RAT QUEENS #15
Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art by Tess Fowler, Tamra Bonvillain
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: March 16, 2016
The climax of the most emotionally fraught arc of the series yet offers up a great opportunity to look back at how Rat Queens has grown without actually growing up.
This is an arc that delves deep into Hannah’s backstory, who has always been my favourite, but what’s so critical to its success is that it isn’t all about her or even give her all of the biggest moments. It’s fine to focus on a given character for a few issues, but a lot of ensemble books miss out on opportunities to keep the rest of the cast moving and find catalysts for the other characters that strengthen both their own arcs and the one being foregrounded. Despite all the various delays and creative team changes that have happened along the way, looking back at the whole proves that Kurtis Wiebe has a very rare understanding of how to keep a book from either settling into a Writing For Trade Five Act Holding Pattern or listlessly continuing without clean breaks. He builds up one thread as another is executed, keeping a smooth trajectory.
Where that’s been most evident in this particular arc is Dee, who is grappling with the discovery that the god she grew up worshipping and then rejected is actually real. That thread in and of itself is a really fun idea that is a refreshing change for how fantasy fiction deals with matters of faith. It’s tiresome to constantly see the same cynical constructions of an earnest believer’s truth be stripped away into something evil. Of course Dee’s god is evil, but she already grew up thinking that, and so discovering the dynamic that it once preyed on her people and that the only thing that’s keeping it from rising up and doing it again is them syphoning its power through their magic is a very nice inversion of the dynamic and puts her on far much more of an even keel with what Hannah is struggling against than she realizes.
But the spanner in the works is her brother who is also Hannah’s former classmate whose perspective on her is shaped exclusively from the whispers around what got her expelled, the exact opposite of the Rat Queens themselves, whose faith in her is being rocked, but not outright broken by the revelations of what both Hannah and her father did to land themselves in their current predicaments. Despite only appearing for the first time two issues ago, Dee’s brother becomes the most plot critical character in the arc, providing the opportunity for her to talk out her conflicting emotions simultaneous with Hannah’s brief reunion with her mother that closes the gaps in her own understanding of what’s lead her back to the University.
It’s all part and parcel of how Wiebe carefully handles the female friendships at the core of the series, something that he applies far more care and nuance to than the vast majority of his male peers. Under most writers -many of them women!- Dee’s brother casting aspersions on Hannah would immediately descend into cattiness and a mutual rupturing of the group dynamic, but Violet and Betty, who are acting as the rocks this arc, pull hard to bring Hannah back into the fold. They recognize that Hannah is acting out and trying to force a rift that would both put her friends out of harm’s way and wall herself off emotionally so that she can fall back into old patterns. It’s very similar to how Genevieve Valentine and Brenden Fletcher wrote Selina Kyle and Black Canary respectively as figures who grapple with being both protective and instinctively loners, and just as satisfying to see done well.
The added dimension though is that there are the tinges of an addiction narrative at work in Hannah’s connection to the magic she drew from the fiend to bolster her abilities, leading to her attack on the council. Wiebe has been particularly careful in how he builds up magic and how women wield power in this series so that this doesn’t fall into a condescending narrative of how women are always ultimately overwhelmed by it like the Dark Willow arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Between the last two issues it becomes abundantly clear what lead up to her being tempted to go down that road and what the ultimate cost of it would turn out to be, and so this development feels well earned and emotionally satisfying instead of trite and sexist.
The sequence that follows, however, is where Tess Fowler and colorist Tamra Bonvillain very clearly take control and become the dominant creative voices on the issue. Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen have both, in their own words, expressed the importance of learning to get out of the way of their artistic collaborators to good storytelling in comics and we see Wiebe’s clear understanding of that as Hannah strips naked and stands in front of a mirror, admiring herself with her horns out. It has been quite a while -maybe too long judging by how arresting she is here- since we’ve seen Hannah naked, but the last time was memorably rendered by Stjepan Sejic in a scene where Sawyer faltered and ultimately rejected her after seeing the horns. That particular sequence played fantastically to Sejic’s strengths, with her tugging her hair down anxiously to cover her breasts and privates, which brings in the other side of the coin of writing for an artist. It’s one thing to give an artist room to breathe and do their best work, but as a writer you also have to know how to play to their strengths, give them red meat to sink their teeth into.
Wiebe did it in that sequence for Sejic, knowing, as we all ought to, that he brings a fantastic level of care and enthusiasm in intelligently eroticizing the female figure to his work and Wiebe does so again for Fowler here. The key to these two pages, Hannah stripping and the full page of her admiring herself in the mirror, is the decision for her to get fully undressed when Wiebe could have easily scripted her carefully unpinning and letting her hair down, brushing it out in the mirror admiringly. It would have worked and there may have been a tickle at the back of the head of some readers to have wanted a flipside to the scene with Sawyer, but Wiebe clearly understood the broader potential for the scene and what Fowler could bring out in it.
Anyone familiar with Fowler’s work, particularly anyone who has seen her discuss the topic on social media, is passionate about drawing women’s bodies and constantly working to do justice to the full range of diversity available in figurative work. It’s a cornerstone of why she was brought on to do the Braga special, a story that required a particular level of care she could be easily entrusted with, and what lead to her permanent residence on the title. There’s a great deal of erotic power in the sequence that could, in all honesty, only come from a female artist. Sejic tends to abstract the female figure with long waists that taper high and wide, which is perfectly fine. A lot of the effectiveness of his erotic work hinges on body language and facial expressions, which is the most critical element of communicating the nuance of the BDSM dynamics of Sunstone, and a key reason why he was included in the Harley Quinn annual that delivered the first explicitly romantic kiss between her and Poison Ivy.
