Friday, 24 October 2014

Sound Advice: Rat Queens Vol. 1

Advisement on Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery
by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, Image Comics

Rat Queens is a title that was recommended to me by a number of comic-reading friends well before I ever considered picking up an issue. Their enthusiastic, shouted recommendations had me picking up a copy during a sale at my favorite store, where even the owner ringing up my purchase said to me “Call us when you finish that, you’re going to want more.” I devoured Rat Queens over the course of 2 days, and by the end of the trade I was mad at myself because this book was so great and I wasn’t already reading it.

Rat Queens Vol 1 Feels like an amorphous combination of straight up paperback fantasy adventure story and what I think of as trashy “chick lit”—the sort of book that I read for pure enjoyment, with no goal of educational or literary enrichment (This is not a bad thing—reading is sometimes quite legitimately about escapism). The story of Rat Queens is well-versed and grounded in the tradition of fantasy/adventure tales, but so fun and funny that it feels like it should be a guilty pleasure. It’s also unapologetically foul-mouthed and bloody, which I appreciate from my fantasy tales.

This book is straight-up fun to read.

But if you haven’t read it, assume some mild *SPOILERS* below.

This book had been described to me by numerous friends as a fantasy story if fantasy stories happened with the same dialogue as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  As I read through it, I was surprised with how accurate this description was—I had heard this said about the book so many times that I kept expecting to turn the page and be confronted with the tabletop game controlling the Rat Queens, but it never happened.

Rat Queens is almost the antithesis of trying too hard—the book flows, with casual dialogue, a quick-paced and easy to follow plot, and characters that are entertaining and relatable, while remaining interesting. In all of the best ways, reading Rat Queens fells akin to watching a well-done sitcom—I’m laughing, I care about the characters, and I want to keep exploring more. 

Wiebe and Upchurch do a fantastic job balancing this fun style with the hallmarks of a fantasy tale. Our heroines fight, swear, revel, drink, and fight some more.  The embark upon a quest, encounter a mystery, and must work together with people and groups outside of their own to confront a problem. For all that the story arc feels almost comfortingly familiar to this long time fantasy reader, Rat Queens is a breath of fresh air. The Queens are self-aware enough to give credit to others for great lines said in battle, or mock fantasy-world stereotypes, such as the good sight of elves, embracing the best fantasy tropes without feeling weighted down by them.

 One of the things Rat Queens does incredibly well is the causal, free dialogue, peppered with a large number of jokes. The choice to use modern language and slang is one of the elements of the story that had me flipping pages and rooting for our characters – If I was fighting monsters, my vocabulary would be much closer to that of the Queens than of those fantasy novels I grew up on. The Rat Queens and company are foul-mouthed in the way you would expect a person to be when faced with an army of trolls.

 The interesting supporting characters also play into my enjoyment of this story – The Rat Queens themselves are interesting and becoming more and  more multifaceted as the story goes  on, but I’m just as charmed by the Sawyer, the captain of the guard, by the other bands of adventures (The Four Daves make me smile all the way through), and even by the band of trolls the Queens eventually fightI want to know more about our main quartet of heroes, but I also really want to spend more time with these awesome supporting characters.

Wiebe and Upchurch should also get some real credit for a book with consistently diverse representation. I noticed this immediately with our four main characters, women of different body types and ethnicity, but as I read I also noticed it in the background—the setting is populated by characters with a range of skin colors and body types. We also see some representation of diverse sexual orientation and religious beliefs and ideologies, though this is a harder type of diversity to represent in a visual medium. I did find that occasionally this can feel a bit forced—Dee and Betty talking about Dee’s religious beliefs while working to infiltrate a guild office comes to mind – but intent is there, and the heart of the story is in the right place.

Rat Queens will be staying on my list as a book I follow in trades. Volume One is a solid opening arc, a full story that leaves tendrils of further story to be explored in future installments. I want to know more about the characters, sure, but more than anything else, I want to spend more time in the world Wiebe & Upchurch have created—a diverse fantasyland populated by foul-mouthed, bad-ass adventurers. There is always space in my life for a read that gets me turning pages and leaves me smiling. I’ve already begun to shout my own loud, enthusiastic recommendations at friends.

