By E. Kirshe
Monstress Vol. 1 compiles a compelling story into a physically beautiful book. This volume is a collection of the first six issues of the Monstress series.
The surface plot is engaging fantasy fare- we have a young woman with a mysterious past driving her current path which includes danger and dark magic. She holds a dark power- in this case a literal demon living inside her- and is caught in the middle of an old war. Liu is a fantastic storyteller. She tackles a lot of different themes in this fairly short volume and does so almost seamlessly.
The world of Monstress is a Matriarchal early 1900s Asian-inspired fantasy world. The land is populated by humans, the magical half-breed Arcanics (half Ancient race, half human) and the seeming ghosts of massive old gods litter the landscape. This first arc follows Maika Halfwolf, a humanoid Arcanic with a dark past and a tortured present. Maika enters the story at odds with The Cumaea, a coven of witches who use the Arcanic’s life force for their own ends.
Dropped into a dark and bloody opening, Maika’s journey immediately draws the reader into the action. Liu also dives right into slavery, racism, and the horrors of living in a war torn reality. Maika’s world is a grim one, and the book doesn’t shy away from harsh realities. Maika’s memories are violent and tortured her personality harsh as it should be. Her personal inner fury and turmoil twisted up with a literal monster really drives home everything Liu writes about. It should also be noted that the supporting cast are expertly characterized and none are untouched by this world and believably inhabit it- friend and foe alike are trying to achieve their own objectives. Creative, bleak, yet humorous at times, Liu crafts a real page turner of a fantasy.
This is a world with a deep mythos and there’s no hand-holding from Liu, information about this complex world is mainly revealed slowly layered in with the story. For some, this may be difficult to keep track of but I personally found the natural progression refreshing- you aren’t removed from the narrative for exposition. For those that like a little more information don’t let the learning curve deter you- later chapters are supplemented by in-world academic lectures by the delightful profesor Tam-Tam which lays out some specific information you may need for the story so it’s still an easy world to get a grip on.
Monstress is a dark story with a stunningly designed world to match. Liu’s story is overlaid onto Takedas beautiful and dark artwork. Takeda uses color and tone expertly to highlight appropriate panels and choreographs chaotic action sequences across the page leaving them unmuddled. Takeda brings Liu’s world to life with the occasional sweeping landscape, complex architecture, machinery and beautiful art deco flourishes across the fashion and art of the world. Lius complex characters are rendered as unique individuals. This book is a prime example of how art and writing should work together.
The sheer amount of information may warrant a re-read before volume 2, but anyone who gets into it now will hardly consider that a chore. This book is the product of two gifted creators working extremely well together. The blend of horror, heart, thoughtful characterization (of a refreshingly almost entirely female cast) and utterly well paced writing will make readers eager for more.
Monstress volume 3 will be released August 2018 from Image Comics.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.