A while ago, when I read the first issue of Monstress, I could barely put into words what I was feeling. It was a 66-page issue of novelistic storytelling, bold and daring in its choices, and perhaps the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen Image Comics produce… and, let’s be real, some of the best-looking comics ever have come from Image in the past decade and a half. I couldn’t believe that Monstress could be that good, with artwork that matched and even one-upped its intricate covers… so I did what any sane person would do. I stopped reading it right then and there. I collected the single issues to support the series, but I fought my hunger to read them – I wanted to take in more of the story, all at once, and truly live in this intricate, dangerous world created by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda for a longer period of time.
Now, I’ve finally read Monstress Volume One and Two, which collect the first twelve issues of the series. Was it worth the wait?
Hell yeah, it was.
Monstress follows Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic (half-human, half-godlike Ancient), who lives in an alternate version of our world torn apart by war. Humans, led by a sect of witch-nuns who are called the Cumaea, warred with the Arcanics before falling into an uneasy stalemate, but the effects of their conflict still poison their world to this day. Maika is a living weapon, trained by her late mother to kill without hesitation, and it is through Maika’s eyes that we see this world. Joined by Kippa, a young Arcanic who looks like a fox, and Master Ren, an orange cat with two tails. Also joining Maika, which causes her some rather horrific problems, is the demonic elder god who has taken residence in the stump where her arms used to be.
Marjorie Liu is a veteran novelist of fantasy, and that shows in the scope and pacing of Monstress, making it an utterly unique read. A majority of the epic fantasy I’ve read in comics has a “Wouldn’t it be cool if _____?” vibe to it, which I appreciate greatly, but Monstress is unique in its world-building. I would call it Tolkien-esque in its attention to detail and range, but the truth is that even with her expansive mythology unfolding before us, all of Liu’s writing is centered around character. Through encountering the various unique friends and foes of this world, each beat of story exists to delve deep, bone deep, into what makes the characters tick. Even the monster living within Maika has an emotionally compelling arc in the second volume!
Sana Takeda’s art is, as I mentioned before, some of the most beautiful work I’ve seen in comics, full stop. Each page is gorgeous, intricately detailed, colored with lush attention to character and atmosphere. A cursory look at any page in Monstress will illustrate just how incredible Takeda’s art is, but what impressed me most was the balance. Takeda marries a manga style with a painterly style that nods to American superhero comics and coloring that makes me think of a brooding, stylish horror film. Within these pages, we see sword-wielding cats, adorable hybrid-children with shining eyes drawn almost chibi style, eldritch horrors spilling from the limbs of young girls, pirate adventures, anthropomorphic creatures of all kinds, and so much more. Realism blends with stylized art seamlessly in a way that… well, honestly, it feels like magic. That’s the feeling that I leave Monstress with – it’s absolute creative magic that this book works as well as it does.
I fully believe that the best examples of what comics can be are realized when writers and artists create their own stories, on their own terms, without any limitation holding back their ideas. Monstress is just that – a story that reaches past what has been done in comics and breaks through something new. There is nothing like Monstress in this medium or any other, and I consider myself lucky to witness this utterly unique story unfold.
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