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Rat Queens Not Widows, Representation in Numbers

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens is written and illustrated by men–Kurtis Wiebe and Stjepan Sejic. For this reason, it perhaps shouldn’t be a feminist tentpole for contemporary comics. But the simple fact is its foursome of female leads, and the handful of ancillary female and gender-bending characters, make writing a fun, kick ass, but also feminist comic look easy. What seems to make the difference here is numbers.

In the bruhaha that spun up around the developments in Black Widow’s character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was wide discussion of whether making her a love interest to Hulk or giving her a tragic backstory involving forced infertility strengthened or weakened her character. It ended up being a kind of stalemate. On the one hand, the romance with Bruce Banner illuminated deep truths about her character. And certainly women world over deal with the psychological trauma that can come with the loss of fertility. To deny her either the character insight that she too identifies with being a monster or the authentic experience of many women dealing with barrenness also seems to be at a cost. But by making her a love interest or a woman deeply traumatized by her infertility, Black Widow took on the cliches of women in film.

johanssenruffaloThe wise Mark Ruffalo pointed out in an interview on the topic:

I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.

And this is where I get back to talking about Rat Queens. Because each of the Rat Queens is both flawed and wonderful in her own ways. There is diversity in their body types, sexualities, gender-expressions, motivations, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. And because there are four of them (plus the side characters who are being developed as well through Wiebe’s writing), none of them becomes a Widow, holding the depiction of all womankind on their shoulders, playing to or subverting cliches alone.

I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but there is a big reveal about one of the characters’s choice of hairstyle late in Rat Queens Vol. 2 trade paperback collection. If this reveal had been given to a Widow, a sole woman bearing the load of having to be awesome, it would have played pretty directly and damningly into a female stereotype. But because the character involved is surrounded by other dynamic and round female characters, her story doesn’t get flattened by the load it carries. Consider this gem of a thought from Linda Holmes on the difference with Black Widow:

To be honest, I can’t think of another Avenger whose story Natasha could have swapped with who wouldn’t, in some way, raise questions of whether the story was influenced by gender stereotypes. If she had Tony’s story, she’d be the one who messed up and wouldn’t listen, who created the need for a rescue. If she had Cap’s story, she’d be the one who tries to keep everyone from being vulgar – the behavior cop. If she had the Hulk’s story, she’d be the one whose superpower is being carried away by her uncontrollable emotions. If she had Thor’s story, she’d be the one who doesn’t have very much to do and is omitted from a large stretch of the movie. If she had Hawkeye’s story, she’d be the one who just wanted to go home and be with the kids.

post-60212-Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt-Dong-4JLzSo ultimately, doing right by women on screen and in comics comes down to multiple portrayals of heft and depth. This is true of nearly every underrepresented group–consider the mixed responses to Dong on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Dong’s character has plenty of stereotypes attached to him, but he’s also full of heart and sincerity. He’s easily one of the most likable of the characters on the show. But because there are so few depictions of Asians on television, the show’s reputation of race depiction rests in large part on his shoulders. Then consider Jacqueline Voorhees, Kimmy’s rich boss. She’s likewise a mess of stereotypes (with a couple of curveballs thrown in), but she’s also only one of multiple women who are developed on the show. She’s more offensive as a character but less responsible for being anything else.

But lets not pretend that Kurtis Wiebe doesn’t also have a gift for writing whip-smart, audacious, funny, and strong as hell female characters. Because that is also true. He just didn’t see a reason to stop with one. And that’s what makes Rat Queens an absolute joy to read and a game-changing comic for diversity of representation.


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Review – Rat Queens Volume Two: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

Rat Queens Volume Two: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Stjepan Šejić

Rat Queens Vol 2

This booze-soaked second volume of RAT QUEENS reveals a growing menace within the very walls of Palisade. And while Dee may have run from her past, the bloated, blood-feasting sky god N’rygoth never really lets his children stray too far.

