Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tess Fowler’s ‘Rat Queens’ Take a Critical Hit In Issue #15 [Interview]
Since it first started at Image, the R-rated RPG-themed series Rat Queens has proven to be a fan-favorite book, sparking cosplay, fanfic, and all kinds of devotion from the readership. The third arc for the fantasy series comes to a close this week with issue #15, which does some hugely shocking things to the characters. This is a game-changing issue from writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Tess Fowler, changing the story --- and the cast --- in ways nobody could have expected.
The issue comes after a slightly troubled production period for the book, which has only just settled down for the ongoing creative team recently. Fowler is now ongoing artist for the foreseeable future, joining colorist Tamra Bonvillain as the book head into the fourth storyline later this year. ComicsAlliance sat down with Wiebe and Fowler to talk about how they formed a creative partnership, what's been going on over the last few issues, and where things are going next. It's going to get a little rough for our heroes...
ComicsAlliance: How did you and Tess first get to know of one another, before and including your plans together on Broken Bones, your 2014 pitch for a martial arts comic?
Kurtis Wiebe: I’d come across Tess’s work online a few years ago. I can’t even remember the circumstances of finding her website, to be honest. I think I’d seen her Wonder Woman and Red Sonja designs floating around Twitter before I tracked her down. I loved what she was doing --- all of it felt very epic and grand in a very unique way.
Tess Fowler: Kurtis had commented on my art on Twitter, and a Rat Queens fan who was also a follower of my work sent me a link to the Rat Queens introductory one shots. I'd known Kurtis's work from the Peter Panzerfaust series already, and enjoyed it. But this was something altogether different.
I was refusing pitches at that point, having instead gone off to do my own webcomic. I had started to believe that maybe there was no spot for me in comics because the content I was being sent was never anything that lit my creative fires. Then Broken Bones happened.
KW: It was around that time that I’d watched a documentary called Buffalo Girls about young girls who train and fight for money in Thailand, and it sparked a story idea for me. Tess’s style and sensibilities seemed like a perfect fit to me, and so we started to put together our pitch for Broken Bones.
TF: From that very first pitch I knew I had to work with him. Everything he's sent me since then? I've said yes. The collaboration has been magic for me, from that first day. Comic vets always told me how rare that is. I didn't get it.
I do now.
CA: What did you like about the series, even before you officially got involved as an artist?
TF: Kurtis's voice. There's a heart behind his comics. There's music to what he does. I just always felt like he was signing a song I understood.
CA: Was it daunting to then come onboard for an ongoing Image series? Artist changes are expected in work-for-hire places, but it’s a lot rarer at Image.
TF: Daunting is an understatement. I had zero lead-in time to prepare for taking over. There was pressure, to say the least. But I feel like Tamra and I brought the heat as best we could given the circumstances --- and she's an amazing teammate to have in your corner, let me tell you.
CA: Tamra has remained a constant on the book as colorist --- how has working with her affected the way you approach the series?
TF: I have cleaned up my style a lot. No more scratchy details or weathering. She handles all of that so beautifully that I just have to let her palette breathe. Moving into the fourth arc my inks are simple. Stark. That's all because of Tamra's strength as a color artist.
CA: What is it about Tess' work which made you want to approach her, Kurtis, first for the Braga one-shot you did together and then as ongoing artist for Rat Queens?
KW: It wasn’t only about her art. Tess and I share a lot of similar life experiences and I think that allows us to work well together. She always had a firm grasp what Rat Queens meant, what I was aiming for with the series, and a lot of those sensibilities were present in Broken Bones. So, when I conceptualized the Braga one shot, there wasn’t ever a question about who was going to do it.
And when Stjepan Sejic, who’d taken over the series for a short time, became too ill to continue, I already knew who could pull Rat Queens out of the fire. It was Tess’s encouragement that kept the series going.
CA: What changes do you feel you’ve made as artist to the characters, Tess? I noted how, in other interviews, you’ve said that you’ve started to cement bits of body language for each.
TF: Some changes have been a joint effort between Kurtis and I. He'll lean in a certain direction for them, like fourth arc Violet needing to look less like a wild woman (okay... let's be honest she went full on Robin Williams Jumanji during that third arc). So I gave her a hairstyle that was a bit more "polished Viking". He leans, and I run with it.
Other changes have been mine, just due to spending five issues with the girls so far. Nervous tics. Stances. Brow furrows while talking. Pre-fourth arc I did a sheet of costume designs. They've changed a great deal since I came on board. They had winter looks, casual looks etc., in the third arc. But now they've settled into practical, utilitarian garb that includes their favored weapons, money pouches, potion bottles, and a little flair to boot.
One very big difference is that my Rat Queens hold to the RPG tradition of picking up weapons, clothing items and the like during quests. And keeping them. Betty and Violet specifically carry weapons they found back in issue #14. They needed them because they lost their blades in a previous attack, where they fled into a snowstorm. It's necessary to me that they have that kind of consistency.
CA: As the series has gone on you’ve introduced a lot more family, relationship, life drama for your characters, which changes the style of comedy in a fascinating way. How do you approach that balance of comedy and drama?
KW: I try to pay attention to the pacing of a particular scene. I find comedy works best when it surprises you, especially when coupled with a very dramatic moment. You never want to diminish the important character scenes, but sometimes vulnerability can be funny.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to answer the question. There’s just a sense for when a joke will work as I’m writing. I never plan them ahead of time, they happen in the actual creative process.
TF: Comedy does not come easy for me when the art style is this realistic. I've had to learn on the fly how to adapt to comedic storytelling that doesn't allow for cartooning shortcuts.By about issue #13 I was starting to pick it up. Going into #16 I think I'm finally holding my own. Drama is easy. Pain in art is easy. But the comedy is salve for the pain in Rat Queens. So I had to respect it, and get it right. It was an important lesson.
