We still don’t have a date for the return on Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s marvelous Monstress, one of the more beautiful and engrossing fantasy comic series running, which means you still have time to catch up on the second collected volume, released over the summer amid the madness of Comic-Con International in San Diego (and available in an exclusive edition only at Barnes & Noble).
With both writer and artist in attendance at the con, I grabbed the opportunity to talk with them about the evolving story of Maika Halfwolf, a heroine in search of her own past. But we started out talking about something that’s a very small but very important part of the comic: the pages featuring Professor Tam Tam, a wise and learned cat who gives lectures to three kitten students about the history, geography, and demographics of the world of Monstress. Because who doesn’t like cats? Especially cats who are dipping mice in chocolate as they speak.
Professor Tam Tam first appears in the first volume, where she is instructing three kittens about history, but in the second volume she makes a big presentation about the structure of the world of Monstress and the different races within it. Why did you wait till you were so far along in the story to present this comprehensive worldview?
Marjorie Liu: If you tell people what everything is before they have a chance to experience it, then I feel like it’s a much different experience. Because we waited until issue 5 to have that big spread that tells about the known races of the known world, you had all this story leading up to that where people have been in the story with the Arcanics, they have been in the story with the cats, they have been in the story with the Cumeans.
Right. And we know they are different, but we don’t know the details.
ML: There’s no reason for us to be told immediately why they are different. It just would cheapen the experience. It’s much better to have readers be in the story, living with these characters, and then once they have had time to familiarize themselves with these different races that are in the text, then you get the lesson about what the superficial differences are. Because the whole thing about Monstress is that all these differences are actually quite superficial. Why point out superficial differences right from the very beginning when readers need to see the whole point of the story?
This is a small thing, but when Professor Tam Tam comes on there are the three little kittens and they are all having different reactions—one is always scared, the others two are curious. Which of you came up with that?
ML: All I remember saying was that she would be teaching kittens. But I thought you [Takeda] came up with the reactions.
ST: I actually don’t remember very well any more. What I do remember was that there were three little feline listeners, and I thought it was boring if you just depicted any three little kittens just listening, so I thought it would be interesting to give them each individual personalities. And I didn’t even think about three kittens. I thought about what if they were three little kids that happened to be kittens, and what do little kids do? Well, there’s always that one kid that’s really enraptured and paying close attention because they are so absorbed in whatever the lesson is, and then there is that one kid that is totally terrified of what the teacher is saying, or just terrified in general. So I wanted to give them little personalities.
It also makes a nice change of pace because the story is so intense. It gives you a little breathing room.
ML: It’s also an opportunity for some extra world-building. The world of Monstress is so big and expansive that we can’t fit it all into the book. But the purpose of the Professor Tam Tam lectures is not only to give background on the world; there’s a subtler lesson involved which is that there is always something else happening in the world beyond the main storyline. So for example we’re in this epic story about a girl who has a monster inside her, and the whole fate of the world is on her shoulders, but somewhere, maybe 7,000 miles away, in either the past, present, or future, there is a professor, a cat, who is teaching kittens, and they are so completely removed from what’s happening that it’s almost as if they were in a different world. It’s the same thing that happens in our world, where we’re sitting here having this conversation at Comic-Con, and 7,000 miles away on the other side of the world, there could be a girl with a monster inside of her going on an epic adventure, and we would never know. It’s not part of our lives. It has no bearing on our lives. And that’s also part of the message and the subtext of Professor Tam Tam, that there are other things happening that have nothing to do with the story of Monstress.
That’s very cool. And often, in fact, Professor Tam Tam is talking about somewhere other than the story is taking place, like a different part of your world.
ST: Especially when those pages started, it’s a slower pace, it’s a single page but it’s brighter colors, and it’s very cheery. Even though the lectures themselves are kind of serious, it’s a little bit more humorous. They are fun for me to draw, because here I can interject a little more of the playful side of me, and especially with the three kittens, here we have this adult professor cat speaking to these three little kittens. It’s kind of a weird expression, but it was almost kind of healing to me, after drawing all the really serious, almost grotesque scenes, to totally change pace and draw a Tam Tam page. But then halfway through, Marjorie told me about Tam Tam dipping the mice in chocolate, and I was like “Wait! What the heck’s going on?” [Laughs]
It seemed like the whole tone of the book shifted in volume two. Suddenly they are on a pirate ship, and it becomes almost more of a straightforward adventure story for a little while. Why did you do that?
ML: For better or for worse—I second-guessed myself a million times over this decision—but the first volume was really intense to write, and I almost needed to cleanse my palate. I wanted to write something that felt a little more like a straightforward adventure,. There are some twists and turns towards the end of the volume that make it a little bit less straightforward, especially as the monster begins to awaken itself and come more fully into its consciousness and its sense of self. By the time we get around to the third arc I think I am going to be returning to a combination of adventure [and] a search for the deeper truths that rest within Maika.
Marjorie, I know you write novels as well as comics. It seems like comics might give you a lot of freedom, in that you can take a break in volume two and shift to more of an action adventure story if you want to. Does that sort of writing come more naturally to you?
ML: No. I shift into different modes. I love writing prose. I really love writing prose. It’s very pleasurable for me. But I also really love writing comics. I really love writing comics for Sana. Comics writing is for your artist. It’s not for the general reader, it’s for the artist. So I love writing scripts for artists.
But in terms of the story structure, do you have a little more freedom with an ongoing comic?
ML: Yes and no. I don’t think of myself as having any freedom when it comes to how Monstress is structured and how the story is going, because a comic book has to be even more tightly structured than a novel, because there is no room for mistakes. Once the art is done, the art is done. I can’t go back and revise it, whereas I can write a 400-page novel, and if something doesn’t work I can go back and revise it.
Are you dropping breadcrumbs in the beginning? Putting in things that make more sense when you’re further along in the story?
ML: Yes. Sana plants visual seeds as well. it’s all integrated.
ST: No, I don’t set it up so carefully. I don’t know what you are talking about!
And yet it happens!
ML: Because I draw so much inspiration from Sana. Sometimes Sana will do something that’s just a throwaway and I will draw a ton of inspiration from it, and that influences the story that follows.
ML: Well, whether it’s a character like Kippa or whether it’s the eye motif that comes throughout the story.
That wasn’t something you originally came up with?
ML: We talked about the eye in Maika’s chest, and Sana took that one step further and the eye is everywhere. That was a great conjunction, a great world-building intervention that has affected the way I think about the story.
Sana, is that happening to you, where some small detail that Marjorie puts in triggers an idea for the visuals?
ST: It’s not so much that I get a sudden burst of inspiration from reading her script, but her scripts are so detailed and in a near perfect state, a near complete state, that I can read it multiple times and each time I read it I find new things in it.
It’s kind of like when I am drawing the page: I keep reading over that part of the script that corresponds to what I am drawing and it gives me new ideas. It’s almost like when you find something and it floats to the surface and you scoop it out. Whatever bubbles to the surface, I just skim off and that’s what I put on the page.
Are you working on the third arc? How many will there be?
ML: I don’t know. I know what the end looks like, but not how long it will take us to get there. Not forever.
This is a world you can keep creating new stories in.
ML: Yes, but every story needs to end. And when it ends, we’ll go and do something else.
(Thanks to Mari Marimoto for serving as Sana Takeda’s translator.