Kurtis Wiebe Talks ‘Rat Queens’ And Why Adventurers Are The Worst [Interview]
Over the past five issues Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens has quickly become one of my favorite comics on the stands. The story of four Dungeons & Dragons-style adventurers who claim to protect the town while actually being the biggest possible threat to the peace is hilarious, brutal and action-packed, and more often than not, it’s all three at the same time.
The first story arc, Sass & Sorcery, wrapped up in the fifth issue last week, so to look back on one of the best debuts of the past year, I spoke to Wiebe about the influence of gaming on his storytelling, the character he relates to, and the almost unprintable original title.
ComicsAlliance: As someone who spends a lot of time playing roleplaying games with his friends, there was a lot about Rat Queens that felt very familiar, in a good way. You’ve got the classic Dungeons & Dragons group with the fighter, cleric, rogue and wizard, and also the fact that adventurers are the worst people in the world.
Kurtis Wiebe: They definitely are!
CA: Do you come from a gaming background?
KW: Definitely. I’ve been gaming since I was probably 12. Keep in mind that I grew up in a very small — and I’m not kidding when I say “small,” probably about 500 people — a small conservative Christian town that literally had a bible school attached to the town. So I grew up in a place where that sort of thing wasn’t really something people knew about, and if they did know about it, D&D was a portal to the devil. It wasn’t readily accessible, I guess, would be the easiest way to put that.
Me and my buddies managed to somehow get around that. One of my buddies, he moved in from another town when I was in grade 7, and they were from the outside world. Their older brother had played D&D, and that wasn’t really acceptable, so we got around that with a loophole by playing Star Wars D6, which I’m going to go on record and say is the true and original Star Wars roleplaying game. From there, it was just this thing I’ve done the rest of my life. I believe it was pretty formative in the start of my storytelling. I was always the gamemaster or the storyteller, and I still play to this day, in all kinds of settings, not just Star Wars.
CA: That makes a lot of sense, because when you’re a kid with that kind of upbringing, and I’ve seen this in my games, you get into D&D and there are no restrictions on what you can do, so it’s just “I wanna kill things and I wanna steal things!” It’s pure Id, which is really reflected in Rat Queens.
KW: It’s funny, because when I started doing Rat Queens, a lot of my comics, I haven’t gone full in with my personality. I have this side of me that’s tied into my family and my upbringing, worried what they might think about the stuff I’m writing. Then over the years, you get older and you realize that your family’s either going to accept you or not, and you need to be true to yourself. When it comes to your voice as a writer, I walk that line. Green Wake was a book that I basically told my family not to read.
With this one, it’s a mix of that epiphany as a younger dude, walking into a world that I was completely enamored with, but wasn’t allowed to be enamored with it, and the grown-up version of me that just wants to write what’s on my mind and what I really want to say with these characters with no holds barred. That’s what Rat Queens has come out of, this pure, unadulterated fun, and this aspect of doing exactly what I want with this series.
CA: That’s something that it delivers on. When you play a roleplaying game, are these the kind of characters that you play, where they’re all angry, violent brawlers? Moreso than your average adventurers, I mean.
KW: Here’s the interesting thing, kind of. I’ve been playing since I was 12, and there was kind of this tipping point in my 20s, where I realized that I really didn’t enjoy playing the game. I prefer to run it, and later on, in my mid to late 20s, I started to realize that if I ever played the game, I would always try to steal the narrative from the gamemaster, and start doing my own thing on the side. It was really obnoxious, so I decided to stop doing that. I much prefer the storytelling, facilitating the players, so I can’t remember the last time I played as a character. I mostly run the games, and I find that more enjoyable.
CA: That leads into my other question: Sometimes, when you’re running a game, you do all this preparation, writing the adventure, finding maps, all of that, and then the players end up just wanting to go do their own thing, and it can be frustrating. I feel like Rat Queens, more than any other comic in this subgenre, where we have Pathfinder and Skullkickers and Rogers and DeVito’s D&D comic…
KW: I saw John Rogers tweet today that he loves Rat Queens, which was a pretty big deal!
CA: The way Rat Queens was described to me before I started reading it was that it filled the void in their lives that Dungeons & Dragons left when it went on hiatus.
KW: Yeah, I’ve heard that before too. That’s prety cool.
CA: But you sit down with this complicated narrative that you’re trying to run, and your players just want to start barfights and steal things. It feels like Rat Queens is you telling the story of those characters, the ones who literally have to be arrested and sentenced to go on a quest.
