Every so often, a comic book comes along that is so rich, so complicated, and so full of emotion, your mind refuses to simply process it and set it aside, along with all the other colorful narratives you consume on a monthly basis. The latest book to so rock my wold is Monstress, from Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.
I absorbed the entirety of volume one in a single, intense sitting, as revelation built on revelation until the story’s true scope came into focus.
At first glance, Monstress looks to be the story of Maika, daughter of gods and men, a freed former slave of regular humans on a journey back into the enemy’s religious sanctum to seek out the one woman who might know why she sometimes manifests a deadly bloodlust. While the human society views her kind, the Arcania, as monsters—subhuman due to human blood and that of the animal gods coursing through their veins—Maika fears she might be a literal monster.
Is this young woman strong enough to save the world—or destroy it? Does she even possess strength enough to safeguard the little girl who has the faith in her ultimate innocence? Would it be such a bad thing, if a volitile creature like Maika were killed or imprisoned? None of these questions have easy answers.
The advantage of reading this story in collected form is that it allows the full scope of the storyworld to open up, with the stakes changing at each turn of the page. As Maika’s understanding of her “monster” deepens, so does ours. Once the world has been established, Liu and Takeda shift focus to other players, showing us that what’s personal to Maika is also intensely important to the rest of the world. This is layered world-building, with different races, different sources of magic, and several types of gods and demons involved in the protagonist’s fate—yet not once does world-building slow the pacing of the story.
The art is gorgeous, and terrifying, and touching, and funny, all at once. Sometimes, the callousness of the world is made clear in simple, stark panels—the dissection of a young “monster,” the tenderness between a mother and her child—only to suddenly depict the harsh violence of Maika’s possessed bloodlust, as we twitch in sympathy with her victims.
The complex mythology begs comparison to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, as do the personal connections between the characters, and the sense that nothing is at it seems. And yet that’s not a good one-to-one match, as Liu and Takeda’s joint creative voice—ringing out clearly from panel one—offers something unique.
The book opens with Maika, naked, at an auction for monstrous slaves. In many other hands, the moment would be exploitive. With these creators, it becomes a declaration of her strength.
“It took three years to find a name. Two years to find the person. And now I’m here,” Maika’s narration reads, contrasted with the auctioneer’s crisp rundown of her valuable qualities, so far as acceptable society is concerned: human in appearance, young (17), and a virgin.
The juxtaposition is typical of a style of storytelling in which contrasting narratives—Maika’s quest to discover who she is; the human society’s ruthless search for knowledge they believe necessary to defend themselves from the “monsters” they don’t understand; the interference by the gods, who seem terrified by what lurks within Maika—ensure we feel we’re never entirely on stable ground.
Yet in the midst of darkness and doubt, Monstress also has a beating heart, its Samwise: Kippa, a young Arcanic girl, who Takeda’s draws all wide-eyed and cute, someone we can follow into the figurative eye of the storm. At every turn, I expected her to die, and yet, it seems to me her innocence, her hope, and her tenacity protects her from Maika, and the world. Through her love for Kippa, we see Maika’s empathy, and the story opens up hidden chambers.
The only negative thing I can say? That I have to wait for volume 2.