Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch slow down the pace a little with a flashback issue that tackles Violet’s background in full, a first under their flagship title. “Rat Queens” #8 turns into a surprisingly heartwarming family tale that gives Violet both motivation and a complex supporting cast. Although the issue sidesteps the main arc’s action for a spell, which feels a little jarring in the scheme of the series, it makes up for this in character and charm.
Wiebe and Upchurch focus just about as much on Violet’s family as it does on Violet herself. Where Wiebe builds their relationships on cliche — the flaky mother, the tradition-hardened father, the smug brother — he gently inverts these ideas by the end of the issue for a smart nod at Violet’s complex familial relationships. He manages to cram a whole bunch of different levels of interaction into one issue without making the story feel stuffed or forced; little phrases and actions subtly link their personalities, regardless of how much they end up butting heads. There is no black and white to be found here; no one comes across as wholly toxic or wholly virtuous. Their chemistry feels natural in its affection tinged with irritation.
What’s more, Wiebe gracefully sets up the character we know that Violet will become. This series of interrelated events — tradition, the way it hurts her, and the role model that clears her path — pop up organically in the dialogue and action. It’s especially well wrought in the antagonists that Wiebe works in. Although they never act outright against Violet, their words — the insidious little things that they say that bother her — could make a reader’s skin crawl in their lewd, patronizing ignorance; Violet’s discomfort, wonderfully portrayed in Upchurch’s figure work, speaks volumes for her when she can’t (thanks to her family’s traditional values, at least). In contrast, her reaction to Morgan of Meldhammer — again, masterfully rendered in Upchurch’s fantastic body language and expression — not only gives her the push and the drive to develop her character but provides an awesome meta nod to the ongoing discussion of representation in media.
As in the prior issues, Roc Upchurch absolutely knocks it out of the park with his figure work. He conveys an astounding variety of emotions as Violet impulsively shaves her beard; the deep sadness, anger, confusion, immediate regret, and relief that went into the decision come across in one fluid motion as she hits the climax of the issue. Although we know it’s coming, it resonates nonetheless thanks to Upchurch’s stellar performance. Likewise, Morgan has all the rough edges that she reveals in her dialogue. Her stubbly chin, pursed mouth, and sharp movements give her every bit the gruff attitude written into the script. Where his figures are so carefully done and thoughtful, his backgrounds are lacking in comparison; when they’re not totally blank, the details are far, fuzzy, in-between. Fortunately, the charisma of his figures makes up for a lot of this, although not totally. This issue also tends to skew lighter on the colors, brightening up the atmosphere from the last arc and giving it the levity that it deserves — at least in comparison to the oncoming darkness.
With its eighth issue, “Rat Queens” continues to be a fun, bombastic series with a whole lot of cussing and heart. While this flashback steps away from the main action, it makes this Rat Queen — one of the quietest members of the group — so much more compelling.