Reasons why you need to read Monstress; it's an epic – in more ways than one – fantasy comic series written by Marjorie Liu (X-23, Dark Wolverine, Astonishing X-Men) and drawn by Sana Takeda (also of X-23 fame).
It’s epic in the sense that this is high fantasy, with monsters, gods, and demons – or rather, creatures that could be considered all of the above. It’s also epic in the sense that it’s goddamn cool.
The setting of Monstress is an alternate Asia, with steampunk sensibilities and an art deco aesthetic, where women dominate upper echelons of power as well as the plot of this particular tale. Liu and Takeda’s extraordinary story deals with gender, race and war, all while telling a coming-of-age tale that heavily features cats. What more could you ask for?
Liu explained her motivation to write the story to The Hollywood Reporter, saying, "I wanted to write about girls and monsters, which has been a theme of mine from almost the start of my career - girls and giant monsters … and I wanted to set it all in an alternate Asia." Growing up Asian American, Liu also wanted to look at what it means to, “straddle the borderlands of two cultures."
Monstress explores the straddling of two cultures through the protagonist - Maika Halfwolf - a teenager who looks human, but is actually an Arcanic (another class of human that is the result of breeding between the Ancients and humans).
The Ancients are god-like creatures with animal heads and immense power, they bring to mind the pantheon of Ancient Egyptian Gods. Humans, on the other hand, are led by a sect of “witch-nuns” called the Cumaea who harvest the magic life force of Arcanics in order to feed their own power. When the story opens, Maika Halfwolf’s world is currently at an uneasy ceasefire in the war between Ancients and humans with Arcanics caught in the middle, and more often than not captured, tortured and sold as slaves.
Maika isn’t interested in the war although her shadowy past ties her directly to the conflict. She is busy dealing with problems a little closer to home. These involve posing as an Arcanic slave in order to infiltrate a Cumaea stronghold, to try and uncover the mystery behind the murder of the her mother while also struggling to deal with a dark, malevolent force inside her that seems to be growing stronger every day.
Marjorie Liu is also a novelist, and this becomes apparent as Monstress unfolds. The story weaves its magic slowly, and many of the mysteries are still unsolved at the end of volume one. Liu’s world-building is natural and never forced. It is aided by the detailed, sumptuous art by Sana Takeda. As Caitlin Rosberg noted for A.V Club, “her style is far more in line with manga and anime than Western comics”.
Takeda’s art is particularly strong when it comes to the ornate ‘costume design’ for almost every character, and the elaborate, baroque architecture of the buildings and structures. This is all delivered in a cool palette of greys, coppers and cold golds. It’s a feast for the eyes.
Monstress is, in many ways, a somber story. While it has an arse-kicking heroine and a talking cat sidekick, Liu and Takeda’s commitment to dealing with the realities of their war-torn world means that there are few opportunities for fist-pumping. They don’t just display the bloody fight sequences of combat that comes with conflict, they portray the atrocities committed against other living creatures that have historically characterised war. Torture. Rape. Slavery. Propaganda. Unexamined hatred.
All of this is explored with a protagonist who has a monster growing inside them. Maika Halfwolf’s monster isn’t a mere metaphor for puberty or growing pains, it is a more obscure symbol. How do you cope when your past has cast a shadow over your present? When something that feels completely separate to you controls you?
It’s not all doom and gloom. Maika Halfwolf’s sometimes sidekick and kinda-ally Master Ren is a talking cat, with an appropriately wry and side-eye sense of humour. Another tagalong, the Arcanic child Kippa, lends the story youthful hope and optimism, as well as a dose of cute whenever she hugs her fluffy foxtail.
Beautiful and horrifying, Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening has created a world that feels both magical and wholly real. A world that will only become more enthralling as the series progresses.