Welcome, or welcome back, to Read Pile, where I, Keigen Rea, and hopefully a large, ever-growing mass of individuals will be, as EIC Dave Shevlin put it, “reducing our read piles to read piles,” and writing about those books, one at a time.
This Read Pile is from writer Katie Liggera, who writes for The Daily Fandom and is a creative writing graduate as of the 19th, so hurry up and pay her to write! You can find her @kataloupee on Twitter. For what I hope is her first Read Pile, Katie chose ‘Monstress Book One,’ created by Marjorie Liu & Santa Takeda, lettering and design by Rus Wooton, edited by Jennifer M. Smith with editorial assistant Cheri Riley, and Erika Schnatz on design and production.
A tweet by a fellow comic book lover piqued my interest in Marjorie Liu’s epic fantasy comic, Monstress. The tweet showed an image of a luxuriantly drawn background with endearingly cute cats pervading the foreground. Cats? Astounding artistry? A comic book saga that spans 30+ issues? I was hooked before I even picked up an issue.
I tried to read the first three or four issues digitally, but squinting at a tiny phone screen cannot wholly capture the Monstress reading experience. Monstress contains two-fold art spreads and novel-like dialogue that deserves full reader immersion through reading thick, tangible pages. The Barnes and Noble Exclusive edition of Monstress: Book One contains the first 18 issues.
My Monstress: Book One is signed by the immensely talented Marjorie Liu herself, and I stare at that signature in awe. This oversized collection also contained two pages of postcard sized Monstress cover art I have yet to display on my wall.
So why, after purchasing this 500+ page behemoth of a comic collection, did I let it sit on my shelf for months? I attribute my folly to the difficulty in reading this book unless you have a desk and an ample light source on hand — two elements I am severely lacking most days.
After staring at this huge book emblazoned “MONSTRESS” on the spine for too long, I picked it up and read the entire thing in less than two days. Reading a physical book this gigantic while laying in bed was no easy feat. Once I started reading, I chided myself for not pulling Monstress off the shelf sooner. Monstress’ Asian-inspired world full of Gods, monsters, and matriarchal women gives new meaning to escapist literature.
Honestly, the reason it took as long as it did for me to complete the whole book (I’m typically a speed reader) is due to the sheer enormity of information on each page. My eyes and brain could not adequately process the massive amount of dialogue and intricately detailed artwork by Sana Takeda without stopping to admire its profundity and beauty.
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda must be aware of their own brilliance. Monstress won five Eisner awards. Take one look at the lush artistry on every single page and the expansive lore Liu reveals each issue: It’s not hard to see why Monstress isn’t deserving of every award out there for story, art, and overall female empowerment.
These two women are a powerhouse team. I can only aspire to create a labyrinthian narrative this intriguing. Liu masters engaging storytelling in the comic book format, even when there’s an overwhelming amount of information to ingest (thank goodness for the two-page Glossary provided at the end!). And Takeda’s steampunk, Japanese art speaks for itself. Each panel draws your eyes in, more details slowly emerging the longer you stare at it.
The protagonist, Maika, essentially becomes an unstoppable mutant. A Monstrum living inside her, sporadically emerging from her missing arm stump, renders Maika nearly invincible. This monster, Zinn, requires sustenance beyond any mortal meal. Therefore, Maika murders and eats a massive amount of animals, people, and even a siren to fill the beast’s appetite. Monstress’s gore rivals any comic I’ve read, but never repulsed me. The gore in Monstress is beautiful.
Zinn and Maika wield immense power whenever Maika faces enemies. Although Maika faces death several times, she never fully dies — a powerful characteristic bestowed to a fictional protagonist. Usually, the stakes in a narrative story are kept in check by the inevitable threat of death/harm from enemies. In Monstress, Maika gets shanked, beaten, and knifed, but never truly faces that threat of succumbing to her injuries.
Besides nearly immortality, Maika is also hilariously sarcastic and pessimistic. She did lose her mother, has a monster living inside her, and everyone wants to kill her, so her attitude makes sense. Her annoyed responses are endlessly entertaining. Despite Zinn’s residence inside Maika, she never stops badmouthing the Monstrum.
