A Review of Marjorie Liu’s and Sana Takeda’s Monstress Volume 1 (Issues 1-6)
I’ve been eyeing it for weeks, but I finally picked up Monstress at my local comic book store. Let me tell you’s it’s worth it. If you like diverse representation, rich art, interesting worldbuilding, Lovecraftian horror, and a healthy dose of the macabre that is. It’s a dark world, so beware, but the honest exploration of slavery, war, PTSD, and coping with feeling like a monster on the inside (and actually being one) makes it worthwhile.
*Trigger warnings for a rape threat, death and maiming (including children), cannibalism, gore, and body horror.*
Brief Recap (Spoilers!)
Humans and a race of half human, half immortals called Arcanics (basically a conglomeration of all the typical fantasy races) have been at war and finally have a tenuous peace. Maika, the protagonist, is a teenage Arcanic looking for answers about her mother, her past, and her psychic link with a monster with immeasurable power that lives inside her. The downside to it’s presence is the ‘hunger’ that usually ends with people dead. To get information, she sells herself as a slave (all Arcanics are slaves in the human cities) to the Cumea: female human sorceresses who use a substance derived from the dead bodies of Arcanics for their magic. Maika is almost killed but escapes with a shard of a magic mask and a fox-like Arcanic named Kippa and a sentient cat named Master Ren into the woods.
The Cumea hunt her down, as the mask is a powerful relic, but before they get to her, emissaries from the immortal Dusk Court find her. Maika struggles to contain the monster within her from killing people and in the process learns that it is one of the Old gods that her mother and the Cumea were trying to resurrect. The deity shares some kind of link to the powerful Shaman-Empress, the first and most powerful Arcanic, and Maika, as her descendent, has a special blood bond with it. This volume ends with a battle between the Cumea and the Dusk court over Maika. She ends up escaping with Kippa and Master Ren, but unbeknownst to her she’s being tracked by her dearest friend (lover?) Tuya, who is actually a powerful member of the Dusk Court.
Visuals and Storytelling
Part of what drew me in the first place was the rich visuals. There’s equal parts influence from Western comics and Eastern manga traditions, which evokes an ambiance at once foreign and familiar. Realism tinged with a manga flourish that works well with the fantasy genre. The style is lush, intricate, and vibrant. The linework is at times overly busy on the page, but not enough to distract. The hybrid of steampunk, art deco, Egyptian, and Asian influences work both from an artistic and a worldbuilding standpoint. Add in the Lovecraftian/tentacle horror abominations of the Old Gods and you have a dynamic visual contrast.
The varied palette conveys mood well. Muted greys, blues, browns, and greens create an eerie ambiance in certain scenes. Then, a sudden splash of purple, red, and yellow pop off the page with a suddenness that shocks you. Needless to say, I’m in love with the art.
Like with fantasy novels, the worldbuilding is quite dense. There’s a sharp learning curve when you first start, and I sympathize with other readers who have said it was hard to get into at first. It’s a brand new world and not much is explained about the backstory right at the beginning. You glean more information as it goes on, again, like with a fantasy novel. The one to two page ‘lectures’ from the ‘Esteemed Professor Tam Tam’ at the end of some of the issues help fill in the gaps really well. And a lecture from a four tailed philosophizing cat is damn cute.
The pacing for the first half of issue one can feel a bit slow, but it picks up very quickly and stays strong throughout the rest of the volume. The plot itself is fascinating. We know little more than Maika does about her heritage and power, so you’re constantly guessing at whether or not the monster is really evil. She’s almost caught several times, and every instance she unwittingly unleashes the monster, we worry a little more for her sanity and sense of self. It’s gripping and horrifying, and I can’t look away.
Art Score: 10/10
Worldbuilding Score: 9/10
Plot Score: 9/10
Characters and Themes
SO. MANY. WOMEN. Seriously. I could count on one hand the number of named males and still have a couple fingers left over. At least half of the background characters, if not more, are women. This is precisely what the world looks like when you let women do everything. And it isn’t just different positions of power. They have different every conceivable body type, character trait, skin color, and personality. You have selfless women, kind women, brutal women, sadistic women, conflicted women, scientists, engineers, priestesses, wrestlers, mothers, political rulers, and almost everything in between. There are fat women, butch women, femme women, black women, Asian women, Hispanic women, and barely a white woman to be seen (not that I mind white women, since I am one, but I like it when there are more woc than white women).
You have a pair of wlw characters on the villain side and what could be a pair on the protagonist side, but it’s unclear at this point. Would I like more explicitly wlw characters? Yes. But this series isn’t over, so I hope that will be remedied as the series continued. Did I mention that Maika is disabled? Because she’s missing an arm. That makes our protagonist a disabled, mentally ill (or close to it), woman of color, who could quite possibly be queer as well. Damn. That’s representation.
Both the villains and protagonists are round rather than flat. Even side characters feel like they have a rich inner life to them rather than being stock characters against which the protagonists stand out. Like, Emilia, the Edenite who runs an Underground Railroad of sorts for Arcanics. Or Atena, whose loyalties seem divided; or strong, compassionate Resak who comforts Maika silently when she’s enslaved. I want to know about Kippa’s family and even more about the race of philosophizing, snarky cats that Master Ren comes from.
Maika’s characterization is rich with psychological struggle (my favorite kind). She’s compassionate enough to want to send people away rather than hurt them, but also bitter and heartless because of her past and her fears about what the monster inside her might do. She builds walls to keep people out, but is willing to let them down for a select few, one being Tuya who was willing to kill Maika rather than risk her falling into the hands of the Cumea. It’s a fucked up world and these kinds of heartbreaking situations are dark in the best way. The characters are pulled by unseen forces that the story has only scratched the surface in showing us and I can’t wait to read more.
One of the major themes is war: how it damages people, the atrocities committed, and how to put one’s self back together afterward. Racism, slavery, and prejudice play a huge part thematically as well, and the commodification of mixed race bodies that some humans harvest for a magical serum. Nevertheless, despite being heavy on female characters and focused on slavery, it avoids exploiting female bodies for titillation. I can think of more than one scene where the naked female torso is shown in a shockingly unsexualized way, even avoiding showing nipples. Even the body horror is not sexualized, despite being on a female character (the bar is that low). It’s impressive, but unsurprising coming from a female team.
With Maika, part of her arc is the struggle with a (magical) lineage she does not understand (and that can harm both herself and others), as well as the question of what it really means to be a monster. Is it how people look or how they behave? I am a sucker for inner demon struggles, and this one packs emotional weight that is dark and intense without feeling nihilistic.
Characterization Score: 10/10
Diversity Score: 9/10
Thematic Score: 10/10
Final Score: 9.5/10
Go get it! It’s only $9.99 for 6 volumes, which is a steal compared to other volumes of this size. Issue 7 is out already, issue 8 comes out at the end of this month, and issue 9 at the end of December. I’m so excited!
*I make no apologies for puns. Ever.
Images courtesy of Image Comics.