KW: [Laughs] I guess I never thought of it that way. It’s funny, beacuse as a gamemaster, that’s one of the things I’ve learned over the years. When you start out, you have this very specific story in mind, but the best stories always come out of spontaneity. That’s just what I do with my games now. I still run games to this day, and I have a very basic idea of maybe one character who might come into the story and has this thing that they need that’s connected to the story in some way, and I don’t plan anything else. I just roll with it.
You’re right, there’s a part of that in Rat Queens. I don’t think anyone’s picked up on it yet, that there was the plot of the assassination attempt against the Queens, but in keeping with that spontaneity of story, that gets wrapped up in the third issue. We go “Okay, yeah, that’s who did it,” and then we completely change gears and go with the ramifications of something that happened in #1. We still wrap up that other plot more neatly, but I want to keep surprising people. I think readers suspected that the person who hired the assassins would be this big showdown at the end, and it wasn’t. It was just “Oh, it was you, okay.” That’s what I’m playing with.
CA: It all flows together in that first arc. The assassination is the cliffhanger in that first issue, but the consequences that continue the story are things that seem incidental in that same comic. I really like that, because giving actions consequences is the nature of storytelling, especially as it relates to gaming. There’s always that moment where you ask a player “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want to use that spell or make that attack?”
KW: That carries over to one of the things I do in my games as well. I never punish players for bad rolls. I punish players for stupid decisions and then bad rolls. I like the storytelling, I want people to become attached to their characters, and if they’re doing a great scene and they just happen to roll terribly in a way that could end their character’s life or remove them from the game, I’ll fudge it. I’ll just be like “oh, okay, you don’t do great but you’re not dead.” That’s not in service to story, and for me, that’s not what gaming is about.
So maybe there’s that aspect of it here, too. I’ve never really analyzed my gaming influences on it, but I know it’s pretty heavy.
CA: I mentioned that the Rat Queens have a traditional gaming dynamic, but beyond the roles they play in the party, their interpersonal relationships are very much the opposite of what you might expect. I think my favorite bit is that you have an atheist cleric, which is fun.
KW: That’s a big thing that we haven’t explained yet. Dee is a character that really only has a shining moment in the last issue, she was kind of a background character, and there’s a reason for that. We were playing with the idea that most of the Rat Queens are very in-your-face, very lively, very social, but Dee is a lot more reserved. There’s a reason behind that, this whole history that we’ve only hinted at in the fifth issue, and it’s kind of weird. I’ve said a few times to people, especially Roc Upchurch, the artist, that it’s strange that the character I connect most with as a middle-aged white guy is the young black girl. It’s one of these things where her history is the way that I’m telling my own experiences in the past, so I have a strong connection to Dee. Especially at the party in the last issue where she’s so uncomfortable, that’s me at every convention when I have to go network afterwards. I’m mortifed.
CA: There’s a bit in that last issue where we see a flashback, and she comes from a small, conservative religious community.
KW: [Laughs] Yes, she does. That’s the idea, to use a lot of the experiences I’ve had. I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to give away her history without doing it in the story, but she comes from a place where she now sees that a lot of it is silly. Just the idea that she ever believed in it is actually fairly embarrassing to her, but the people and the community that she comes from, that’s just normal. This is their normal life, how could it be any other way? We’re going to play with that. I just finished writing #6 last night, and we’ve got pretty big surprises coming for her. There’s a big reveal that I don’t think anyone’s going to see coming from Dee’s past.
CA: Speaking of flashbacks, the series starts in the middle of things — it literally starts in the middle of a brawl, and we’re introduced to the Rat Queens when they throw someone through a window into a meeting that the town is having about how much destruction they’re causing. When you were planning it out, was it ever an option for you to go back and show their beginning and how they got together, or did you always want to jump right in?
KW: Finding a starting point was pretty difficult, because I did ask myself those questions. Did we want to have them when they first meet up and build the story from there? We could really show their friendships forming and what brought them together, and that’s a pretty interesting place to start. But at the same time, I think with the nature of the story and how it moves forward really quickly, it would be a detriment to the storytelling aspect of the series. I thought a good way to start would be with the best way to personify what the Rat Queens are, and the best way to do that was to show this town that they live in. This town has a problem, and that town is the Rat Queens, and we show exactly why in the first five pages.
I wanted to grab people from the very beginning, and I think that was the way to do it. It’s a little bit punk rock. People were expecting a certain type of fantasy book, and I wanted to subvert that right out of the gate and surprise people, and when it comes to their backstories, that’s something we’re going to get into. Roc and I plan to do this series for as long as we can do it, so getting into who they are, where they came from, how they got together, who they were before they came to Palisade, we’re going to delve into all of that. We’ve got all these little hints in the first arc, like Hannah’s massive rivalry with Tizzie.
