Decrypting Rita

A comic by Margaret Trauth

There are certain comics that I might, if pressed, refer to as “entry level”: comics that are accessible, easy to read and follow, and that tell original, quality stories that are nonetheless a bit familiar to readers. Comics you can recommend to new friends, acquaintances, people you don’t really know – comics that can enjoy a fairly wide appeal. Then there are comics that I would have to call… “advanced”.

Decrypting Rita is about a gay robot girl who’s a secret agent working to stop a group called the Sunrisers from forcing the entire planet into a hive mind. She’s also a human burlesque dancer who’s mourning the loss of her friend who killed herself. In addition to these, she’s a skyship captain with hat-based immortality AND a shapeshifting polyamorous dragon. These different Ritas exist in different universes, and these universes intersect in strange and uncanny ways. Try turning that into an elevator speech.

Barrett's the bad guy in the blue universe.
Barrett’s the bad guy in the blue universe.

The intersections of the universes start out small, even deniable. Robot Rita’s first mission of the story ends with her being captured and deactivated. Meanwhile, Rita from our world wakes up from a dream of being a sexy parkour spybot! Is robot Rita fake, just an illusion? Zhuangzi’s age-old question: which is the dream, and which is real? But when robot Rita reactivates with intact memories from the other Rita’s universe, we get Trauth’s answer: both are real, and are dreaming of each other.

(Some moments I hate to spoil, but have to for a competent review, or in this case, to talk about the premise at all. That just-a-dream fakeout is one of them. Sorry)

Two of those color schemes are a little too close to each other, imo.
Two of those color schemes are a little too close to each other, imo.

Despite decidedly not being entry level, Rita is a fascinating exploration of the comics medium – we’re talking page layouts that would make Scott McCloud cream his pants. Each of the four (main) universes is color-coded, and often action happens simultaneously across worlds, with each one being its own twisty ribbon of action intertwining with the others. The comic scrolls horizontally, which would normally be irritating for a scroll-wheel addict like myself, but clever javascript links let you advance the pages in an easy and intuitive way. (There are one or two chapters where the javascript is irritatingly broken! Please fix that, Margaret.)

Universes colliding

To call Decrypting Rita “artsy” or “cerebral” would be an understatement, but saying it was goofy, actiony fun wouldn’t do it justice either. Remember the “thinky scifi” vs. “explodey scifi” distinction in my Computer Love review? Rita is both, in both extremes. It has robots catching sniper bullets in midair, dragons facing down questing heroes, high-speed car chases, a faster-than-light engine called a “gongoozler”, and multiple plots to destroy multiple worlds, but also raises some really weird questions, like: what if your worst enemy in one universe is your boyfriend in another universe? What happens when the elf version of your dead friend gets pulled from her fantasy world into yours? What happens when your boyfriend’s spell goes wrong and banishes your elf girlfriend to another universe? When you explode and reboot from a backup into a new body, is your ex-girlfriend still your ex-girlfriend?

When people refer to their multiple poly relationships as "family" I get a little weepy.
When people refer to their multiple poly relationships as “family” I get a little weepy.

In every world, the same set of characters incarnate in different versions with different relationships and histories. The bonds of romance and friendship – and the echos of enmity and hatred – are a common theme in each universe, and Trauth is surprisingly adept at establishing a great amount of pathos in each relationship, despite the minimal screentime each one can possibly be afforded. It’s a damn good thing these people seem to be poly in every universe, otherwise who’s-dating-who would get really hard to keep track of. That’s a joke: it’s still basically impossible.

Kim 2 knew something, I can feel it...
This Kim knew something, I can feel it…

But at the same time, each character is still themself, regardless of their situation. Rita is snarky and adventurous, Tom is flamboyant and brilliant, Carol is always an adorably shy nerd, and Barrett is always up to no damn good. The only enigma is Kim, who somehow seems like she’s exploring the universes with her various incarnations: One of the Kims kills herself to test if the world is a simulation; another sides with the Sunrisers, hoping to change the laws of physics with the power of a planetary hive mind. Something odd is going on that spans all four of these universes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim, in all her forms, was at the center of it – or the one to uncover it!

Look at that panelling!
Look at that panelling!

I’ve reread Decrypting Rita three times and I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on in some parts, but I do know this: it’s got major themes of queerness, polyamory, and radical consent, which makes it more relevant to my own life than a lot of fiction. It’s undeniably a wild ride, full of betrayals and flirtations, tragedy and cuteness, seriousness and humor. And while it may deserve a reread, it definitely demands one, so go in prepared.

Final verdict: There’s so much going on in this comic, it’s tempting to say there’s something for everyone. But given the weirdness of the story and the frankly revolutionary way it’s drawn and told, it’s probably more accurate to say that there’s everything for… someone. If that someone is you, you’re in for a treat.

2 comments on “Decrypting Rita

    1. Oh I posted that to test if my comment would go through, because I was having problems posting a comment on the Miamaska review. Any way, what I wanted to say is that you folks have a great website here and I’m so glad that I found it. I’m enjoying your reviews immensely. You have an interesting angle and I’m agreeing with all of your points so far, even on the negative reviews of comics I like. This website is what we need more of in the comics world. So thank you folks again, and keep it up. :))))

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