War Is a Beast in 'Monstress #1'

Marjorie Liu's new comic deals with monsters in all their forms.


Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 66 pages
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Price: $4.99
Contributors: Sana Takeda (illustrator)
Publication date: 2015-1

At the end of the first issue of her newest comic, Monstress, Marjorie Liu writes that she was compelled to create the series through two inspirations: a longstanding mental image of a “battered young girl standing alone, absolutely furious, and behind her a battlefield that stretched for miles”, and the experiences of her grandparents in China during World War II.

For her grandparents, “surviving required a desire to live more powerful than any bomb or army” amidst starvation and violence during the Japanese occupation. The ultimate result was Liu’s desire to write a story about being a survivor of war and racial conflict; a story that asked the question, “How does one whom history has made a monster, escape her monstrosity?”

This is the scenario she has provided with Monstress, an expansive fantasy tale telling of a world in the aftermath of a grand, literal race war between humanity and a species of animal-human hybrids. While Liu’s world is vast, deep and oftentimes beautiful, she may have provided a bit too much of it to chew upon in this first issue.

The story tells of a one-armed young woman named Maika, who is one of the “Arcanic”, a race of “monstrous” beings whose appearances vary from completely human to animalistic. The comic opens with Maika being sold at an auction to a group of wealthy buyers, who seek to use the Arcanic for slavery and experimentation. Maika and three Arcanic children are sold to a science guild called the Cumaea, and are taken to the guild’s headquarters. Little are Maika’s captors aware, however, that this is exactly what she wants, as she’s seeking out the sorceress who killed her mother years ago.

The war-torn setting that Liu creates in the comic’s opening pages is at its best both engrossing and evocative. In describing her world, Maika narrates:

So much was destroyed during the war. And yet some cities rebuilt themselves as if nothing happened. Too bad people don’t rebuild themselves so easily.

The post-war prevalence of fear and hatred, and their part in fueling racism and xenophobia, are persistent themes in the comic, and should be all too familiar to anyone reading current headlines. Liu’s thematic focus and inspirations, however, are a show of how recurring a pattern such behavior and mindsets have been throughout history, and just how stubborn and unwavering they can be for years afterward.

The imagery of beings who are to some degree or another “monstrous” in appearance, for example, is an effective metaphor for the rampant dehumanization of anyone deemed, even if falsely, “the enemy”. To see Maika and her kind treated as such, and subjected to imprisonment and experimentation, is only made more disturbing with the knowledge that these exact kind of acts happened during World War II (i.e., Unit 731 in China) making Liu’s world less of a “fantasy” than one might think, and an effective representation of war and its lingering atrocities.

Maika’s state as a “monstress” also highlights the dehumanizing effect of such cruelty on the victims themselves, as Maika struggles with an inner, animalistic hunger, which seems to have emerged during her struggles in the war.

When we were slaves and starving, we once ate the contents of a dead boy’s stomach. We said it wasn’t like eating the boy. But now I know the truth. It was.

Maika’s period of hunger and her current, ravenous urges thoughtfully illustrate dehumanization as a tragic, self-perpetuating cycle at the hands of those who inflict it.

Where Liu’s script begins to get shaky, however, is the with the exposition. Several scenes in the book, such as one between Maika and Yvette Lo Lim, the woman who killed Maika’s mother, are heavy on explanatory dialogue, and tend to slow down the pace and engagement of the narrative. Instead of being gradually led into Liu’s world during these scenes, one instead feels swarmed with it, making some conversations feel like a chore. Given the book’s extra length of 66 pages, and the number of elements and plot lines introduced, it can feel like a lot to take in in one sitting.

The book might have been better off leaving some of these elements until later, or excluding some altogether. It highlights one of the inherent difficulties of world-building, particularly in comics: how to create an entire world, but introduce it piece by piece, so as to let the reader take it in.

In those moments when Liu’s world does step back and present itself, however, the results are often stunning. One of the plotlines includes an ancient race of titanic beings called the Monstra, whose ghosts supposedly still walk the earth.

In flashbacks to Maika and her little sister, Tuya, the girls are shown crossing a series of moorlands in the days just after the war. The scenery in these quiet moments, assisted by Sana Takeda’s detailed, manga-esque artwork, is beautifully illustrated. One panel in particular, in which the girls observe the ghost of a giant Monstra passing them by, is especially breathtaking, evoking imagery from the classically artful video game, Shadow of the Colossus. It’s these subtler, quieter moments in Liu’s script that speak the loudest.

Monstress #1 introduces an extensive, promising mythology to what could prove to be a memorable and poignant fantasy tale. So long as it doesn’t get too tied up in its own details, and allows the intricate, elegant world it presents to unfold itself, it could be another great fantasy epic for comics.


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