REVIEW: THE RAT QUEENS VOL.1 : SASS AND SORCERY- by Kurtis Wiebe, illustrated by Roc Upchurch

Do you like irreverent humour? Creative action sequences? Great characters? Heroines who care more about marauding and fighting goblins than falling in love? A fun adventure? Do you like actual fun?

Well, if you answered yes to any of those questions, then Rat Queens is a graphic novel you need to check out.

The story is basically about a party of four friends who go on quests in an MMO inspired world. We have Betty, a tiny perverted Smidgen (a sort of tiny troll or hobbit) who’s funny, loves her drink and her ‘special’ mushrooms; Hannah, a gobby magic user with an attitude problem and an arsenal full of lethal spells and even more lethal comebacks; Violet, a rebellious Dwarf who’s trying to forge her own identity; Dee, a social awkward healer who comes from a culture who worships Cthulu-or as she puts it…

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As you can see, the art is amazing– I’ve read a lot of comics, graphic novels and manga recently, and honestly I can say that this has some of the best artwork I’ve seen- seconded only to the work J.H. Williams did on Batwoman and the work Paul Louise-Julie did on both Yohance and The Pack.

Everything’s bright and colorful in this graphic novel and the character designs are very distinct. This is especially unusual in a series with female leads.Usually, the artist can’t bear to make them look like anything other than his ideal of the perfect woman, and what you’ll get is five models with different hairstyles and hair colour. Here, however, we have this:

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Look at how different the heroines are from each other, with completely different different builds, face shapes, skin tones and expressions that tell you a lot about their character. And not only that, but all the expressions on the characters are really nuanced. Check out the look of love and vulnerability on Betty’s face:

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And this picture of Dee and Betty:

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You don’t need to read the dialogue-or know anything about the characters-to see that they are good friends;  you can just tell from that picture the level of playful ease Betty has with Dee, and the amount of affection Dee has towards Betty.

The story itself is very simple and easy to follow, which is exactly what you want from an introductory arc. With less panels devoted to explaining the convoluted mess  intricacies of the plot, more time can be devoted to what this series excels at: the humour, the characters, the friendships and the action sequences.

And are the action sequences excellent. The fight sequences are really, really creative and kinetic. I mean, just have a look at this page:

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It’ll use lines and colours as backgrounds to create the appearance of movement and then cut to a white or black background for the killing blow. This works incredibly well, and when the fights come the shapes of the sides of the panels themselves will become more diagonal and may overlap, giving the feeling of a world thrown into chaos.

There’s also a lot of creativity involved. As well as the fights, the humor is on target and it affectionately satirises MMO games- like how the poor citizens of Palisade and straight laced cop Sawyer (who is the traditional Lawful Good protagonist who has a sort of ‘dating Catwoman’ dynamic with Hannah), just want the town not to be destroyed by maauding questers. Even if you don’t play MMO games, even if you’ve at least heard of World Of Warcraft than you know enough to get the humor.

On top of that, we get to the real crown jewel of this series- the characters and their relationships. Even though it’s only the first volume, we have a reasonable idea of our central characters and some of their relationships. What matters is their friendship, which always feels realistic thanks to the art and good dialogue. They fight and bicker like sisters who know each other too well, but they also clearly love each other and enjoy each other’s company and always have each other’s backs. It’s so rare to see strong female relationships which aren’t familial, and a comic full of great female relationships is something special.

Another kuddos has to go the diversity. It is AMAZING.  It’s not often you’ll get important black or queer characters in a series (although both DC and marvel are both making genuine efforts to change that, what with Batwoman and the new Ms.Marvel), but here we have a black woman and a bi/ lesbian woman as two of our main four characters.

For POC, not only do we have Dee, but we also have the most prominent male love interest (who’s described as the most attractive by the other girls), a couple of supporting characters sprinkled about, but also Betty’s love interest Faeyri who appears to be Malaysian or from another dark skinned East Asian ethnicity. Speaking of which, Betty’s relationship is treated equally to the rest of the casts; the focus of the novel is friendship and adventuring, so we have a few warm, genuine scenes between them but nothing that encroaches on Romantic Subplot Tumour . And also, I like Faeyri’s design:

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I particularly enjoy how Betty’s interested in does have the short hair style and alternative dress sense that you see a lot of queer woman donning. Don’t get me wrong- there are a lot of bi/ lesbian women who conventionally feminine, and they’re great and it’s always good to see them in media, but it’s very unusual for a butcher woman to be the love interest, and object of desire. It’s great to see a tomboyish lesbian of color can be desirable too.

Honestly, with so much good, this I’ve already read this volume twice, and I’m delaying reading the third because I don’t want it to be over.

RATING: 5/5 stars

REVIEW: THE PACK VOL.2- by Paul Louise Julie

First we had werewolves mixed with Ancient Egyptian mythology, centering around Nubian characters. Here, we get introduced to were crocodiles, Akhenatan, and a potential new female lead.

In my last review of the Pack (which is here), I said that the artwork was astounding, but the story was unnecessarily disjointed and it was extremely difficult to tell the characters apart due to them constantly being obscured by light and shadow. Well, I’m happy to report that the story has improved around the board.

The artwork is still achingly beautiful, and by God, some of the scenery. I mean check this out and tell me that’s not one of the most beautiful background images you’ve ever seen:

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This spread is dizzyingly beautiful and although this is by far the most impressive piece of artwork in the book, the rest of it looks great. Louise-Julie’s artwork is far better utilised than before. He’s lost his aversion to drawing faces and I can tell everyone apart now. Although the faces aren’t exactly beautiful to look at, they’re still very human and expressive, and really do fit in with the art work.

