parts of this
A look at the different mercenary bands
series. The Rat Queens are four young women who are renowned mercenaries by the time the story starts. This group includes, Hannah, an elven mage, Violet, a dwarven fighter, Dee, a human cleric, and Betty, a  smidgen (hobbit/halfling or whatever) thief/archer/rogue. These four ladies comprise a band that made me immediately think of one type of DRAGON AGE adventuring party that I've rolled with in the past. In fact, just about anyone familiar with high fantasy games, movies, television, comics, or novels will feel instantly at home with the different combat roles that all the different characters fall into. What readers might also be delighted to know is that while the jobs these ladies occupy will feel very iconic of the genre, their personalities and physical appearances will not.

All four of these ladies are very beautiful, but in a more normalized way. That is to say that their bodies are proportioned such that they have curves that are still appealing, but are also fare more accurate to what an actual woman would be shaped like. What's more is their costumes feel a lot more respectful. I don't know if I'd say they're modest so much as they simply seem to be designed with a bit more care than the typical fantasy attire. These ladies do like to show some skin, but their clothes don't look painted on, they fall like actual cloth which contributes greatly to the sense that these are real people. I found them easier to connect with because they looked this way and honestly found them far sexier than your average "sexy" comic book lady. The female form is still celebrated, it's just done so in a far more stylish, respectful, and down-to-earth way. It gets even better too once you get past the superficial differences.

This is what Betty calls dinner...yum!
Most notably, these characters feel like real people. They have their own personality traits, some good, others bad. They behave in a dynamic way that will probably remind you of people you know in real life and for me, this made all the difference. These women have different backgrounds, varying goals, and different lifestyle preferences that range from simple things like what they like to eat to more complex stuff like their sexual orientations and relationship history. These women are also very adept in the art of combat. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses in battle and watching them work together as a unit was an absolute treat. To this point I should clarify that this isn't some kind of over-the-top girl-power ultra-feminist type of deal. Instead, what you get is feminism in a far more positive and constructive sense than what most people associate with that word. These ladies aren't inherently better than anyone else, they're just very good at what they do and they put a lot of passion into doing it. To see female characters come off this well is a truly rare thing, even in the more progressive fantasy genre.

The vast plethora of side characters are equally wonderful. The Four Daves (another mercenary band) was a total hoot even though they are largely just background characters. Then there is Braga, "Old Lady" Bernadette, and a whole host of other great sides that add a nice flavor to each of the issues without ever detracting from our leading ladies. Captain Sawyer Silver is probably one of the more prominent side-presences and he interacts with the Rat Queens in a fun and believable way. Overall, the cast is just flawless from the main protagonists all the way down to the people that you will only see in a scattered few panels.

WORLD/SETTING 
I mentioned before that this is the type of thing that Fantasy regulars will feel right at home in. This is absolutely true for the setting which takes place exclusively in and around the city of Palisade. This isn't really a sprawling adventure story, but rather one that is a bit more concentrated on the affairs of a single part of the world. That may be a bit disappointing to some, but for me this made for a far more meaningful story since the writers weren't spending precious time delivering exposition on new
locations at every turn. We get to know Palisade in the first issue and that becomes the center of our attention until the final page is turned. Fortunately it is an interesting and diverse enough city that I never really felt curious about other places in the world. In fact, I would have been vastly disappointed if I was ever torn away because the city is a sprawling space that is staggeringly beautiful to look at and one that holds a lot of intrigue as well. In a very true to life way, Palisade felt like the entire world or at leas the only part that really mattered.

Fortunately, the backdrops aren't all urban. There are points where the adventurers must go out beyond the city walls, but they never go too far. It was nice to see the lush wilderness that surrounds Palisade since it offered a more diverse set of scenery to enjoy. I don't know if this place ever really takes on a certain character of it's own, but it certainly offered a worthy backdrop for all of the wonderful personalities to exist in. Perhaps part of this potential shortcoming comes from the fact that the plotline doesn't quite keep up with the rest of this story's elements.

PLOT/TONE 
RAT QUEENS kicks off on a really strong note. The world around Palisade is filled with dangerous creatures like goblins and orcs. All of which present huge hazards to the citizens, but the Rat Queens are there to keep the danger outside of the city's walls...at least that's what they used to do. Now that the Queens have a lot more money and a bit too much free time, they present as much of a hazard to the city as any monster might. They're reckless, rambunctious, and not always the most respectful. Because of this, they, along with several other bands of rowdy mercenaries, are forced to take up assignments where they go out and clear areas of dangerous creatures. During this round of blood-soaked chores, the Queens discover a plot to kill off mercenaries. Members of other bands fall at the hands of these mysterious assassins and upon surviving their own encounter, the ladies must uncover the plot behind these attacks. This setup, which spans the first two chapters/issues in the volume, creates a very positive first impression and kicks off what promised to be a compelling narrative.