Post by Jennifer DePrey


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

So I Read Rat Queens: Sass And Sorcery

A 250 word (or less) review of Rat Queens Volume One
By Kurtis J Weibe and Roc Upchurch; Image Comics Shadowline

Palisade is an idyllic fantasy town filled with gorgeous houses, bustling commerce, and ruckus taverns where the races of the world can meet in peace and goodwill. Except for those damn riotous adventurers. The worst and best of which are The Rat Queens: Hannah the tattooed and vulgar elven sorceress, Betty the mischievous Smidgen thief, Violet the deeply-unique Dwarven warrior, and Dee the agnostic cleric of the flying squid god N'Rygoth. And so the town of Palisade sends The Rat Queens and the other adventuring bands of the town on a series of quests. Quests designed to take care of the adventurer problem once and for all. Rat Queens is the definition of a fun comic: it's a rollicking swords and sorcery adventure with a modern sensibility and cheeky sense of humour. It's also a pretty involving comic: a core cast of charismatic characters and decent little mystery manage to keep Rat Queens racing along. This is a comic that, for all of its fun, manages a level of complexity that keeps things engaging and from devolving into just a silly romp. Also so much cussing and vulgarity! If you are looking for an exciting, character driven comic that doesn't take itself too seriously, Rat Queens would be an excellent comic to try.

Post by Michael Bround

Word count: 213

Monday, 20 October 2014

Sound Advice: Sex Criminals Vol. 1

Advisement on Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trip
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky; Image Comics

First, a disclaimer: If you have found this review through googling my name because you are a student or former student of mine, do me a huge solid and take my advice right here: while Sex Criminals is a fantastic comic, it is also not for you, at least, not without your parents reading it first and giving you the okay to read it and then having what I can only imaging are going to be awkward discussions about the content of the book. If you and your parents have not yet handled talks about safe sex, consent, intimacy, and how sex is only one aspect of an adult relationship, just trust me and know you’re not quite ready for this book yet. Check back in a few years.

If you are my parents? Sorry, Mom and Dad. Maybe go check out my tag and read another of the reviews I’ve written?

Also, *SPOILERS* ahead so proceed at your own risk.


To level with you, I had trouble writing this review. There are so many things I absolutely adore about this book that figuring out a cohesive way to express my feelings about Sex Criminals took far more time and introspection than I wanted it to. I wrote and trashed multiple versions of this piece before I could even articulate why that was happening.

Sex Criminals has a simple premise, one that could be reduced so much that at first glance it’s a complete gimmick: Our Hero and Heroine stop time when the orgasm, and decide to use this power to rob banks. From the moment I heard about this book, I knew it was going on my pull list just because I wanted to read what I was sure would be a hilarious book by Matt Fraction resplendent with dick jokes. I expected that I would laugh, and keep the digital copies on my kindle for days I needed some levity, and not mention to my mom that this was a book I was reading.

Sex Criminals is so funny and witty and just silly. The dialogue and story makes me smile consistently – Suzie’s pool table musical number comes to mind. Fraction and Zdarsky have built a book that is full of jokes – on every reread I catch something I didn’t see before in the background of a scene.

 (A couple of examples of excellent jokes created in the background art.)

 The levity that oozes from every aspect of this book makes it easy to engage with – from the tips heading the letters column to the dedications in the collected volume, Fraction and Zdarsky bring the funny.

But Sex Criminals is also a great examination of a new relationship, about the magic of learning about another person and discovering what about them it is that you find attractive and connect with, about why they have taken up some precious residence in your heart.

Like sex itself, Sex Criminals is more complex than it’s pitch makes it seem. Sex is very rarely just sex; it’s not something that is simple, that occurs in a vacuum, or happens in the same timeline or situation for all people. Though a lot of media insist on portraying sex in a pretty simple view, it can fail to recognize that the only thing necessarily common across sexual experience is that we all have to figure out how (and even if) we want to interact with, talk about, and participate in such relationships.

Cue Suzie and Jon, our intrepid protagonists, who are willing to fully admit to one another that they struggle to figure relationships out. While they are building their relationship with one another, the readers get to see them—in present time and in flashbacks—struggle to understand sex, worry that their experiences maybe aren’t normal, lament failed relationships, explore their sexuality and desires, experience attraction and affection, and discover that this whole relationship thing may be more complex than they want it to be. Even Jon and Suzie’s experiences are quite different from one another’s. This is evident even in the way they use their stopped-time. For Suzie, The Quiet is about escaping and getting space to clear her head.

