There’s something quite special about Marjorie Liu’s Monstress. And not just the sumptuous art from Sana Takeda. There’s something about the story and the characters that lingers, long after reading this comic book, and that’s a rare thing.
Steampunk meets Kaiju in MONSTRESS, an original fantasy epic for mature readers. As young Maika risks everything to control her psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, placing her in the center of a devastating war between human and otherworldly forces.
Our story – a familiar one of revenge – begins at what appears to be a slave auction. But wait, not slaves; these are some kind of creatures – Arcanics – and they’re all different. There’s talk of a war. A striking woman from the Cumea arrives and takes the creatures, showing signs of influence and precognition. We’re in the city of Zamora. Cats are in cages. The focus is Maika, a human looking Arcanic with half of one arm missing. This appears to be Asia. It is a matriarchy.
We learn in flashback that Maika has been looking to find revenge for something that happened in the war. We learn that she is prepared to do whatever it takes to meet those who wronged her. There are huge demonic creatures that disappear into the mists. There is magic, torture, opulence and suffering abound. The cats know more than is possible. The Cumea need to experiment on the Arcanics. It is a complex and rich world. Maika and the other Arcanics find themselves in cells. How will she accomplish her goals? Can she battle the darkness inside of her?
The intricate cover draws you in to Monstress. And the art is so delicate and elaborate each page is a joy. Sana Takeda (X-23, Ms. Marvel) has drawn something with so much detail that the images linger in the mind. Much of the panelling is straight forward, and there are some single page panels which are simply stunning. Check out the ghost of a dead god on p47. Some of the images are brutal and gory. There’s no shying away from the horrors of war and captivity. All the characters are beautifully drawn and their personalities shine. The style Takeda uses is quite unusual for fantasy comics but evokes that Asian flavour that gives the story depth. The colours are all fairly washed out – hinting at the darkness. Many pages have coloured themes running through them, as Takeda runs through a range of visual story-telling techniques, all of which work.
The story, from Marjorie Liu (Astonishing X-Men, Black Widow) works terrifically well. Despite the history and the world-building in the story, there is very little obvious exposition. Instead, the story is told by actions, narrative and of course the visuals from Takeda. Fantasy fiction might be regarded as the poor cousin to science fiction in relation to exploring humanity’s bigger questions. Liu redresses that in Monstress. Maika, one of the magical Arcanics, is a fully rounded character, who is experiencing personal grief, a desire for revenge, inner darkness and the growth of her powers. The war with the Cumea sorceresses appears to have been brutal. While the Arcanics aren’t human, they look almost human. Their treatment is perhaps an analogy to recent real events from the middle-east – captives treated as less than human because of the way they look. Of course, for a book with predominantly female characters, there is a tint of feminism to the story. However, it shows that women are many shades of grey, but can also be the classic baddie. The easy duplicity of Maika’s mother’s betrayer caught me off-guard.
There is so much to take from this comic book from Liu and Takeda. And what a final line from the cat! Thankfully, for the first issue, Image combines 3 issues into a 72-page delight. The preview page for issue 2 hints at further darkness. Is Maika truly a monstress and is that a bad thing? I’m now going to find out. So should you…
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson