Having had the chance to learn under Marjorie Liu herself, I jumped into Monstress without a moment’s hesitation. Although we live in a time more open to issues of race and sexuality than ever before, very rarely do we see a story like that of the vengeful Maika. According to the writer, the series looks to answer loaded question such as “How does one whom history has made a monster escape her monstrosity?” Through the frame of a deeply-rooted interspecies conflict set in an alternate Asia of the 1900s, Liu explores the many costs that come with war – one of them being the burden of prejudice, of “monstrosity.” Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s combination of brutal storytelling and beautiful artwork do well to get these ideas across in an otherwise unfamiliar world.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Trigger Warning: Monstress contains explicit language, nudity, and violence.
In order to fully understand Monstress, I had to give each issue a couple of reads. But one thing that resonated without a problem was the marginalization of the beast-like Arcanics. Issue #1 – triple the size of the other issues – is jam-packed with world-building. From the first page, we are introduced to a nude, one-armed Maika being sold to a clan of witch-nuns. It turns out that her species is mercilessly harvested for their precious “Lilium,” an energy source with life-giving properties.
Slavery and torture are but a few of the evils committed by the human capital Zamora. To the credit of Liu and Takeda, these horrors are portrayed in raw detail. Once she is brought into Zamora, our heroine is quickly locked away with other Arcanics. Flashbacks are interwoven throughout the main plotline, revealing to us Maika’s old friend Tuya and her encounters with “dead gods” alike. It is implied that an encounter with said gods led Maika to develop powerful abilities – and an insatiable hunger to boot.
After witnessing the grotesque dissection of an Arcanic by witch-nuns, the reader is further shaken by Maika’s jailbreak. A massacre, “Constantine,” is also mentioned in passing; this incident is fleshed out in the next two issues. With the help of her “monstrosity,” the half-Arcanic kills her captors and confronts the big bad in charge, Yvette Lo Lim. The twist? The woman was involved in a certain excavation and subsequently, the death of Maika’s mother, Moriko Halfwolf. While a lot of YA fiction these days tend to feature angsty protagonists and dystopian societies, Monstress sets itself apart by remaining grounded in unglorified racial conflict. Failing to get the answer she desires, Maika murders Yvette and obtains a mysterious mask fragment from her chambers. The arc finishes strong with Maika, the fox Arcanic Kippa, and a talking cat, Ren, escaping Zamora – only for our heroine to collapse, overwhelmed by the mask’s power. Ren has the honor of closing the issue with an appropriately placed expletive.
Needless to say, it was the perfect end to such a twisted, heart-pounding debut.
Issue #2 starts off with the aftermath of Maika’s killing spree in Zamora, her handiwork being investigated by the ruling Mother Superior’s Inquisitrixes. First of all, I have to say that the three women’s designs are fantastic. They are a no-nonsense team who show little to no regard for Arcanics nor witch-nuns. The investigation ends with the Mother Superior reviving Yvette, hoping to get information out of her.
We then switch to Maika and crew, learning more about the former’s past as well as the current state of her new abilities. The half-Arcanic continues to struggle with her inner demons, only to be confronted by an Inquisitrix in the midst of a hallucination. Her arm proceeds to erupt into a swarm of monstrous tendrils – a manifestation of her rage.
We witness the outcome of this showdown in Issue #3, the narrative quickly refocusing itself to a conversation between the Mother Superior and Yvette. The pair discuss the latter and Moriko’s excavation of forces better left buried, leaving the reader with more questions than answers. Soon afterwards, Maika, Kippa, Ren, and the pacifist who is helping them out are attacked by soldiers. Knocked unconscious during the brawl, Maika experiences a dream in which her mother speaks to her. The story shifts from action to reflection, and vice versa. Our heroine awakes and escapes with Kippa – riding a unicorn out of all creatures – and spots a “dead god’ in the distance. Is this god a sign of more terror to come? Only time will tell.
Considering the fact that Monstress is Liu’s first comic book series outside of her work with Marvel, I can appreciate how ambitious it is. However, the cast of Issue #1 alone was too large for me to get a grasp of each character. The worldbuilding – though rich – also felt scattered at times. While I could have done with more clarity and less expletives, there are plenty of good things about the comic. With diverse character designs, well-written conflict, and an unconventional heroine with agency to spare, the epic journey of Maika is one you should definitely check out.