Sana Takeda’s drawings in Monstress work in the opposite way. They are extremely detailed, and full of complicated lines and patterns. The colors (also done by Takeda) are subtle, many hued, and washed out. Every page is a visual puzzle that needs to be carefully pieced together. There’s no rushing through the images. They require time to decipher and organize into narrative meaning. The panels are arranged in many different ways, and are of many different sizes and shapes. There are many complex perspectives, including numerous close-ups that make the reader work to figure out what exactly they are looking at. It’s clear that Takeda lavishes a lot of time on each panel and on each page. Together, her drawings create a rich texture that takes work — often very satisfying work — to make sense of. My desire for simplicity is overcome by the richness of these images. They convey powerfully, and right away, that what is contained in these pages is not for very young readers. (I would discourage my 11-year-old from reading the series.) They are interested in dark topics and have the power to conjure unpleasant thoughts. The story they tell is weighty, but also beautifully visualized.
The story itself, which focuses on a chosen one who must undertake a quest to save or possibly destroy the kingdom, is familiar. In writer Marjorie Liu’s telling, however, it’s as complicated as the images, and depends upon an enormous amount of world-building. Indeed, Liu is as ambitious as George R. R. Martin or J. R. R. Tolkien in her desire to immerse the reader in a fantastical world wholly distinct from our own, yet somehow related to it. The humans with special abilities, the talking cats, the hybrids, the monsters, and the legendary species of powerful beings that inhabit Monstress’s alternate universe obviously draw readers far afield, to a space of magic and mayhem where anything can happen. The society Liu creates is intricate and full of multiple forces pulling in numerous directions, and her characters often harbor secret agendas. At the same time, these characters exhibit traits that we know in others, and maybe in ourselves — pettiness, venality, lust for power, generosity, loyalty, perfidy. This combination of fantastic intrigue and common impulses gives the world that Monstress creates solidity and weight. It feels somehow real because tethered to recognizable — if complexly explored — motivations.
What is perhaps Liu’s and Takeda’s most impressive feat is that the prominence they give female characters doesn’t seem fantastical, or even especially noteworthy. In Monstress, women occupy most of the important roles, have the most speaking lines, outnumber the men, and are frequently the most powerful characters. Roles that readers are already familiar with from reading other fantasy tales — or really almost any kind of narrative — are present, but women have taken the positions that men usually take. A reader might thus be tempted to say that Monstress is a positive feminist narrative, maybe even an empowering one. This would be right, but it also suggests an explicit assertiveness that’s not present in the storytelling. The series never pats itself on the back for, or even calls attention to, its gender politics, and it would be possible, perhaps easy, for readers to read without thinking about gender all that much. The story itself is engaging and at times heart pounding, the end of every issue a cliffhanger. I was glad I read this narrative as a bound volume, because this meant I didn’t have to wait between issues. But I also felt, as I read, anxious about how close I was getting to the sixth and final chapter.
What’s also noteworthy about Monstress is just how violent it is. The body count is high, and characters die in creative and brutal ways. Arms are torn from their sockets, swords and bullets pierce midsections, and blood flows freely. The series’s world is a dangerous one, and missteps can easily lead to death. For instance, in one episode the series’s main character Maika Halfwolf confronts another character she has just met. This character has just slaughtered a large number of soldiers who have been hunting Halfwolf, although it is not clear whether he is an ally or a foe. As the two talk, he casually kicks the decapitated head of one of the deceased soldiers. In the next panel, Maika is shown catching it with her foot, like a soccer ball. This sequence immediately follows a flashback from Maika’s past, in which she and other young children were penned behind barbed wire. Someone throws some noodles into the emaciated, dirty children’s midst, and a vicious fight breaks out over who gets to eat them.
Episodes like this one suggest that Monstress’s violence serves a purpose beyond sensation (although it serves this purpose as well). Overall, the violence in Maika’s story conveys her fearlessness and ability to navigate the world. Other characters frequently underestimate her power, and are sorely punished for it. But the violence in this scene also seems tied to a historical allegory: the food thrown into a crowd of starving people evokes Holocaust memoirs in which food tossed into trains full of the death-camp-bound could lead to terrible physical fights.
