Monstress is an ongoing critically acclaimed comic book series that follows the story of Maika Halfwolf, a seventeen-year-old Arcanic being, a mixed race of humans and humanoid animals with magic powers, called Ancients. She is also connected to a monster she’s trying to control, who manifests out of her amputated arm and eats live beings. The series follows Maika and her companions as she searches for answers to her past, present, and future.
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda introduce us to a fantasy steampunk world in volume one, filled with powerful matriarchal societies, terrifying monsters, a devastating war, dire consequences, and, of course, magic. Sana’s monsters are a horrifying, yet a perfect, contrast to the cutesy Arcanic children who live in horrid conditions of slavery. The art is a breathtaking blend of steampunk, art deco style, Victorian fashion, and terrifying creatures (think Kaiju) that takes place in an alternate 1900s Asia.
This is a comic book that puts the words diversity and inclusion into action, without sacrificing the goods. The cast is mostly women of color, although this series is not for the faint of heart. There are some deeply disturbing panels to match the dark themes of war, slavery, injustice, and identity. The ability to handle gore is a must.
The story begins with Maika being sold into slavery. She is chained, naked, and missing part of her left arm. There is a collar around her neck and a brand on her chest, yet she is still very much in control. She is not here by accident. Her identity as an Arcanic is questioned due to her human appearance. We learn Arcanic beings are considered monsters, an abomination of Ancients and humans mingling. They are the lowest tier in the racial hierarchy, however, their bodies possess a substance called lilium that the Cumaea, a society of human witches, harvest from them. Maika breaks out of prison, freeing her fellow Arcanics, and continues on her mission to find her truth.
She confronts the Cumaea, demanding answers yet finding more questions. During all this, there is a monster inside her who causes her to feed off of live beings. Maika struggles to control the beast, trying to find ways to quell the “hunger” as she calls it, all while being hunted herself by a number of societies looking for the Halfwolf.
Winner of five Eisner Awards, including Best Writer and Best Cover Art, Monstress Volume 1 raises the bar for comic books. It tells the real-world stories of women of color in the safe space of a fantasy realm, in a genre where we are told our stories don’t matter. Monstress is more than a comic book series. It is a groundbreaking storytelling experience that tells the world that diversity works. Not only does it work, it shatters records.
Marjorie and Sana continue to build a vast fantasy world that frames the conversation around tough issues. Issues 1-18 will soon be available in Monstress, Book One, a hardcover collection of the first three volumes. In order to fully grasp all the information and set a good foundation in the world, it is helpful to reread volume 1 (issues #1-6). The first read allows your eyes to soak in the pages. The second read is helpful for deep diving into all the themes.
The highly acclaimed Monstress is not perfect. It can be confusing at times, such as style choices with Professor Tam-Tam’s lore lessons. The word bubbles are meant to break up the big blocks of text, full of juicy lore information, but the choices of placement can seem odd. The depth of the world makes it hard to process all the information in the dialogue, and it does get confusing keeping track of all the different groups at first. The other thing is the use of regular swear words, like the f-bomb. A couple of the characters say it, including a cat named Master Ren, and it can feel out of place simply because it doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the dialogue. Not that there’s anything wrong with swearing, just in this specific case it dimmed the immersion a little bit.
Stylistic differences aside, Monstress is a must have for anyone who loves a good Godzilla story mixed with their steampunk badass women. A truly unique experience into what it means to struggle with identity in a world that is unfair and unjust. A ballad for women.