For Jon, it’s about “getting away with things,” and finding the freedom to act out what it later becomes clear are destructive impulses.

 When they find each other, it’s almost inevitable that they try to use their powers to get away with something that also helps them escape their troubles (robbing the bank Jon hates working for to save the library Suzie loves from destruction). Of course, it’s not as simple as they want it to be. Complications arise. Suzie’s friends worry about her, Jon’s mental health comes into question, and hey, apparently there are Sex Police?

 My experience is not the same as Jon or Suzie’s, but I can find much I relate to in their stories of sexual and romantic exploration – lack of information, curiosity, experimentation, shame, guilt, and emotional baggage.  Looking at the Sex Criminals letter column each issue, it seems I’m not the only one that relates so strongly to this book. Frankly, this comedy about sex has something real and relatable to say about our common experience of just trying to figure things out. By sharing these moments with the reader, Fraction and Zdarsky give us the opportunity to connect more with the characters.

We see a young Suzie unable to find information, going to all sorts of sources and not knowing what to do.

We see teenage Jon unsure about why sex is a big deal, and why he feels so strange about it.

We see Suzie’s rendition of a musical number in a pool hall (one of my favorite scenes) as the as Jon’s moment of realization about his deepening affection for her.

 We see, though the repetition of a single phrase of internal dialogue as the plot progresses, how her feelings about Jon grow and change over the course of the volume.

The willingness to explore all these moments makes Sex Criminals one of the most realistic portrayals of sex and relationships I’ve seen in contemporary media, aside from, you know, the stopping time with orgasms and the sex police. Really, this discovery just adds another layer of complexity to Suzie and Jon’s relationship, gives them another thing they need to consider and weigh and negotiate around. It’s another obstacle to overcome, and to consider if it is worth overcoming.

It took one issue of this book (bought digitally, I will fully admit, because I was not comfortable going to my comic book store full of mostly men and requesting I be put on the pre-order list for a book called Sex Criminals) for this to become a story that I was talking about with my friends and recommending to any friend that I thought would listen. The balance this book strikes between comedic and introspective continues to astound and impress me.

For me, the other truly remarkable thing about Sex Criminals is how much conversation it’s sparked in my life. After a friend read the first issue, she sent me a text absolutely floored about the remarkably realistic and grounded portrayal of female sexuality, and we agreed that it felt like a breath of fresh air.  At Emerald City Comicon 2014, it was clear that there was a rabid fanbase for the book—the lines to have Fraction and Zdarsky sign my freshly-purchased SEXclusive Convention HARDcover of Volume One was long all weekend.

(I did eventually get it signed, and uh, marked, by Fraction and Zdarsky—don’t worry, that’s whiteout)

 One of the advantages of reading Sex Criminals issue to issue was the letters column, where person after person related to the stories on the page, and shared their own experiences and questions. This book has sparked a conversation among readers, and that’s what I believe good media should do, not just entertain, but inspire us to seek some better understanding.  

The best thing about this book?

There’s so many more good things to talk about.  

Post by Jennifer DePrey


Friday, 17 October 2014

Deep Sequencing: Sex Decriminalization

Or the boner jokes and deeply mature treatment of sex in Sex Criminals Vol. 1
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Sex is a fundamental part of the human experience.

I mean, I don't really have stats to back this up, but the vast, vast majority of people enjoy some form of sex with their favourite flavour of sexual partner. For most of us this affectionate touching of genitals is a central aspect of our lives and a thing we devote a great deal of energy and attention to. Sex, in whatever it's form, is a source of fun, intimacy, pleasure, heartache, sorrow, and with the right partner, love. It's kind of magical. It's also pretty fucking hilarious and silly and completely ludicrous. Sex is human and sex is important. (1)

Sex, done a certain way, is also how we make new humans. Which is pretty fucking central to human life.

So you might be able to understand that I can't believe we are so bad at portraying and discussing sex in our media.

And why I am absolutely flabbergasted that a boner jokes comic about people robbing banks after doing it is probably the most mature and honest portrayal of sex that I can think of.

There may be *SPOILERS* in this post for Sex Criminals Vol. 1

I think we as a society have a problem in how we portray sex in our media. And what I think it boils down to is that it is fundamentally dishonest in two opposing ways. 

