I picked up a copy of Monstress because I liked the look of the artwork—a mixture of art-deco-influenced steampunk and manga—and I was intrigued by the storyline. It’s set in an alternate version of Asia in the 1900s where humans, animal-hybrids called Arcancs, and other magical races, inhabit the world. And Neil Gaiman calls it “a beautifully told story of magic and fear”. This was enough to convince me to give it a try.
The writer, Marjorie Liu, is the author of several comics, including X-23, Black Widow, Dark Wolverine, and Astonishing X-Men. She has been nominated for a GLADD Media Award for outstanding media images of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. The illustrator, Sana Takeda, worked on X-23 and Ms. Marvel for Marvel Comics.
In a post-war society, Arcanics are hunted and sold into slavery by the Federation of Man. The Cumaea, powerful witch-like humans, dissect the Arcanics for a lillum, a substance that is only produced in their bodies. Maika Halfwolf, a 17 year old Arcanic, survived the war and found that she possessed a powerful magical ability that she does not understand—one that only comes out when she is in mortal danger. She chooses to sell herself into slavery in order to infiltrate a Cumean stronghold, free the other slaves, and gain a measure of revenge against the witches. While enacting her plan, Maika encounters fragments of an ancient and powerful mask that even the witches fear. The mask, it seems, is part of her history and her second contact with it radically changes her life. Now she is on the run from her own people as well as the Cumaea and does not know who to trust, or how to control the power growing inside of her.
Providing everything from the pencil sketches to the colors, Takeda’s artwork is stunning. The mise-en-scène on each page is an absolute marvel. A reader could get lost simply gazing at the intricate backgrounds. It provides a good grounding for the story world that Liu has created.
And the world is complicated. It would be easy to get lost in the story-threads. But Liu does not lead the readers through the story by the hand, although the lectures at the end of certain chapters by Professor Tam Tam, former First Record-Keeper of the Is’Hami Temple and Learned Contemporary of Namron BlackClaw, help to fill in any gaps. (Yes—he’s a magical talking kitty with four tails. Don’t let that throw you.) Instead there is a deliberate progression through scenes and situations that let the story (and the world) unfold slowly. This helps present the world more as a living mythology rather than a cardboard setting where events simply take place. There is a nuance to each scene that leads readers deeper into the mythology and creates a sense that this is a real place with a definite history.
Monstress has a unique structure, epic battles, and an intriguing storyline. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys steampunk, horror, and dark fantasy. Some of the artwork is graphic in nature, so I would recommend caution for the younger crowd. This comic is definitely meant for adults.