Monstress Volume 1
Written by Marjorie Liu | Artist: Sana Takeda
At first glance, the protagonist on the cover of Monstress doesn’t look very monstrous at all. Maika is a beautiful young woman without horns or scales or anything denoting a monster nature. That’s sort of the point in this exploration of prejudice and feminism brought to us by writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda. The beautiful art deco style cover is immediately given a counterpoint in the first full page panel: Maika naked, a chain collar around her neck, a riding crop under her chin, and the revelation that her right arm from the elbow down is missing. On her chest is a tattoo of a vertical eye. This rather ugly reveal presents what will be the theme of the series, a beautiful ornate baroque world that is hiding a society built on violence against the Other.
My initial reaction to Monstress was the same sort of disorientation I’ve felt watching most anime or reading manga. There is this push deep into the world where the reader is expected to catch themselves up as they go. Western media typically lays things out in a very deliberate fashion so it takes a little configuring of the brain to get involved. The world of Monstress is built on the divide between humans and the Arcanic. The Arcanic are a mixed race species between humans and a sort of interpretation of East Asian demons and animal spirits. Many Arcanic look perfectly human, they might be hiding a pair of wings or a foxtail, but if found out to not be fully human they lose all rights. Arcanic are part of a massive slave trade and some are even harvested for their essence called Illium.
Chief among the enemies of the Arcanic are The Cumea, a faction of female witches that are more like the Vatican than a coven. They have unlimited wealth and some even appear to be what I would consider Arcanic but avoid that label because they have power. An event occurred prior to the series, a great battle between the Arcanic and the Cumea that left some of these witches scarred by magic energies. They desperately want revenge for this transgression and it seems our hero, Maika is tied deeply to this past conflict.
There are very few male characters in the series and not a single one is in a position of power. All authority is held by women on both sides of the conflict. I particularly enjoyed how there is no sense of unity among the women of the two sides. They are truly human in that the concepts of tribalism and the Other are still going strong. How they choose to deal with problems comes from a different perspective but the hatred of the Cumea for the Arcanic is white hot and unflinching.
The growth of Maika is the focus of the series. She starts single-minded and willing to let the innocent die if it means she gets closer to her goal of revenge. As she spends time with other characters she has a conflict with her inner nature and by the end of the first arc, she has learned the value of compromise. Her two companions, Kippa, an Arcanic with fox like attributes and Master Ren, a clever and witty cat, feel like paper thin characters. I was reminded of some forgotten animes that featured characters just for the cuteness appeal. There are hints at deeper levels and a rich history to the villains in The Cumea but it’s not explored very deeply in this first arc.
The pace of the series is very quick. We jump right into the story and hit major plot points every issue. There’s never a point where things feel dull or we lose momentum. You wouldn’t be blamed if you start to lose focus on what the larger conflicts are. The politics are so dense it can be overwhelming at points and it would have been nice to have the history of the world disseminated in a little more palatable manner. Each issue ends with mini “lectures” on some point of history in the world but I never found myself interested in reading these long passages of text when I was more interested in the core story.
Monstress is a very enjoyable first chapter in what looks to be a long sprawling saga. I think in hindsight, once the complete story is published, going back and reading these early issues will feel less challenging. The artwork alone is a great reason to pick up the book, it is so full of detail and movement. If you’re interested in jumping head deep into a complex and complicated new world give Monstress a chance.