Have you heard about Montress yet? The gorgeous and dark graphic novel written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda? Originally published by Image Comics in November of 2015, it is an ongoing saga set in a world ravaged by war and prejudice, with an almost exclusively female cast.
Monstress- darkly wondrous, as swift and violent as the cutting blade, as shadowed and uncertain as a storm at sea. Richly illustrated, intelligently written and a pleasure to read and study, these comics have a lot to offer, and there is much to take away.
At the start of our narrative we are introduced to Maika as she is sold into slavery. She is full of anger and resentment for a world that has left her with nothing, not even both her hands. But it is not just her story, for as it unfolds we are shown the world from multiple angles, witnessing the intrigue, politics, and festering hate that fuels the warring factions…
We are presented with a land as heavily flawed as our own, if not more so. This is a tale of a people at war as much as it is a story of a girl searching for answers to her past. We are presented with various propaganda from either side of the fight, and witness atrocities committed with willful ignorance of their own cruelty. Not even our protagonist Maika is free of anger and prejudice, and conducts herself much more as an antihero then not, but that does not mean you cannot feel sympathy for the person she is, and who (or what) she is becoming.
It would be a tale almost too dark to continue to read, especially when you look up from the page and see it’s horrors reflected in real life. But there is some humor, some redeeming moments, and little flashes of light in the darkness, most of which are carried by the supporting protagonist, Kippa. A young Arcanic with similarities to a fox, she is there to be the conscious for a world that has no interest in having one. I felt as though she was a voice for the reader to have within the narrative, she looks at the world with a child’s eyes, and her innocence and belief in the basic good of others is much needed in a story where you can never tell who is lying, who is betraying who. She protests what I would protest, she is afraid where it is logical to be afraid, she is loyal and curious and bold in her own way, and she is a wonderful balance to Maika and the darkness she carries within.
For at the heart of this story is a girl becoming a women with a shadow inside her, she carries an embodiment of anger, of guilt and shame that we know little about, much like the nuances of emotions that keep one up in the small hours of morning; Years of regret and pain and a fierce hunger for something more, something good, something that lies well beyond the shadowed walls we let others build around us. There is a monster inside Maika, gifted to her by her mother, by her past, and in it I see a reflection of the darkness we all carry within us. This violent, dark thing that wants to lash out, to tear and devour till there is nothing left. In some ways we carry the monster, for it does not define us, but sometimes we are the monster, for it is part of who we are.
At times a difficult story to read, I feel like it is nonetheless an important one. It is never easy to read of hate and cruelty, prejudice and pride, but it is a way to arm yourself against such things- to remember that kindness and compassion are our most important important shields. It is easy to turn to anger and fear, but true bravery is rising from the fall to carry on for another day.
Marjorie Liu has given us a tale of women who pursue their own interests, regardless of the consequence. On occasion I found myself wishing for a little more thoughtfulness, or at least some self awareness as to how far the moral standards of the various factions have fallen. After two volumes I can see no end to the conflict, and frankly I’m not sure that’s the point of the narrative. Will Maika be made whole again? Will the world? How can one women end years of learned hatred within herself, let alone entire peoples? I hope for her sake, and her worlds, that she can, because I see a reflection of a our own world in hers, where hope is dwindling with each passing day.
I would like to note before I wrap this up that Sana Takeda has given us some of the most gorgeous and detailed art I have ever seen in comics or graphic novels. Every page is dense with detail, every nuance of emotion spectacularly displayed, the environments rich with character. The art was what originally attracted me to the comic, and it never disappoints. As for the layout itself, the panels are clear and well organized, and the dialogue easy to follow. There were a couple of times I felt like I had missed some earlier piece of information that might have clarified a part of conversation, but for the most part everything made sense.
Final Conclusion: If you like gorgeous art and a richly realized world then you should read this. If you like seeing women who know how to fight and are unapologetic in their emotions then you should read this. If you like an interesting and nuanced plot with fascinating details and lands that feel vast and wild then you should read this. And if you like complicated characters with layers of mystery and motivation, then you should read this.
(This review is for the first two volumes of Monstress, which include issues one through twelve)