Collects RAT QUEENS #6-10

I should probably do a short recap for folks not familiar with Rat Queens. It’s an American comic book detailing the adventures, in the Dungeons and Dragons sense, of four foul mouthed heroines. Hannah’s more or less an elf mage; Dee’s a human cleric; Violet’s a dwarf warrior; and Betty’s an hilarious take on the halfling thief. We reviewed volume one after our friends compelled us to read it.

Between the last volume and this one, Rat Queens won a GLAAD Media award for Outstanding Comic Book and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It’s also being developed for television. This new volume made the New York Times Bestseller list. That might help explain why it’s sold out on Amazon of all places as I write this.

The Dinglehopper was fortunate to receive a copy, but the new addition to our family delayed our review. This second arc is framed by the incursion of cthonic horrors from Dee’s hometown and provides some background on threMyconid Monster Manuale of the Queens. Unlike a lot of paint by numbers origin stories, though, these glimpses into the past reverberate with relationships already established in the first volume and encourage further interest.

It’s not all trips down memory lane. though. There’s plenty of the intertextual referencing fans have come to love. For example, there’s a pitched battle with myconids straight out of the Monster Manual.

Dee’s story is filled out mostly in the present. We already knew she’d left her family and her cult, or religion, or whatever depending on whom you ask. But N’Rygoth has come to Palisade and so has another figure out of her past. Like almost everything in Rat Queens, this is something of a trope subversion. Typically, Dee’s past would come back to haunt her. And in a literal way, it does. However, Dee’s too much her own woman for that to shake her.

You’re here with me now. Just… Don’t be afraid.

We learn a more about Hannah and Violet through flashbacks woven into the narrative with a little memorable magic. Violet’s story is the rebellious girl misunderstood by her family and her society. You know, the one where the girl dons the mask and proves she’s every bit as good as the boys? Not here. She does find her inspiration, though; and we learn why she named the party.

Don’t you know your mythology, girl? Rats are harbingers of impending destruction.

And there’s a touching moment between mother and daughter that just… here.


Issue eight was the last drawn by former artist Roc Upchurch. He was replaced after an arrest on a domestic violence charge. You can read writer Kurtis J. Wiebe’s statement here.

I am committed to Rat Queens, to stand by what it has always been praised for and to prove to the fans that they weren’t wrong in loving it.

Artist Stjepan Šejić took Hannah and Tizzieover with issue nine. For longtime fans and binge readers both, the shift is a little jarring. The cartoonish gaiety of the first volume gives way to more realistic portrayals and a greater panel depth. It’s a perfect fit as Hannah’s backstory is, predictably, grittier and edgier than the rest. We learn why she’s angry, but also why she’s loyal. We see her first meeting with Tizzie and we get to see them work together when the chips are down. And we learn why she wears her hair that way.

I’m just gonna gush. I love the new art. There’s an incredible range of expression that tells the story as much as the dialogue. The stuff happening behind the focal characters is as or more entertaining than what’s up front. It’s clear, obvious, and in character. Plus, it’s hard to go wrong when you pull a lightning storm right out of a video game.

Rat Queens has weathered the transition. Šejić’s art is perfect for the series and Wiebe’s storytelling is as compelling as ever. The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth is a solid entry that once again leaves the reader wanting more.

Recommended for fans of Bitch Planet, Dungeons & Dragons, and Mean Girls.

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Top 5 Favorite Things of 2014

Michael: I wanted to do a “Top 5 Books” post, but realized I might want to include some things that weren’t books. And I really didn’t want to make a long post even longer or run several listicles. So we decided to have a faux chat about our favorite things from this year.