We haven’t even touched on that, we just know they hate each other, but we don’t know why. We’ve got all these seeds in there. We’re just biding our time until we flesh it out.
CA: Where does that title come from? Why did they decide to call themselves the Rat Queens?
KW: Yes, that’s going to come up. There’s kind of a funny story behind that. Rat Queens was originally going to be a Kickstarted project that I was going to do with Roc, and up until a week before we were going to launch it, we had everything ready, all the funding goals, the incentives, everything lined up to be announced at C2E2 last year. I was talking with Riley Rossmo, and he saw the pages and said “You’ve got to pitch this to Image. What are you doing.”
I’d already done a couple of books with Jim Valentino, and I just didn’t think it’d be something he’d be into, given the fantasy nature. I didn’t think it’d be up his alley, but ten minutes later, he was like “Yeah, when do you want to do it?” So I had to change everything, and interestingly enough, the title for the series when it was on Kickstarter was Pussy Rats.
KW: See, that’s the reaction we usually get when I talk about it. We should’ve stuck with that. We kind of figured we had to change the name — I didn’t tell Jim what the name was, I just sent him the pages and he liked it, so I was like “there’s no way a comic book store is going to put that on their shelf.” So we made a quick change. We had a hundred variations of the title with different names, but that’s the one we liked best.
We are going to work that into the story, because the original title was tied into their origin as well. So that story is going to be told, how they became the Rat Queens.
CA: How involved were you with the designs? Did you pitch them to Roc, or did you come up with them together?
KW: Roc and I had actually put together a pitch the year before we put together Rat Queens. We’d done this book called Goblinettes, basically set in the same kind of world, a fantasy world with modern influences, and it was about a goblin punk band that would travel around and play their shows. Because they were punk rock goblins, they’d sing about love and happiness and getting along. It was a fun project that we did, but we couldn’t get anyone to pick it up, so we canned that. Roc’s a huge fantasy fan, and, obviously, so am I, and a few months later it was like “dude, we have to do something together. That pitch didn’t go anywhere but I think we had something.”
I was thinking about stuff to do with him, and I literally sat down and started to concept this series, knowing Roc would be the one to bring it to life, so I came up with a simple pitch, just a logline, and I sent it to him. “What do you think about Sex and the City meets Lord of the Rings?” I didn’t have any ideas, that was just what I sent him, and he said “yeah, okay, what else you got?” So basically, that was the premise. Four female leads in their 20s, how would they act in a fantasy setting if we took what we know about people now? From there, I wrote out four different characters. There wasn’t any physical description, other than how tall they were, what race they were. Mostly it was just their personalities, how they’d act, little snippets of their history, and he just did it up. He nailed it, I’m not even kidding, on the first draft of each character. He’d do two or three variations of the same design, but it was the first stab that nailed every single character. From there, we’re just on the same page from the very beginning.
CA: So it wasn’t you that said “draw Hannah as a 1950s pinup girl elf, put it on the cover, and we’ll make a million dollars.”
KW: I kind of gave their history in the breakdowns. We used that in a lot of the loglines, like “Hannah, the rockabilly mage, Violet the hipster fighter, Dee the atheist cleric and Betty the hippie smidgen thief.” Those helped him do the character designs, so Hannah was rockabilly. What would a rockabilly character look like in a fantasy setting. Violet’s a hipster, and that’s more of her personality, but how would that be portrayed? He took all those things and made it visual.
CA: Over the course of the first five issues, what’s fan reaction been like? It seems like you’ve gotten a dedicatied audience really quickly, myself included. I read that first issue and I was hooked.
KW: It’s strange. A lot of people didn’t hear about the issue when it first came out. Our initial numbers were really good, and when the book came out there was a little chatter about it from people that were excited, but I think because there was a different expectation of what it was going to be, as opposed to what the product actually was, I think a lot of people didn’t give it a chance. It was “Oh, it’s a fantasy series with four chicks written by a dude, this is going to be a cheesecake-fest.” Honestly, that’s been one of our biggest hurdles, overcoming the ideat that that’s what we’re doing with the story.
But once people got past that and read it, the fan reaction has been unreal. It’s like nothing I’ve ever encountered. We have this group of people that are absolutely rabid about the series. It’s mostly ladies, truthfully, they’re the ones on Tumblr and Twitter talking about the series to everyone, and I honestly think they’re doing more marketing than I could ever imagine myself doing. It’s been a huge service to the book, they’re talking about it, they’re making costumes from scratch and getting professional photography done.
All that stuff combined has, with the fifth issue of the series, I feel like all the sudden the book has landed. People are hearing about it in a much broader audience.