Typically, if I were going to recommend a comic to you, I’d want to read more than the first issue. But when I picked up Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, I knew I’d recommend it to you straightaway. Reading it reminded me of the first issue of Pretty Deadly. I salivated over the images and the story wouldn’t leave me alone — poking at me through the days and weeks that followed. I’ve only had a handful of hours with Monstress and I find myself wanting to dive back in, over and over.
It’s always been a little hard for me to get into comics because of their serial nature and the difficulty I have in grasping “what’s this about?” in such a short amount of time. I love the idea of a visual medium, but not getting enough information to pull together a full picture pretty quickly has always been the barrier to my enjoyment and further ardor for comics. I read what there is and lose interest in the time between issues. Monstress really gives you a potent bang for your buck in a 66 page first issue, which lets us into a complex, war torn, steampunk fantasy.
So what is Monstress about? Well, Image says it’s:
Steampunk meets Kaiju in this original fantasy epic for mature readers, as young Maika risks everything to control her psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, placing her in the center of a devastating war between human and otherworldly forces.
So that gives us something and I suppose it’s accurate enough, if a little vague. In a much better description of what Monstress is “about,” Karen Rought from Hypable sums it up as:
Monstress is the first issue in a comic book series about magic, slavery, revenge, and the darkness within. Taking place in the early 1900s in an alternate universe, the world is overrun with Leviathans possessing supernatural powers many people would love to get their hands on. Maika, our hero, bonds with one of these monsters, making her a target for those who want that power for themselves. But that bond comes at a terrible price, and her newfound power could either save humanity…or end it. Monstress…is about women of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. Some of them are slaves, and some are the slave-drivers. Some are consumed by monsters, while some of them are the monsters.
So that definitely gives us more about what the series’ content will be about, though we don’t get all that information in issue 1. If we’re just focusing on what the story is about, I like what Marjorie Liu in her interview with Rought says the takeaway is best:
Monstress is the origin story of a warrior woman. It’s a story about what it takes to put yourself back together again after surviving a really horrible experience. It’s also a book about what it means to be a monster. Who exactly is the monster in this book? What is monstrousness? I hope that when people read this, not only do they just enjoy the story, but maybe they think about these things.
Knowing all that, here’s what I liked best about Monstress so far and why I’ll be itching ’til December 2nd, when issue 2 is released:
It’s all about women. Women are the drivers of the action. Women are in charge of everything. Women are the protagonists and antagonists. Everyone has amazing, amazing hair. And there’s cats. Talking cats.
I could stop there, but I won’t. I can see that I’ll grow to care for Maika, but right now, she’s new and has gotten herself into a lot of trouble. As the story opens, we see that Maika has intentionally sold herself into slavery in order to gain access to a foe. She’s subverted the slave trade to enter the cloister of a group of witch-nuns, who are on the one hand, completely badass. They’re scientists and wielders of what seem to be considerable magics. On the other hand, they’re chopping up their enemies (the Arcanics, of whom Maika herself identifies with) and eating them for power, so that’s pretty awful.
It’s easy to see why Maika probably wants them all dead, but we soon learn that while she’s definitely on the side of “burn them all” — her mission at the cloister is much more personal. Since the first issue was pretty action-packed, I don’t feel as though I’ve had time to properly get to know Maika. She’s rash and brave, but also clearly has kindness in her. I’m looking forward to understanding her better in further issues. As far as the writing goes, it’s clear that Liu has built an incredibly complex world, where cultures and races have clashed for eons and a war has ravaged both sides.
Lots of seeds are sewn that open up a first chapter you won’t want to put down, but that’s not what will catapult you straight into love with Maika and her world, that’s all due to Takeda’s beautifully rendered illustrations. Takeda’s attention to color and detail are phenomenal. If you love steampunk and are a fan of manga/anime, I think you’ll be pleased at Takeda’s contribution to the worldbuilding effort. As a lover of fantasy, this is one area where graphic novels and comics just blow me away, it’s not that I don’t love imagining things myself, but sometimes it’s wonderful to actually see what the monsters look like, or the city at dawn (both awesome views you’ll get, by the way, in Monstress).
Don’t be fooled, if you’re not a comics reader, this ain’t for kids. Monstress is pretty “adult” in terms of violence, but it falls under my barometer of “if you can make it through an episode of Game of Thrones without puking, you’re good to go.” Unlike Game of Thrones, which doesn’t do much to condemn violence against women these days, Liu and Takeda are obviously offering up a condemnation of the atrocities of war, and the dark side of humanity, in general.
In the endnote, Liu says, “… the root of my desire…was to tell a story of what it means to be a survivor. A survivor not just of a cataclysmic war, but of racial conflict and its antecedent: hatred. And to confront the question: how does one whom history has made a monster, escape her monstrosity? How does one overcome the monstrousness of others without succumbing to a rising monstrousness within?” These are palpably pertinent questions for our times and the work that Liu and Takeda do in just this one issue calls these questions forth with both beauty and a strong dose of the grotesque.
Monstress is thoughtful in a way I’m coming to expect from women in comics and I can’t wait for you to read it. Plus, I mentioned talking cats, right? If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. You can follow Monstress on Tumblr, if you like. Lots of beautiful updates!
Allison Carr Waechter scandalously enjoyed her Issue 1 of Monstress on a giant computer screen and urges you to do the same, if you’d like to flout convention. (You can select to read a comic frame by frame, scrutinizing every little pixel, art darlings! Go for it!)