My copy of Marjorie Liu’s Monstress came this week. I was already excited just by the premise: In a world plagued by giant monsters, one girl forms a bond with the most powerful monster of all, instantly becoming a target of both human and otherworldly powers who will stop at nothing to control her. It had me at “Hello”. The book is lavishly illustrated by Sana Takeda and the first issue is a whopping 66 pages. I read a few reviews that agree the story is gorgeous and powerful but the first book might be too dense and dark for many readers. Marjorie Liu is a fantasy novelist who also writes for Marvel (I highly reccomend her Hunter Kiss series). Monstress is her first time writing a comic storyline of her own creation. One review mentioned there is a learning curve there. When I opened my copy of the book I found so much more than a dense story and a mixture of western and manga style art. I’ve read it once a day for four days straight.
I have a friend who frequently says, in times when her colleagues make offhand comments about her hair, or hurtful comments about her work “White women are not your friends.” In a way, they aren’t. A White woman in America will never know what it’s like to be a Black woman in America. Sometimes that can be frustrating when dealing with allies and enemies. If you’ve ever had a White “feminist” silence your voice; if you’ve ever had a fellow woman of color bring you down; if you’ve ever been in a room full of women supporting an oppressive patriarchy and if you gave Caitlyn Jenner side-eye for saying a woman’s toughest decision is what to wear, you should pick up a copy of Monstress.
I’ll admit that the story is dark. (But what the hell is wrong with that, anyway?) Liu immerses us immediately in an alternate 1900’s Asia and tackles head first slavery, human experimentation and the trauma that comes with war. Her main character, Maika, has been accused of being hard to relate to because she doesn’t “invite the reader in”, but she’s a 17 year old girl who seemingly has no family, has lost an arm and is being sold on the first page. I wouldn’t be very inviting either. In fact, I argue that this makes Maika more interesting. Don’t give me a Bella Swan, give me a woman with a history, who isn’t afraid to be dirty, heroic or bloody. But Liu doesn’t only give us Maika.
The world of Monstress is war torn and dangerous and seems to be governed mostly by women. Maika is being sold and bought by women, hunted by women and befriended by women. The woman who sells her tells another young girl: “Be smart, be obedient. You might live.” I rolled my eyes but I also just ate this up. Because that same woman seems to have a soft spot for Maika and the kids she’s selling. There is feminism for you; feminism isn’t about how men are our enemy, it’s about the fair treatment of women, not only in comparison to men but in comparison to other women. We hurt each other every single day. And we lift each other up. Liu’s willingness to show all sorts of interactions between women is powerful and needed. And you know what else? There’s hella brown people in this comic.
Admittedly, I don’t know a thing about 1900’s Asia but I do know the continent today is filled with people of all complexions, all different shades of brown. Liu and Takeda paint a vibrant world inhabited by mysterious, powerful women of different shapes, sizes, ages and colors. I even saw an afro, y’all! There are characters called witches whose magic seems to be based on science and math. So then she’s given us strong, women villains and put them in labcoats. I dig it. Maika also seems to have one friend, a dark skinned girl named Tuya who cautions her against whatever mysterious mission Maika is on. (There are a lot of unanswered questions in this first issue but enough sprinklings of detail to keep you hooked for the next).
Liu and Takeda are a seamless team. Fans of Silkpunk will love the art style but there are hidden gems in the pictures that everyone can appreciate and that are just as powerful as those in Liu’s storytelling. My favorite gem? Unicorns. Somehow I didn’t notice that Maika and her friend Tuya are riding unicorns until the third read-through. This really speaks to Takeda’s talent and the perfect balance between her and Liu. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a believable unicorn. But these? They’re horses that just happen to have horns, beautifully illustrated horses.
In the end, I didn’t care that Maika is hard to relate to, not every woman is going to smile all the time and give you a hug. She was believable and, for me, that made her loveable. She’s tough and terrifying and that makes her an awesome heroine. I didn’t mind that the issue was long; I wanted more. And I didn’t think that the story was too dark, it was real. I see myself in the characters, I see shared histories and struggles. I see learning opportunities. Despite how this article may make it seem, Liu’s story isn’t preachy at all. It’s an outstanding piece of work that effortlessly portrays realities the genre often ignores; brown women exist. And we kick ass.
QPOC Speculative Fiction Activist
“By day, Cairo works for an educational Hip Hop company by night, she writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories showcasing QPOC characters. Her fiction has been published in 3 Elements Review, The Finger Lit mag and Futurological press. She is a staff writer for Elixher Magazine and has also written for Autostraddle, Dropped Pebbles and the B Envelope. You can contact her here. She’d love to hear from you.”