Even less specifically allusive events in Monstress seem grounded in real, rather than fantasy, violence. In the series, a war is brewing between two sides divided by a large wall. One side lies about the scale of a massacre, its cause, and the atrocities in which those who were massacred engaged. This side insists on the innate barbarity of their enemies, and the need to exact righteous vengeance. “The beasts hanging before you,” one leader says in front of a crowd, “used their demonic powers to slaughter every novice and nun in the city’s order … And for what? Nothing but hate.” Taken out of context, this could be a speech delivered in our world. It’s all too easy to imagine Trump, or one of his imitators, saying almost exactly these same words (and in the vice president-elect’s case, perhaps exactly these same words).
Liu herself has said that she was thinking about how her story connects to the world around us. As she observed to NPR, “If you’d asked me ten years ago to describe the books I was writing, I would have said, ‘I write about gargoyles and mermen,’ but now with time and distance, I can say very clearly that what I was writing about were my experiences as a child.” Having a white mother and a Chinese father, according to Liu, meant that she grew up feeling like an outsider, and as such she was drawn to characters who were always at the margins of their society and never quite seemed to fit into any one place. Maika certainly mirrors this pattern, as she does not belong to any particular social group in the story and may even gain her power from her marginal position. There is a literal monster slumbering inside her body, and when the monster emerges terrible things happen. A lot of people die or are injured. Buildings explode. The presence of this monster raises the question: is her power one she can control, or does it control her?
Monstress is most definitely a political narrative. It encourages its readers to think about gender and race in new ways. It poses the problem of difference as one that is too often solved by violence and closed-mindedness. Literal demons speak of the dangers of demonization. Loyalty and perseverance and trust are held up as important qualities that must be preserved if the hero is to finish her journey. Friendship and generosity are all that stand between the series’s characters and the chaos always looming on the horizon.
At the same time, as with any political narrative, Monstress must succeed as a narrative for its politics to have any impact. It needs to build a convincing world with its own rules, and to introduce characters in whom the reader is going to feel emotionally invested. It has to tell a story that draws readers in, and encourages them to keep reading. It has to provide a feel and texture that is aesthetically rich and engrossing. It can’t take its readers for granted. It must, in other words, speak directly but figuratively to the very real concerns of the people to whom the narrative is addressed. Luckily, Monstress excels in all of these tasks.
I imagine that at least some reading this review, however, might be skeptical that Monstress’s politics deserve this kind of hermeneutical unpacking. Talking cats? Witches? Winged humans? Such skeptical readers are not likely to find the series appealing. This is a pity, because in many ways Monstress limns our world better than some realist stories. The real world, with its melting ice caps and legions of refugees and huge inequalities of wealth and reactionary politicians selling easy answers, is as dangerous and as wild and as fantastical as the one Liu and Takeda have created. We too live in a world where the potential for marvel is too often mired in violence and anchored by constraints.
The truth of this last statement has been brought forcefully to the forefront by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. This event was immediately followed by a spike in hate incidents (over seven hundred in a week’s time, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center). The choices he’s made for his cabinet are alarming, to say the least. And he continues to behave in ways familiar to authoritarian leaders we have had the misfortune to witness in the past or elsewhere — sensitivity to criticism, attacks on the media and other public institutions, scapegoating of vulnerable groups, bullying of those who resist, rewarding of those who scrape and bow, and lying often and outrageously.
As I write this review, I have no idea what will happen in the next few weeks, much less the next few years. What I can say with certainty, however, is that one minor effect of these developments on the national stage has been a heightened questioning of what literature and storytelling more generally are good for. I find myself starting television shows I once enjoyed and losing interest quickly. Accounts of historic traumas, like the fall of Saigon depicted at the start of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, have a sharper edge. At the same time, I grow impatient with novels that seem to draw me away too much from current events. The sunny and inviting drawings I like so much feel inappropriate; the brooding and difficult drawings in Monstress provide a better fit. There’s something reassuring about their complex stillness, and the promise comics in general make that time can be separated out spatially on the page and distilled so we can inspect the movement of history. Events are moving too quickly. Comics offer to slow them down.
I’m also appreciative of plucky characters who persevere despite the ever mounting odds against them. They exhibit a fearlessness and courage that I expect we will all need more of in the coming days. It’s too early to say what aesthetics will turn out to be most relevant for the uncertain moment in which we seem to find ourselves, but for now at least I find Monstress a good read. It fills me with a steely resolve.
Min Hyoung Song is Professor of English at Boston College and the author of two books: The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American (Duke, 2013) and Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (Duke, 2005).