I almost didn’t write this review. I knew going in that I would be walking face first into the shit-storm that has been brewing the behind the scenes of Rat Queens. I thought for a moment that I would write around things, and by not bringing the issues up, I could focus on the book. After all, I’m reviewing the comic, not the people who created it. I almost went with that, but the more I thought about it the more I discovered that it wasn’t the right move. What happened provides valuable context as to why Rat Queens got a new #1. More than that, I owe it to myself as well as everyone here at One Of Us and to all who will ever read this to write the best review I can. If that means I have to address some uncomfortable stuff, so be it.
Rat Queens launched from Image Comics in 2013, and was created by writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch. The book follows the exploits of elfin mage Hannah, dwarven warrior Violet, smidgen (the hobbit equivelent) rogue/thief Betty, and the human cleric Dee as they go on crazy quests to protect the city of Palisade. The Queens are crude, unpredictable, and often on various substances, but effective. The book was seen as one of the better and more meaningful portrayals of female characters and in comics, even garnering an Eisner nomination in 2014 for Best New Series and winning Outstanding Comic Book at the 26th GLAAD Media Awards.
Everything was going well until late 2014 when Roc Upchurch was arrested on charges of domestic violence. Wiebe removed Upchurch from the book and after a brief stint by Stjepan Šejić, Tess Fowler became the new regular artist. Fowler would continue on art until the book went on hiatus in April of 2016. Fowler recently on Twitter claimed that she was being pushed out to make way for the return of Upchurch, a claim Wiebe vehemently denies.
So we have a book seen as empowering women marred by allegations of the artist/ co-creator’s abuse towards a women and the supposed removal of a female artist to make way for the potential return of the alleged abuser. It’s an all around uncomfortable situation that becomes even more complicated with the inclusion of conflicting accounts of the whole situation. As such, I will not be offering any moral judgement on these matters other than to say that the mistreatment of women, or any person for that matter, is unacceptable.
All that ugliness aside, the book wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting for some time. It had lost the sense of fun and became bogged down in a plot nobody wanted. Additionally, I never thought Tess Fowler was a good fit for the book. The comic never felt as interesting or alive with her on art. I’m not saying she’s a bad artist any more than I’m saying Kurtis Wiebe is a bad writer. In fact, both individuals are infinitely more talented on their worst days than I am on my best, but what the pair was creating together wasn’t all that good and the book was going to need some major reworking, regardless of the other issues going on at the time.
With all that garbage out of the way, let’s look at the comic itself.
The book is billed as a soft reboot. All the things that happened before with the characters did occur, and we pick up with the Queens now having reformed following Hannah leaving the group to save her dad and do mystical stuff, while the rest of the Queens go on a pirate adventure. They have returned to Palisade and are going out on their first quest since getting the band back together.
Back is the irreverent sass that made the book so popular in the first place. That special blend of humor and hyper-violence is once again on display. Wiebe uses the Queens happiness at being back to what they love as a mirror of the audience who’ve been wanting to see a return to form for some time now. There are a few new interesting wrinkles to the status quo, such as Hannah’s father, Gerard now living with the group, much to the enjoyment of everyone save Hannah and in a move that brought a smile to this reader’s face, fan-favorite character, Braga, is formally inducted into the Rat Queens.
Owen Gieni’s art while occasionally a little basic in the composition department is good and has a bit of a cartoony edge which helps with the expressive over-the-top nature of the Queens’ personalities shine through. His background as a colorist shows as several elements to the art are in the coloring and not in the line work. It straddles the line between the painted style of coloring found in many fantasy illustrations and the more modern style of comics coloring. This level of integration between the traditional line work and the colors is a rarity in comics as so few artists also do the colors in their books, but Gieni blends it all nicely making each page visually engaging.
I was a bit shocked that there wasn’t any sort of letter or address to the fans by Wiebe at the end of the comic. I thought it would be logical to take a moment to speak to the fans and if not giving his own more detailed account of what happened and maybe trying to smooth things over at least welcoming fans and newcomers to the new run of the book. Wiebe’s approach at this point is to try and push past everything and hope fans will let him put all this bad stuff into his rear mirror as he drives the book forward. While a totally agree with this approach in terms of the narrative in the comic, they can simply throw out the occasional reference to what happened during the break and I’ll be happy, I don’t wholly agree with that approach with regards to everything else and see him not reaching out in the comic itself as a missed opportunity. We’ll have to wait and see how well this all goes over with the fans.
This new #1 issue is everything that made people fall in love with these characters in the first place. It picks things up at just the right moment for older fans and provides a reasonable jumping on point for new readers. I can’t argue with anyone who feels turned off by what happened behind the scenes, and maybe this book will never be free of the taint those events cast upon the property. As with most things, time will be the ultimate judge, but this is a really big step in the right direction.