Ever read a comic book that both dazzled your eyes and gripped you wholeheartedly, that had a perfect blend of action, beauty, mysticism, and biting wit? I did too, and it was in the form of Marjorie Liu’s Monstress.
The first time I heard about Monstress was on Twitter — and I'm thankful for the conversation, because it led me to the Liu-penned epic fantasy piece.
It all started when I saw people tweeting about Liu, who appeared alongside Black Girl Nerds founder Jamie Broadnax during an MSNBC segment speaking about diversity in the comic book industry. Somewhere in the midst of the conversation, Liu’s work, Monstress, was brought up for its Asian inspiration as well as beautiful artwork by Sana Takeda.
Not knowing anything about the comic book, I decided to do a quick search and found some of the graphics, which almost looked like calligraphy with its swirls and ornate scrolling. I was immediately hooked.
Rushing over to the bookstore where I usually purchase other comics like Saga, Low, and Sex Criminals, I found Liu’s masterpiece and found myself thumbing through the pages to get a sense of what was to come. I saw hybrid creatures, some blood and gore, and beautifully drawn clothing, and handed the cashier my credit card.
Monstress follows the tale of Maika Halfwolf, an arcanic — part human, part ancient — who goes on a quest to avenge her mother’s death and learn about the “hunger” that lives inside her. As she goes on a murderous hunt for answers, the “hunger” inside her awakens and reveals itself to be the spirit of an old god, bent on feeding off the lives of those around her to free itself of Maika’s body. This puts Maika’s journey of self-discovery on its head, as she must now learn how the spirit came to be bound to her — and what it means for her future.
To say Takeda’s imagery is “beautiful” is not to give her enough credit. It’s abundantly clear she spends tireless (wo)man hours to create her panels. The sketches are done with meticulous planning, blending her manga-influenced style with steampunk elements in vibrant hues.
Occasionally violent, the scenes depicted are still flowery, keeping with it a sense of whimsy, while maintaining a dark tone.
Aside from the splendid illustrations, another wonderful element of the story is its magical tone. In this world, ancients are mythical beings — some being anthropomorphic animals with mystical powers. There are also the cumean, or a race of humans that are witches. They also have a certain level of power, which can be amplified by consuming and transmuting the blood of arcanics.
Additionally, cats are their own race with magical properties. Taking a page from the myth I heard as a child of cats being able to steal souls, cats not only talk but have the ability to speak to the dead. Cool.
As an arcanic, Maika's genealogy contains the blood of an ancient. However, she is different, as she carries within her the spirit of an “old god,” or the gods that existed long before the others. This “old god” appears in the story in times of need to either help Maika survive or for its own self-survival, which brings me to …
One thing this comic has the ability to master is to juxtapose all the horror with all the beauty it has to offer. With all the delicate artwork and rich cultural context come grit and gore. This isn’t a rated-G book and contains some bad language as well as alarming deaths. Liu and Takeda take no prisoners in scenes where whole troupes are massacred and no one is spared — not even the audience. We see every severed head, crushed next, ripped arm, expletive, and wretched action by all the characters involved.
Maika is a visceral killer with no remorse for those she eliminates on her quest for knowledge, and the “old god” within her can be just as ruthless as its host — or the ones seeking to capture her dead or alive.
Overall, Monstress is a great blend of imagination and visuals, and I’ve been pleased with what I’ve read thus far. It's a good story about self-discovery and the internal struggles we all face as people. We're all the sum of various parts in a way, but this book clearly demonstrates that by materializing Maika's "other-ness," which she must either learn to trust or ignore. Will she finally realize who she is — and will she accept it?
It’s a gorgeous mess of intrigue, politics, and enchantment, and I can’t wait to see what Liu and Takeda have in store with this fantastical saga.