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Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda's Monstress Vol. 1 Finds Hope in the Midst of Hell

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Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda's <i>Monstress</i> Vol. 1 Finds Hope in the Midst of Hell

Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: July 13, 2016

STL005736.jpeg War is hell. Slavery is inhuman. These are universal truths. The full meaning of war, and of its cost, can only be grasped through our proximity to it. I have never known firsthand what it’s like to watch my home transformed into a theater of conflict. Never witnessed my family torn from me, my body branded and mutilated. But by the virtue of fiction, I have witnessed the world of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress through the eyes of Maika Halfwolf, and I am humbled for it.

Monstress takes place in an alternate world inspired by 20th-century Eurasia, reshaped by extraordinary coincidences. The setting is a supercontinent divided between two matriarchies: the Ancients, an immortal race of anthropomorphic creatures capable of great magic; and the human federation, led in part by a fanatical religious sect of “witch-nuns” known as the Cumaea. After a mutually devastating loss brought on by a single ominous event, the two groups strike an uneasy armistice, separating their respective forces behind a shield wall and abandoning countless refugees to fend for themselves in enemy territory. Among them is Maika, an “Arcanic” half-breed woman whose family was lost in the opening salvos of the war and who wanders the borderlands of the Cumaea territory. Deep down, she knows what catastrophic event brought the two nations to heel—she was there and she’s tied directly to it. A terrifying otherworldly creature has taken up residence inside of her, eating away at the limits of her sanity in its bid to be loosed upon the world once more.

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Monstress Vol. 1 Interior Art by Sana Takeda

Liu and Takeda’s creative synchronicity is already well-documented from their past collaboration on Marvel’s X-23 series. But on Monstress, the two have exceeded expectations to create a work that elicits the best from their respective talents, one sword sharpening the other. Liu, an accomplished novelist and Marvel scribe, pulls from the depths of her own lived experiences as a woman of mixed ancestry and those of her grandparents to craft a story of what it means to exist as an “other” torn between competing factions vying for the commodity of one’s body. Monstress is an unvarnished portrait of wartime depravity. The casual cruelties of cannibalism, vivisection and torture perpetrated by the Cumaea on the Arcanic recall chilling parallels to the human experimentation trials perpetrated by the Nazis, the Rape of Nanking or the atrocities committed by Unit 731 during World War II. Maika’s narration is colored by numbing desperation, her dialogue characterized by dispassionate brusqueness.

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Monstress Vol. 1 Interior Art by Sana Takeda

Speaking of physicality, Monstress has one of the most arresting first panel impressions of the year—a full-page spread of Maika being auctioned off to a group of human aristocrats. Her body is bare, her chest branded, her left arm amputated above the elbow, eyes radiating defiance and contempt. Takeda brings this scene to life, as with every other in this volume, with capable linework and a brilliant palette of stained coppers, purples and blues.

There aren’t enough ways to compliment the proficiency of Takeda’s architectural designs and character work. Her sprawling steampunk fantasy-scapes and diverse range of ornate clothing designs are one of the major draws of the entire volume. Where the series could improve is a greater emphasis on creative panel layouts, as many of the latter expository scenes and actions sequences become reliant on inset panels and repetitive compositions.

The first volume’s density is both to its benefit and detriment. Monstress is a fully realized universe replete in jargon and terminology that can be confounding on an initial reading, but nonetheless rewards the patience of returning readers.

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Monstress Vol. 1 Interior Art by Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening is one of the most visually and tonally striking books released so far this year. Liu and Takeda throw readers into their world with no half-measures, a somber and thrilling saga of how even the suffocating inhumanity of prejudice and cruelty cannot stifle the stubborn persistence of love and life.

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