But this is a scene that is purely about shapes. The figure that Fowler employs for Hannah is certainly cartooned, but she does it to accentuate and own the features that Hannah would be most anxious about in the same way that she is anxious about people seeing her horns. We could receive a very basic idea of oh hey yes this is a scene about the complications of body positivity and being othered and nod and smile along if Hannah was fully clothed. Getting to see how Fowler draws her breasts hang, the curve of her hips, the indent of her belly, and the thatch of her pubic hair connects us to her in a far more visceral way that transforms sympathy into empathy. What makes it erotically charged enough to give the reader static shock is that this is a performance for herself. Not for a lover or even for a voyeur. We’re looking over Hannah’s shoulder to see what she’s seeing how she sees it, and the subtle smile on her face conveys it all.
Fowler’s inks are noticeably different on this issue, getting much thinner and meandering than her previously sharp, bold, and deep blacks. She’s a highly self critical artist whose ruthless drive for self improvement is easily palpable, but the thinning of her inks appears to be in service to her evolving relationship with colorist Tamra Bonvillain. The change in inks brings a very different quality to Fowler’s work all on its own, but the first, and most evident product of the shift is to give Bonvillain more space to work and build up volume with her colors. The weight of Hannah’s breasts, the shape of her stomach, and curve of her upper arms are all Bonvillain, and that requires just as much trust in her abilities from Fowler as Wiebe places in either one of them when he drafts a script. Excellence in coloring is just as variable as it is in cartooning and can encompass a broad range from the minimalist palettes carefully chosen by Lee Loughridge to building mood and depth through cel shading like Serge LaPointe, or intricate rendering like Bonvillain. It’s the interplay between artists that determines what the most effective approach for a given book is, something that is easily apparent in Fowler and Bonvillain’s work together on Rat Queens so far. (It’s also well worth noting that Bonvillain is one of the few colorists who makes the effort to color the palms of her black characters lighter than the base skin tone.)
The look that Hannah emerges from her self reflection in is pure Fowler again, directly and very intentionally evoking Imperator Furiosa of Mad Max: Fury Road fame, but with the important caveat that it functions as a very intimate symbol of Fowler and Wiebe’s collaboration on Rat Queens. Again, pointing to the fact that great comics writing requires both an understanding of when to get out of the way as well as a keen sense of the artist’s sensibilities and interests, it would require a look at the script and further confirmation from both Wiebe and Fowler to determine which of the two hatched the idea for the look. Reason being that Fowler shared, on Twitter, the story of having gone to see the film with her husband and seeing herself in Furiosa when, believing all else is lost, she decides to head out across the salt flats until Max talks her into turning around and making an end run on Immortan Joe’s largely undefended citadel. According to Fowler, her husband, without a word, took her hand because he saw it too.
Did Wiebe, in spitballing this scene and realizing that Hannah’s modified look would require her to cut enough of her hair off to be unable to hide her horns, see the opportunity to include it or was it Fowler who recognized the potential? It’s impossible to know without approaching them directly, which hits at the core of why, in many instances, speculating about the division of labor and source of inspiration of what appears in the finished product is pointless and arbitrary. It also brings back into focus a particular contention of mine about the nature of the male gaze and its role in the creative process. While the phrase is frequently used as a synonym for prurient male interest, it’s a reductive and ultimately useless application. An actually useful application of it is to retreat back to its common academic usage to describe it as the lens through which masculinity is projected onto any work of art. MMFR is surely subject to the heavy influence of the male gaze owing to its director, George Miller, being a man, irrespective of Margaret Sixel, who edited it. One does not negate the other, but rather provides a synthesis of their viewpoints, of which gender is only one facet.
When we look at the example of erotic artwork across the two pages that Hannah strips and examines herself in the mirror, highlighting the gendered gazes of Fowler and Bonvillain is critically important to determining why it’s so effective and breaks out of normative depictions of female sexuality as conceived of and executed exclusively by men, but it’s equally myopic not to acknowledge that Wiebe’s gendered gaze played a critical role in it’s execution! Excoriating or erasing well received expressions of the male gaze contributes to nothing more than the tarnishing of great work.
Hannah’s development across this arc has been an incredible contribution to genre storytelling and the particular kind of lost girl narrative that it belongs to, an accomplishment that the entire creative team deserves immense credit for. As a longtime X-Men reader, the mutant metaphor has done a great deal for me in being able to take ownership and pride in my queer identity, the cornerstone of which has long been Illyana Rasputina. As much as I’m a fan of magic and occult storytelling -and the specific visual of girls with horns as an expression of my trans identity- her miniseries origin story has never sat well with me.
There’s a disturbing and uninterrogated subtext of being groomed by a sexual predator in her story of being kidnapped into Limbo and returning as an adult that problematizes what would otherwise be an exemplary tale of the anxieties of puberty. Imagine my shock when I discovered that my favourite Rat Queen, the magic user with blunt bangs, was hiding a pair of horns under her hair! Illyana will always hold a special place in my heart, but Hannah’s backstory as it elapses in this arc is so much more welcoming and fulfilling. That Hannah no longer has her gorgeous bangs and will probably sit out the next few issues is a pittance of a price to pay to get such a richly rewarding and deeply affecting arc for her.
It’s absolutely astonishing to think that the little book that started out as the equivalent of a boozy college dorm D&D campaign has grown into one of Image’s richest, most emotionally affecting titles without losing any of its sophomoric instincts. Rat Queens is what happens when creators are enabled to bring their full and most passionate selves to a project and remain open to learning as much about each other as they endeavor to put of themselves on the page.
The Verdict: 10/10