There was a time when a pencil, paper, and a whole lot of imagination enabled escape to a world of wonder, mostly through role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Computers and improved CGI has changed that, but for those who played it there are often fond memories attached and Kurtis J. Wiebe is one such person. Rat Queens is his tribute to those days mixed with 21st Century realism, something Wiebe called “Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids“, a shot in the arm for the usually over-serious sword and sorcery genre.

Sass and Sorcery tells the individual and collective stories of the all-female members of mercenary band The Rat Queens, who operate from the growing frontier town of Palisade. Wiebe pokes gentle fun at RPG tropes throughout the series, creating strong female leads with real-life struggles and shortcomings. Hannah is the sarcastic elven mage hiding dark secrets, Violet the dwarven warrior trying to shed cultural stereotypes, Betty the inappropriate smidgen (think halfling) thief who loves mushrooms and candy, and Dee the atheist cleric from the squid-worshipping cult of N’Rygoth. The Queens are good at what they do, but are (along with four other mercenary bands) presently causing more trouble than they solve, wasting their money and time drinking, brawling, and fornicating, much to the disdain of the Palisade city council. This leads to conflict with Sawyer, the guard captain and Hannah’s on/off lover, really complicating matters. The Queens and the other companies are ordered to make amends, but their standard quests turn out to be traps. They become hell-bent on finding out who is behind it all, and making them pay. Except nothing is ever simple where the Rat Queens are concerned, and before you know it they are facing disgruntled merchants, secret conspiracies, estranged family, and vengeful girlfriends.

Wiebe’s characters are very relatable and backed by a wickedly funny script, the ladies wielding insults as well as they do their weapons. He also presents some interesting issues like the cultural stereotyping of women and religious indoctrination, but unfortunately the humour tends to deflect attention away from these thorny subjects and leaves them hanging in the air. The characters are also still being introduced, so we only really see one dimension of each, with Betty woefully underdeveloped. Wiebe’s writing is very well-complemented by artist Roc Upchurch, who employs simple backgrounds and magnificent colour schemes to keep the focus on characters, similar to Miller and Janson’s Daredevil work. His action sequences are in the same vein, able to draw emotion from his art without over-detailing a posture or expression. It works particularly well when startling colours are used to draw attention to a graphic injury or specific act of brutality. Reservations aside, it’s a refreshing welcome to the genre.

Rat Queens is something of a phenomenon, costumes already appearing at comic-cons (including ones of Sawyer and other characters) with rumours of a TV adaptation on the way. In three years it has already been nominated for both a Hugo and Eisner award, winning a GLAAD award for representation of the LGBT community. Undoubtedly part of the appeal is that Wiebe and Upchurch present young women, that while not exactly perfect, are more akin to people we might know ourselves. Sadly, the mature rating of Rat Queens prevents it from being accessible to a younger audience. A pity, since the idea of four best-friends kicking the spittle out of bad guys is equally appealing to girls.

The story continues in The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth.