This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on May 16, 2014.
I’ve been a fan of Rat Queens since I saw the Fiona Staples cover to the first issue. After reading it, my gut reaction was confirmed. Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch have created a comic filled with humor, action, great dialogue, and the pleasant mangling of fantasy tropes. As someone who has hosted the same ongoing Pathfinder campaign for about three years, it struck all of the right notes for me. The part of the comic that I find most interesting though is its cast. The four characters who form the titular team are all women.
On a recent episode of Comics Therapy (one of my favorite comics related podcasts), host Andrea Shockling brought up an interesting point about Rat Queens: “I think it’s really interesting that we have a cast of four women who essentially are men who happen to be female.” The conversation begins at about the 29-minute mark and is well worth a listen. Shockling and Aaron Meyers (her co-host) did an excellent job of exploring this idea and conducted some excellent analysis. From their very first appearance, the Queens are shown to be hard drinking, violent, and crude. There are plenty of scenes in the series where drawings of men could replace those of women to little immediate effect. This left me to wonder whether the sex of these characters is integral to who they are or just an incidental component of the premise.
What made me pause was that the characterization of the Rat Queens has always felt very genuine to me. They read like female characters to me, and that is probably due to my background. When I’m not writing about comics, I work in the construction field. It is, without a doubt, one of the most testosterone-driven trades in the American workplace. Not only is the majority of the work force male, but the behaviors, attitudes, and speech found within it are all emblematic of masculine stereotypes. The women I’ve befriended at work are every bit as masculine as the culture in which they exist. They define the “work hard, play hard” mentality as well as the crudest of superintendents or hard drinking of foremen. My mother is a high-level officer at one of the largest construction firms in America as well. In addition to being an excellent mother, she’s also very good at playing in a boy’s club.
In my reading the Queens aren’t necessarily men who happen to be female, they are women who happen to be working in roles defined by men. Obviously, this represents a very different reading of the series, so what does the text support?
The premise of Rat Queens is clearly set in a world defined not just by fantasy tropes, but those of the fantasy role-playing genre. Although Rat Queens appeals to a wider audience, it has been found especially appealing by people who play Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Many jokes will fly over the head of readers who don’t know what a Myconid is (it’s a mushroom person). Despite the fact that nothing about role-playing games is inherently geared towards men or women, the people who play Dungeons & Dragons tend to be predominantly male. There are no good numbers available to determine what percent of players are men and women, but anecdotal evidence from a bevy of local stores in Omaha and my own experiences suggest that the market is primarily male. Rat Queens has not made much meta-commentary on the genre in which it exists (for that, take a look at Order of the Stick), but the male-centric nature of that genre is certainly a component of its existence.
The nature of the Rat Queens’ job is high stress, high risk, and high reward. The Rat Queens consistently place themselves in harm’s way, often suffering grievous injuries as a result. They confront horrifying spectacles and have little support structure outside of one another. Their employers are consistently male as well. So far they have been aided or dispatched by the town’s mayor (a man) and the commander of the guard (a man). There is no career path for adventurer in actual society, but it is comparable to fields like law enforcement, sports, and construction. Wiebe and Upchurch have also established that the job of adventuring in their fictional world is male-dominated. Of the twenty adventurers introduced in the first issue, 65% are male. Only two of the five parties feature any women at all.
Rat Queens is a comic in a position to explore women working within a male-dominated culture and how it affects them, but it has a lot of story yet to tell before delivering on that promise. The comic has begun to reveal the impact of the Rat Queens’ careers upon their lives in recent issues. Betty, in one of the series most emotionally sincere scenes, is rejected by a lover due to the nature of her work. Betty arrives at Faeyri’s doorstep in a spring dress with a bouquet of flowers. She is the picture of femininity and decorum. Faeyri, Betty’s girlfriend, recognizes that Betty is sweet and caring, but also points out that she cannot separate her work and friends from her personality. Betty cannot be only violent and crude around her friends, and then only be sweet and caring around Faeyri. She is always and only herself at all times.
All of the Queens have had similar conflicts introduced in their lives. Violet is shown to have had a traumatic break with her family. Hannah cannot reconcile her romantic feelings for Sawyer with her chosen role. Dee has an older husband that she has kept a secret from her closest friends. These conflicts stem from their work and the lifestyle it entails. Success as an adventurer has resulted in harm to their relationships with others. Women (in an admittedly stereotypical assessment) are known for being more emotionally mature and better at communication. The Rat Queens, through the course of finding success in roles defined by men, have sacrificed those skills. This problem is both a source for drama and an analog to a very real problem experienced by women in similar roles.
The effect of work on the Rat Queens’ relationships and internal lives could be the most interesting facet of the story and the one where Wiebe will be able to explore the role of gender in the identities of his characters. It is not only dramatically interesting, but could examine a very real subject that many women have had to tackle in the professional and personal lives. The first six issues have established the series and its characters. The first hints at internal and interpersonal conflict have begun to appear. The promise is there. I hope to see Wiebe and Upchurch deliver on it.