For those unfortunate people out there who aren't reading it, Rat Queens is a recent series from Image about an all-women adventuring party in a comedic, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired world. It's smart, touching, genuinely hilarious, and one of the best new books out there. And it has a cast of awesome ladies who aren't subjected to any of the usual clichés of women in comics.
They're tough without being emotionless; attractive without being sexualised; and they get to wear clothes which are actually practical for dungeon crawling. Where almost all the women in superhero comics are exaggeratedly slim with disproportionately large breasts, here we actually have a variety of body types. There's a reason why this comic has cultivated such a huge and outspoken female fan base, and why so many people are cosplaying as these characters. It's because Rat Queens encourages female readers to see themselves in the characters by presenting as many different kinds of women as it can, rather than demanding that all women conform to the one generic standard of beauty we so often see.
As discussed in Sam Hurcom’s article on Batgirl's new costume, the problem with the way so many women in comics are drawn is that it encourages negative female body image. These illustrations tell readers that one body type is attractive, and no others are - an idea which is patently ridiculous. It's particularly problematic for young girls reading comics, since they're going to be more impressionable than older women. In an industry which even depicts Wonder Girl, a member of the Teen Titans, as having a waist as narrow as her leg and breasts the size of her head (and who somehow doesn't wear a bra), we need comics like Rat Queens to highlight how stupid that is.
Obviously, it's not just how the Rat Queens look that makes them so great. It's a big part of it, and Roc Upchurch's art is gorgeous, to be sure. But writer Kurtis J. Wiebe has taken pains to make sure that he's written a cast of believable characters who are informed by the fact that they're women, but not defined by their gender. It's like what George R. R. Martin once said in response to being asked how he writes female characters so well: "You know, I've always considered women to be people." None of the Rat Queens is the team's Token Girl, which means Wiebe can write complicated, three-dimensional characters who never succumb to stereotypes.
The Rat Queens are foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, and all quite fond of getting high (especially Betty). But they're also all young women, with all the insecurities and hang-ups that come with that. Violet is a dwarf feminist who shaves her beard in protest of her people's customs; Dee has serious social anxiety issues; Betty is unlucky in love and a hopeless romantic; and Hannah has a troubled relationship with her parents, as well as an on-again-off-again boyfriend. They're not just great female characters, they're great characters full stop, and their adventures are a joy to read. They're quite a dysfunctional group, but it's clear they all love each other to pieces. To quote Hannah, "no one calls my friends cunts but me." It's hard to think of another comic which has as good a cast of female characters as this one, and hopefully it'll run for 100 issues.
It's depressing that the state of the comics industry is such, that we end up singling out for praise the rare comics which actually have good female characters in them. Hopefully, one day, it'll be the norm that all the women in comics will be as well-written and well-drawn as the Rat Queens. But until then, we can't stop pointing at books like this and telling the rest of the industry: this is how it's done. Things are certainly improving, especially with Lady Thor, the new Ms. Marvel and the Batgirl redesign, but American comics are still a long way from appealing to men and women equally. That's why we need books like Rat Queens to show everyone else the way.
And for once, it's the men who wear the silly, impractical costumes in this book: the leader of the Four Daves goes into battle not only without armour, but without a shirt. How refreshing is that? Not only does this book have a cast of fantastic women, it's also got a cast of sexy men who don't exist as a male power fantasy. Despite being written and drawn by a man, Rat Queens is unashamed about being a female power fantasy, and it's about time we had some more of those.