Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening
Comic series by Marjorie Lui (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator)
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: July 13th, 2016
Within the first issue of Monstress, we witness a slave auction, torture, threatened sexual assault, and scientific experimentation on people. And that isn't even the worst of the horror unleashed in this comic series.
Monstress takes place in a matriarchal world influenced by late 19th-early 20th Century Asia. There is a strong Ancient Egyptian influence, a smattering of steampunk-inspired vehicles and machinery, and more than a touch of Lovecraftian monstrosity.
We follow the story of teenaged Maiko Halfwolf, a one-armed girl brought up in slavery after the war. She is an Arcanic, a mix between humanity and what are called The Ancients, a race of immortal anthropomorphized animals. The world is divided between the two groups: the Federation of Man (humans) and the Arcanic Empire (Arcanics). Arcanics host a myriad of physical differences with humans: some could pass as a person, while others have animal ears or tails, wings, or even one Cyclopean eye. Their bodies produce a property called Lilum after death, which has been harnessed by the Federation of Man for potions that provide energy, healing, or even resurrection. Besides humans, Ancients, and Arcanics, there are also colossal hulking horrors that appear as ghosts and shadows, called monstra or old gods. And finally, there is a race of multi-tailed talking cats that worship an old deity who was obsessed with poetry.
The story begins with Maiko being sold to a holy order known as the Cumaea, a threatening coven of witches that wield immense magical and political power. Maiko fights back (violently) and makes her escape with a fragment of an ancient mask, inadvertently starting up the conflict again between the humans and Arcanics. For her entire life, Maiko has felt an unnatural hunger inside of her, making her wonder if, deep down, there was something monstrous within her. The mask fragment awakens an ancient creature that has been hiding insider of her for her entire life. As it turns out, there is a monster inside her. And now both sides want access to it, and her.
This comic is unlike anything else being released today. The world slowly reveals itself to us through intricate world building in the same way an epic fantasy or science-fiction novel would. Most information we are given comes from dialogue between characters and from special lessons on the world from Professor Tam Tam (one of the aforementioned talking cats), who takes a page at the end of each issue to teach us a bit about the geography, history, and cultural and political climate of the world. But it would be remiss if we ignored the book's greatest strength: the art of Japanese artist Sana Takeda. The anime and manga influences are ever-present in the character and clothing designs, but make no mistake: this is no manga. This is an artistic masterpiece. Skim through the pages and you will see panel after panel of fully-rendered and gorgeously intricate artwork. The time that it must take to illustrate even a single page must be staggering. It is by far one of the most beautiful comics to appear in recent years.
The story itself begins with a lot of confusion, as the overall plot is not entirely clear as you are immediately thrust into the world. There are many little twists and turns, but overall the story seems to want to take its time. Meanwhile, the cast slowly grows, and as more characters are introduced with different goals, more issues arise. Maiko is joined by another former slave, a fox-tailed Arcane child named Kippa, and a two-tailed cat named Master Ren. Together they begin to travel the land, trying to avoid the Cumaea's agents while searching for more information on Maiko's mysterious past. Also, there's a monster inside of her that talks to her and manifests itself as monstrous tentacles that suck the life from sentient beings. You know, the usual.
I recommend this title, but it is not for everyone. You need to have a strong stomach for appalling situations and storylines. It's not overly graphic, but the subject matter is deep. It is a fantastic approach to a tale about the horrors of war, slavery, and prejudice. It asks what would mankind do if it could access even greater forms of power (and finds us wanting). To be honest, I wasn't sure if I enjoyed it while I read through the first two issues, but as the story unfolded I realized I wanted to know more, and the art kept me going through every step of the journey. If this feels like a ride you want to take, then I highly suggest picking up a copy of Monstress.