It’s taken me a while to figure out how I feel about Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s savage Monstress. In all honesty, I’m still not sure how I feel. But maybe that’s the mark of a groundbreaking comic.
Marjorie Liu (Author)
Sana Takeda (Artist)
Monstress takes place in the aftermath of a war in an East Asian-influenced fantasy setting, with slavery, famine, mutilation, and—most horrifically—medical experiments on living beings. An atmosphere of visceral fear and hunger pervades the comic from the start, which is pretty disturbing, but it is what you need if you’re talking about the effects of post-war devastation on oppressed people.
The beauty of Sana Takeda’s art at first belies that savagery, which makes it all the more upsetting—almost as though the privileged, heartless antagonists see their world through Takeda’s delicate aesthetic, whether they’re trading witticisms in ornate parlors or dismembering enslaved children. It’s a welcome distancing from the horror, too, so that readers don’t entirely turn away in revulsion but rather stay on board until the end of the issue.
What also stands out immediately is the absence of cultural fetishization from Monstress‘s world. As mentioned in previous posts, having an Asian-American woman on author duties and a Japanese woman on art allows Asian (or Asian-influenced) stories to be told through Asian women’s voices. In practice, this means no nonsense about the mysticism/enlightenment/primitivism/sexy murder geishas of the East, no appropriation in the pursuit of showing off erudition or the one time that the creative team watched a samurai movie marathon on TV. The Asian aspects of the setting are instead a casually accepted yet integral part of the characters’ world, implying that they have as much right to exist as any other cultural influences.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a woman’s world. The lead characters and most of the supporting cast are women or girls, with only a few male characters appearing as children and expendable palace staff. The individuals who drive the plot, who fight for freedom, who conduct medical/magical experiments on slaves, who sacrifice themselves for greater causes, who start wars and establish truces—in short, who make things happen—are all female. It’s a foregrounding of female agency that repudiates the obligation on women to be role models of “good” behavior by emphasizing their individuality.
Speaking of the story: the plot rests on some fairly complex background, with the high councils, fancy names for different races, witchy religious orders, etc. that are common features of contemporary fantasy. The first issue’s sixty-six pages gives these elements some room to breathe, but I hope their complexity will be broken down a bit more in subsequent issues. However, the intricacy of the plot isn’t what makes Monstress a much-needed addition to the comics market.
It’s the chance to see female characters demonstrating courage and evil and selflessness and bad judgement and more in a space that gives them the freedom to simply be individuals. It’s the power of a story like this being told by Asian women. It’s the affirmation of our voices, our potency, our right to be part of comics.