MONSTRESS 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
Every now and then, a story will tip you into a strange new world without any attempt at exposition or context, leaving you to catch up on events in the most exhilarating way possible. You either sink or swim, and MONSTRESS is one such graphic novel, demanding complete attention, careful consideration, and at least two re-reads in order to grasp all of its detail.
We first meet Maiko Halfwolf as she’s put up for auction as a slave – a pretty clear indication of how dark this story can get, even when it becomes apparent that she’s more in control of the situation than first appears. Piece by piece, we get an understanding of Maiko’s history and what she’s attempting: that this is a girl searching for answers to her past in a world on the brink of war.
I’m reluctant to say too much, as most of the enjoyment in reading MONSTRESS comes from the fact you have little idea of what to expect. Marjorie Liu has crafted a story with plenty of twists and turns, and illustrator Sana Takeda depicted a world of steampunk horror, art deco styling, and Egyptian/Asian aesthetics that is a feast for the eyes. Every panel is filled with incredible detail and colour – you could pore over them for days.
It’s also notable for its range of female characters – nearly every main character is a woman, each one different in age, race, and affiliation. An advantage to this is that the conflict isn’t a straightforward “women vs men” battle of the sexes, but which instead pits women of varying motivations and agendas against each other. Some are sympathetic, others are loathsome, and making the plot revolve around them neatly removes any unnecessary gender politics that might have otherwise distracted from the story.
That there is a rich history here is apparent, though it’s doled out in careful measures, with only a few pages of exposition (framed as university lectures) and conveyed mainly through conversation and oblique background references. This is a world of witch-nuns, shaman-empresses, half-human hybrids, ancient gods, many-tailed cats, ruthless inquisitrixes – all of which serves to form the underlying structure of this world and its many divisions.
It’s also not for the faint of heart, as MONSTRESS depicts beheadings, slavery, vivisection, torture, mutilation – you get the picture. But this volume (which contains the first six issues of the comic books) is still a story to be savoured and enjoyed more than once, if not just to untangle the myriad of characters and their ongoing schemes.
I think I’ve just talked myself into reading it again.