The first has to do with censorship: our media goes to enormous lengths not to directly depict sex. Sure, we talk about it endlessly on the page or in panel or on screen, but when it comes to the actual deployment of penis or vulva, we have to cut away or fade in afterward. We don't typically see normal, relatable characters having intercourse. And even when it comes to scenes surrounding sex, or most visual depictions of sex, we go to great lengths to obscure nudity in a way that is completely crazy. Like, we pretty much never see humans crotch genitals and women engaged in on screen depictions of sex wear a completely unrealistic amount of bra. Added all together it leads to this idea that sex is somehow shameful or weird and that nudity is somehow shameful and weird. Despite the fact that the majority of humans are engaging in some form of sex and everyone one of us is frequently naked! It's mad.

Now I respect that part of what drives this are actors not wanting to be publicly nude, which I totally get, but it remains super weird that nudity and sex, things that are so universally human, are so completely policed and driven off screen, panel, and page. Sex really gets the same representation as taking a shit, if you think about it. Something people do, but which is too icky to show you. Which is crazy! Imagine if we treated eating and food like this: constantly talking about it, obsessing over it, and then cutting away or skipping over in prose the actual experience of eating (2). It would be fucking crazy! My argument is that the weird censorship of sex we have in our media is a lot like doing exactly this. It's fundamentally weird.

The second major issue in our media is titillation: when our media does depict sex, it is in this crazy, toxic way meant to shock and titillate. Perhaps due to the weird campaign of sexual censorship, we operate under the idea that depictions of sex are thrilling, special, and naughty. As a result, or even maybe independent of this, media frequently uses sex and nudity as a way to create a sense of cheap thrills and transgression in media. Instead of showing normal people having intimate, fun, healthy sex we see crazy people pushing the ante into bizarre sex, or weird dehumanizing depictions of people as sex objects, or all the murdered sex workers in police procedurals, or, well, heterosexual pornography, which is almost always this completely soulless, mechanical fucking that just bums me the fuck out. Which all just goes to reinforce the point of censorship: sex is somehow weird and shameful and nudity is somehow shameful and weird.... except now ir's turbocharged!

Sex is either hidden from us out of a sense of decency or it is depicted as something gross that should probably be hidden from us out of a sense of decency. 

Which is so fucking the opposite of my own, and I'm willing to bet most of your, sexual experiences.

And I think this is a problem.

Sex Criminals is a comic about two people, Suzie and Jon, who independently have the power to freeze time when they orgasm. While this isolates them romantically, it gives them the power of seclusion and the ability to get into all kinds of mischief. When Suzie and Jon eventually meet and hook up, they finally find themselves face to face with someone attractive, funny, and who also becomes unstuck from time when they cum. And so the pair do what anyone would naturally do if they found someone great who also could stop time with their genitals: they start dating and robbing banks.

And sexy, hilarious adventure ensues. And boner jokes.

Sex Criminals is a really fun comic.

It is also, and hear me out, one of the most mature and healthy portrayal of sex I've encountered in media.
I want to start by pointing out how crazy this is! 

Sex Criminals, while a a lot of things, is definitely kind of a boner joke comic. 

Sex Criminals spends a lot of its time telling jokes and many of these jokes are of a sexually explicit nature. From the hilarious and weird sex positions that the dirty girls know, to Cumworld and the highly annotated and ridiculous novelty sex toys, to the main villain of the first trade being named Kegel Face, it's funny inappropriate stuff! Sex Criminals is a comic that is willing to laugh like a twelve year old at how funny dicks are. Which, I can totally appreciate (3). 

But the thing is, as occasionally juvenile as Sex Criminals is, it is the best portrayal of human sex I have encountered.

A silly, boner joke comic about people stopping time with their junk and robbing banks is the best.

And that is fucking crazy!

The most obvious aspect of sex criminals that I find so effective is the actual images used to depict sex between adults. It actually shows adults having sex! There are very naked people performing sex acts on panel in a way that is completely consistent with reality. They are as nude and genital having as real people and don't display any of the weird shame based censorship we get in most other media. Which makes everything feel real and like they are actually enjoying themselves. It's good stuff. 