Number 5

Erin: Late last winter I was desperate for a way to get my face some moisture. I crowd-sourced my problem on Facebook, as you do, and was told to check out the Oil Cleansing Method. It was a miraculous change from dry to beautifully balanced after just a few weeks, and I recommend it for anyone. Here’s a good place to start: Crunchy Betty’s Nitty Gritty on the Oil Cleansing Method.

rat-queens-02-covA-webMichael: I don’t know anything about that, other than our toddler telling me I need beard oil. My number five is kind of a cheat, since it technically started in 2013, but Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery was published in 2014. This all female Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party is rife with metacommentary, humor, and heart. Rat Queens might have made my number one but for the original artist’s domestic abuse charge. Fortunately, he was replaced by someone with an even better hand with non traditional female forms.

Erin: Oh, yeah! Rat Queens is pretty much better than face cleansing methods. You win this list, Michael. Also, I considered this list as things we discovered in 2014, not necessarily things that were created/published in 2014, so cheat away!

Number 4

flashErin: People have preferences when it comes to superheroes–Marvel or DC, comic book-y or gritty, sincere or sassy. With the onslaught of films and television bringing to life the most mainstream (Captain America) to the obscure (Guardians of the Galaxy), I’d become a bit apathetic. We enjoyed Guardians but waited months to see Captain America: Winter Soldier even though we adored the original film. But when The Flash hit the CW this past fall, my apathy dissipated. Now The Flash is the weekly show I look forward to the most. It’s sincere, heart-felt, funny, geeky, and fun.

jem.and_.the_.holograms.cast_Michael: I mostly enjoy The Flash because the show will make an odd choice for, uh, reasons, I guess and I can say, “You know who was a good Flash?” And Erin will say, “Wally West?” She was a huge Justice League fan and that show handled him pretty well. Well enough that I wasn’t constantly thinking the speed force was wasted on the character. My number four is the announcement, casting, and cross marketing of the upcoming Jem and the Holograms. I used to come home from school and watch GI-Joe like any red blooded male youth, but Jem was truly outrageous. It’s showtime, Synergy.

Number 3

BitchPlanet_01-1_300_462Erin: This year I read three truly mentally engaging pieces of science fiction. It started with finally tackling some Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Then it continued with introducing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go into my AP Literature curriculum. But the culmination came with a friend’s loan of issue #1 of Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Bitch Planet. I blogged at length about Androids but easily tripled that writing about Bitch Planet. Bitch Planet, a women-in-prison narrative with clear sci-fi elements, is intriguing, horrifying, insightful, and highly entertaining with a structural presentation that packs surprises and gut-punches. Its continuation is one of the things I look forward to in 2015.

beowulfMichael: I never did get around to reading Never Let Me Go this year. Bitch Planet was practically assigned. My number three is Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Almost everyone will tell you Seamus Heaney’s translation is the best whether they’ve read others or not. It’s good, to be sure, but there’s more magic and heroism in Tolkien. And the notes his son included are a master class on the epic and a look behind the scenes of The Lord of the Rings. I reread six versions leading up to this release, but this is the one I want handy.

Number 2

Shafer_Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2).JPGErin: Much of our year has been shaped by a single act–joining NetGalley and creating this blog to post reviews of NetGalley books. Last January I had created a GoodReads goal of reading 15 books, a goal that in previous years was completely untenable with my teacherly duties and subsequent reading burnout. Thanks to NetGalley, I blew that goal out of the water and started writing regularly again to boot (but am also frequently up late blogging for the next morning’s deadline). Without NetGalley, I wouldn’t have found these gems: David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Stephan Eirik Clark’s Sweetness #9, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, and The Bust DIY Guide to Life.

elsa setMichael: While it didn’t significantly impact the number of books I read, NetGalley did allow me opportunities to read outside my comfort zone. I have a feeling Erin’s going to cover my number 2, so I won’t go on too long about Once Upon a Time. Shortly after we started the blog, season three ended with a bombshell: Elsa was coming to Storybrooke. Our toddler loves Frozen, so I pretty much love Frozen, too. I woke up on the first day of the new year to, “The sky’s awake, Dada!” Having never watched Once, we caught up over the summer and became super fans.

