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Image of Hannah, Violet, Dee and Betty from The Rat Queens


In 2013, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch's Rat Queens burst onto the graphic novel scene to a general cry of delight. As the blurb for Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery says, 'Who are the Rat Queens? A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they're in the business of killing all god's creatures for profit.' Basically, they're an awesome-sauce gang of outrageous ladies. With their overwhelming quest for a destructive good time, their battle lust, and their defiant fashion sense, the Rat Queens provided the kind of rowdy, confident female gang many fangirls just couldn't resist.

Rat Queens focuses on a gang of four very different women: Hannah, the elvish leader; Violet, the rebel dwarf; Dee the reformed cultist, and Betty the drug obsessed cutiepie. Together they form the Rat Queens; a band of women seemingly united by a desire to fight and drink their way through Palisades. Sass and Sorcery The Queens first appear together in a double page spread which shows a scene of devastation. 'Now that's what I call a bar crawl,' Hannah, quips as the reader surveys the trail of havoc these women have wrought in search of a good time. In the middle of the chaos, Betty is preoccupied with trying to tap out the last drop of ale from her cup. Violet scowls. Dee stands tall and unconcerned, hands on hips, staring straight at the reader. Here is a set of women who colour outside every line laid down to mark out 'appropriate' female behaviour. Hell, these ladies set the colouring book on fire, use that flaming book to destroy their enemies and then line their eyes with the charcoaled remains that surround them.

Rat Queens is a series which glories in the power of violent women, and emphasises the appeal of women who wear their physical power with confidence. In Sass and Sorcery, the first four issues are preceded by images which feature a blood-stained member of the Rat Queens smiling or scowling, emphasise the Queen's physicality. These pictures suggest that the Queens are women who win hard fights,. And the bloody injuries they take along the way only serve to highlight how strong they must have been to overcome whatever hit them. These images are lush, standalone character studies which give the reader plenty of time to examine the women; allowing the reader to take away a sense of their strength, solidity and sheer immovability. It is incredibly alluring to see female strength celebrated and centred in these images, and these images make the Queens appealing characters from the offset.

As a team, the Rat Queens are an iconic rebellious group; tapping into a strand of feminist subversion which deliberately celebrates women who are "bad". The Queens are the personification of everything women aren't supposed to be: angry, violent, deliberately sexual, physical, confident, unkempt, drunk, high. They're a walking reprimand to the world - designed to shock and awe by standing as an affront to every traditional view of what womanhood "should" be. Even the makeup of their group sometimes contradicts traditional views about women. Women aren't supposed to be lesbians, and lesbians aren't supposed to be cute and funny. Black women aren't supposed to be powerful or sexy. Women aren't supposed to be friends, or able to work together successfully. Rat Queens explodes all of these ideas, and creates a group of confident, dangerous women unbreakably linked together. The Queens represent a patriarchal nightmare - violent, organised women with little respect for the boundaries of law and behaviour. They are a particular kind of feminist dream.

Rat Queens could have rested on its laurels and made do with just being a gloriously violent kick in the teeth to traditional ideas about how women are supposed to act. It could have settled for presenting a homogeneous group of ladies whose personalities all revolve around a love of quipping, fighting and fucking. Instead it presents a group of women who, despite their common feeling for each other, and a shared love of killing things that try to kill them, are all distinct personalities. Betty is a kindly woman looking for love; offering the opposite of Hannah's hardened approach to relationships. Dee is socially anxious where the other girls love to party. Violet is Hannah's constant sparring partner but these two women always have each other's backs.

The Queens are a united group of female rebels but that doesn't mean they all have to be the same1. Hannah is the walking embodiment of the comic's rebellious female aesthetic. She has such a huge personality, and such an eye-catching look, that initially it's easy to believe that the each member of the Queens must be exactly the same as Hannah in order to fit into the gang. And with her quick mouth, and cynical outlook, Hannah always appears ready to goad everyone around her into submission. However, it quickly becomes clear that just as each member of the Queens looks very different from each other they also have very different backgrounds and personalities. And, this image of Hannah as the dictator of snark is contradicted by the way her team is able to be individuals within the framework of Rat Queen life.

As a group, the Queens present a rebellious female icon. And as individuals they stand as subversions to the traditional image of what a woman should be. However, they're also allowed to be people with quirks and differences that have nothing to do with straightforward subversion. The Rat Queens may make a feminist statement but the characters are never flattened in the service of feminism. And I think that shows a great understanding of what feminism can aspire to be - a political movement that allows real women to participate freely while living real lives. I suspect this ability to embrace female characters as narratively political and real people is one of the reasons why female readers have taken Rat Queens to their hearts.

And I would guess the women's fashion has gained the comic plenty of fans too. Take Hannah - leader of the Queens. Hannah's signature colour is red; traditionally a colour linked with villainy or immorality when worn by female characters in fantasy media. Hannah also typically dresses in low cut tops, a short skirt and high boots. A red jacket and long red gloves complete her typical outfit. Sometimes she wears tight trousers but the low cut bustier remains a staple of her costume whatever situation she finds herself in.

