"Rat Queens" launched in 2013 from Image Comics partner studio Shadowline, and quickly gained both critical acclaim and an ardent fan following for its female-centric ensemble cast and fun fantasy setting. The series attracted high-profile recognition, including a nomination for the Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2014, and the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book in 2015.
The series has also seen behind-the-scenes tumult, including co-creator and original artist Roc Upchurch leaving the title after charges of domestic abuse came to light, and a public dispute between writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and subsequent artist Tess Fowler following her departure from the comic.
The last new issue of "Rat Queens," #16, was released this past May, and the series went on hiatus after that -- but Image Comics made its return official last week, with a new #1 scheduled for release in March 2017. A new artist is also on board: Owen Gieni, recently of Dark Horse Comics' "Negative Space."
CBR spoke with both Wiebe and Gieni about the series' return, their long-time friendship, how the time off affected Wiebe's approach to the series, what it's been like for Gieni to move from horror to fantasy and what exactly a "soft reboot" means for "Rat Queens." Plus, CBR has the exclusive first look at lettered pages from the new "Rat Queens" #1.
CBR: Kurtis, though a new #1 is certainly a concept comics readers are familiar with, what made this fresh start the right choice for "Rat Queens"?
Kurtis J. Wiebe: For me, more than anything, it was an opportunity to take a step back and re-enter the series at ground level. To take stock of what made the series so fun for me to write and allow Owen to be part of it from the beginning. This new launch of "Rat Queens" is very much me and Owen’s take on the world and it’s a bold statement about our plans for its future.
The term "soft-reboot" in the initial announcement was notable. You already clarified a bit on Twitter about what that means, but for you as a writer, what does it allow you to do differently with the series? Has the hiatus opened you up to some new directions you didn't plan previously?
Wiebe: I took the time to sit back and reflect. Not only about the series as a whole, but on a personal level, the key factors of what I enjoyed about writing new issues of "Rat Queens." One of the main aspects I loved the most was the feeling that bubbled up when the Queens were together. That comradery, the bickering and love. Comedy, drama and adventure spilled out of that and I felt the series was missing that the past arc.
I want to be very clear. Everything that happened in the first three volumes is canon. It all matters, and while it may not make immediate sense at first, it will start to become clear how we’re including the events of all that’s been established until this point. I took several months working out how to come back with a fresh start while maintaining the integrity of the story that the readers have invested so much time into.
Owen, you mentioned being a "Rat Queens" fan in the press release -- what was it about the series that spoke to you as a reader?
Owen Gieni: Kurtis and I have been friends for years, playing tabletop RPGs of Star Wars, James Bond, Conan etc. It was a lot of fun, and I think "Rat Queens" captures that exact same true role playing game feeling unlike anything else in comics. That sort of off the cuff, anything goes energy mixed with the camaraderie of characters you are actually invested in. It’s a super difficult mix to get right, and that’s why "Rat Queens" impresses me to no end. Almost feels like I’m playing along in a campaign every issue.
Hanging with Kurtis as well, I’ve also seen how important the book is to the fans. That was maybe the real catalyst of me wanting to come onboard -- the book is legitimately important to some people, and I love that so much.
Picking an artistic collaborator for a new volume of "Rat Queens" is obviously a big thing. Kurtis, what made Owen the right choice for you?
Wiebe: Owen and I have been friends for a long time. We used to live in the same small city in the Canadian midwest for a number of years before Owen moved to an even smaller city a few hours away. We regularly played D&D together, and had talked for years about collaborating on a comic together.
Life has weirdly kept bringing us back together, as Owen moved to Vancouver two years after I had done the same. Once again, we talked about potential projects. I’ve asked Owen on more than one occasion to take a stab at the Queens -- probably annoyed him with how consistently, in fact. He wasn’t ready last year, but he finally gave in.
A few people might be aware that Owen and I have collaborated on projects outside of comics. Last year we ran a Star Wars RPG podcast called "Bothan Banter," and Owen has always been the one to make the group bust a gut laughing. It’s that sense of humor that we share that I think will really shine through in the series.
I haven’t even talked about his artistic abilities yet, so much of what we’re creating is based on our friendship. But Owen is a master. An absolute master. Storytelling, acting, world building, comedy… he can do everything. Just take a look at Negative Space, his 4 issue series with Dark Horse. It’s a horror series and it’s absolutely stunning work.
