Graphic Novel Review: Monstress, Vol. 1

The first thing that strikes the reader when they open Marjorie Liu’s graphic novel Monstress (2015-ongoing) is Sana Takeda’s art. A blend of East and West aesthetic and narrative tropes, Liu and Takeda embrace the high fantasy genre to produce a baroque narrative about a young woman on a quest.

Liu and Takeda’s brutal tale encompasses genocide, slavery, and torture. In the first volume, Maika Halfwolf, Liu’s protagonist, is a survivor and Takeda’s art makes sure to never shy away from showing every cut, bruise, and amputation she suffers. Volume 1 of the comic scrambles the plot around, starting the story in media res and moving backwards in time through sporadic flashback sequences.  These illustrate a barbarous world where children are abused and starved to death for the pleasures of a despotic regime. Our hero is motivated by revenge, and her journey towards her goal has her pursuing a lot of questionable survival tactics; death not only follows her wherever she goes but also infects her soul in the form of a literal demon.

In typical young adult speculative fiction, female protagonists are pigeonholed to being saviors, love interests, or sidekicks. Maika is removed completely from these typical archetypes to such a degree that as one reads the first volume of the story the reader begins to even doubt whether Maika is the hero or the malevolent destroyer of worlds that everybody in the comic seems to be chasing after.

In an interview with Comic Book Resources at the 2015 Image Expo, Liu stated her primary inspiration for the setting in Monstress was pre-World War II Shanghai, “a place where all the world converged.” The four races in the series – Humans, Ancients, Cats, Old Gods, and Arcanics – and the conflict between them all are reminiscent of the grand conflicts that shaped our Twentieth Century. Aside from that, Liu expressed how a trip to Japan’s Toho Studio and a run-in with a statue of Godzilla sparked the idea of “a girl, an outcast, someone of mixed race, someone who is a refugee from a World War I battle in Europe…what if she develops a psychic bond with these things? What happens?”

For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien epics or George R.R. Martin’s unfinished masterwork, Monstress is awash in the histories, genera and nomenclatures of its setting. Every panel is dense with world building, yet the exposition is doled out generously and interweaved with the machinations of the plot. If a person was inclined to learn even more about the world of Monstress, each issue ends with a non sequitur lecture by the esteemed Professor Tam Tam, an adorable pudgy Siamese cat, who educates the reader about various aspects of the comic’s backstory.

Monstress is a mature work of fantasy and the steampunk genre. It takes the historical and makes it mythic. Liu and Takeda craft a dark tale that doesn’t spit in the face of honesty by sugarcoating atrocities and portraying a world of just white hats and black hats. For even in a world of gods, demons, and magic, the intangibles like cruelty, hate, and fear, are the real monsters that live in the shadows – creating monsters of us all.

Monstress, Vol. 1, can be purchased on  The second volume will be released on July 5.