Zinn’s words manifest inside dark turquoise, wavering speech balloons. Maika’s banter toward this ominous presence, even when Zinn’s dialogue is only present, feels humorously refreshing. Liu’s weaves this incredibly complex narrative, brimming with emotional life lessons, while also providing comic relief in any given panel. Takeda flawlessly captures the tone and believable character emotion in Maika’s facial expressions. Maika comes across as a real person, even though her experiences represent pure fiction. Liu and Takeda possess unreal talent.
I also want to applaud the Monstress ladies for creating a protagonist that struggles with facets of control as a consequence of her unresolved mental health issues. Control emerges as a thematic character flaw, but not only as a result of Zinn’s control over Maika’s body. Maika suffered an unimaginable amount of real trauma and abuse (she’s not just a ‘quirky’ girl). Her actions, dialogue, and anger toward those around her directly correlate with her horrifying upbringing. Thus, Maika’s conflicted attitude toward war, relationships, and control dramatizes her clearly evident character arc.
Liu works overtime to emphasize that Maika is allowed to fully express her resentment and anger, especially as a teenager. Teenage years are hard. Life is hard. Learning emotional balance remains a wonderfully important theme in Monstress I greatly appreciated. Constant expectations fall on Maika to save everyone or murder a group of people or to protect her companions from Zinn. She complains — a lot — but never refuses to help those in need, and that’s what makes Maika a continually compelling character.
Kippa, Maika’s fox-human hybrid companion throughout the entirety of Monstress: Book One, is wise beyond her years. At first, I was annoyed at Kippa’s character tagging along with Maika everywhere (probably stemming from my own personal thoughts about kids).
As each issue progressed, I grew to love Kippa’s adorable art design and her words of wisdom. Liu utilizes Kippa as a significant character foil to Maika. Crucially, Kippa also has special sensory abilities that vitally aid Maika. I questioned Kippa’s purpose until I realized her usefulness and, in contrast to Maika, her optimism.
What I most respected about Kippa is the thematic dialogue Liu gives her. Liu grants Kippa with a lot of those quotable, summarizing lines in most issues of Monstress that personally resonated with me. I love a good quote.
Finally, I have to end this article talking about the most enthralling part of Monstress: Book One: cats! If a comic has cats in it (Captain Ginger, Inkblot, etc.), I’m reading it. I don’t even care if the comic is good, I just want to see adorable drawings of those furry felines! All the cats in this universe are children of Ubasti, making cats both ancient and powerful, as they should be.
At the end of most issues in this book, there are full pages of lecture excerpts from this old professor cat named “Tam Tam”. These are always a joy to read, since Takeda draws Tam Tam with little glasses on his nose while he teaches youthful kittens in a variety of environments. Art of cats with human adornments fills my heart with joy.
Takeda draws the most expressive cats I’ve ever seen in a comic series. The third main protagonist, Master Ren, is a Nekromancer in the Monstress universe. Ren is an orange and white cat with two tails that can talk to and raise the dead. Orange cats have strong personalities, so it was great to see Ren inked in orange.
Ren is a spy of some sort, because, even though I love cats, you can’t trust those mysterious felines. I love that Liu made his wavering alliances part of Ren’s character. Throughout the entirety of Monstress, Ren accompanies Maika and Kippa. Ren’s well-timed comebacks and terrified cursing relieves tension in action-packed scenes. In Monstress #18, at the very end of this book, Ren’s fate lies in limbo! If he doesn’t survive the series, I’ll be sorely heartbroken.
My all time favorite pages are in Monstress #13. The group eats at a restaurant, served wine and food by bipedal cats. The art here depicts cats as little waiters, and I can’t fully describe my adoration for the scenes. Takeda obviously had a lot of fun drawing these hilariously humanoid-acting cats while Maika is conversing about dark topics like war and murder. Takeda’s exceptional art never fails to impress or impact.
I could probably write about Monstress: Book One all day, but I’ll stop here. Monstress was fully worth lugging out from the “read” pile. Fortunately, I’m getting the fourth and fifth volumes of Monstress for Christmas, so I can add those right back on to my “to-read” list!
Thanks for reading this week’s Read Pile! Next time will be the EIC Himself, our humble king, Dave Shevlin with a special Christmas Read Pile. As always, contact myself (@prince_organa is the best place to contact me) if you want to be a part of this column, or Dave (squealing with joy typically summons him) if you want to pitch to CFC. Have a good day!