The panel organisation is a lot better now as there’s more rhyme and reason to their placement. Before, the placement was a bit chaotic and the action sequences felt cluttered. Here, the action sequences are more linear and you can tell what’s going on. Not only that, but we’ll also have the light and space used to the story’s advantage, like we can see below with the eerie unnatural blue being used to create a spooky, almost nightmarish atmosphere for our werewolf fight sequence.

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The story telling is also far more polished than it was in the last issue. Gone was the nonsensical jumping between beginning and end, and no longer is it defined by the ludicrous plot point that the brothers split up for no apparent reason. Now, we’re at a point where the brothers have met up, the younger brother Khenti, and they’re planning to escape to Nubia, but are attacked by Egyptians and Khenti is forced to go full werewolf on them, as can be seen above.

There’s actually some nice bonding going on between the brothers, and it’s good to see them developed more now that the story’s slowed down. Not only that, but we’re also introduced to what looks like is going to be our big bad: historical pharaoh Akhenatan, the man who was to Ancient Egyptian religion what Henry VIII was to Christianity. We get a bit about a pivotal moment in his life- when his father was a complete badass and saved him from a crocodile, telling him everything submits to the Pharoah. Considering that his only actions in this comic seem to be tyrannical, it looks like we might be heading for a chaotic evil villain with a God Complex, and an ‘even a God King can bleed’ 300 style take down, but it’s still too early to say.

We’re introduced to the idea of an Anubis Cult- which wasn’t surprising, considering we have human/ wolf monsters in ancient Egypt, and jackal headed Anubis is the closest yo get to a werewolf myth. Not only that, but we have another shifter- evil crocodile shifter, Gharis, who works for the Pharoah and may be ‘the dragon’ (basically a really powerful minion of the main villain- what Darth Vader is to The Emporor and what Princess Azula was to The Fire Lord in ATLA.)

The storytelling is still extremely straight forward and simple, but it works and it allows the art work to shine.

VERDICT: Second issue in and already Paul Louise-Julie has improved by leaps and bounds in terms of storytelling and the way he uses his layout and artwork to maximum effect. I look forward to seeing where this story will go.

 

 

SHORT STORY REVIEW: The Dragon of Borvoli- by Mark Lord

It takes a lot of bravery to fight a dragon. So imagine how brave the nine year old Boult is when he takes his father’s sword and enters the barrow near his home where tales say the dragon lives—the dragon that has been terrorising their village.

Yet not all is as it seems in this atmospheric historical fantasy short story. Boult meets Gustinus, a Christian priest, who promises to help him in his quest to slay the dragon. But Boult discovers that men can be worse monsters than creatures of legend.

The Dragon of a Borvoli does exactly what it says on the tin. Boy in Tolkein style medieval fantasy world goes on a quest to face a dragon, save a damsel and come of age (seriously, why is most of the fantasy genre set in ‘medieval Europe with dragons’ land? You can create any world you want- why always this one?). I have to admit, I was disappointed. The line ‘Yet not all is as it seems ‘implicated that there was going to be more to it and there was going to be some kind of twist. There really wasn’t. The closest thing this book had to a twist was that it had Vikings as well as dragons. Then it goes from rescuing the damsel to more abuse of the damsel so Boult can have some man pain.

Female comic book writer Gail Simone coined the term ‘fridging’ to highlight the sheer amount of women in fiction being tormented to forward a male character’s development or to give him a reason to angst. The Dragon of Borvoli is a typical example of this, as Boult’s mother exists as nothing more than a disposable tool who is humiliated and disposed of in order to forward his development.

The time period is not an excuse for this trope either. I know it’s the medieval period, but even in a time period which was not kind to females, women still did more than get kidnapped, raped and killed for the sole purpose of forwarding men’s development. Look at the women of The Cousin’s War (The Wars of the Roses), especially Margaret Beauford. She was a scared young girl who entered an arranged marriage at twelve but she became an important figure in the conflict, and her son’s later reign.

And as for the rest of medieval fantasy, look at A Song Of Ice And Fire; that’s set in a mysogynistic medieval world, but even the women who couldn’t fight or control dragons (the Tyrell women and Lady Stark for example) were treated as active, interesting and capable agents who were characters not tools. Honestly, I am sick of this tired, lazy trope and it did not endear me to this story.

But as much as I have criticised it for being derivative, and it’s terrible treatment of women, I have to review this story fairly and I cannot say it is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It managed to condense a whole quest into only 15 pages without leaving the story feeling lacking or rushed. It did rely on very, very convenient coincidences to move the plot forward, but considering its length this was understandable. The way it managed to tell a fully-fledged, self-contained story in that length was a very impressive feat.

Its success at world building also needs to be praised. It can be difficult to create a realised fantasy world in a short story, but the world building does not feel lacking here. This is partially to do with the fact that this is a world we’ve seen a hundred times before, but that’s not completely it. It also works because we’re viewing the world through the eyes of a child who is new to the world, and we learn as he learns. He is also so single minded in his quest to save his mother, so the focus is narrowed from the events of the wider world to just his mission, which was a good thing for the story.

The dialogue at the end did feel a bit choppy, as if Lord was reaching the end of his word count and was running out of steam, but as far as short stories go everything felt more wrapped up than they usually are.

In short, this is a decent quest story even if it is very, very derivative. If you just fancy a quick read with Vikings and Dragons, and can stomach its bad treatment of women, then it is an enjoyable, quick read.For its atmosphere alone and the fact that dragon attacks are cool, I award this book…

3 ‘Sons of a murdered mother, husbands of a murdered wife, who WILL have their revenge’/ 5