Somewhere around the early 2000s, while packing my bags for undergrad, my sister and I drifted apart. That’s on me. I wasn’t home much, and even when I was, I was too busy trying to figure my shit out to help her figure hers. We played a lot of RPGs instead, read a lot of the same genre books too. That was our getting-to-know-each-other moment. Just the two of us, a plethora of momos, and old-school dungeon crawlers. Except here’s the thing—there’s not a lot of representation for us in those things, unless you count the orcs (and those muthafuckers were in shape and all fierce and shit, so no). I gave up on seeing myself in these things—just pick the burliest guy there, armour up that shit, and go. Cover up the brown in shiny—works for chocolate, works on me. Sibling? If you played as a girl in a video game, you got chainmail bikini at best. If you were a woman of colour in a videogame, you got dead mostly.
And there’s never anything so terrible that comic books can’t make worse (no seriously, the very existence of Red Sonja is the most bullshit fucking thing, and that Gail Simone was the first female writer on that in 40 years is straight up ridiculous).
So when Kurtis J Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens dropped in September 2014, I didn’t touch it. And that’s on me.
Clearly Wiebe and Upchurch have been on the Internet, and clearly they do not stand for its shit. This is fucking beautiful—it’s self-aware, it’s irreverent, it’s…hilarious because if it wasn’t, it would be downright tragic. So this is our crew—and the issue opens with the whole drunkenwrecktownsentonbullshitquestdiscoversomeoneistryingtomurderthem schtick that could run the risk of being trite, and yet isn’t. There you go, all you need is a miracle.
I’ve been reading comics for a long-ass time and it took me a while to realise why this page stood out so much. There’s that Sam Peckinpahesque off-kilter framing, so you know shit’s about to go down. The other thing? Take a minute. Yeah, women look like people! It makes you want to just sit a bunch of comic gatekeeper assholes and go—you know this is how bodies work right? THIS IS WHAT PEOPLE LOOK LIKE.
That slightly muted Instagram look with those poses tells you exactly what the deal with this book is. It’s stylish, it’s badass and it celebrates itself because it does not need your validation. And they know you know. But I’ve been tricked before—just because a comic looks awesome, doesn’t mean it is awesome. End of the day, it’s still two dudes writing a comic centered around women. And it does occasional flounder into man-trying-too-hard-to-write-liberated-women territory.
But that’s possibly forgivable in a genre that has traditionally been so male dominated. To use it to talk about gender fluidity, transitioning, coming out on the other hand, hasn’t happened.
Writing a book where you don’t have to check off any of things I listed earlier doesn’t always make for a better comic, videogame or movie, but it does make for a better world for your characters and narrative to exist in. Racism and sexism aren’t zero sum games. This is the character sheet from Wikipedia—“They comprise the rockabilly elven mage Hannah, the hipster dwarven warrior Violet who shaved her beard before it became cool, the atheist human cleric Dee who hails from a family of Lovecraftian monster cultists, and the hippy halfling thief Betty, whose idea of a hearty meal is a bag of drugs and candy.” Notice the extra adjectives before the names?
Let’s look at what an entry for Red Sonja reads—“[A] fierce and beautiful female barbarian.” A rich world makes for rich characters, with depths that aren’t simply their special traits. And Wiebe gets it, the dialogue is on point, tropes are called out on, eyes are stabbed and sex is had. The Queens are simultaneously annoyed and unapologetic of the trappings of their genre; agency and back story never feel forced but a logical organic extension of living in a world originally designed by white manchildren, i.e. they are done taking your shit.
Which is not to say there aren’t problems. The series has been floundering for a while, what with Upchurch arrested on charges of domestic violence in November 2014 and being dropped from the book, it’s schedule and roster of artists has been erratic.
Volume 4 is out with 5 to drop on August.