Monstress Volume 1: Awakening by Marjorie M Liu graphic novel review

Marjorie M Liu’s first volume of Monstress is utterly breathtaking

The intricate cover of art deco-infused steampunk alone is worth the price of entry, but the world within Monstress is genuinely breathtaking.

Set in the aftermath of a war between the Federation of Men and the Arcanics, Liu deftly sets the scene of her detailed world without need for clunky exposition. Our protagonist, Maika, looks human enough to pass in places without trouble, but against the witch-nuns of Cumaea there is no hiding her Arcanic nature.

The Cumaea, a horrifying religious order, harvest the bodies of the supernatural Arcanics, often just children, to sustain their own power over the people. Posing as an Arcanic slave to be bought, Maika infiltrates a Cumaea stronghold in order to find information on the murder of her mother.

Maika is no straightforward heroine though, as a connection to something very dark lies within – a very real demonic force that she has limited control over. Even without that infernal pull, Maika is badly traumatised from the war, and has little interest in helping others – even defenceless children being mutilated by the despicable witch-nuns. In other words, Maika is a fully rounded character, something that is perhaps a rare trait in teenage girl heroines, but it can make for rather grim reading.

Fortunately for the reader, two other protagonists join the fold – the adorable fox-girl Kippa, and the snarky two-tailed cat Master Ren. This balance of light and dark, horror and humour, war and magic is testament to the skill of Liu in building this epic fantasy.

This is the most beautiful comic created to date. Takeda effortlessly blends eastern and western comic storytelling traditions and styles to create something incredibly unique and special. The alternate Nineties Asia setting and matriarchal society run through with magic and mysticism allows for imagination to run riot in everything from character design to backgrounds to hidden details.

Monstress moves smoothly between telling of the trauma of war, showcasing the depths of xenophobia and racism, the horrors of totalitarian rule, the strength of family and belonging, and the joys and dangers of sisterhood. From the title
alone the feminist angle is clearly seen, but this is no utopian yarn of paradise ruled by women.

Female rule does not undo racial inequality, slavery or bigotry. Liu celebrates the strengths of sisterhood, but avoids the myth that women are a more enlightened creature than man, and the comic deftly deals with issues of gender, race and sexuality with the subtlety and poise that many have failed to achieve.

These issues are wrapped in the larger story of an entire fantasy world, complete with polytheist animal spirits, demons, magic and talking cats. Maika is a survivor and a killer. Master Ren is wise, but with a feline sense of humour. Kippa is young, and holds her own fox-tail like a security blanket.

Never has a comic been so cute or so horrifying within the same few pages. Takeda’s ethereal art and Liu’s masterful touch have created a very smart and imaginative fantasy that is guaranteed to break your heart.