Monstress is a creator-owned comic book series by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (artist). They had collaborated before on Marvel comics such as X-23. Having not regularly bought floppies since the late 90s, I had only been following comics sporadically while buying the odd TPB or graphic novel once in a while. I was only vaguely aware of Marjorie Liu and didn’t know Sana Takeda at all. When I first heard the premise for Monstress I was intrigued but what really convinced me to buy the floppies instead of wait for the TPB was Takeda’s art. It was really stunning and intricate. The first 6 issues are available as a TPB right now and Monstress #7 comes out next month. What follows are my thoughts, maybe not so much a review. There will be some minor spoilers.
This opening issue is triple-sized at 66 pages and I have no complaints about that. The cover is quite nice with a lot of intricate detail showcasing Maika, our protagonist. Let’s start with some brief story tidbits and characters.
Our first introduction to Maika is a shocking one. Right on the first page, she’s naked from just below the waist up with hair strategically placed. She has a collar and chain and little whip near her face. This isn’t going to be a pleasant story.
Sophie is the next character introduced, an obvious villain. We learn she is a member of the Cumaea and that Maika is an Arcanic. There’s also mention of a Federation and an Inquisitrix. Affiliations are a bit unclear at this point but it’s obvious that Arcanics and humans/witches are enemies. Maika’s thoughts appear in narration boxes, we quickly learn she’s deliberately allowed herself to be sold as a slave. Sophie is a human but also a witch-nun who experiments on Arcanics and extracts a substance called lilium, which apparently gives the witches their power. Maika along with other Arcanics are rounded up for Sophie in a city called Zamora. One of the archanics is Kippa who looks like a little fox girl. She ends up accompanying Maika later in the story.
Sophie’s mother, Yvette comes later in the story too. Yup, she is also an evil looking biatch. There is also mention of Constantine, it seems to refer to a war or a location where a war took place. It looks to be one of many running mysteries. Another significant mystery that’s started here is the circumstances surrounding the murder of Maika’s mother, Moriko, and Yvette’s involvement. Then there’s also the most prominent mystery of the monster or monstrum that resides inside Maika.
A couple of significant allies are also introduced in a sequence in the past, Maika talks with her best friend Tuya and a talking two-tailed cat named Master Ren about her plans. Both think Maika’s plans are crazy.
As expected for a triple-sized issue there are a lot of plots started, a lot of characters and none of it feels like a waste of space. It’s hard to follow on a first read partly because of the switching between the past and present but it makes more sense during a second read. There’s a lot of graphic violence and killing, decapitation, loss of limbs and all that fun stuff. It’s mostly dark and grim but there are small moments of humor that work nicely. As a first issue it does a good job of introducing the world and planting the seeds for various plots and mysteries. However, it does feel overwhelming at times. There are actually a few other characters that do appear again later on whom I have not mentioned in my summary of issue 1.
My recollection of the art was that it was a lot of green and brown but upon a second reading I noticed that different environment are given different color palettes, either predominantly red, green, blue or brown. The artwork by Takeda doesn’t disappoint. Panels of the luxurious interiors show tons of details as does a panel of the monster. Panel layouts are easy to follow.
These issues essentially cover a small arc. The cover of issue 2 show a character with what looks like a fox shaped mask but as far as I can tell, this character does not actually appear in this issue but later on in issue 4 so I’m not sure why this character is on the cover. A trio of inquisitrixes are introduced here fairly quickly (you’ll remember they got a one word mention in issue 1). They kill people and are at the service of the Mother Superior, who has a ranking higher than anybody we’ve seen so far. She’s there to find out about Maika and all the chaos she caused in issue 1 after escaping from Zamora. Maika also has a piece of a broken mask that has a connection to the Monster. The end of issue 2 also introduces us to a page of background info as recounted by professor Tam Tam, an old, scholarly looking cat and he has four tails! I had initially skipped these on my first reading but they are useful to read as they give some extra info, in this case, the city of Zamora that helps you better understand the current situation.
Issue 3’s cover features Kippa and Ren, I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that they will be fan favorites. It’s probably my favorite cover out of the six issues. There’s more direct interaction between Maika and the Monster. Ren seems to know more than he lets on. There’s more violence and gruesome loss of limbs. There’s also a flashback or dream where Maika talks to her mother who tells her a name that she should not forget.
Colors seem brighter here overall but that probably has more to do with the shift in location to the outdoors. Master Ren and Kippa add some much needed lightheartedness after a rather serious and relentlessly grim issue 1.
Issue 4-5 are mostly setup. We are introduced to the territory of the Arcanics. There’s some really nice art here. Corvin, a watchmen of the Dusk Court, is also introduced to Maika. The Dusk Court is on the Arcanics’ side although there is friction with some of the other Arcanic elders. The back of issue 5 gives a nice summary of the main races. There are Ancients, Humans, Arcanics (Half human/half Ancients who look like human/animal hybrids), cats and the old gods. In issue 6, Maika is trapped and some significant revelations are revealed about the Mother Superior, Tuya and maybe Constantine. I really like the cover of issue 6.
The most obvious thing you’ll notice is that most of the characters are women. It’s refreshing considering that in a lot of stories it’s usually mostly men and maybe one or two women in the main cast.
War and racism are strong themes although I’m not sure where the story is going with these themes. I don’t feel like anything really interesting has been covered in relation to them. The conflict, which seems to be based on the extraction of lilium from Arcanics reminds me a bit of the background history of the Final Fantasy 6 video game in which there was a war between espers and humans where humans captured espers and extracted magic from them to power their technology and eventually to create magically enhanced soldiers.
It seems like most characters are bad or straight-up evil, which makes the war/conflict kind of boring. I only find the relationship between the monster and Maika to be compelling. I do care about Kippa and Ren but we don’t know a lot about them yet.
I’m not entirely sure about the setting of the comic. Supposedly it’s meant to take place in an alternate version of ancient Asia but with fantasy & supernatural elements. So far, I don’t really see much East Asian influence. I like the artwork, which can be extremely detailed at times. And yet there haven’t been any fantasy elements that have really captivated me.
I’m not a fan of the rather colloquial language that’s used sometimes, usually by Maika or Ren. It can be funny but it feels out of place.
I will continue reading the next arc to see how I feel about it. There are many things to admire about Monstress but I feel like it’s lacking that unique spark or idea that really gets me to like a series.