Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Comics Review: Monstress

Title: Monstress (Issues #1-6)
Author: Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: Trade paperback collecting issues #1-6 to be released on July 19th, 2016
Read: July 2016
Where It Came From: Digital ARCs from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: Fantasy-sci-fi-horror-graphic-novel?
Rating: 4 Mask Pieces

Hey, remember when I was talking about how much I love Image Comics? Here’s another one from them! I saw issues of Monstress on the counter at my Friendly Local Comic Shop a couple months ago and was really drawn to the art, but, as is usual for me, I decided to wait for the trade paperback to come out. However! When issues #1-6 recently came up on NetGalley in anticipation of said trade paperback releasing later this month, I couldn’t resist the chance to catch up on what I’ve been missing with this title.

Monstress is the story of Maika, an Arcanic (a.k.a. supernatural hybrid) teenage girl. She lives in a world still rife with conflict between Arcanics and humans after a great war between the two. Arcanics are being captured and sold as slaves to humans, and a powerful religious organization of human women called the Cumaea performs experiments on Arcanics and murders them to harvest a magical substance called lilium from their bones. Maika and her best friend Tuya are just trying to settle down and find normalcy again after surviving the war, but Maika has a secret. There is a monster living inside of her—literally—and it hungers for blood and violence. As Maika’s control over it weakens, she travels to the city of Zamora, located at the edge between the territory of the Federation of Man and the land of the Arcanics, to look for answers in perhaps the most dangerous place possible.

And that’s just the beginning of the first issue! A lot of ground is covered, story-wise, and it took me a few issues to get a good mental handle on the world and the moving pieces of the plot. However, the richness of the world-building really is beautiful as it unfolds, and to call it simply Asian-inspired seems to somehow be an inadequate description. It is a fantasy world, to be sure, but the nods to and nuances of a diversity of Asian cultures from our world are incorporated seamlessly, and come together with all of the imaginative fantasy elements to form something new and singular. I believe in the letters section of one of the issues, creator Liu talks about how she wanted the comic to reflect the hybrid nature of Asia itself, and I think this was accomplished masterfully.

The comic also does a masterful job of demonstrating the horrors and atrocities of war and its aftermath, which only takes on even greater depth and meaning when you learn that some of the inspiration for this story comes from the experiences of the author’s grandparents. And I will be honest—the violence and horror in that first issue (murder of children, implied cannibalism, references to rape) made me feel so sick to my stomach that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading. But I did, and I’m glad I did—violence is still a part of the comic, as you would expect of a story concerned with war, but in later issues I didn’t find it was quite as much at the forefront of the storytelling as it was in that first issue. For me, the story really hit its stride in issues four and on, when other places and characters from the fringes of the world as we know it so far start to become tied in to Maika’s story, and some questions begin to be answered to a degree (and of course new ones come up). And that ending to issue six was a killer!

Let’s talk about Sana Takeda’s art for a moment, because it is absolutely stunning—beautiful, with a sort of Art Deco, steampunk vibe, and manga-esque touches here and there that add to that hybrid-Asia atmosphere that this comic does so well. For all the violent, scary things that her art depicts in this story, there is also room for occasional hits of the super-cute (Kippa the kitsune-like fox child hugging her own big fluffy tail makes me squee every time), as well as really just staggering splendor and detail (Corvin D’Oro, anyone?). Completely frame-worthy.

Overall, though the initial level of violence and gore made me squeamish and I was a bit confused about the history and mythology of the setting, as I continued reading, the decrease in depicted violence and further clarification about murky aspects of Maika’s world (the quick lessons from the cat Professor Tam Tam at the end of each issue were helpful, too) helped me to become invested in the story, and now I can’t wait to find out what happens next (because that issue six, you guys!!). And though I am not one to usually buy single issues of comics, knowing that there are fun extras like letters and additional art might convert me, at least in the case of Monstress!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copies, our review is uninfluenced by their source.

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