Readers know that I like comic books. But superhero comics have lost a lot of charm for me over the years, to the point where I actively seek out alternative stories. Monstress is the comic book I’ve been looking for.
This review is the first volume, sub-titled “Awakening.”
Monstress follows Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic, half human and half Ancient. She is a one-armed half-breed, an orphaned victim of a great battle that has led to an uneasy truce between humans and Arcanics. But humans don’t much care for non-humans. Captured Arcanics are sold off as slaves if they are lucky, and much worse if they aren’t. Maika has a secret that no one, not even herself, understands. It seems that everyone wants her for their own ends, alive or dead. But she has her own agenda, and she’s willing to risk everything for it.
That’s all I’ll say about the plot. On to everything else.
The setting for Monstress is a fully realized world filled with witches and warriors, powerful magic and talking cats. It’s part fantasy and part Steampunk, with a touch of horror, yet it feels wholly original. It’s also a dark and frequently disturbing tale. At the same time, it’s full of discovery, wonder, and mystery.
I am not familiar with Japanese artist Sana Takeda, but the world in Monstress is brought to life by her stunning artistic style that compliments the story in every way. Aesthetically, it’s hauntingly beautiful (which sounds like a cheap sound bite, but it’s true).
Considering that I like comics, I am somehow also not familiar with writer Marjorie Liu. But she pulls off some wonderful feats here. By their nature, comic books tend to move along at a clip that is often unable to sustain the buildup of both plot and character. I understand, space is money. Monstress manages to use the economy of space to develop complex characters, even minor ones. The plot doesn’t feel rushed, yet the author manages to fit in twists and turns and action and drama throughout, though everything feels natural to the story. This is a well-planned journey, which is essential in a graphic novel.
I’ve often lamented that comics have been geared towards adults for a while now – they’re almost all rated Teen or up, while comic book stores seem like the domain of kids. It feels like a contradiction (like how every video game now is for “hard-core” gamers). Really, though, comics have had adult storylines for decades. I think my issue was that for a while I came across a lot of sensationalism as opposed to storytelling: how much gore can you show, how much profanity can you have, how much nudity? Monstress is mature, yes, but it’s mature storytelling. There’s depth to the characters and meaning to their actions. Everything here fits; nothing feels extraneous.
Monstress is a work of pure imagination from start to finish. I have the second volume ready and waiting. If I could make you read this stuff, I would. I can only try to make you feel you’re missing out on something great.