Generally speaking, I think that the fantasy genre frequently falls short when it comes to representing war. Which is weird, because grand conflicts and mighty armies and righteous battle are such foundational elements of this genre. Powerful magics represent powerful weapons, the forces of light battle the armies of darkness, everyday people become awesome warriors with amazing abilities. Fantastical imagined worlds reflect our human conflicts back at us, but the problem is that they’re often streamlined and sanitized as well as allegorized.
Marjorie Liu openly acknowledges this difficulty in her afterword to Monstress #1: “I don’t know anything about war, not having lived through one… What [my grandparents] endured [during WWII] I could scarcely imagine.” She’s talking about the extent to which war is not only essentially unknowable, but also essentially unrepresentable. You can’t invent a fictional version of war that accurately reflects its unimaginable horrors and never-ending aftermath. The worst things you can imagine—torture, slavery, genocide, systematic rape, apocalyptic weapons, human experimentation—probably don’t come even close to what people already routinely do to each other. Speculative fiction represents the farthest reaches of the human imagination, but the worst of warfare is literally unimaginable.
To her credit, Liu doesn’t really try to represent war through fantasy in Monstress. Yes, this is a fantasy story, and yes, it’s a story about war. But Liu’s fantastical worldbuilding isn’t about representing war itself, but representing its transformative effects on its survivors. She matter-of-factly imagines a conflict that reproduces and echoes the worst conflicts in human history, and then uses supernatural elements to represent the traumas of slavery, injury, and PTSD.
Liu also creates one of the most memorable new characters I’ve read in quite some time. Maika is a young girl who’s lived through a terrible war between her people and a race of witches known as the “Cumaea.” Maika is an “arcanic”—not a witch, but not exactly human, either. While the war and its horrors are nominally over, those horrors bleed over into “peacetime,” as the witches and humans bid for control over the animalistic arcanics and supernatural monsters that roam their world.
Monstress #1 starts as a fantasy about a victim seizing power back from her oppressors. She gets herself sold as a slave to the Cumaea in order to infiltrate their fortified city and confront the people who hurt hut and her family.
But this isn’t a simple revenge story. Maika is not just a victim but an otherworldly warrior with a psychic link to an almost god-like being. Maika plans to use her powers for revenge, but they’re not really her powers—she’s tapping into something that’s wholly out of her control.
This is a world full of fantastical elements—witches, magic, ghosts, weird science, talking cats. Liu invents an exotic vocabulary for her strange new world, vaguely referencing names, objects, and events that—for the time being, at least—she doesn’t fully explain. Meanwhile, artist Sana Takeda invents a visual vocabulary that’ll take your breath away. Her luxurious art deco interiors contrast with gothic libraries, windswept fields and barbaric dungeons. Her manga-influenced character design has an expressive range—she draws faces immobilized by childlike terror or twisting into monstrous wickedness and rage. Takeda’s “alternate 1900s Asia” settles in dreamy, muted colors—until it slides chillingly into pitch black shadow or erupts in orange flame. It’s an outwardly peaceful world teetering on the edge of an explosion.
It seems misleading to call Monstress #1 an “issue”—at over 60 pages, it’s big. And it kinda has to be, because the first issue has to cover a lot of ground. Obviously, there’s a ton of intense and ornate worldbuilding that has to happen very quickly. But this book doesn’t feel 60 pages long, because Liu tells the story with a kind of dreamy, poetic urgency. Especially in the first half of the issue, Liu and Sana Takeda tie their worldbuilding to stunning imagery—stunningly gorgeous or stunningly disturbing. Right from the first panel—a naked girl with a missing left arm, a strange mark on her chest, a chain around her neck, a crafty expression on her face—this is stuff that demands to be explained and dares you to turn the page.
The highlight of this the story is Maika’s triumphant victory as she breaks out of the witches’ dungeon. Her struggle to save herself and the other prisoners is interspersed with flashbacks to her desperate struggle to survive in the wilderness. Maika is a deeply scarred child of war, but her scars have turned her into something more than human. Her war-ravaged body is an instrument of unimaginable forces not entirely in her control. (Amazingly, this symbolism is just as good on the page as it is conceptually.)
The weakest part of this book happens towards the end, as it gets distracted by a lot of complicated backstory. Maika’s climatic confrontation with Yvette Lo Lim, the witch she seems to blame for all her troubles, only reveals a bunch of flashes and fragments that don’t add up to much—at least not yet. Sure, it’s a mystery that’ll keep you wondering all the way to issue #2. But the real tantalizing tease isn’t the exact details of the Battle of Constantine, or Yvette Lo Lim’s relationship to Maika’s mother, or who betrayed whom and how. It’s the strange, scary thing that’s gotten itself attached to Maika—and what she’s going to become next.
Written by Marjorie Liu
Art by Sana Takeda
Letters by Rus Wooton
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Mad Moll Green writes in Los Angeles and Vancouver. She loves horror movies, comic books, and ironic spandex.