November 30, 2015

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Monstress #1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress #1
Written by Majorie Liu
Illustrated by Sana Takeda
Published by Image Comics

It's time for a confession about the times that I lose my objectivity when deciding whether or not to purchase a title: animals doing human things and the steampunk genre. Unfortunately, lots of media that falls into the latter category chooses the aesthetic first and then worries about slotting the plot in alongside it. Luckily for us readers, and as confirmed by Liu's letter on the final page, this series isolated a solid plotline before concerning itself with showing off the elegant and beautiful world that it exists in.
Our protagonist, Maika, has a certain demeanour that allows you to easily root for her, but there's something that stops you from completely connecting. Despite how it sounds, this is not to the detriment of the character and instead adds to the overall mystery that surrounds her. Seeing how easily she connects with people and the strong relationships that she maintains let you know that she's a kind and compassionate person at heart. However, it's easy to observe that she's been profoundly affected by her past which is clearly the thing that keeps her moving forwards.

One thing that you couldn't say about this book is that it lacks depth; granted, the enormously oversized first issue helps, but the sheer amount of information that you learn about the world is staggering. Managing to avoid all of the expositional dialogue that fills up the opening sequences of most fantasy books, the information is subtly dropped into conversation in seemingly throwaway lines and the world gradually opens up. Not only that, you quickly discover what makes this world distinct from others of its kind. It borrows from steampunk, Ancient Egypt and classic sword-and-sorcery to make something that you won't be able to find anywhere else.
A common complaint in regular epic fantasy stories is their inaccessibility and the need to adapt to a new vocabulary in the first few chapters to follow what's going on. I've always accepted this as a staple of the genre and have come to expect it when adventuring into a new world, but Liu proves throughout this entire story that this doesn't necessarily need to be the case. By using common and familiar words in a different context, you realise that they have different meanings in this universe, but you are able to instantly grasp what those are.

Now the art; we really need to talk about the art. None of this could be possible without the phenomenal landscapes that have been constructed to breath life into these ideas. The level of intricacy and care that can seen on all of the ornaments and statues that sit in the background of scenes is astounding. Each scene shows off the level of forethought that has gone into the construction of this world as well as the influences that have inspired this beautiful design. Portraying light and shadow effectively is something that always impresses me so, as Maika sits in a cell and the light from the window falls across her, it's a very atmospheric moment that permeates through the rest of the scene.
The broad range of characters that we see have been afforded the same level of care as the world that they exist in. We encounter so many different people of all shapes and sizes and each one is given their own personality and implied backstory. However, Kippa the fox girl is absolutely the stand-out character from her very first appearance helped, in part, by the brighter colouring that is used for her. The pure innocence that Takeda imbues within her every movement will cause you to fall in love; her constant embrace of her tail has to be one of the cutest and most accurate representations of a terrified child that I've seen. The understanding of the complexities of body language shows off the pure talent here.

Stories are infinitely more fascinating when you can imagine the story unfolding from the perspective of both sides of a conflict and you would still have a compelling protagonist. The vast majority of the scientists that we see are not inherently evil and you can see that they genuinely don't think that they're doing anything wrong. You could easily and effectively argue that the maiming of small children puts them on the wrong side, but everything that Maika is doing isn't exactly free from scorn. This book raises the question "When does justice become unbridled revenge?" and then leaves the reader to formulate their own answer by letting the material speak for itself.
A review of this series wouldn't be complete without the mention of its strong female leads. While this is a problem that has definitely been improving in recent years, there's still a long way to go. Although it is not the be-all and end-all test for a piece of media, the fact that this comic can pass the Bechdel test on the second page speaks volumes about the equality here. Saying that, this book isn't here to promote an agenda; it's here to tell a phenomenal, creatively fresh and gorgeous series and, with so many other outlets also seeing the light, this book is going places. It's the perfect balance between everything that it draws influence from, and is trying to be, and it absolutely deserves all of the praise that it's getting.