Marjorie Liu and Sana Takada’s MONSTRESS [Amazon | The Book Depository] was one of my most anticipated trade collections of 2016. I loved the creators’ work on X-23, a Marvel property about young Wolverine clone Laura Kinney, and I couldn’t wait to see what they’d come up with in a creator-owned title, free from publishers’ restrictions and established canon.
Turns out, the results are impressive indeed.
MONSTRESS takes place in an alternate, matriarchal version of early twentieth century Asia. The war between Arcanics and humans is currently stalled thanks to a devastating weapon the Arcanics unleashed during the last major battle. The Cumaea, an order of scientist-nuns, are desperate to find a way to harness this technology for themselves and have stepped up their experiments on enslaved Arcanics, partly in search of answers and partly to mine the Arcanic essence that grants them their greatest power.
Maika, a teenage Arcanic, needs answers of her own, so she arranges to have herself sold to the Cumaea as a slave. But her bloody foray through their compound complicates everything and sends her on a journey in company with a fox-aspected young Arcanic and a two-tailed talking cat, plus a dark force that’s lodged itself in her soul.
It’s possible MONSTRESS isn’t entirely unique on the world’s stage, but I don’t believe anyone else working in English has put together a comic quite like this. Liu and Takada tackle concepts and issues that receive little thoughtful page time in mainstream comics, and they do so against a stunningly gorgeous backdrop.
For one, MONSTRESS is unabashedly female-focused. All-ages comics with predominantly female casts are enjoying a small renaissance at the moment, but few adult titles from major publishers have taken this route. Master Ren, the two-tailed cat, is the only male who plays a large role across several issues, while two other men look set to make plot-important moves in the next arc. The majority of the cast, from the protagonists and antagonists to the supporting and bit players, is female, whether they’re politicians, scientists, soldiers, or folks hanging out by the side of the road.
MONSTRESS is also distinctly Asian without treating Asia as a monolith. In her afterward to the first issue, Liu states the series was inspired in part by her grandparents’ experiences in wartime China, but she and Takada aren’t content to simply take their cue from that country’s historical past. The characters clearly hail from many different parts of the continent, and while I’m sadly ill-equipped to identify the origins of each cultural note everything strikes me as diverse and difficult to pigeonhole.
On top of the varying cultural backgrounds that inform this story, Liu and Takada present us with a multitude of perspectives via characters who are urbanites, nomads, freedom fighters, bandits, and rural merchants. What’s more, they give us multiple examples of each type. They will not let their characters be lumped together by category, because they recognize there’s always variation even within distinct groups. It's clear, too, that the humans' inclination to lump the Arcanics together--and vice versa--is a driving force in the war.
In this environment, it's hardly surprising that so many people are termed monsters. From the human perspective, the Arcanics' physical differences make them monstrous in the extreme. The Ancients, forerunners of the Arcanics, are animal-aspected anthropomorphic beings of immense power who have left many of their descendents with animalian traits. Even those Arcanics who look human are derided on the other side of the neutral zone.
Old gods, too, loom over everyone, many-eyed and thick-corded with tentacles. And magic creates physical changes in both Arcanics and humans throughout the course of this opening act, upping the potential for monstrous identification.
Not content to simply dwell on the appearances that lead humans to consider someone monstrous--already a powerful metaphor in contemporary society--Liu and Takada explore the ways in which war transforms humans and Arcanics alike into behaviorally monstrous versions of themselves. No one emerges unscathed as they make difficult choices and accept horrific realities, often in the name of pure survival.
I love monsters, and I’m even more enamoured of long-form examinations of what a monster is. Liu and Takada deliver on both levels.
Takada illustrates this monstrous world with a keen eye for its beauty. Her style owes a lot to traditional manga forms, particularly where her angled layouts are concerned, but her sketchy lines and painterly approach to colour fit with Western comics trends. Please don’t think that makes anything about her art standard or easily dismissable, though. MONSTRESS is stunning, steeped in Art Deco forms and original turns of visual phrase.
It's also brutal. This story is about war and prejudice, and the art’s visual violence matches the verbal violence woven through the script. I want every sighted person to experience Takada’s work, but I also want to caution you portions of MONSTRESS may be triggering for some readers. It’s beautiful. It’s not nice.
The brutality is by no means unrelenting, though. Takada peppers her work with adorability in the form of the many-tailed talking cats (some of whom are quite wicked indeed) and Kippa, the fox-aspected girl Maika rescues from the Cumaea slave prison and proceeds to travel with. The set dressings are beyond amazing, too. Sweeping vistas, elegant cities, and elaborate fashions abound, ensuring the reader has more to focus on than the horror of Maika's situation.
The series is absolutely worth your time, but I must confess I didn’t quite love this opening volume. I’m intrigued and eager for more, though, and this feels like one of those instances where I’ll adore the overall series without loving any individual volume.
Please don’t take that as a negative. There’s a lot to love here, and a lot to mull over and respect. I’ll be recommending MONSTRESS to anyone in search of diverse, female-focused comics for an adult audience (with a trigger warning attached to that rec).