Thursday, January 26, 2023

Microreview[Graphic Novel]: Real Hero Shit by Kendra Wells

 A genuinely funny romp through an RPG-style world, with enough meat under the comedy to be a really substantial read.

Real Hero Shit follows a fairly standard RPG style group on a mission to investigate shady goings on, while we explore the group dynamics and get to know (and love) the characters along the way. We have the mysterious elven rogue leader of the group, who is quiet and determined to get the mission done. We have the badass cleric with a massive hammer who seems nice... right up until e sees someone doing a Bad, and then we see es angry, disappointed and well armed side come through. We have the extremely grompy sorceror who is done with everyone's shit. And we have... Eugene, the inexplicably purple and horned prince of the realm who's bored of fucking around in the literal sense, so is trying it in the metaphorical one for a nice change of pace.

It's very much the introductory volume of the story - we follow Eugene getting to know the rest of the party and exploring the world, while they undertake a relatively simple quest to see why people are going missing in a nearby town. And purely in terms of the story any worldbuilding, it's nothing stunningly original. We seem to be in approximately fantasy pseudo-medieval Europe for our tech level, fashion and general vibes, with modern vernacular, modern attitudes to sex (and the casual having thereof) and modern gender and sexual mores.

The latter point is one of the things that really makes this book stand out for me.

D&D has got quite queer recently. I've only been playing for six or so years, and the shift has been visible even in the time I've been involved in it. It is really enjoyable then to see stories written in D&D style worlds and modes that really reflect what the hobby is for many players. Real Hero Shit is precisely that. We have bi characters, gay characters, characters whose gender is not confined to the male/female binary, without any of it feeling like it's a big deal. It's a story where it feels like... well it's D&D, of course it's queer as heck.

Which isn't to say it's alone in this - it's something plenty of D&D/RPG inspired stories are doing at the moment, as the literature around the hobby catches up to much of the playerbase - but it's still not the dominant mode enough, at least in what I'm seeing, that it remains refreshing. 

Likewise, it's a story willing to put its politics front and centre. This is not a party full of murder-hobos, or people whose moralities wander hither and thither depending what the story needs. We start out with a clear mandate to find the missing villagers, and that's the driving narrative and moral tone that carries us through. This is particularly useful for making the cleric character, Hocus, feel like a bedded in member of the party. So often, paladin and clerics are odd ones out, either slightly compromised (or maybe simply non-standard) in their portrayal of their character archetypes, or else constantly at low key odds with the rest of the party who want to do crimes have adventures. But because we come in with this clear mandate that we are, indeed, doing real hero shit, Hocus feels truly part of the group, and we never have reason to doubt em and es cohesion with everyone else.

But the thing that really makes it stand out is the humour - it is, while being at points serious, absolutely laugh out loud funny. And almost all of that humour is down to Eugene. Eugene is a horny, low attention span, well-meaning yet utterly spoilt lovable idiot. Eugene flirts with everyone. Eugene has no filter. Eugene will piss everyone off and apparently not notice. And it makes for great comedy that isn't complicated or particularly clever, but is hitting the mark time after time. Some of its success is simply that it is willing to acknowledge that the story, the setting and the characters are inherently ridiculous and just... embrace it. And some of it is leaning into the ridiculousness super hard with a knowing wink to the reader and a vibe of "I know your mind went there too". It feels like the author is colluding with you while reading, in the way of good D&D parties everywhere with players who make each other cackle and escalate their shenanigans.

It's not perfect though; there are some weaknesses. Critically, the worldbuilding feels somewhat underdone, and relies heavily on giving you the broad strokes (are we in typical D&D fantasy medieval land? Yes we are!) and then letting you assume the rest from this shorthand. And obviously that does work - medieval fantasyland has been so thoroughly done and done and done that you don't need to spell it out for the reader to get the gist. But it's nice if you do. When so much of what you're doing just rests on those familiar tropes, except in the moment where you're doing something different, the worldbuilding does start to feel somewhat low effort. It's not nothing, and we do begin to see peeks here and there of details of what Wells' world has to offer, but it's always a light touch rather than anything approaching a deep dive, and it does feel at times like it would benefit from a bit more exposition and originality, just to flesh things out a bit.

Of course, this is only the first book in what feels inevitably likely to be a series, so we can't expect to have everything spelled out straight off the bat. But at the same time, there has to be enough to pull you in, to make you want to learn more about the world, and it does feel like Wells has barely got us there while they focussed on other things, with a few tidbits at the end dangled as a hook to lead us into volume two. It's a very slim volume, and I think we could have stood a little slow down on the pace to do the grounding now, rather than the risk of crowding in exposition later when it will, hopefully inevitably, be needed for events to be fully embedded in the world, or worse, risk that it never comes through as fully as we need, and the story fizzles out after the excitement of volume one.

That being said, there was enough that I want to read volume 2 - enthusiastically so - so for all my grumbling, they did clearly do enough for it to work, just about.

In the same vein, while I have no real complaints about the art style, which is absolutely fine for the story it's telling and the characters it's building, neither do I have any real praises to sing either. It's perfectly cute, functional and dynamic, but it's not going to stick with me for years to come, and nor is it going to be the reason I push this into someone else's hands.

But I am going to be pushing it into people's hands. And that's because the combination of the characters, the humour and just feeling incredibly reflective of D&D as it is now was a joy to read. It has flaws, it's not perfect, but the core of what it was doing was so wonderful, I'm entirely happy excusing them for the time spent with these people. They made me laugh, time and again, and they made me sad that the book was only as small as it was, because I just wanted to spend more time getting to know them and seeing their dynamics. And it's that chemistry, the spark between characters, that really grabs you while reading. Like a good D&D session, one that really sticks with you, it's a story full of people who just vibe with each other, in different ways, and that's what makes it all work out.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +2 amazing characters that make you want to spend time with them, +1 laugh out loud funny

Penalties: -1 not enough worldbuilding to tell me why this isn't just off the shelf medieval fantasy Europe

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference:  Kendra Wells, Real Hero Shit [Iron Circus Comics, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea