“Be smart. Be obedient. That might keep you alive… but nothing will keep you whole. Not in that place.”
Set in a world of humans, beast-folk known as “Ancients”, Ancient/human half-breeds known as “Arcanics”, vagabond, storytelling cats, and Lovecraftian monstrosities known only as “The Old Gods”, Monstress is a high-fantasy story that has garnered a lot of attention within the last year. By exploring difficult themes such as racism, war, and fending off one’s inner demons (both metaphorically and literally), coupled with the talents of critically acclaimed writer Marjorie Liu and veteran comic artist Sana Takeda, it isn’t any surprise that this story ended up being a 2016 Eisner Award nominee for Best New Series? Today we’re going to attempt to analyze it and ultimately answer the question: Should You Read Monstress?
The events of Monstress follow Maika Halfwolf, a young survivor of a cataclysmic war between humans and the Arcanics and host to a dark force that is beyond her understanding. Having lost all memory of her childhood, Maika traverses her violent and divided world with reckless, heart wrenching desperation in an attempt to uncover the secrets of her past, resolve the murky mystery around her mother’s death, and understand the monster laying dormant inside of her.
Readers are immediately thrust into the action as they watch Maika, along with several other Arcanic children, be paraded in front of a group of aristocrats at a slave auction. It is here that readers see the true depravity of the Federation of Man; due to their half-man/half-beast heritage, the Arcanics are abhorred by humans and considered abominations to be sold to the highest bidder. In Maika’s case, the highest bidder happens to a member of the Cumaea: an order of humans with witch-like powers who perform sadistic experiments on Arcanics in an effort to strengthen their own powers. While this unfortunate turn of events actually plays right into Maika’s plans, the dire risks associated with her actions are made very apparent to the reader in excruciating detail. After enacting her foolhardy scheme, Maika’s secret becomes apparent to the Cumaea and she becomes caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse that threatens to destroy everything.
Ultimately, Monstress excels in its storytelling. Liu’s narrative is paced in such a way that many of the more intricate details regarding the history and mechanics of the world are not immediately explained to the reader. Rather than having characters deliver expository monologues to explain their motivations or why things are the way they are, the story periodically delivers brief, single page historical lectures (in the form of an elder cat, Professor Tam Tam, telling stories to his kittens) between chapters to provide context to many of the background details of the universe. The end result is a confident, exciting narrative that is constantly progressing forward without getting caught up in the details.
The strong storytelling is further bolstered by Takeda’s stunning artwork, which is stylized to be a blend between Western comics and manga. Every page has an enormous amount of detail poured into it that makes the world come to life before the reader’s eyes; furthermore, the body language and expressions of the characters are so well done that they tell just as much of a story as the words on the page.
So, the question is: Should You Read Monstress? If you are looking for a story with a quick payoff that resolves its loose ends in a reasonable amount of time, it’s safe to assume that Monstress isn’t for you. While the series is only eight issues into its run, it is very clear that this is a complex story requiring plenty of time to tell. However, if you are willing to stick it out for the long haul, Monstress promises an expansive world of fantasy, mystery, monsters, and cats, that dares to rival even the most accomplished fantasy authors. Unleash your inner monster and give this one a read.