Awakening the “Monstress” Within




THE IMAGE IS STARTLING: a thin, naked teenage girl — her long, black hair providing little modesty — chained by her neck. But she’s no victim, standing defiant as she observes a group of men gathered for an auction. Half of her left arm is missing. In the middle of her chest is a brand in the shape of a vertical eye, like a portal, that seems to symbolize something inside of her, something terrifying, and powerful. 

“Bidding will start at five pieces of gold,” says her captor, who holds a lash under the girl’s chin.

This is the first scene in Monstress (Image Comics), the acclaimed comic series written by Marjorie Liu, with illustrations by Sana Takeda. The captive is Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic — an order of magical creatures who can sometimes pass for human. She’s survived a devastating war between the Arcanics and humans, who are assisted by the Cumaea, sorceresses who draw their power from feeding on the bodies of Arcanics. Maika has her own literal monster (or “monstrum”) inside her, filled with an unnatural hunger she is struggling to control. 

Although the story begins with a slave auction where men are the bidders, the world of Monstress is ruled by women who fight for control of this postapocalyptic landscape with weapons ranging from flamethrowers, samurai swords, and magic spells. For Liu, who began her literary career as a novelist writing fantastic, gritty tales of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, Monstress is a continuation of her exploration of complex women characters.

“Everything I’ve written has been about women feeling free to use their voices, to be aggressive, and for that to be completely normal,” says Liu, whose adventure tales were also inspired by the stories her grandparents told her about their life in China during World War II. Describing their experiences, Liu writes: “Surviving required a desire to live more powerful than any bomb or army.”

But for all too many individuals who are lucky enough to survive war, learning how to “survive the surviving” is another battle — one fought internally. Maika’s struggle to come to grips with her postwar traumatic experiences gives a strong emotional pull to Liu’s narrative, which explores war, slavery, and racism with great nuance.

As a comic writer, Liu has been lauded for her treatment of race and feminism. She speaks to an audience that has, for far too long, been ignored by the medium now experiencing a creative renaissance, thanks in part to creator-owned comic publishers like Image, where the only oversight on the work is from the creators themselves.

Interestingly, it was the comic old guard, Marvel, that published Liu’s groundbreaking narrative in Astonishing X-Men; the limited series edition featured the marriage of the first openly gay superheroes in mainstream comics, and earned Liu a 2013 GLAAD Media Award nomination for Outstanding Comic Book.

With Monstress, the Chinese-American writer and her Japanese illustrator now have a platform that allows them to represent the breadth of their cultures and aesthetic interests; the writing and art blend influences ranging from Asian folklore to pop culture Kaiju films like Godzilla and Pacific Rim, from 20th-century Shanghai to Victorian-flavored steampunk. Liu and Takeda have created a world both familiar and strangely fantastic.

The first arc of Monstress began in November 2015, and its first trade was released in July 2016. Its second arc debuts in October.

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CHRIS BECKER: You’ve mentioned that Monstress was inspired, in part, by an image of a girl standing alone on a battlefield. Who was she?

MARJORIE LIU: Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my Chinese grandparents in Vancouver, and they were always talking about the war. My grandfather was a pilot in the Chinese air force during World War II. He would make offhand comments about some of his missions. My grandmother would do the same thing. But her situation was very different. She was a teenager when the war broke out, and had to leave her home. Her experiences were very fraught. She battled disease, starvation, and nearly lost her life on multiple occasions. And yet she could still smile about it all. She could appreciate the fact that she’d been strong enough, and lucky enough, to survive. That had a deep effect on me, so this image of my grandmother, alone, during the war, stuck with me.

This was also in the 1980s, which had all the great apocalyptic films (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Terminator). The end of the world was so deeply embedded in my imagination that when I dreamed of the future, I more or less thought my career at age 30 would be fighting off cannibals and searching for water in some desert wasteland. I think the combination of the apocalyptic in pop culture and all of these stories about the war and my grandmother created this image in my mind of the girl on the battlefield.

During the ’80s, MTV was also broadcasting videos by very powerful women artists, such as Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper. Did those images have an impact on you as a writer?

I am so glad you asked that question. I just saw Cyndi Lauper in concert with Boy George, and sitting there, listening to Cyndi sing, I was thinking of how deeply influenced I was by her music, and all the music I was hearing in the 80s, especially from female artists like Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Madonna. They were singing about women. They were singing about empowerment. They were singing about love and freedom, and that had a deep influence on me. I had never seen women on television in such a full embrace of life, where they were fully in charge, and fully joyous. They were taking control of their bodies and futures, and it wasn’t a struggle. It was an entitlement and a right, to be embraced with happiness.

How did the girl you imagined become Maika Halfwolf?

Her character at first felt very distant from me. I knew who Maika was, but I felt like she was hiding part of herself from me. I knew she was a girl who had survived a terrible war. She had been disfigured by it, both spiritually and literally, and she didn’t quite know who she was anymore. She felt like she had lost her humanity and she didn’t know to get it back. She felt like a monster because of what she experienced in the war and what she had to do to survive.

It wasn’t until I started writing that her character began to relax inside me, and what I began to feel as I wrote was her absolute vulnerability. She presents no emotion to the world, like a stoic soldier, but the reality is that she’s screaming on the inside. She’s afraid, and feels very small.

The story of Maika is about that vulnerability rising to the surface, and her accepting and using it to stitch herself back together again.

Is Monstress a kind of mother-quest?

I think that mothers, not just Maika’s mother, are a very important part of Monstress. Mothers and mother figures form one of the many backbones of this tale.

There’s tremendous power between mothers and daughters; the bond between them — what mothers do to their daughters and what daughters do to their mothers in the course of a lifetime out of love, possession, or fear — is a really important theme to me. For a daughter, the quest for her mother is going to unearth more than just a parent figure.

One of the striking things about Monstress is that gender does not determine compassion. Many of the female characters are far from compassionate, even sadistic. 

The great myth is that women are naturally compassionate — somehow more humane and more loving than men, and incapable of anger, war, rage, or murder. Don’t get me wrong, men are pretty murderous. They’re good at that. But the idea that women are not capable of these things is strange to me.

I am also expressing my own experience as someone who was surrounded and raised by women who were never afraid to be aggressive or say exactly what was on their minds, and yet I too succumbed to the pressure to be silent, as I saw other women being silenced. Women are not permitted to express rage or aggression without being punished or called “crazy” or “hysterical.” In the workforce, if a man is aggressive and demanding, he is rewarded. If a woman is aggressive and demanding, she’s called a bitch. Men are allowed to express a full range of emotions in ways that women are not. That is something I was very conscious of while writing Monstress.

And still, there are compassionate characters throughout.

When my grandparents shared their experiences of the war, more often than not they told stories of kindness — what people did to help them survive. Yes, there were terrible traumatic stories of battle and of having to flee for their lives, but mixed in with that were stories of compassion: how my grandmother’s friend helped her survive; the kindnesses my grandfather experienced in the United States where he trained as a pilot.

Even in war, even when you’re forced to do terrible things to stay alive, people don’t necessarily lose their humanity. I’ve always been keenly aware of the fact that even in the most terrible circumstances, compassion can exist. Even when we feel compelled to follow the mob, we can still resist.

Does writing a comic require you to think more visually than you might when writing a novel?

I’ve always been a very visual writer. Even when I’m writing a novel, it’s playing out in my mind like a movie. That hasn’t changed. What’s different is that when creating a novel, the burden of making the world sing is entirely on the shoulders of the writer. We have to weave these worlds and make the characters come alive with our words. With a comic, we share half of that burden with the artist. We may come up with the story and dialogue, but it’s the artist who brings that world to life.

Writing Monstress has been like writing a novel, except in a serialized format. Each panel needs to convey three things: character, plot, and world. And that is hard, because it requires me to be completely mindful of the story and all of these different structural requirements and see how it’s all going to fit on the page visually. I also have to think about how to break up each six-issue arc so the reader feels like they’ve progressed and learned something.

This is all just a long rambling way of saying it’s really easy to have no progression in a story. [Laughs.] It’s really easy to just start writing and have … nothing happen! I did that with the first couple drafts of Monstress, where I sat down at my desk, and was typing, typing, typing, and then took at look back at what I had written, feeling very proud of myself, and realized nothing actually happened. The reader didn’t learn anything interesting about the characters. There were a series of incidents, but these incidents didn’t reveal much about the world or who these characters are.

