WiHM Librarian, Lizzy Walker, Reviews the Graphic Novel Monstress

Happy Women in Horror Month, dear reader! It’s Lizzy, your friendly WiHM Librarian here with another horror resource for you! First, I want to just say it’s amazing that this creature Hannah created is 8 years old. I hope it gets bigger and better every year. Judging by the posts I’ve seen coming from the WiHM Facebook page and Twitter feeds, there is no danger of it disappearing. Keep the great projects coming!

Now, onto this month’s topic for discussion: horror themed comics and graphic novels. These titles have been getting more and more attention in the library world, and I have unearthed some amazing horror genre titles created by women writers and artists.

If you like stories of dark fantasy and horror with strong female characters and monsters, look no further than Monstress written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda, and published by Image Comics. Volume 1 collects issues 1 through 6. Set in an alternate universe matriarchal 1900s Asia, Monstress follows Maika Halfwolf, who begins to discover her mysterious past and connection to an ancient creature. There was a fierce war between the Arcanics, magical creatures, some of who can barely pass for human, and the Cumaea, sorceresses who consume the Arcanics bodies for their power. The tides of war have abated, but a new war between the two factions is on the horizon, and Maika is being pursued by both sides, but to what purpose?

When we first meet Maika, she is chained, her chin raised with the aid of a crop, and she wears a chained collar and nothing more. She is being auctioned off to a room of wealthy buyers. As the auctioneer is preparing to accept bids, Maika and the other Arcanics being offered up for sale are taken by a woman representing the order of the Cumaea. She claims them without pay, preferring to call them donations. When one man objects, she foretells how he will be found dead. He and the others in the room are left in shock and speechless as she and the Arcanics leave the room. This shows the hierarchical power the Cumaea have over the rest of the population; even the most powerful and wealthy in the community are not above reproach by the fierce order of sorceresses.

Upon their arrival at the palatial estate of Lady Sophia, Maika is escorted to be assessed by Atena and Sophia. A brief but bitter verbal exchange between Maika and Sophia introduces us to how savage the war was in carefully crafted writing by Liu. We also see through flashbacks of conversations between Maika and Tuya, her closest friend, and Maika’s briefly worded internal monologs and Takeda’s art what Maika remembers, and what she is struggling to grasp. We also discover her capture by the Cumaea is a part of Maika’s plan of revenge, as well as to garner the answers she desires.

When Maika finds out from the other prisoners that Arcanics who are taken from their cells never come back, she formulates a way to fight and escape. But who should she trust on her journey outside the walls of the Cumaea stronghold? Will she be able to control the monster living insider her? Is Master Ren all that he appears to be? What is the purpose of the raven winged Arcanic lord they meet along the way? She must also be wary of the Mother Superior and her Inquisitrix, three deadly sorceresses who are hunting her.

While Maika is the central character throughout Monstress, there are other noteworthy characters that drive the story. Kippa, the young fox cub Arcanic who follows Maika around, and feels safe around the older Arcanic despite her abrasive personality, is outwardly an annoyance to Maika.Their relationship grows as Kippa’s persistence wears on Maika, and she eventually acts as a protector for the fox girl, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Commander “Master” Ren Mormorian, Apprentice Nekomancer, is an enigma throughout the first volume. He’s a talking cat that has appeared in Maika’s life before, and he has tracked her down after her bloody escape. As Maika and the other captive Arcanics are being taken into the Cumaean stronghold, we see an elder Cumaean and three children underneath a cage holding a disheveled cat who states “There are few animals more treacherous than the cat. Assume the worst should you encounter one, no matter how untouched it might seem.” To garner more information on the histories and philosophies of these mysterious cats in the Monstress universe, the illustrious Professor Tam Tam provides lessons to the newly initiated reader. Evan Narcisse of Kotaku wrote a great article on the cats in the Monstress series, which I have linked at the end of this post.

Monstess is a very female driven series. Men play very little parts in the story. The only individual at the auction that rebuts the Cumea sorceress’s taking of the Arcanics is a man. A few of Sophia’s guards are male, but the commander, and the roughest and most terrible of the jailers, is a woman. A male Arcanic, demonic in appearance, who is jailed with the others in the Cumaea stronghold is driven to insanity, his hands taken to make lilium, and he bashes his own brains in on the bars while the others are helpless and can only watch. Resak, Atena’s brother, is an Arcanic sympathizer, but not much more is known about him. He seems to be a rather tender character, as Maika is thrown in his direction, he gently embraces her and looks distraught at what his sister and master are doing to the Arcanics. Then there is the poor cyclops boy that is taken away from them, only to be seen later on Sophia’s dissection table when Sophia and Atena are discussing the use of the Arcanics in the formulation of lilium, the fuel that drives their power.

Claire Landsbaum provides more information regarding Monstress and the idea that women are the driving power throughout the series. As mentioned, men do not have large parts in Monstress, and violence in the story is driven by women. Maika is on a quest for vengeance, and she succeeds with each bloody image in the comics. She is driving her own story; she is her own hero, her own judge and jury. Yet, she is not her own as she shares a body with a hungry, vengeful monster. Landsbaum also describes Monstress as a response to series like Game of Thrones where women do not have their own agency and puts it in the hands of Maika to do with it as she will. Doing so makes it “impossible for the violence [against women in Monstress] to be based in misogyny.”

Racism, slavery, and war are just a few of the major themes explored in Monstress. The Arcanics are deemed inferior, and therefore less than human. Throughout the series, we learn the atrocities that are committed against the Arcanics, adults and children alike.

I have been collecting the individual issues of Monstress since it came out. I can’t say enough good things about this series. The story and artwork are breathtaking. I’ve read and reread each issue multiple times, and every time I discover something new. Each issue will leave you wanting more, I promise.

Shameless plug here. Check out my review of Monstress Volume 1 at the Monster Librarian.

See you in the stacks…

Further Resources

Abad-Santos, Alex. (2015). “The Dazzling New Comic Monstress Explores Why We Fear Powerful Women.” Vox: http://www.vox.com/2015/10/15/9539735/monstress-comic-book-review

Alleyne, Lauren K. (2016). “Marjorie Liu: Making a Monstress.” Guernica: https://www.guernicamag.com/making-a-monstress/

Gorman, Kate. (2016). “Q and A with Monstress Artist Sana Takeda.” Paper Droids: http://www.paperdroids.com/2016/05/13/qa-monstress-artist-sana-takeda/

Landsbaum, Claire. (2016). “The Bloody Comic Monstress Is a Response to Game of Thrones, Ex Machina, and The Smurfs”. Vulture.com: www.vulture.com/2016/07/why-the-bloody-comic-monstress-forgoes-men.html

Narcisse, Evan. (2016).”Monstress Has the Best Cats in Comics Right Now.” Kotaku.com: http://kotaku.com/monstress-has-the-best-cat-in-comics-right-now-1771290279