Hannah's fashion is as much a weapon as her powers. Her style gels with the comic's general vibe of violent female power and, as all good costuming does, contributes to the reader's understanding of Hannah's character. To readers living in a world where women are encouraged to be "appropriately" sexy, Hannah's wardrobe stands out as a loud, brash statement of blatant sexual control. Here is a woman who deliberately wears a colour with traditionally negative connotations. Her choice of revealing clothing indicates that she makes the rules about what makes her body sexy. Her dress sense screams that she doesn't care what anyone thinks of her; she has stepped outside of society's rules. And the choice of red as her signature colour, rather than the black of her teenage years, could indicate her confidence; her willingness to stand out while she rebels.

So far there are two collected editions of the Rat Queens comics: Sass and Sorcery and The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth. All of the creators listed on the covers of these collected editions are male. The majority of the creative team listed inside of these two collected editions are male. The problem of male creators costuming female characters in tight clothes is well known. And it is, of course, telling that the particular sartorial and aesthetic path which Rat Queens walks lines up neatly with some sexist tropes. Bloody, violent women in tight clothes are a standard part of male fantasy. The social context that images are created in is always important.

Personally, I appreciate the interpretation of Hannah and the Queen's costumes as a rebellious feminist fashion. I'm also fan of the Queen's various costumes. I like them partly because they are varied. You would never see Violet squeezed into a Hannah-style costume. And I like that the creative team thought about giving each woman a style appropriate to their lives. I'm also a fan of the level of detail that each costume contains - the layering and various adornments make them look like outfits these women have taken time to choose, which implies individuality. And I'm a fan of fierce fictional fashion; female costuming that bares its teeth and decides to rip things up. I think Mad Max showed that female fans have an appetite for costuming which takes feminine fashion and slashes it into something brutal and barbed.

However, I'm generally suspicious of men drawing women in revealing clothing. And there are some panels in both Sass and Sorcery and The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth where the way the women are dressed and posed feels exploitative. There are some incredibly awkward crotch shots and boob focused panels that feel specifically aimed at satisfying a male gaze.. And, although I liked some of the detailing included in the pin-up posters that start Sass and Sorcery, I was not at all keen on the team's decision to use pin-up shots to open their first collected trade edition. These images pose the women and, in a few places, pointedly direct the reader's eyes to the women's body parts. The effect is supposed to be light hearted, as in the image of Vi's tunic being lifted by a stray arrow. However, I found it an incredibly awkward and off-putting introduction to the story. It practically screamed that these comics were not for me.

Still, often these comic's approach to the female body and nudity feels much more organic than anything I've seen elsewhere in graphic novels or any kind of visual media. Rat Queens is an adult comic about adult women who have sex, and as such I'd expect some nudity. What I don't want from that nudity is to feel like the women, who are the focus of the story, suddenly become dolls posed for the enjoyment of a straight male reader. And what I often got in Rat Queens was nudity that felt, if not exactly necessary to the story (is total female nudity ever necessary to further a plot - discuss), then like something real rather than a plastic porn version of sexuality. There's a fantastic nude image in issue #6, included in The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth, which feels completely natural. Hannah's body isn't posed and is shown with muscle and folds. It reminded me greatly of the scene in Mad Max where the Wives, dressed in the revealing, clingy clothing of the sex chamber, wash hurriedly in front of Max. In contrast to so many scenes of women washing in visual media, there is nothing lingering or posed about that scene. And there is nothing forced about this panel in Rat Queens.

The way the Queens just slob around in revealing clothing also feels normal; an organic aspect of their story which the reader can attribute to hard drinking lifestyles or a deliberate lack of domesticity. When Hannah is thrown back into naked memories of her past the comic shows great respect for the vulnerability she reveals and covers her body with her hair.

I think the creative team behind Rat Queens switches between awareness and lack of awareness. In many places they approach female nudity and sexuality with the idea that it is a normal part of life. In others they pose women and frame them through a distorting male gaze. The depiction of women's bodies is a mixed bag but one that I felt more comfortable with than pretty much any other really sexual visual media I've come across in a while. And I'm really interested to see how that aspect of the comics will progress now that Tess Fowler is going to be drawing all the art. I'm not really here for making any kind of ruling on whether the approach to the female body and female dress in Rat Queens is feminist (although I wanted to be clear that there are places where I feel a sexist gaze is gratified). However, I hope I've laid out my feelings about the way the creative team approach their female characters' bodies, and some of the ways the art of Rat Queens can be interpreted.

Rat Queens is a flashy, furious and fun comic. I am certainly one of the fangirls who was dragged into its bloody, irreverent grip. My thing of all things is hard women punching their way out of problems. I love a 'rip it up and mix it around until it looks hot' approach to costuming. I love seeing the real physicality of women's bodies displayed and appreciated. I love teams made up entirely of women, and stories which are based around female friendships. And women who handle emotions and assassination attempts by drinking - come get me, I am done. Onwards to more fighting, fucking and friends (Tizzie!) in Vol. 3.

1 Nor, as in so many other frustrating stories about women, are they the polar opposite of their friends. Writers, please stop putting all your female characters into positions of direct opposition. That's just not how life works.
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