Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Rat Queens #8. Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe (Peter Panzerfaust, Green Wake) with art by Roc Upchurch (Vescell, Deep Blue), this issue breaks away from the main story for a flashback that directly addresses gender dynamics in the fantasy genre. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Marvel’s new female Thor may be the fantasy heroine getting all the attention this week, but Image’s Rat Queens has become the best place in comics for swords and sorcery stories driven by female characters. Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are doing for fantasy what Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have done for science fiction in the pages of Saga, taking the conventions of the genre and twisting them in a way that makes the ideas more relatable to a modern audience. At the core of Saga is a very personal story about the stresses of raising a family, and Rat Queens has a similarly grounded central concept, exploring the relationships of four female friends as they learn to navigate adulthood.
While Rat Queens certainly doesn’t skimp on spectacular action sequences pitting the women against rival guilds and raging monsters, the main appeal of the title lies in the interactions between the main cast, creating strong character relationships that have brought a lot of emotional weight to the title in just eight issues. Wiebe’s uninhibited, profane dialogue shows a level of familiarity among the Rat Queens that builds a sense of history without delving directly into their past together, and Upchurch heightens the humor and drama of the script with his expressive character work.
Like Staples on Saga, Upchurch pencils, inks, and colors all the Rat Queens art himself, and having that level of creative responsibility has motivated him to deliver increasingly impressive visuals. Rat Queens #7 saw Upchurch reach a new high with his action staging, delivering a dynamic, brutally painful fight sequence spotlighting the skills of new cast member Lola, but #8 switches gears to show Upchurch’s talent with more intimate storytelling. There’s almost no action in this week’s story, but that doesn’t make it any less captivating than previous chapters in the series; instead, it shows a tender, sympathetic side of the creative team that makes this flashback a welcome detour from the dire situation in the book’s present.
The last few issues of Rat Queens have fallen off a monthly schedule, likely due to a combination of Wiebe becoming a father and Upchurch handling all aspects of the art, so readers desperate to see the continuation of the crazy cliffhanger from July’s #7 may be frustrated by this issue’s change in direction. The final page of #8 promises a return to the present-day chaos, but the rest of the issue takes place in the past, detailing the events that led to Violet Blackforge becoming a Rat Queen.
It can be hard to be a woman in high fantasy, a genre that is primarily propelled by masculinity. Through Violet’s experience, Wiebe and Upchurch tackle the gender dynamics they’ve been playfully subverting since the start of this title, exploring the conflict between traditional masculine and feminine values that rages at the heart of the redheaded Rat Queen. That internal battle is immediately established in the opening pages of the story: Violet is getting dressed for a fashion show, but she’s modeling a suit of armor for male warriors. The first page ends with Violet putting on mascara, a feminine flourish that is at odds with Violet’s giant red beard, revealed in dramatic fashion with a full-page splash.
Women growing out their facial hair initially creates an illusion of equality between the sexes, but as the issue continues, it becomes clear that the beards are a way for men to cage women inside the rigid roles defined by the patriarchy. Women aren’t given the freedom of men in this world, and they are expected to reflect the appearance of their oppressors on their faces. It’s a clever way of visually reflecting how pervasive masculinity is in Violet’s world, and when Violet decides to break free from the customs of her kingdom, the first thing she does is shed her beard.
That drastic cosmetic change is motivated by Morgan of Clan Meldhammer, a female warrior participating in the annual tournament held by Violet’s father. After being denied a place in the tournament so that she can once again walk a runway and be leered at by pervy old men, Violet is intrigued by this woman living the life she desperately wants, and she follows Morgan’s example when she finally reaches her breaking point. And that starts with the beard.
Morgan stands out in the roll call of tournament participants in that she’s the only woman, and she flaunts her otherness by shaving off her facial hair. She broke her clan’s rules by getting rid of her beard, but Violet doesn’t understand how someone could veer from tradition so easily. “Fuck tradition,” Morgan says as she prepares to fight, and the two words change Violet forever.
After a violent outburst during the fashion show, Violet runs to her room and breaks down in front of her mirror, ultimately making the decision to embrace Morgan’s perspective by grabbing a pair of scissors. “Fuck tradition,” Violet says, taking the scissors to her flowing red facial hair to pursue her own destiny for the very first time. It’s a moment that is already given a lot of gravity thanks to the work done earlier in the issue, but the real emotional impact comes from what follows.
Violet’s family is put in an antagonistic role for much of the issue, but Wiebe brings a lot of love to the narrative with the heartfelt conversation between Violet and her mother after the de-bearding. Giving readers an idea of the positive elements of Violet’s relationship with her family complicates her decision to leave her home behind, and it allows the creative team to explore the kind of sensitive material that this book doesn’t usually spotlight. Upchurch does exceptional work reflecting the tonal shifts of the entire bedroom scene in his artwork, beginning with frenetic layouts and scratchy panel borders for Violet’s meltdown before moving to a more structured design for the calmer moments between mother and daughter. That lulls the reader into a false sense of security, which is then broken by the intrusion of the present in the final page.
Rat Queens #8 features an interesting addition to this book’s credits page in Marc Lombardi, who handles promotions for Image’s Shadowline imprint and is given a “communications” credit. While it’s not explicitly clear what Lombardi’s role entails, the fact that he’s considered a part of the book’s creative team rather than part of the publishing staff shows how important PR is to this book’s success. Rat Queens has a fiercely dedicated fan base, and each issue contains a few pages of Wiebe responding to letters as well as images of fan art ranging from sketches to pottery.
And cosplay. Lots and lots of cosplay. A quick Tumblr search for Rat Queens reveals the huge number of fans bringing Upchurch’s designs to life, and the eagerness of the readers to bring these characters into the real world speaks to the remarkable work done by this creative team turning fantasy archetypes into multidimensional people with contemporary appeal. Rat Queens #8 highlights that focus on character development by breaking away from the primary action, and it’s a move that brings new depth to the story by exploring the themes that make this series such an engaging take on the fantasy genre.