Number 1

0107a-136839_3211_preErin: Most people saw Frozen in 2013, but we didn’t encounter it until our toddler turned two and we started seeing if he could sit through movies. Frozen was one of the earlier tests and easily the most successful. His enthusiasm stoked our enthusiasm, but I dare say we love it on more levels than he. For instance, I love the reversal of the true-love-at-first-sight trope so popular in fairy tales and especially Disney princess stories. A little detail I just recently discovered I loved is that Kristoff, the male hero, asks consent for a kiss from Anna, the female hero, at the end of the film. Frozen led us to Once Upon a Time, which became a big deal for Michael and I as we worked our way through the back seasons on Netflix in anticipation of the season 4 Frozen story-arc. Once is our only appointment television–Michael purchased us an antenna just for the show (we don’t have cable anymore, just Netflix and Hulu+). Once further warmed my frozen shipper’s heart that had been dormant for at least two years.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiMichael: I’m pretty fond of all that other stuff, but there’s one book I read this year that stands out beyond everything else. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley was so full of weird wonderful ideas that it changed my expectations for science fiction and fantasy. Hurley’s feminist SFF leaves no notion uninterrogated. With multiple viewpoints from distinct interrelated cultures, gender trinaries and quinaries, and protogynous assassins, all anchored in familiar epic fantasy tropes, this isn’t just my favorite book of the year, it’s one of my favorite books period.


Review – Rat Queens Volume One: Sass and Sorcery

Elf mage.  Dwarf fighter.  Halfling thief.  Human cleric.  Anything but typical.

First a friend asked me if I’d read it.  Then he recommended it on Goodreads.  Then his partner recommended it to me on Goodreads.  Then they asked me if I had a Comixology account.  Then it was in my inbox.  So I reckoned I oughtta read it.

Then I couldn’t shut up about it, so Erin took my Kindle when she put our toddler to bed.  A little while later she came back down with a huge smile on her face.

“I haven’t had this much fun reading a comic since The Adventures of Barry Ween: Boy Genius.”

Rat Queens is that kind of book.  You want tell your friends.  You want them to read it.  You want to spread the word.  It’s fun!

Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are releasing the book every six weeks in five issue arcs with a two month break in between arcs.  It’s not coming quickly, but it’s worth the wait.  They’ve curated a relationship with their fans via Facebook and other social media in the meantime.

I hadn’t read any descriptions when I opened the book.  The cover also, by Saga artist Fiona Staples, told me pretty much everything I needed to know and that I’d probably like it.  An all female adventuring party?  Count me in.

Wiebe initially described it as “a comic series that follows four lady legends waist deep into rivers of blood in the endless quest for gold, guts and grog,” and “a love letter to my years of D&D.”  But unlike many other female lead comic books, Rat Queens avoids objectifying cheesecake imagery and concentrates on story and character.  This is by design.  Wiebe told Newsrama:

One of those things, in particular, is how Roc is illustrating the women. We have four characters with act four distinct body shapes and sizes. Something you’d see in four unique women in everyday life, and I think that’s important.

The thing is, when we started talking about this series, it was the very idea of doing something in a fantasy universe that had modern ideologies in it. How would a twenty-something man or woman act in that kind of setting. I feel like we’ve seen men represented in that situation so many times, I figured it’d be fun to take a female perspective. Lots of the women I know are hilarious and adventurous so I had a lot to draw from.

And yet, it never feels self conscious.  Neither the all female cast nor the Dungeons & Dragons trappings.  It’s just background for compelling characters with some mass appeal.  Variety reports that it’s already being developed for television.

After working on such films as the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, Weta Workshop’sPukeko Pictures is pairing up with Heavy Metal to adapt Image Comics’ “Rat Queens” into an animated TV series.

Last week Betty was named #10 in Buzzfeed’s “12 Kick-Ass Gay Women in Comics and Graphic Novels”  Here she demonstrates what you might call brazen subtlety to the Captain of the city guards.

Recommended for anyone who has ever played D&D or WoW, read fantasy, or likes fun.