Monstress #1 is 72 pages of immersion into a world filled with magic, but that has been torn apart by wars and their results. Writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda draw on many influences in this expansive first issue, including steampunk, urban fantasy, a dash of kaiju in a couple of the big splashes, and the dark truth of history itself. In the afterword, Liu said that Monstress was partially inspired by her grandparents surviving the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s, and the horrors of that conflict that sadly is barely touched upon in American and European history books as the Japanese sent the Chinese to labor camps and tortured and experimented upon them.
Monstress #1 truly doesn’t shy away from showing the ravages of war as Maika, the anti-heroine of the comic is sold as a slave, captured and tortured, but ends up turning the tables on her captors in a powerful, yet painful way. She looks human, but is actually an arcanic, which is someone who has both monster and human blood and is being held captive and experimented on by the Cumaea, a group of nuns led by the sadistic Sophia and dedicated to studying both science and magic. Basically, Maika would be a half-blood if she lived in the Harry Potter universe, and the Cumaea would be Death Eaters. Liu and Takeda also use the extra page count to show flashbacks to Maika’s life as a wanderer after the war with her best friend Tuya, who kept her grounded and her frightening and mysterious powers under control. Liu does an excellent job transitioning from past to present with a shared arc word of “Open” with Maika struggling to use her magical powers to open a lock in the past and to break out of prison and defeat her enemies in the present scenes.
Marjorie Liu’s plot is a pretty linear prison escape story with a side of dark magic and an adorable fox arcanic named Kippa slowly losing his innocence as he watches Maika do unmentionable things to break away from the nuns of Cumaea. But even if the plot is straightforward, Liu and Sana Takeda craft complex, broken characters and build a world that is fantastical and filled with wind swept vistas, blue energy spells, gorgeous costumes, and even perhaps an airship or two for aficionados of Cid from the Final Fantasy series. There is no clear “good guy” in Monstress #1, except for the innocent, adorable arcanic that Maika rescues even as she battles herself to control her lycanthropy and magical powers. There is also references to a “Battle of Constantine” in both Maika and Sophia’s past where Maika may have summoned monstra and killed many members of the Federation, but Liu wisely keeps these plot developments close to the chest for future installments.
Sana Takeda’s art and colors bring out the contradictory elements of the world of Monstress #1, and the inequalities of its world can be plainly seen in the first couple pages as the rich, intricate furnishings of Sir Conroy, who wants to buy Maika as a sex slave, contrast with her naked body and collar. However, even though this series of events is disgusting, Liu and Takeda give Maika agency by giving her a terse inner monologue about the costs of war, and how she doesn’t want to be a slave. Liu gifts Maika with a sharp tongue throughout the series and even several action hero-type one-liners when she fights Sophia towards the end of the issue with a steampunk-style flamethrower. On paper, this might seem like a badass moment, but Takeda doesn’t hold back from showing the gruesomeness of the burned bodies of Sophia and her guards along with a sickly orange flame. She shows Maika’s brow crinkle and her eyes beam in anger. And every time Maika kills someone, the page becomes silent, and Takeda zooms into her victims’ blank eye to show the full effects of taking a life. Maika might have good intentions, but her violent actions are taking a toll on her even if she doesn’t have complete control over them.
Supposedly, the war between the Federation and arcanics is over, but political tension brims off to the side of the main story in small talk between Sophia and her more level headed basically parole officer Atena (who is supposed to bring her in for questioning for some of her more daring experiments) and snatches of conversation heard on the city streets. This intrigue and worldbuilding doesn’t detract from Maika’s personal story, but adds color and layers to Monstress #1’s world. This isn’t a generic steampunk fantasy world, but one with a rich history and unique features, like cats being able to talk and working as assassins. The orange tom that follows Maika and Tuya around even provides some dark comic relief. Sana Takeda’s art looks like concept art from the Final Fantasy games, but she has a strong storytelling sense narrowing the panels when Maika does something violent and then opening up when she realizes the results of her actions.
There is one scene of clunky info-dump when a friend of Maika’s mother tells and sadly doesn’t show some key backstory information about her relationship with Maika’s family and a plot element that may be of future importance. However, Monstress #1 is well worth a read because of Marjorie Liu’s nuanced characterization, especially of Maika, Sophia, and Tuya in the flashbacks and application of real-world themes into an apocalyptic urban fantasy universe with intricate architectural, character, and monster design from Sana Takeda. It is full of female characters, who aren’t necessarily role models, but have rich inner lives and motivations. You’ll come for the sun-kissed shelves of Sophia’s library and the establishing shots of the Mieville-esque city of Zamora where Sophia does her “research”, but will stay for the hard-hitting, emotional story of a young woman named Maika, who is overcoming the very literal monster within her freedom seeking soul.