My god! It’s some words! It’s a plane! It’s a REVIEW!
I picked up the first two issues of Monstress (Image) from Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda and Russ Wooton because Gail Simone told me to and I basically just do whatever she says.
MONSTRESS, by @marjoriemliu is a damn revelation. I will keep yelling until everyone buys it! Next…
— GAIL SIMONE (@GailSimone) November 17, 2015
With such a stellar rec, I expected good things–and I got them.
Monstress tells the story of Maika Halfwolf, a war survivor with a mysterious and terrible power that she has yet to fully understand. Maika is dead set on revenge and the first two issues follow her as she begins to exact it, slaughtering everyone in, and then exploding, the headquarters of her sworn enemies, a group of witch-nuns known as the Cumaea. It’s as grizzly as it sounds, but the art and world building create an environment that Comicosity calls “uncomfortable and mesmerizing all at once”–it keeps you turning pages as much as it makes you flinch.
In the back of the hefty first issue, Liu explains how Maika and the world of Monstress came from a need to tell a story of surviving aftermath, how being a survivor isn’t just getting through the event but navigating life after as well. Part of that navigation is the struggle with “a rising monstrousness within,” she says.
Survivors of trauma frequently find themselves on one side of an every day person vs self narrative–be that the fight with depression, rage, anxiety, or otherwise. In Maika’s case, her internal conflict is these things made tangible in the form of an incredibly hungry demon force that has some kind of symbiotic relationship with her. Maika can’t figure out how to work this power to her advantage but knows enough to turn it against the Cumaea when the time comes.
Monstress doesn’t pull any punches. It is gory, brutal and honest in its depictions of a war-torn world ravaged by prejudice and slavery. The first page of the first issue is a naked, chained Maika up for auction–a rough opener for any reader. As the story continues, Maika lights some people on fire right after those characters finish up dissecting and dismembering what had previously been an adorable baby cyclops–the cries and pleas of which readers are privy to just a few pages earlier.
This is usually the type of territory that can get gratuitous or unnecessary very quickly but what Liu and Takeda do correctly is create gravity. Anytime a fictional slave trade is used as a crux of a created society it’s necessary to keep it from becoming background justification. By taking a microscope to the dehumanization, readers are left incredibly uncomfortable–you want it to end as you should.
In addition to the weight, Monstress has a balance. Between scenes of blood and destruction are scenes with Maika and her friend Tuya as they travel the beautiful country outside the wall–moments made all that more spectacular by Takeda’s artistic prowess. Additionally, we get a little comic relief in the form of conversations with a sass-mouthed, two-tailed cat who later ends up being an important ally. By allowing readers to breathe with Maika they are also allowed to see her tender side–an important and grounding aspect of a character who could otherwise very easily stray into two-dimensional “Strong Female Character” territory.
Monstress made me take a minute. This is not a story that can be slammed through or binge read and I think that alone stands in testament to the success of the creative team’s overall mission to tell a story of survival. That kind of goal is complex and time consuming and it’s important that the reader is able to stumble through and wrestle with the content just as the character wrestles with their own narrative. It’s some damn good storytelling and I am both wary and incredibly excited to read the upcoming issues.