And that’s the thing with him. He can do it all. Horror, comedy, drama. I’m just glad he finally accepted the offer.
Owen, speaking of "Negative Space," that's a very different type of series, but also one that I'd think would, like "Rat Queens," give you a lot of space to express yourself and be creative. What's fun for you about the artistic challenges unique to "Rat Queens"?
Gieni: "Negative Space," the horror series I did at Dark Horse with Ryan K Lindsay, Ryan Ferrier and Daniel Chabon is a book I truly love, but that sort of bleak and dark material can be hard on an artist, you almost get into that headspace after a while. "Rat Queens" though is all about fun, pure joy, and I draw pages with a smile on my face half the time. It’s a fantasy book!
I can’t believe how lucky I am to be working on a book like this. Monsters and weapons and interesting environments. It’s the best. I’m probably having too much fun honestly. I’m a big gamer, so I slide in some video game nods here and there for fun, but also at the same time I’m trying hard to make things look original and not derivative of other fantasy media. Easier said than done. [Laughs]
Influence wise, I’m looking at a lot of Claire Wendling and Miyazaki watercolor storyboards, his "Nausicaä," too, I love that Yoh Yoshinari Studio Trigger energy, Frezzato's Maser books I look at a lot, as well. Joe Keatinge told me that he could see some of the Image founders' influence on my work, which I loved hearing. There’s a couple artists whose work I love that I’ve actively tried not to look at; Joe Madureira's "Battle Chasers" art and Matt Rhodes’ "Dragon Age" stuff most significantly -- they’ve influenced my stuff (and modern fantasy art) too much already!
I’m really excited to do a long run on the book, I’m going to constantly strive to get better, and I can’t wait to see how my art will have changed, and hopefully improved, 10 issues from now.
We're still a ways away from March, but what can you share at this point about where the characters are when the series picks up, and where the story goes in the first arc?
Wiebe: It’s a return to form in a lot of ways. The Queens are back in Palisade, they’ve been partying, being lazy mostly, and are definitely getting very rusty. But their funds are running out and at the beginning of our first issue back, they are forced to take a job to put a few coins in their pockets.
Thematically, they’ve entered a new phase of their lives. The first few volumes were college. This new era is post-graduation.
Owen and I talked a lot about having each issue have a single adventure style feel with an overall narrative tying it together. That’s how we’re approaching the return, the Queens getting back to the basics, alongside the writer, the artist and the reader. A real return to form.
One of the benefits of taking our time to return to the series is that it’s allowed us to plan. Really plan. I’ve already written the first arc, and the goal is to have the first 20 issues written by the time we come back on March 1. That means we are dropping small details even now that will have major ramifications 20-30 issues from now.
For now, the Rat Queens have to earn some money and get back on their feet. And we’re introducing a few foils that are definitely going to make that difficult. Some faces are new, and some are familiar.
Owen, what's it like for you coming on board a series that has had multiple, rather distinctive, artists? Obviously you want to make it your own, but is there also any element of maintaining a sense of visual consistency?
Gieni:Absolutely. Every previous artist has done some great work that I’m totally cribbing bits from, and I hope fans of the other artists can see that I’m a true fan as well, when they look at my work. We essentially wanted to distill the queens down to their purest form in this first arc, make it feel classic "Rat Queens" in a way. A bit of a back to basics but also keeping in mind all the growth and changes that have happened throughout the series.
Getting the Queens’ personalities and looks correct was something Kurtis and I really focused on. It took some work -- some of the girls I figured out right away, like Betty, but I had some trouble with others, Hannah took a fair amount of redraws, for instance. I love drawing them all though, they feel like real people to me.
I’m also fully aware that I’m not going to be able to please everyone, but I really am giving it my all, and I think the effort will be visible. If a reader says, "I don’t care for Owen’s art that much, but he damn sure is trying!" I’d be 100 percent okay with that. [Laughs] Also, I plan on being on the book for a long long time, and really create my own take. I’m going to listen to as much feedback from readers and cosplayers as I can to help hone my take on the girls. I’ll work hard and get it right. [Laughs]
"Rat Queens" returns with a new #1 on March 1.