In some ways, writing a novel is a lot easier than writing a comic, but some stories just don’t work as well as novels. Monstress would not work well as a novel. The story that Monstress became would be incredibly difficult to tell in prose. In a novel, we get all of that great interiority that you don’t get in a film. In a film, you get all the visuals, the movement and expanse. The comic book medium is the perfect intersection between novels and film. I love writing novels. But there are just some stories that work better when you can see them unfold.

Speaking of visuals, had you and Sana Takeda worked together before this?

We worked on X-23 for Marvel. What was so great about working with Sana is that I wouldn’t give her much, but she would come back with exactly the right visual, even better than what I had imagined. When you’re a writer, having an artist you trust and who shares your vision is incredibly important.

When I decided to do something creator-owned outside of Marvel, Sana was one of the first artists I thought of, just because I loved that dynamic we had. I reached out to her, and it was sort of like reconnecting with a long lost best friend, because we were still on the same wavelength. I barely have to say anything to her.

Sana and I have been heavily influenced by Asian folklore. Originally I thought Monstress would have a lot to do with the yōkai [ghosts, demons, and monsters] of Japanese mythology. For example, the cats [in the comic] are based on the bakeneko, which are cat-like creatures that can see ghosts and raise the dead. So the book is an amalgam of many Asian influences, in the same way Asia is a hybrid. Whether it’s the fashion, mythology, or architecture, every element of this book is very deliberately thought out.

Sana is an endless resource. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for, the emotion behind it, but I can’t quite put my finger on what “the thing” is, and she’ll just come back with something relevant and perfect. She brings the story I imagine to life. It’s one of those rare collaborations we all wish for but rarely get. She’s a force of nature.

You were studying to become a lawyer before becoming a writer. Why law?

I’m a good daughter of an immigrant. [Laughs.] Doctor, lawyer, engineer — these are seen as solid careers where you’ll never have to depend on anyone. You’ll always have a job and always be able to pay the bills.

I actually loved law school. I loved learning about the law. When you study law, what you’re really studying is the human condition, and all the things people do that get them into trouble. Being a lawyer is all about taking facts and turning them into a good story. So law school was a perfect fit for me, in ways that I didn’t anticipate.

But in my third year of law school, I began to realize being a lawyer for the rest of my life was probably going to bring me an incredible amount of stress and cut my life short by two decades. But I was also writing. It was how I handled stress. I would just sit down and write fantasy, but I began doing it more seriously in my third year.

After law school, I was admitted to the bar, but it was a bad job market for lawyers. A voice in my head, like an actual voice, told me, “Marjorie, if you’re going to write, you should take a stab at it. If you don’t do it now, you won’t get another chance.”

So I did a numbers game. I figured if I wrote 3,000 words a day, at the end of one month, I would have a novel. So, I did that! For all of August 2003, I woke up every morning at 6:00 a.m., went to bed at 3:00 a.m. I wrote all day long and finished a novel. I spent a couple of months revising, then sent it out to publishers who took cold submissions.

Lo and behold, I got lucky. An assistant editor took my manuscript out of the slush pile, gave it to an editor who liked it, and I sold the book the day before my 25th birthday. From that sale, I got an agent and a four-book deal. By then I was practicing law just a bit on the side, but I decided to make a go of if as a professional writer. I wrote two to three novels a year for eight years. I also wrote comics, short stories, and all kinds of other things. That became my life.

Was there any resistance from Marvel regarding your story about the wedding of two openly gay X-Men?

There was no resistance, but there was a tremendous amount of oversight, because this was such an important story, and we all wanted to make sure it was done right. But even without a huge event like that, Marvel is a corporate enterprise, so it controls very carefully what is done with those characters.

With creator-owned comics, there’s literally no oversight. I gave Image the barebones idea of what Monstress was going to be about, and didn’t speak to them again until maybe a month before the book came out. They really didn’t know what they were getting, and they didn’t ask. The only things they requested were what they needed to market the book, like covers and basic descriptions. That was really amazing.

I loved writing for Marvel. I learned so much writing X-Men, X-23, and Black Widow, but that can’t compare with what I’ve been able to do with Monstress at Image. It’s like I’ve gone back to writing novels where I have complete creative freedom. If the book hadn’t sold well, that would have been a lesson learned. But the reception has been very warm and generous, so we’re going to stick with it as long as we can and tell the story we want to tell with no compromises.

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Chris Becker is a Houston-based writer and editor, covering music, art, literature, entrepreneurship, and economics.


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