Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Originally, I read the first issue of this comic back when it was released and when Marjorie Liu had a signing at our local comic book store. I was fascinated and couldn’t wait for more. It has been a little over a year since then, and I finally picked up the trade paperback to go through the first six issues simultaneously. I am truly glad I read it this way instead of issue to issue. While engrossing and beautiful, the story would have been much harder to appreciate had I read it monthly.
The comic follows Maika Halfwolf, who at the start of the first issue is seeking revenge for the death of her mother. She is both crass and combative, and I honestly had a hard time liking her. It is understandable as to why she is that way, however, due to her upbringing during the war and also having been a slave. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and even if she is indeed monstrous and unlikable, I can definitely respect her as a character.
The other characters, human, Arcanic, or otherwise, are all captivating in their own right. I loved reading about Ren and Kippa especially. Kippa, being a scared yet optimistic child regardless of what he goes through, and Ren, the trickster cat, work as great companions to Maika throughout the story. While the human villains feel truly evil, even they are full of surprises. Intrigue, betrayal, and ulterior motives are staples of Monstress, and nobody is truly as they seem. The humans are often inhuman, and the Arcanics are not the monsters the humans claim them to be.
One of my favorite aspects of this comic is the setting. The artwork gives off a very Egyptian atmosphere, with depictions of masks that resemble Anubis and the gratuitous use of the color gold. Their world is one of steampunk elements such as airships, and Lovecraftian Old Gods whose ghosts roam the world. While each element on its own may have been used time and again in the past, together they create an unique and stunning universe.
The plot itself, however, is one found in many comics. It is a story of revenge and a story where multiple factions are trying to track Maika down for what she holds. I can’t tell you how many comics I have read where people are chasing the main character as a main plot device. Even only considering the comic’s publisher, Image Comics, this is a common trope. Regardless, I still felt heavily absorbed in the story even if there are many recycled plot threads.
The depth of the worldbuilding in this work is rather grand as well, and this is why I felt it would be difficult to read each issue separately. I was dropped into the story without much guidance, and there was little info-dumping throughout save for the lessons given at the end of each issue. Those segments were incredibly helpful, and I would have been rather lost without them. It definitely takes the first few issues for things to begin to make sense overall.
Even with the formulaic plot, I loved Monstress. It is arresting, beautifully drawn, and full of fascinating characters. I also couldn’t help but love the cats too! I give this comic four out of five stars, and cannot wait to read more in the future.