CA: You’ve spoken of feeling like there was a lull during the time of the third volume, which you wanted to address across the fourth arc. How has the third arc switched things up for the characters, series --- and for yourself?
KW: When Rat Queens came out, people loved the humour and insanity of it all. And that was definitely part of the formula in the writing, but I was always very subtly building the character dynamics of the team with a long game in mind. There was always going to be sadness and struggle, because if the book was all jokes and violence, it wouldn’t mean anything. If not to the reader, then definitely not to me.
I was also writing the series at a rather hellish time in my own life, and any creative person can tell you how naturally that can bleed into your craft, even accidentally. I think some readers were surprised at how dark the third arc became.
But it was always planned for this arc to happen. Some details have changed, but the results are the same. The Rat Queens have been forever changed. And to me that is interesting. I wanted to ask questions about the nature of love and family, to really make each of the women face their fears and to test the limits of the bonds that have kept them together.
With that, I also need a breather. And our new arc will begin to feel like how the series did in the beginning, but it will have weight. The comedy and insanity is coming back. I mean, wait until you see the first three pages of issue 16… it’s absolutely bizarre. I am excited for Rat Queens to be fun again.
TF: This first issue of the new arc is far and away my favorite to date. Kurtis has thrown a number of visual challenges at me which I'm taking down as we speak. And he's also challenged himself with this new material. The script is tight, well timed, and reflects (I feel) much of the growth he and I have been through in the years since we first started adventuring through comics together. I love where he's headed this go round. I think readers will be as happy as I am to follow and see where we end up.
CA: The most recent arc took the characters out of Palisade and into the unknown. As the series is perhaps a champion of the social outcast, was your ambition here to take them out of their comfort zone and throw them at something they weren’t prepared for?
KW: The arc was called 'Demons' because it was time they faced some. We’ve been hinting about their individual pasts for some time, but it is Hannah’s that has the most direct impact on the nature of their friendship. It was time to pull back the curtain a bit and see what drives her, in particular. And along the way, reveal more about the friendship between all four of the Queens.
CA: How much of their backstories do you have planned out, at this particular point? As a writer do you like to have a “bible” about them, or do you leave things unfettered, open to change?
KW: It’s a pretty even mix of both. I have a firm grasp about what led each of the Queens to abandon their lives and pursue one of their own making, but there are still lots of little pieces that have come out just naturally as I’ve written the story. I think leaving parts of their lives open and unsettled allows for really organic development. Two years ago I felt completely different writing Violet than I do now. She’s a living person in my head, but at the outset she was still finding her legs.
CA: Have you been surprised by some of the directions the book has gone in, or the way the characters have developed and changed?
KW: There’s been a few elements that have surprised me. Mainly in the side characters that have continued to live on in the series. Some were throw away jokes that made such an impression that I kept them around. The Four Daves weren’t supposed to be in the story past the second issue, but I really came to love Orc Dave and, as you know, he and Violet have a thing now. Never planned that… was a little surprise.
And Gary. He was never meant to be a character, only a punching bag. But, goddamn, do people love to hate him. So, I keep him around.
CA: One of the biggest changes takes place over the next few issues… what can readers expect from the next few issues of Rat Queens?
KW: As mentioned earlier, a return to some of the insanity that they discovered when they first read the series. It will never lose its heart, I promise that, and the events of the 'Demons' arc will be felt for a long time. Just, probably not in way that people might expect. There is a purpose to it all.
CA: How will the characters deal with the imminent... 'shift' in their roster? What does it do to their dynamic that one of the original members is gone?
TF: The blade cannot be forged without heat and hammer. Tragedy changes you. My babies are growing up. They have to learn how to keep moving after a devastating blow. The fourth arc explores that journey, amidst all the classic Rat Queens shenanigans.
KW: That’s going to be an interesting focus of the new arc, for sure. When you spend so much time with people, your life becomes very comfortable in the day to day. You don’t realize how much you have been shaped by the people closest to you until you feel them suddenly gone.
And it takes time to find a new status quo.
CA: Rat Queens is continuing on into a fourth arc, as mentioned, in April. How difficult is it to maintain a creator-owned book for this long? Does your approach to the overall narrative change over time?
KW: Each series has its difficulties. My goal is to do my best to keep the integrity of the story intact. Do as much as I can to not let my real life influence the imagined ones I’m writing. I think it’s a matter of staying committed to what you do and not giving up when things get tough.
It’s worked for Rat Queens, I believe. Sure, the series has had its changes, but I feel confident that readers are getting the same team of Queens they did when they signed on. Maybe more mature, more seasoned by the turn of events in their lives, but they are still the Rat Queens.
CA: How has the ongoing response from fans shaped the future of the series? What’s it like to see such support for the comic?
KW: They’ve been supportive in a way I could never have expected. And their enthusiasm has kept me going since day one. For a series I thought no one would ever read, and that’s the genuine truth, I think it’s doing very well. And that’s massively been influenced by the fans who continue to talk about it and push it on their friends.
I’m very, very lucky.
TF: The Rat Queens fandom is an army of love bugs and well wishers. They lift us up, tweet at us, reblog us, and scream their passionate support on a daily basis. We couldn't do this without them.
On a deeper note: There is a mutual, solemn and sacred understanding among the fans as to why this series is important. Why it needs to keep thriving. They hear the song as loudly as I do. That's not to be taken lightly. They are the reason the book is still here. And why it will continue for years to come.
The fandom is family.
Rat Queens #15 is on sale now. The collected third trade of the series will be published on 13th April, followed by the first issue of the fourth arc later that month.