Monstress wastes no time in creating a lush, vivid fantasy world and giving us some great characters to populate it. This Image Comics release by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda builds all manner of artifice into a stylish steampunk China, with Takeda’s endlessly fascinating art almost stealing the show, but Liu manages to keep the narrative focus simple and understandable by creating a strong, vulnerable central character. Witty, dark, violent and including the best and most emotionally accurate representation of cats we’ve yet seen in comics, it isn’t difficult to see why Monstress has been nominated for a 2016 for Best New Series. (More on the cats in a moment.)
Monstress is set in a fallen world in an alternate early 20th century. Monsters — the dark, tentacled all-seeing-eyed variety — have conquered half the planet. The strongest part of the unconquered half is a remote stretch of Asia, the city of Zamora, where Federation of Man is still fighting Arcanics: magical quasi-humans who are in fact human/monster hybrids. We join the story as our main character, an Arcanic teenager named Maika Halfwolf, is undergoing just the humiliation of being presented in a slave auction. She is purchased by a powerful religious order, the Cumaea, who are in the habit of collecting strange and potentially magical or powerful beings and extracting a valuable magical substance. In the Cumaea’s moral landscape, the battle lines are fairly clearly drawn: it’s human vs monster, and they’re in it to win, even if requires them to make some pretty horrendous moral violations. They think nothing, then, of buying what amount to people (but, “magic” people) and chopping off their limbs or removing their skin or performing any manner of medical atrocity, in order to better understand the nature of magic and how it can be weaponized against their enemy.
Maika, as we soon find out in the superb extended first issue, has issues of her own with monsters. While the Cumaea are technically human, they are becoming monstrous by their actions and choices. Maika, on the other hand, is a fundamentally good person, smart, strong and possessed of a wicked sense of humour, but not bloodthirsty or mean-spirited, at least not without good cause. But she has a deep connection with actual monsters, and may, as the story eventually reveals, is part monster herself. (By the third issue an adorable little girl character is calling her “Miss Monster”.) The main theme of Monstress is therefore what distinguishes humans from monsters, and how close the two can become and still remain themselves. It’s a well-worn fantasy theme, but that makes it no less effective here.
The Cumaea, with their male toys and intricate iron work-based aesthetic
Sana Takeda’s art helps to bring all of these strong fantasy themes to life with breathtaking density and beautiful textures. The backgrounds alone would be enough to warrant an Eisner nomination, creating a fully realized world in every conceivable detail, but also finding moments of quiet magnificence, like a scene in which Maika takes a bath at night under the stars. Inside the Cumaea stronghold, Takeda brings forth a Gothic steampunk masterpiece, with complex ironwork as the primary visual motif, even on the characters’ clothing.
Special mention must be made of the cats of this world, who look more or less like normal cats (perhaps with the odd extra tail), but speak in the dulcet tones of a classically educated philosopher. Fond of starting sentences by quoting ancient poets, the cats in the world of Monstress seem to skate rather “above it all”, not getting drawn into fights between humans but occasionally picking sides and helping out in the name of justice. (This is, of course, not so different from how they seem to act in our own world.) Starting in issue #2, we’re treated to lectures by Professor Tam-Tam, a learned feline who smokes a pipe and teaches us about the history of the fallen world. Besides being simply hilarious, this portrayal of cats gives Monstress many of its welcome touches of humour. Although a steampunk fantasy book, Liu isn’t afraid to have characters use the word “fucked” and react to each other like a smart modern character would. It doesn’t quite reach Archer levels of incongruence, but it comes close at times, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Feline Master Ren attempts to bluff his way out of a fight
Monstress will be releasing its sixth issue later this month and its first TPB in July, which means the average reader can easily get wrapped up in this rich and absorbing fantasy comic.