I picked up the first volume of graphic novel series Monstress, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, while ago and was definitely impressed with the beautiful art and fantastic fantasy world building. I had one of those happy, unexpected catches in my chest when I recently saw the second volume out, and immediately bought it. While I’d forgotten some of the more intricate parts of the storyline, as often happens when I read insanely detailed fantasy world-based series, I still got sucked back into the storyline immediately. Monstress Vol. 2: The Blood is a stellar expansion that left me even further addicted to a series that I already found intriguing.
The Monstress series takes place in a largely matriarchal, steampunk era Asia, with different magically charged societies vying for power. We have the Cumea, witches, human women with great magical prowess and skills leading a purely human society in trying to take over and subjugate Arcanics, human and magical ancient being cross breeds. Arcanics can range from full on animals in humanoid form to humans with, say fox ears and tails, or even no noticeable Arcanic identifiers at all. Protagonist Maika Halfwolf must navigate this richly developed world stuck in the throws of conflict as she tries to figure out what to do with an ancient power her late mother thrust upon her.
That ancient power is actually an ancient being, a strange-eyed tentacle monster that definitely echoes the Lovecraftian ancient ones as well as the Japanese influence informing much of the stories mythology and illustration. Yes, the art incorporates opulent Japanese elements on top of steampunk style and decadent, Lovecraftian horror. Does that sound like too much? Well, for me, it was an excess of all my favorite aesthetics, and reviewers definitely agree the effect is fantastic. Each panel feels rich with a magical, antiquated, and sometimes sinister level of detail. This is a series you can enjoy by casually flipping through the pages, letting the strange and wonderful atmosphere conjured up by the story wash over you in passing.
Getting into the nitty gritty of the story too, though is just as rewarding as glancing at the amazing art, not something that can be said too often today, mostly thanks to Hollywood movies I suppose. Books lifting the heavy weight again, as per usual. Maika must try and resolve her relationship with an already deceased and far from perfect mother, while also grappling for control over the dark, blood thirsty entity that lives inside her. That intimately explored internal conflict set against the amazing back drop of such a fascinating world makes every part of Monstress feel absolutely full to the brim of something you’d be lucky to find even a sip of elsewhere.
There’s also the amazing diversity of the characters in the story, and I’m not just talking about the variety of furries walking around. Main character Maika Halfwolf has only one arm, (remember when I complained last week about how hard it is to find a story featuring a disabled person just last week?) Numerous people of different skin tones appear, fighting that fantasy trope of monogamous racial cultures, where magic and dragons can be real, but a brown hobbit cannot. Just reminding myself that the society is matriarchal is a sort of giddy feeling, every time I read it. I think in my head, “oh wow, this comic does a great job of including so many different women in positions of power,” then remember “oh, duh, because that’s how they designed the societal structure. It would be weird if they weren’t all female.” Is this what straight white men feel like all the time? Oh wow, it’s amazing, so roomy, liberating! The world is my oyster! I feel compelled to make some immaturely aggressive comments about a man’s place on twitter now!
So yes, I very much want to live in the world Liu and Takeda created for Monstress, even with the wars and ancient tentacle-god monsters. I cannot, unfortunately, so I’ll just wait for the next book to come out, and the next, cherishing every glimpse into this fantastical world and story. I recommend you do the same, my friend.