‘Monstress’: An Instant Classic

monstress_04_covIn the course of a year a lot of good comics, bad comics and in-between comics come out. A few can lay claim to being the best comic of the year. But, far fewer transcend such labels and enter the realm of “classics.” When fans think of classics the first names that always seems spring forward are The Dark Knight Returns and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, both of which almost reinvented comics. Now, add to that short list Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress.

Any review of this phenomenal book is wholly inadequate to convey its depth and beauty. On the surface, Liu and Takeda seamlessly merge Western and Asian art and story into something unique and original. That in and of itself would have been enough. They didn’t stop there. Just as the Dark Knight Returns is no simple Batman story, Monstress is no simple fantasy.

With deft and nimble writing, Liu brings to life the story of Maika Halfwolf, who is fleeing simultaneously from and towards the horrors of war which have shaped her life. From the first page the reader is drawn into this complex world, and the story doesn’t let go.

The greatest proof of this came from my 14 year old son. As a rule, he only reads Valiant Comics, Usagi Yojimbo and Bone. He grabbed Image’s Monstress from my night table and read it in one sitting. His first comment after was, “Where’s the next volume?”

If this graphic novel reads more like a prose novel, there is a reason: Liu is an accomplished author, with 19 published novels and a string of novellas as well as her runs on Astonishing X-Men, Dark Wolverine and other Marvel titles. There is no doubt that she is an incredibly talented writer. Looks like I’ll be dipping into my son’s college fund tracking down her books.

When it comes to describing Takeda’s art, again words fail me.  She shows her Japanese heritage in the art, but this is no manga-style book. Personally, I take issue with the manga style which, for me, is devoid of beauty or originality. However, Takeda pulls the best of manga, mixes Western style and finishes it with something uniquely her own. The result is less comic book panels than lush, frame-worthy illustrations. In fact, thinking back on this book, my memory plays tricks and keeps trying to remember reading a quality bound novel with gorgeous full color illustrations.

Beyond her talent and eye for creating a scene with cinematic sensibilities, Takeda also knows how to convey real emotion. Many comic artists, with some notable exceptions, have difficulty drawing emotions in both face and body language. This is doubly true for non-human characters but Takeda pulls it off. Particularly effecting are the scenes between Maika and the wolf-child.

Since no colorist is listed, I have to assume that Takeda performed this task as well. Fortunately, modern technology has taken us away from the garish four-color process which dominated comics for much of its history. The art would have been blanched of life had the earlier process been used. Instead, Takeda was free to use colors as intended, to put life into the page while pulling the reader into it. She makes wise uses of muted earth colors. Even the blood, when spilt, is dark.

This is the first I’ve seen of Takeda’s work, and the publishers would collectively be fools if they are not racing to Japan to hire her for other projects.

Some reviewers have hailed this as a feminist novel, but that improperly creates the impression that this is a political book. It is not. Unlike Joanna Russ’s overtly and aggressively political science fiction novels of the 1970’s, Monstress is “feminist” the same way one of my favorite science fiction novels, Dreamsnake by the great Vonda McIntyre is. Both stories are about women. Back in the 1970s McIntyre was hailed for this innovation. It was rare to have a science fiction adventure novel feature a female protagonist. Moreover, the genders of the characters were treated as basically irrelevant. In other words, the characters were drawn without gender biases.

Here Liu does the same. As she explains on her website: “I wanted to reverse that and tell a story with five women for every one man, and not comment on it. There’s no virus that eradicated men; the book is just not about them. Instead there are a ton of women running around, ruling the world, making war, having adventures.”

Just as McIntyre’s book created comment so has Monstress. Again, Liu: what’s been interesting is seeing how surprised people are at the amount of female representation in the book. I knew there would be some commentary that Monstress has a lot of women—I wasn’t actually being deliberately naïve—but readers have been really taken aback. They keep saying it’s ‘bold territory’ that men aren’t the focal point, and this says to me that the only feminist stories we’ve been able to consume and tell are ones in which the patriarchy is still front and center. What has been made clear to me after seeing the response to Monstress is that we’ve basically accepted this civilizational lie about women that we don’t have agency, that women on average don’t make an impact on the world, that women aren’t really that important. 

It is depressing that people think what should be unremarkable, strong women who have taken control of their own destinies, has become a focus of comment, at least Liu has gotten people to talk about this elephant in the room.

However, this book needs to be read on its own merits and without preconceptions. This is a great achievement, and if there is any justice, years from now, when other titles have been forgotten, Monstress will continue to be hailed as the classic that it is.