Written by: Marjorie Liu
Art by: Sana Takeda
First off, full disclosure: Before reading the Monstress trade for review I had previously read the first issue when it came out and was flabbergasted that the series got so popular. I couldn’t understand how I could see this comic as complete drivel when so many people were in love with it. ‘Am I missing something?’ I thought to myself, but after checking again and again, I found that I really was reading the same comic as everyone else and no, I hadn’t missed any pages that suddenly made it better.
I chose to review this complete volume to try and better understand why I felt so strongly about the issue and, hopefully, to be proven wrong. I just want to say now, before you leap down to the comments section to yell at me, I did enjoy the book but bear with me here…
Before I get ahead of myself, here’s a quick blurb of the introductory plot. The story exists in a steampunk-ish fantasy world with four notable races populating it:
- The immortal, ancients which take the form of anthropomorphic animals such as monkeys or wolves.
- Arcanas, the half-breeds born from ancients and humans.
- Cats, sentient creatures which often work as poets, historians and spies.
There is also a fifth race, the Elder Gods which are long dead and only their ghosts patrol the landscape now (leading to some of the most awe-inspiring visuals I have seen in a comic in some time), but I won’t go into detail on that for spoiler reasons.
In this world an amnesic Arcana called Maika Halfwolf struggles to survive in order to find out about her mother’s death, what atrocity actually happened at Constantine, and what her part was in all of it as a young girl.
Let’s begin the critique with the art. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of wonderful things about Takeda’s art, how the eastern influences really shine through in the details she goes into on fabric and surroundings and just how jaw-droppingly gorgeous she makes every panel look. Well let me tell you something… that is 100% true! It just looks absolutely amazing! I mean, did you see those two panels up above? I have seen some outstanding comic book artwork, but that is one of the few I would get a print of.
The art does have its faults though, despite how delightful I find Takeda’s mastery and usage of light and shadow in various scenes. Faces at times do come off as a bit too… well anime looking, and there does tend to be an over usage of ‘want to make someone look evil? Give them a wrinkly face and some hard, pointy eyes.’ On top of that, Takeda’s art can be too graceful and clean at times, leading to a loss of impact from the often bloody violence and settings, which should look dank and disgusting. The result is something that’s too picturesque.
For the first two issues, my initial impression of the series held true as I found myself taking much more negative notes than positive; this was not the pleasant surprise I was hoping for. I also kept finding myself thinking that everything I had seen here I had seen somewhere else before, at least in one form or another. Most often I found myself looking at Berzerk, although admittedly with any dark fantasy with even a hint of an eastern influence, it’s hard NOT to look at Berzerk. If you’re wanting the Kentaro Miura experience, you won’t be finding it here. Monstress is nowhere near as dark (note this is in reference to Berzerk, Monstress without that comparison is VERY grim), the focus is more on lore and world building than on story and character, and although Maiko and her fox-child companion do share similarities to Guts (or Gatsu) and some of his companions, they are nowhere near as interesting.
Maiko constantly reminds me of the heroes I would read about in my teenage fantasy books such as Robin Hobb’s Fitz Chivalry or Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. By this I mean they share that sort of rash, ‘No, I’m the hero!’ attitude that I really enjoyed in my younger years but now I just roll my eyes at and wish the character would develop a little faster.
In this we come to my main problem with the story, which I’ve titled:
Dialog And How It Interacts With Character Development.
You see, character development and characterization are thrown out the window in order to make room for telling the history and lore of the lands, which is brought to us almost entirely in dialog. This leads to some very strange conversations that seem odd and clunky as characters tell each other exposition that the other person in the conversation is bound to already know such as this scene where the state of the war is first laid out for us:
It’s that last sentence that does it for me, just a bit too much information in there for an insult. I don’t think a person would add those last bits in unless there was an audience that had to be told about the war (although maybe I’m just reaching). In any case, because Liu is nothing if not ambitious, her world and history are actually impressively vast. This leads to allot of dialog being ‘oh remember when this happened? That sure was something!’ The characters never get a chance to sit down, eat a burger and shoot the shit, so to speak. Scenes like that are more important than dramatic shocks and detailed history, because if you don’t care about the characters that the shocks and history affect, then what’s the point? If you asked me to briefly describe the two main protagonists in this book it would just be, ‘one’s an innocent youth, the other’s a hardened survivor.’ Characters like these need more personality than that to endear themselves to us, and we need that in order to want to see them succeed and grow through their struggles. That can’t be carried out if we don’t know what sort of people they are.
At this point I really was not having a fun time with the book. About 130 pages in and wasn’t holding out any hope for it to get much better. Then issue three happened.
From issue three onwards, the story had finally built enough solid ground that it could move on its own two feet pretty confidentially. The clunky and awkward exposition of broad backstory we’ve seen a hundred times before was now replaced by more fluid and natural dialog, designed to give insight into characters, progress plotlines and, my favourite, give interesting details into what it is that makes this world unique. The world that Marjorie Liu has created is very interesting and has great depth, but the book perhaps spends far too long getting to the interesting bits, spending too long building up things I wasn’t interested in like the mystery of Constantine and how mysterious Maiko’s past is.
From this point onwards we begin to see events from points of view other than Maika, the most interesting character is introduced (yet to be named), we see some action that’s actually entertaining, as opposed to the far too sterile fighting from earlier, and the story moves further away from its influences and becomes its own world. It follows that sagely nugget of internet advice and gits gud.
The part that is most interesting to me is seeing things from the Arcana society’s perspective, that they are not as strong or united as we thought, and getting to see some of the political intrigue that is involved with them. Not only that, but from the halfway point there are some serious twists that had me sitting upright in my chair and going ‘Oh, Shit!’ That’s when I realized it had happened: I was absorbed into the story, I was enjoying it, and I wanted to see where it would take me next.
This book is pretty evenly split between parts I thought were good and those I thought were bad; however, I would accept that we couldn’t get the second half of the volume so perfectly if the first hadn’t been the way it was, although I find it hard to overlook parts. I really must stress just how downright amazing the second half of this book is. It’s sensational! And I would recommend you go out and get it just to see what you think of it yourself. It is very inexpensive, for £8 (or equivalent) you get about 200 pages of amazing art and some pretty solid fantasy. I certainly ended up loving this book and if you’re willing to give it a chance, you will too.