Monstress Vol I: Awakening
By Marjorie Liu, Art by Sana Takeda
Monstress is an dark epic fantasy comic published by Image Comics, it has been running since 2015. Its author Marjorie Liu was born in Philadelphia to a father from Taiwan and a mother from the United States; she spent her early life reading. She attended Lawrence University in Appleton Wisconsin, which is where she first got into comics books. While she was familiar with the X-Men due to the 1990s animated series (if you haven't seen it, try it out!) it wasn't until college that she started reading the comics and writing... well, fan fiction. Fan fiction for those of you who might be entirely aware are stories written about fiction universes by fans, like if your little brother wrote his own Superman stories for example. Honestly I'm rather supportive of fan fiction, it's a good place to practice your writing skills and learn how to write other characters. Anyway, after graduating, Ms. Liu went to law school at the University of Wisconsin and even did intern work for the US Embassy in Beijing. She grew disillusioned with law practice after that however and returned to writing. First she wrote poetry, short stories and novels but after seeing a small boy in a Spider-man costume, she thought it would be awesome to write for Marvel. She ended up writing a number of X Men tie in novels and NYX, an X-Men spin off comic. Sana Takeda was born in Niigata Japan, while she started out as a CGI designer for SEGA, she is now a veteran comic book artist, having done work for Aspen, Image and Marvel comics (most famously doing the art for the Ms. Marvel comics (the blonde one, before Marvel decided to do the obvious thing and make her Captain Marvel). Now let's talk about the comic, shall we?
The world of Monstress is a sharply and likely unnecessarily divided one. On one side we have the Federation of Man, ruled from the shadows by the all girl religious order of the Cumaea. The Cumaea are women with psychic powers and access to a hidden science which allows them to extend their lives and enhance their powers at a hideous cost, but I'll come back to that. On the other side we have the Arcanics, who really aren't a race, yes, I'll explain. Leading arcanic society is a group of beings known as Ancients. They're--to be blunt on the matter--immortal beast men, who have a number of magical powers and from time to time like to dally with humans. The Arcanics are the offspring of such unions, some look entirely human, most don't. They live divided into two courts, the Court of Dusk and the Court of Dawn. This leads me back to the method through which the Cumaea get their extended lives and powers. It's called Lilium and the only way you can get it is by rendering the bodies or bones of Arcanics or Ancients. The “witch-nuns” of the Cumaea would use their Lilium fueled powers to take over the Federation of Man from within and goad it into war with the Arcanics. It was a brutal and devastating conflict made all the worse by the atrocities the Cumaea would lead humanity into in order to feed their need for Lilium. Arcanics were enslaved, experimented on, murdered and chopped up, not always in that order. The war ended in a truce, when something caused utter destruction at a place called Constantine. The Arcanics convinced the Cumaea that it was a new magic weapon and they would use it again.
Our main character Maika Halfwolf was at Constantine and survived, the war did not leave her unscarred however; she lost her mother and her arm. She also gained something, what she gained is more of an open question. It is not an open question however, of how insanely dangerous that thing is, for something sleeps inside of Maika Halfwolf and when it wakes, people die. It's not like Maika really understands what's lurking inside of herself either, in fact she spends the entire story on a quest for answers. Answers like “what did you people do to my mother?”, “What did my mother have to do with you?”, and “What did my mother do to me and what the hell is going on?”. This quest is going to involve Maika going into the very sanctuary of her enemies to find clues to the answer and then to escape with what she's learned. Meanwhile everyone else is starting to figure out what is going on and their reaction is to panic and Maika's quest may restart a war that no one human or otherwise can afford to have restart. Joining Maika in this quest is Kappa the young Arcanic who Maika liberates from the illegal slave pens of the Cumaea and Ren the cat (cats are a mystic race, who seem to add tails as they get older and more powerful). Kappa doesn’t really do much but act frightened but determined, while Ren serves as the voice of reason in the group. Which means his job is to be utterly ignored until everything Maika has tried has failed, which is less often than you would think.
Most of the book is taken up with Maika's rampage, subsequent escape and the consequences of both. Now Ms. Liu has avoided the trap of making everyone on one side to be monsters and everyone on the other side shining paladins. We run into good humans (one minor character named Emila is frankly the moral and upright character in the book, risking her life to save people she doesn't know simply because it's the right thing to do) and bad Arcanics. Even our bad guys for the most part show positive emotions like love and affection. Which only highlights the terrible effect that racism has on both sides have when you see characters be loving and gentle and then turn into cold blooded torturers because they've decided their target isn't a person and has no rights. What underscores for it me is that this has all been deliberately stoked and fed (there are repeated mentions in the book how Arcanics and Humans were once much closer as little as 3 generations ago) so a small elite group of women can have an excuse to use fellow sapient beings as fuel. What I do like is this is never spelt out for the reader, you're not clubbed over the head with an Aesop as Ms. Liu seems to trust you can figure this out on your own once you've been informed of the facts.
The art is amazing, it's manga influence but avoids the excesses of the styles (just about everyone is drawn fairly realistically) and blends in a heavy influence of western style creating something rather lovely to the eye in my opinion. Ms. Takeda should be praised for her work. Additionally the writing is very well done, the characters have layers to their personalities, the dialogue is interesting with different characters having different speaking styles and the story is entertaining and manages to avoid being too predictable. I am constantly shown not told things and the setting is peeled back slowly and carefully. Folks, take notes this is how you do an epic fantasy in comic form. Ms. Liu was nominated for an Eisner for best new series and I think she earned that nomination. Monstress by Ms. Liu and Ms. Takeda has earned itself an A. I'm already lined up for volume II which will be coming out this year. Next week, we’re going to back to the past to take a look at a certain red headed Ronin. Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.