Buy This Book: Liu and Takeda’s ‘Monstress’ #1 Is Beautifully Horrifying
Over the past few months, Image has had a string of amazing launches for new titles, from Black Magick to Citizen Jack to Codename Baboushka, and on down the line. It's a deck that's stacked with great comics, and specifically with great debuts, but for all the good stuff that's coming up in this crop of new launches, I don't know if anyone brought their A-game harder than Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda did in Monstress #1.
On one level, that's a function of pure mathematics. The first issue of Monstress weighs in at a massive 66 pages of story, and with that much space to work with, the authors can cover a whole lot of ground, setting up the complex, terrifying world that they're creating in a way that raises a dozen question for each harrowing answer. Really, though, it's not the quantity that makes a great comic, it's the quality, and on that front, Monstress is easily one of the best first issues of the year.
I don't want to do a disservice to Liu, because the setting, the characters, the questions that are raised as the story weaves its way through the violent, bloody and genuinely frightening first issue --- all the things that we traditionally think of as being the products of the writer --- are incredibly well-crafted and engaging, but Takeda's work here was so good that it's downright revelatory. I'm mostly familiar with her as a cover artist, and going into this issue, I'll admit to wondering if the striking visuals that she's known for in that field would translate well to sequential pages. And as you might've already guessed, they do.
Her work is deceptively expressive, and once the action jumps off, it flows amazingly from one panel to the next, even with the addition of ornate weaponry and complex choreography in play:
What really struck me about the book, though, was the sheer amount of detail that she puts into every panel. It's there in the fights --- like I said, there's an extremely ornate steampunk shotgun involved in that fight scene above --- but it especially comes through in the establishing shots.
The idea of a world where magic exists but has gone horribly wrong isn't exactly a new one, but Takeda isn't just drawing a standard fantasy setting and adding smokestacks and soot-stained walls. Her depiction of the city of Zamora definitely has those smokestacks, but they're combined with a view of the city that's oppressively crowded and uncomfortable, a place that immediately looks like somewhere you don't want to be.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly the case for the characters that we're following.
All of which is to say with Takeda's art setting the tone for the story, Monstress manages to hit every single note that it goes for. There are scenes in this first issue that are disturbing and uncomfortable by design, and under a lesser artist, they would've come off as uncomfortable in a way that would have pulled me out of the story. Here, though, it's the kind of discomfort that draws me in, that makes the horror of what Maika is facing come to life and makes the threat in every piece of dialogue that Liu has written come through with every ounce of menace intact.
At its heart, this first issue of Monstress is a revenge story. The magic, steampunk and the monsters all provide the set dressing, but the core of it, the reason that you keep turning pages, is that very relatable desire to see the awful people they're presenting us with get every horrible fate that's coming to them --- and the fear that they won't. And in that respect, Liu and Takeda do an incredible job of setting things up.
Even before we know Maika's story, even from the very first page when all we know is that she's willing to go through some truly horrific things just to get her hands around someone's neck, the book is set up to tell you just how horrible this world is.
The basic idea that's revealed over the course of those 66 pages is that there was a war between the science-witches of the Cumaea and the Arcanics, magical creatures that have some of the features of animals or otherwise appear monstrous. When we join the story, there's a stalemate, but it's not exactly the kind that can last, if for no other reason than it's only a peace for one side. For the other, it's an endless string of horrors that starts in slavery and just goes downhill from there, getting worse and worse with every passing page.
The Arcanics are the ones getting the raw end of that particular deal, and for this issue, most of the ones that we see are children, miniature cyclopses or a tiny, huge-eyed fox-girl that looks like Cindy Lou Who on her way to the Sonic the Hedgehog convention. It's an aesthetic that's almost hilariously manipulative, the comics equivalent of having someone point a gun at an adorable puppy in order to get you to care, but again, it's one of those moments where Liu and Takeda elevate what they're doing to something better.
It's consciously manipulative, but the horrors that surround everything that's happening --- all the way down to vivisection and cannibalism --- are at an extreme where it would be impossible to not feel fear on behalf of the characters. The adorableness is just the frosting on that particular anxiety cake.
And that, I think, is Monstress #1's greatest accomplishment. There's a complicated amount of world-building and an incredible hook that comes at the end, a mixture of ghosts and gods and magic bombs that can turn the tide of the war, and all that's very, very interesting. But what it really does well is that core of revenge, and the creepy, unsettling horror that makes that revenge feel necessary. It's a balance between an epic scope and a very personal desire for vengeance that makes it a very compelling first issue.
And with so much in that first issue, there are plenty of reasons to experience it for yourself.