Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Letterer: Russ Wooton
Review by Jeremy Bauer
“Monstress” is one of those books that affects your body as you read it. Your breathing shallows, pupils dilate, and your nerves send tiny ripples throughout your body as though you’re a pond being disturbed. This is what art does to the body when it’s operating at high levels. Like your favorite painting or a great song, it keys into you and unlocks a depth you might be afraid of. It shakes you, moves the stiffness from you, leaving a renewed vibrancy in its wake.
Written by Marjorie Liu (“X-23,” “Astonishing X-Men”) with art by Sana Takeda (“X-23″ with Liu, “Ms. Marvel”), “Monstress” takes place during a stalemate in a war between humans and magical beings, referred to in the book as “Arcanics.” We’re introduced to this world during an auction of Arcanics to wealthy, powerful humans. One such Arcanic being auctioned is the protagonist, Maika, a 17-year-old girl with a brand of a vertical eye on her chest missing half of her left arm.
The power of “Monstress” lies partially in its juxtaposition between vulnerability and strength. The first page of the book shows Maika naked with a collar around her neck as the auctioneer describes her to potential buyers. While a character would normally appear very vulnerable in such a situation, there is an anger and strength in Maika’s eyes. Somehow she appears to be in control.
The world of “Monstress” is fairly solidified in the first few pages of the book. The combination of Maika’s inner monologue and Takeda’s art establishes the time period, the uneasiness of the stalemate, provides information about each side of the war, and shows the various kinds of monsters that emerge during wartime; from opportunists to sadists, and to those created when surviving trauma means risking a dangerous metamorphosis.
The story moves to exploring the Cumaea, an entire faction of monsters of the opportunist and sadist categories. A quick Wikipedia search of “cumaea” reveals an allusion to the ancient Greek colony Cumae, which was said to have contained an entrance to the underworld, an oracle, and the Cumaean Sybil—a priestess in charge of the oracle. The Cumaea in “Monstress” are referred to as nuns and witches, and appear to be aligned with the humans studying their enemy, the Arcanics. The allusion to ancient Cumae helps to paint the Cumaea as bridging the gap between the magical world and the human world while exploring how such a bridging of worlds could be accomplished and why. In the case of the Cumaea, studying the Arcanics seems to be strictly in the service of understanding and attaining their power.
As the reader learns about the horrors the Cumaea, especially Lady Sophia, inflict on Arcanics in their pursuit of power, we get flashbacks of Maika’s life just one month prior. This is when the narrative’s intricacy becomes apparent. As Maika’s demeanor betrays earlier in the story, she has a plan and is much more dangerous than she first appears.
Maika accepted a sort of monster-hood in order to survive various effects of the war. Her physical and supernatural manifestations mask somewhat the true change that occurred in Maika. It isn’t the new power and hunger she experiences that is changing her—it’s the hunger that already existed, that caused Maika to seek new power that’s changing her, as well as the decisions influenced by this hunger that reach up out of the belly of extreme loss and anger.
The characterization that occurs for Maika between the flashbacks and the present-day narrative is a beautiful bloom, organic and intricate, with each page and panel working as part of an efficient machine. The hints regarding who Maika is, where she’s come from, and why she’d orchestrate her entrance into the evils of the Cumaea compound are subtle, avoiding the common pitfalls of the narrative sounding unnaturally vague or guarded. Every clue, plot detail, and literary device is carefully placed, which makes the story flow like a wild dream.
Keeping in kind with Liu’s profound and superb storytelling is Takeda’s art. Takeda strikes a perfect balance between the macro and micro, making the constructed world of “Monstress” seem vast, just short of overwhelming, and personal at the same time.
The art deco design details with the repeating image of a vertical eye loom the story over you like a black light. But instead of Jerry Bears and cartoonish mushrooms, what glows in the light is an ominous monster of loss and rage. Takeda’s use of light and darkness is divine, heightening the danger and mystery of the story with well-placed soft glows and murky shadow. Each character and setting appears ornate, though washed over so that it looks as if it’s part of the character/scenery/object instead of a mashup of tacked-on details.
The art of “Monstress” makes we wish I had studied art so that I could give it all the proper credit. If there are any artists out there that feel up to the task of critiquing comic book art, please start reviewing comics. It’s very much needed.
This first issue of “Monstress” is large, totaling 71 pages (about 3 to 3 ½ issues worth). It’s big enough for the reader to learn about the villains, even see a few of them fall, and learn enough about the rich history of the world within the book while leaving the reader with enough mysteries to get them fevered for the next issue. There are a few jokes and some great action scenes…
….that make the comic fun without taking away from the story. The book leaves you scarred for the better, as it is filled with profound ruminations on war and the unique kind of loss it imparts.
It isn’t every day that a comic comes that moves me in such a way that it’s hard to speak. Liu and Takeda have created such a book. I usually try not to be so reverent for a work, but this creative team hasn’t given me any choice. My joke-hole is frozen in great awe. Please give them all the prizes.
And lastly, to all comics creators: please create more comics where both the heroes and villains are women. The stories can still be great. I think we’ve had enough of the dude parades.
RATING: 10 out of 10
Release date: November 4, 2015