RAT QUEENS: How Kurtis Wiebe Caught Image Comics Readers in a Rat Trap
Preview art from Rat Queens #5
CREDIT: Image Comics
In September 2013, it was clear Shadowline Comics and writer, Kurtis Wiebe, had yet another sellout hit on their hands with the sassy swords and sorcery comic, Rat Queens. Focused on a band of rowdy and raunchy female mercenaries, this series has quickly become a fan favorite thanks to its mix of brutality, comedy, and yet surprisingly thoughtful and developed characters. On the heels of this success – and what looks to be the pending demise of one of the Queens' leading characters – Newsarama had the chance to talk with Wiebe about this breakout hit and the life-and-death circumstances surrounding Issue #5.
Newsarama: Going into the end of the series' first story arc, it seems critics and fans alike have enthusiastically responded to Rat Queens. What do you think are the secrets to this book's success?
Kurtis Wiebe: I think initially it was because we surprised a lot of people in how we approached the genre. I suspect a lot of people assumed this would be a standard fantasy story with speckles of comedy but with an all-female cast. What we’ve done with Rat Queens is pretty different, and while it IS a comedic fantasy story with an all-female cast, we’re doing it with a modern flourish and, I feel, real relatable characters with actual stakes in the story.
It’s also managed to be popular with women, and I think it’s because we didn’t go out to make a comic that catered to women. I suppose that might have been the assumption because we made the characters all women, but I think that audience wants what anyone wants; characters that have a voice and are equally flawed as they are strong. We also don’t pull any punches. These ladies live in a brutally violent world, so they express their life in similar terms. They get roughed up while they kill enemies, they swear like sailors because that’s the type of world they live in and they make no qualms about getting wasted and causing a scene because they are 20 year olds.
Nrama: It seems fans have really embraced this series through a variety of outlets: cosplaying, social media, and even an online book club? What can you tell me about your response and involvement in this emerging community?
Wiebe: Honestly, I’m diving in and embracing it. Roc and I talk to the fans as much as we can on Twitter or Tumblr. We repost fan art, cosplay pictures, and what seems to be an unending amount of clipped scenes from the series. Sharing in that excitement with the people who rabidly support the book is one of the best things about Rat Queens.
It was that enthusiasm that led to the Rat Queens Social Club to begin with. And that’s just the start.
With the help of Shannon Woodhouse, we’re launching a women’s focused Rat Queens merchandise line. (www.ratqueens.com) We’re also doing our very first Rat Queens panel at ECCC this year, something we’re both pretty excited about. There’s even talk of a Rat Queens get together in the evening after the show.
We’re rolling with the fan engagement, not for the sake of the book, but because we are actually loving the interaction.
Nrama: What are some of the sources – comics or otherwise – that have informed your writing of Rat Queens?
Wiebe: This might make some people happy and others sad, but a big influence is Joss Whedon. I think he’s done a lot right for making male and female characters real, relatable and balancing strength with flaws. That’s what makes a character really sing and he’s paved the way in the past 15 years for some excellent story telling because of it.
Nrama: And Dungeons and Dragons, right? I mean clearly, this series is dripping in tabletop roleplaying games!
Wiebe: Yes and no. I grew up with and still play RPG’s to this day. I find them a pretty fantastic creative exercise and I feel like it’s taught me a lot about creative spontaneity and weaving interesting long form plots. Obviously for those already steeped in the world of D&D, there’s a lot of homages and subversions in relation to it going on, but Rat Queens isn’t a one trick pony. A lot of our humour is situational or character based. We manage to entice readers who normally outside the genre.
I love our gamer fans and non-gamer fans, but what I really want is for people to try this book regardless of the genre it finds itself in because I do believe we aren’t boxed in by it and have wider appeal.
Nrama: Obviously, you're not the only person at the helm of this brash and buzz-worthy series. How did you and Roc Upchurch come together to create this series? What can you tell us about your collaborative process?
Wiebe: We’ve been on each other’s radars for 2 years now since a chance meeting at NYCC in 2011. We’ve kept in touch, thrown ideas back and forth and have eventually shaved all those ideas down to what became Rat Queens. The process is pretty straightforward: I write a script and he makes it 10x more awesome.
We’re always talking new ideas though, about new character traits or histories that we want to include later. We both have a lot invested in this series and I would like to think love it equally.
Nrama: One of the points raised in an earlier review on Newsarama was that Rat Queens manages to do something few fantasy comics are able to accomplish: It avoids the standard stereotyping of women so common in the world of swords and sorcery. Why did you decide to go with an all-female band of mercenaries, and what have been some of the challenges (if any) pushing back against many of the more outdated fantasy tropes?
Wiebe: I touched on this a bit earlier as to why I think it’s succeeding. I think the biggest challenge has been the eye rolling factor. What I mean by that is, someone might look at in on the shelf and immediately assume we’re doing another fantasy cheesecake book without giving it a proper chance. And, it’s wonderful when people do, especially women, because they’re finding something in Rat Queens that isn’t really that common in standard comics.
One of those things, in particular, is how Roc is illustrating the women. We have four characters with 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.
So, it was never about making them women for the sake of having female characters. It was the idea of turning some expectations on their head and telling a fun, relatable story in the meantime.
Nrama: It seems as though just about every Rat Queen has had a little bit of her backstory revealed except for Dee. Is there a reason you've been holding off on her?
Wiebe: Dee’s a pretty pivotal character in the second arc. As the name “The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth” suggests, it is tied into her history with the Cult of N’Rygoth and, after the reveal in our final issue of Gold, Guts and Grog, it will be apparent why.
Her backstory is a pretty fascinating one and we’ve saved a lot of that for what’s to come in the series.
Nrama: Now, looking ahead to Issue #5, it looks as though one of the Queens is not going to make it out alive. Isn't it a bit early to be killing off your main characters? Or do readers need to go into this series thinking, like Game of Thrones, that death cheats no one and anyone is fair game?
Wiebe: A few months ago Roc and I hosted our second Rat Queens Social Club. It’s this thing we do with the fans where we hop on Tiny Chat and do a video conference with people, take questions, talk shop, etc. Anyway, we were asked the question if it was possible for our lead characters to die, given that it’s a fantasy setting and people can easily be brought back to life.
We both laughed a bit, because it was something we’ve actively talked about since the earliest point of creating the series. There has to be danger. The chance of real death. If we want the stakes to be real than Violet, Dee, Betty and Hannah should never be safe from dying. Otherwise it’s just all an exercise in futility and at the end of the day we tell a few jokes, kill a few monsters and be on our way.
We want Rat Queens to mean more than that. So, yes. Anyone is fair game.
Rat Queens #5 from Image Comics hits shelves on February 26