At the same time the art is very mature in its portrayal of these naked people: they are not depicted in a way designed to specifically titillate. (4) You don't see gratuitous drawings of breasts or money shots of vaginas or disembodied dick angles. You see naked people having sex and you see the appropriate amount of nudity and genitals that are consistent with people realistically doing it. Nothing is hidden, but nothing is highlighted either.

Now, I don't actually have my copy of the comic and can't actually check, but I think if you go and look at the first sex scene between Suzie and Jon you'll notice that you don't see her nipples and that you actually see Jon's penis before getting a clear look at her breasts. Now, this is a manufactured world, so this is clearly a choice by Team Brimper, but it isn't done in an overtly censorship based way: you see what you ought to see in the natural poses and perspectives the scene is drawn with. It's realistic sex without exploitation and it's great. (5)

This balance of accurate nudity handled without deliberate intention to titillate is precious and amazing and rare and alone makes Sex Criminals a remarkably honest and worthwhile bit of fiction.

But the honesty of sex criminals doesn't really end with how the story is portrayed, it is also present throughout the themes and fabric of the comic.

Like, sure sex is hot and titillating, but it is also intimate and weird and funny and terrifying and ineffably powerful and Sex Criminals, the boner joke comic, captures this complexity with more nuance than virtually any other media.

Take the premise: Suzie and Jon stop time when they orgasm. With the wrong person, this a curse, and having sex just serves to provide a moment of pleasure and then isolates them. When they find each other, that perfect sex partner, it's a magical experience that transfer them to a special little universe that is theirs alone: they become the only people in the world as everything else stops. What a beautiful fucking metaphor for intimacy. 

And then they rob banks and boner jokes happen. 

But even robbing banks works in the thematic framework. Sex feels dangerous and thrilling, like, well robbing banks. And the entire experience of having sex with that perfect partner feels a lot like being on the run, of having a secret life that feels completely unsustainable like it could suddenly implode. It feels like getting away with something amazing and maybe a little naughty. And sex criminals completely nails this sense of thrill, camaraderie, and transgression.

As much as I flippantly call Sex Criminals a boner joke comic, it really isn't. Well it is, but it's also one of the most honest, heartbreakingly resonant portrayals of a sexual relationship I have ever encountered in media.

And the boner jokes are great too.

As great as Sex Criminals is, and it is really, really great, it is fucking crazy that this comic about people robbing banks using magic sex powers is one of the most mature and meaningful portrayals of sex I've enjoyed in our media. Which is, I think, a really significant achievement for Sex Criminals and marks it as media that I cannot endorse enough. (One that is also, based on the fact that I can't hold onto my trade lobng enough to take pictures of it, is pretty universally appealing.) But it's also an indictment of everyone else: if a comic about sexual bank robbers can be this meaningful and perfect why is all the other media so bad at portraying sex? Other media really has no excuses anymore.

So I guess, read Sex Criminals and go forth and make better portrayals of sex in media.

Post by Michael Bround

(1) If sex isn't your bag, that's cool too. Asexuality is perfectly a-okay. The point of this essay isn't to shit on asexual people, but to point out that as a sexual person, I can't believe we can't portray such a central aspect of many people's lives with a bit more... humanity.

(2) The way we talk about and interact with food is also super fucked up. I could go on a whole thing here (I work in a diabetes and obesity lab, so I have OPINIONS), but in short, the shame, misinformation, and sheer insanity around food, which is also fundamental to the human experience is also fucking crazy. But! As disgusting and weird as our treatment of food is, we can still show relatable humans on screen enjoying meals in reasonable ways that are consistent with our real life experiences. Which, I think, is saying something.

(3) Sex is hilarious! I mean, it's life affirming and powerful and dangerous and intimate, but it is also funny as fuck. Which is kind of great! Part of my issue with media's portrayal of sex is that it's so hideously grim. It's okay to laugh and smile at and during sex. Just maybe not too much, it's distracting.

(4) I mean, it's still a little titillating. But sex ought to be a bit titillating. And pervy. And raunchy. But it should also be all of the other things too. Sex is more than smut, but it is also smut.

(5) It occurs to me that with my very Bingable name I've just written a paragraph about whether you can see nipples in a comic. So I'd like to take this opportunity to say hello to future prospective employers! Hi! Please hire me as a post doc!

Colour use in Sex Criminals #1, the reprint of the 4th reprinting.