A rowdy fantasy series that feels like Tank Girl tossing a 20-sided die, Rat Queens has been enthusiastically embraced by the comics fandom.
“Seriously, I can not thank you enough for making this so amazing,” one fan says to series artist Roc Upchuch at New York Comic Con. “You rarely see comics that honestly represent what it’s like to be a 20-year-old girl, despite the fact that they’re in a medieval fantasyland.” And she’s not alone. Over the course of just eight boozy, blood-soaked, troll-killing issues, the Queens have ridden a swell of acclaim and fan support – from nationwide multitudes of cosplayers to a 2014 Eisner Award nomination for Best New Series and an upcoming cartoon series.
Upchurch took a break from signing autographs at NYCC to talk about the success of Rat Queens, the importance of body language and how he crafts such vibrant characters.
Paste: So being a guy drawing such an awesome, female-oriented book, are people surprised by that?
Roc Upchurch: It’s surprising to us. When we started, we thought the response would be backlash, like “Oh, these two dudes writing about women, what the fuck do they know?” We thought it would be negative, and it was the complete opposite. It was kind of overwhelming and a pleasant surprise.
Paste: Why do you think it’s been so successful?
Upchurch: It’s a really good time to be in comics. There are a lot of new readers, and I think our book really caught the eye of the female readers — this wave of phenomenal women readers. It’s crazy to be a part of that wave.
Paste: So approaching Image Comics with the idea, what’s the pitch like when you have a book called Rat Queens?
Upchurch: Well, the original name was even more provocative. The original title was Pussy Riots, and that was probably a little much. We wanted a roller derby vibe for the name and the girls in general. We didn’t even plan to pitch it to Image; we were going to do it as a Kickstarter. A friend of ours, Riley Rossmo, said, “You have to show this to [Image co-founder] Jim Valentino.” We showed what we had for the Kickstarter, and he basically said, “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?” When we came up with the idea, it was really just, “What can we do that would just be fun for us?” Just pure fun – not worrying about if it would sell. We both love fantasy, we both love female leads, so it was just coming up with something and building a world that we would have fun playing in.
Paste: Speaking of that world, you’re not anchored to regular people or normal architecture. What’s your reference for that?
Upchurch: As far as the setting, I used a lot of Venetian architecture, a lot of Turkish, Istanbul-type of stuff as a base and then kind of embellished from that. For that town of Palisade, that’s just the type of architecture I envision. Once we get outside of Palisade, that’ll change.
Paste: One of the things that stands out in Rat Queens is the attitude. How do you capture that?
Upchurch: Attitude varies from person to person, so it’s very character driven. Each character shows different personality traits. It just depends on what character is in what situation and how they would react. So, who is this and what would their face do? What would their body language be? What would their emotions be, and how can I reflect that?
Paste: Why would you say the facial expressions are so important?
Upchurch: It’s very important, because it’s visual storytelling. If you can’t read it without the dialogue, then I feel like I’m failing as a sequential artist. You want to get across the emotions or mood, or the feeling behind the dialogue. It’s very important to try and push that with expressions and with movement. It’s very much acting.
Paste: You end up conveying a lot with just one or two lines.
Upchurch: The face is funny that way. You can change one thing, like the way an eyebrow is angled, and it’ll change the entire expression. The way one half of the lip is curled, or one nostril is flared, the direction the eye looks, anything can drastically change an expression. It kind of came from just staring in the mirror for hours and trying to see what best portrayed a certain feeling or mood.
Paste: What other sort of tactics do you use to convey personality? You can do a lot in a panel with no words,
Upchurch: You want to use facial expression, body language, you want to use color to set mood and tone. You want to use lighting to convey certain moods, composition to lead the eye. Everything is vital on a page. Even if the art is beautiful, if it’s not laid out correctly, the reader can get lost or bored. It sounds like a lot, but the more you do it, the more it becomes organic and the less you have to think about it – which is kind of scary because you want to think about it.
Paste: What about character designs?
Upchurch: Well, [Rat Queens writer] Kurtis [J. Wiebe] sent me outlines of each of the girls’ personalities, and that’s really what I needed to design the looks of the characters. I took that and went from there. With this class of character – a fighter, a mage, whatever – what would their body type be? How would they hold themselves? What would they wear? How would they wear it?
Paste: Was there anything you almost did differently?
Upchurch: Well Betty, the little smidgen, in her original design she was pudgy. She was just a chubby little halfling. But because we wanted her to be the thief, stealthly and ninja-like, we had to switch it. Another change was the Four Daves. They were supposed to die in issue one or two, something like that, but the fan response to the Daves was ridiculous. Out of nowhere, it was just “Team Four Daves.” So we said, “Okay, let’s keep them around.”
Paste: Which of the girls is your favorite?
Upchurch: That is an impossible question! That’s like asking who’s my favorite kid. I mean, I love different things about each of them. I love drawing Betty because she’s so exaggerated, a little cartoon. It’s always fun to draw her flying through the air, or her weird little facial expressions. I really push it a lot when I play with her features. I love Dee’s costume. She has a lot of secondary things that are everywhere all the time — her hair is everywhere. I love Violet – her armor, the ginger hair, her weapon, all of that. Hannah is Hannah. She’s just raw and intense and fiery, and red is my favorite color.
Paste: What can we expect from the rest of the current arc and beyond?
Upchurch: A lot of death … destruction. At the end of this arc, Palisade will be kind of destroyed. So it’ll be rebuilding, but also the Queens will be getting outside Palisade for a bit. So you’ll see the world around Palisade be fleshed out a little more.
Paste: The fan response has been huge. There’s lots of cosplay, especially for a book with so few issues. What’s that been like?
Upchurch: It has been phenomenal. Overwhelmingly phenomenal. It’s been so fun to do something that was just for us, and for people to not only like it but to identify with it or see it as a positive influence on their lives — it’s made us want to work harder on the book. It’s made it so much more than what we set out to do, which was to have fun. Now it’s like something we have to do, in a good way. The fans have been fantastic. It’s just been love.