At the heart of Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda's brilliant new comic Monstress exists a simple question: How do we survive?
Living can feel automatic. It's something we don't often stop to think about, to the point where we don't even notice the compromises we've made or the invisible armor we've outfitted ourselves with to get through the day. Actually thinking about our own survival can mean tapping into our most intimate fears.
That tenuous space between survival and terror is where Monstress lives. It's a comic book with mud in its blood, unafraid to be a swirling epic as well as a ghastly dark fantasy.
Maika, the protagonist, has something fearsome — a monster — inside of her. It threatens to consume her, but it also helps keep her alive. And perhaps the most powerful element of this story is the realization that she — and we — might not be that different from that monster.
Monstress is a brutal story about surviving a war
Liu and Takeda whisk us to the magical steampunk city of Zamora, a world that is as heinous as it is dazzling. Everything is silk, peacock feathers, royal purples, and golds. But underneath the opulence, there's a gruesome slave trade afoot. Maika threatens to make this world crumble.
"She has survived a cataclysmic war. She has been dehumanized. She is a little bit broken," Liu tells me at New York Comic Con. For a second, I can't tell if we're talking about Monstress's protagonist or someone in Liu's life.
The inspiration for this comic, Liu says, was her grandmother and her experience during World War II. Liu is half-Chinese, and her grandmother escaped Japanese occupation as a 14-year-old.
For those who live in the United States, WWII is defined by its major events: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which eventually led to the detonation of the atomic bomb), the Holocaust, the Normandy D-Day landings. What often gets lost in the valley between are stories of the Japanese occupation of China and other Asian countries — in particular, the Japanese army's murderously cruel treatment of women in those countries, many of whom were kidnapped and turned into "comfort women," a too-quaint euphemism that betrays the disgusting aspects of sexual slavery, violence, and trauma these women were subjected to.
Liu's grandmother was lucky to escape this fate. But many women — an estimated 200,000 — were not.
"All the photographs — my memories of her — in all the photographs I saw of her after the war, she always has this beaming smile on her face," Liu says. "And then you see these other people — they go through war." She pauses. "They are never the same. And I don't think she was ever the same."
The opening pages of Monstress reflect the grimness of Liu's inspiration. Readers are plunked down into a plush and sun-soaked living room that's hosting a heinous slave trade. Maika is nude except for a chained collar. We don't know how she got there or how she survived. All we see are bidders ogling her body, picking apart her appearance.
It's here that Liu connects the grisly bits of WWII to the bones of present-day society. She plays with the idea of ownership, the idea that women are never in control of their own bodies. The way every inch of Maika's body echoes the way modern American society critiques and quantifies women's appearances.
But Liu's Maika isn't naive. She's aware of the system — war has taught her this much — and ready to turn it on its head.
"I wanted to start the book in that way, with us seeing her totally exposed, totally naked, but not vulnerable," Liu said. "She is fully in control, and knows what she's getting herself into. And she's got her strength."
Monstress's art is as gruesome as it is gorgeous
There's some strange, brilliant alchemy going on between Liu and Takeda. Takeda conjures up a world so dynamic, there are moments where you can almost hear the clink of metal gears fighting against one another in the background, and swear the pages are laced with hints of opium and vetiver.
Monstress is sheer fantasy. There is nothing small or subtle about it. And Takeda is up to the task, building something that looks like a cross between a fairy tale and a Final Fantasy video game.
Takeda's art is at its best in its extremes. This world is as beautiful as it is brutal, and the way she tackles Zamora's hulking architecture, laden with flying buttresses and vaulted domes, is breathtaking. The same goes for the way she unflinchingly depicts the world's ugliness — the feral violence, the blackish blood, the fleshy bulge of a dead carcass — with no detail spared.
Both Takeda and Liu demonstrate a bone-deep knowledge of, and holy respect for, the book's characters. The two also seem to have a telepathic bond when it comes to translating these characters from text to image and back again. Every once in a while you get a bond between writer and artist that feels effortless. Liu and Takeda have found it.
Quite simply, Monstress is one of the most ambitious, gorgeous comic books of 2015.
Monstress is unapologetically political, but it also transcends that
Pop culture's fascination with monsters lurking underneath the skin of women isn't new. But they tend to follow the same premise. The women are all fragile ingénues, and the monster manifests itself through sex. Teeth, Jennifer's Body, and, more recently, Ex Machina all come to mind.
With these movies, there's a distinct sense that female empowerment is directly tied to women being in charge of their sexuality. But at the same time, those movies paint women's sexuality as dangerous. This power is steeped in female vindication, where the tables are turned and men become victims.
Monstress isn't interested in that story.
There is no patriarchy in Monstress, yet this world is still ugly and craven. Powerful women — witches in this first issue — have become oppressors, cheats, and rulers. Powerful women are also this world's heroes, warriors, and last hopes. The lack of socialized gender disparity allows Liu to implement a grand design that shows off different shades of masculinity and femininity, ugliness and beauty, power and violence. There are no tidy answers here.
As we go deeper into this world, Monstress begins to unfurl its wings and turn into a bright social commentary. At its core, this story is one that constantly questions the idea of villainy. Monsters aren't what they seem, but the people living in this world don't see the truth. Maika herself doesn't understand it. But Monstress cuts right through them, leaving us and the evil witches as the only ones who know there's something more going on here.
It comes back to the word "monstress" and who's saying it. It's hard not to think of "monstress" as a synonym for "feminist," alluding to the fear some women (and men) have of calling themselves one. Stigmatizing a word — whether it's "monstress" or "feminist" — is a way to control it and, in turn, control people.
"The ways that women are corralled, the ways they are diminished — it doesn't require a huge leap of the imagination," Liu says, pointing out the recent political battle against Planned Parenthood. "Women must always be vigilant about protecting our rights and protecting our bodies, because so much in this society has been shaped around controlling us and judging us."
There are times when Monstress feels like a battle cry. That it asks questions about identity, gender, and femininity in such a stylish and mordantly entertaining fashion is a testament to Liu and Takeda's immense talents. But as sleek as this comic book is, it's the savagery in its bones that makes it sing. Monstress isn't satisfied with entertaining; its desire is to haunt. It's undoubtedly one of 2015's best comics, but it also might be the year's most ruthless.