This all sort of falls apart once Chapter 3 comes around and we get a bit of a break from the main thread. There was a lot of potential with the mysterious killer theme since a lot of people in the town harbored resentment toward the mercenaries and some might have had cause to want them dead. The twist that comes at the end of this chapter wasn't something I expected, but it also wasn't terribly shocking nor did it solve the mystery in an especially satisfying way. We get glimpses at the various background stories for the Queens, but a lot of it feels like a setup for stories to come rather than anything that actually holds any impact in this volume. Scenes featuring Betty and Violet felt particularly unfulfilling in this issue and these loose ends really aren't at all tied up since Chapters 4 and 5 are more focused on a battle that occurs. The end of five sees resolution to some things, but ends things with a lot more questions than before. There's still some potential with the plot to kill the Queens and some extra layers have been added to that scheme, but I didn't walk away with a satisfying conclusion to the main story arch. To be completely clear on this end, I'm not at all saying the story is nonexistent or weak, it's just that I didn't feel a sense of true completion upon flipping those last pages of the book. This does pose a bit of a problem as I'm left to wonder if the writers really have any interest in granting readers that sort of satisfaction since every single issue ended with a cliffhanger of sorts. This may not be altogether irregular for a comic series which wants readers to keep buying the next installments, but at the same time, I can only go so long without having SOMETHING closed off in a rewarding way.

As for the overall tone of this piece, I've mentioned that this is indeed a really funny piece of fiction. It is also a very gruesome one and is at times a bit somber. Hannah's sour belligerence, Betty's wacky silliness, and Violet's never-ending struggle to come up with a badass one liner all make for fantastically hilarious moments. There is a mix of stereotypical fantasy-speak mixed in with modern day slang that just works so well. Then there is the absolutely gruesome gore that comes in copious amounts. There were some shots that literally had me cringing and perhaps a little queasy. That said, the action is wonderful and isn't so overdone that it felt tiresome. Some of my favorite moments from this volume came from the battles that the Queens get themselves into. All of this is remarkably well supported by the gorgeous visuals that grace the pages of this book.

ART
A shot of Violet on one of the chapter covers
The artwork in this piece is almost beyond reproach. At it's best, RAT QUEENS is one of the most visually stunning works of graphic fiction that I have ever seen. It makes frequent use of bigger panels so there are a lot more detailed shots of the characters and the action taking place. This does have a trade-off though. One is that it speeds up the momentum of the reading experience since there are less panels per page to look at which makes for what I perceived to be a shorter read. The second drawback is that when there are smaller, less well-done panels, they look so much uglier than they would otherwise. Small, low-res panels are not at all uncommon in comics and I am almost always bothered by them, but the issue is heightened in Rat Queens because they are employed so infrequently. Even with this dip in the graphic quality though, I still felt like the visuals look better than even some of the most beloved works of graphic fantasy on the market. For example, I've looked at the SAGA series and just don't find the art that appealing at all. To me it looks flat and lacks a certain texture or volume. Even at it's ugliest, Rat Queens still manages to deliver on images with depth and complexity and even outshines INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US VOLUME 1 in this area (in my opinion). The colors are wonderful, the action is well depicted, and everything is superbly lit. The only other thing I noticed was that the artist spent noticeably less time on detailing the backgrounds than the characters. It's not bad exactly, but if you're the type of reader that likes looking at each pane, you will notice that a few shortcuts are taken in these backdrops. I have to stress again though that this is an absolutely beautiful work of art. Many of my complaints in this area are things that I think the casual reader will probably not care much about at all.

CONCLUSION
RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY is something I can easily recommend to just about everyone. There is a little something for people of all types to enjoy here. The best part is I could see seasoned comic readers loving this every bit as much as complete newbies to the medium. My only caveat to all this is that you really shouldn't pick it up if you're intention is to stop at this volume. VOLUME 1 is a wonderful introduction to a lush world with vibrant characters, but it does not really tell a story from beginning to end, at least not in a way that feels truly satisfying. I certainly enjoyed it a great deal and fully intend to see what VOLUME 2 has to offer, but will also be going in with some skepticism over whether or not I will really be getting any more fulfillment out of it. In either case, I am very happy I gave this series a chance and look forward to picking up the next installment!

RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY collects issues 1-5 in the series and can be picked up in paperback format on Amazon.

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