‘My body isn’t my own’: War, Monsters, and Matriarchy in Monstress (2015- )

by: , May 1, 2018

Mainstream comics have a bad history when it comes to representations of women and minority characters. While this is starting to change, we are still in a time when a mainstream comics series with a cast of minority women as its dominant characters is of note. Set in an alternate 1920s, matriarchal Asia, Monstress (2015-present) creates a Kantian sublime world of decadent horror. Using its fantasy setting, it deals with the effects of persecution and enslavement, war’s impact on survivors and society, all with an almost entirely female cast that is diverse in race and fictionalized culture. Writer Marjorie Liu, inspired by her Chinese grandparents’ experience of World War II, wanted to explore how a person can remain human after the dehumanizing experience of war and persecution, so she set this series in a deliberately women- and Asia-centric world. Drawn by Japanese artist Sana Takeda, the art of this series is as hybrid as the characters within: mixing manga (Japanese comics) and Western-style comics art with art deco and steampunk, resulting in a sublime world of opulence that makes the brutal actions of its inhabitants even more disturbing and horrific. Through the hybrid character of seventeen-year-old Maika Halfwolf, Monstress presents a transcendent character who is mixed race, physically marked by her lineage, hosting a monstrum, and missing her left arm. She is an imperfect character, who defies her oppressors and the monster within her, fighting every step of the way to transcend her circumstances and find answers about her mother and herself. This article examines the presentation of Maika, the world and style of Monstress, its treatment of women’s bodies and how Monstress uses style, folklore, war, race, and women’s bodies to create an example of hybrid storytelling on multiple levels. There is both consumer demand and critical need for stories of diversity, hybridity, and transcendence within the contemporary comics industry. Monstress’ first volume Awakening (2015) won a Hugo award for best graphic story and the second volume The Blood (2017) topped the graphic novel sales charts of 2017 and became a New York Times Bestseller, proving that there is an interest and demand for these stories. (MacDonald 2017)

To examine Monstress, this article uses the works of two philosophers whose concepts help clarify what Liu and Takeda have created with their series: Immanuel Kant’s sublime, and Simone de Beauvoir’s immanence and transcendence. The application of Kant’s philosophy to comics is not new. Douglas Wolk applies Kant’s sublime to comics in his book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2008), saying, ‘Sublime things give a kind of pleasure that’s also a kind of terror (and their viewer’s reactions vacillate between the two, rather than being unalloyed pleasure) – they’re too big to wrap one’s brain around […] and comics occasionally literalize that idea: they’re a good medium for conveying a sense of physical hugeness, or even infinity.’ (Wolk 2008: 56) Comics are visual, they can elicit reactions and use their art to convey abstract meaning, even something as complex as the sublime. Takeda’s art for this series is a prime example of Wolk’s application of Kant’s sublime. That a person can look at a thing and find it both horrifying and beautiful and by extension feel a sense of infinity, is not beyond comics or any visual medium. Wolk’s example concerns supervillains in alternate plains of existence, a space used often in series like Dr. Strange (1963-Present) and The Sandman (1989-2015). That comics have the ability—through their genres—to explore different planes of existence and realms of reality, are also what allows them to explore the sublime and use it as a means of creating wonder as well as horror.

The second concept is Simone de Beauvoir’s conflict between immanence and transcendence which comes from her influential work The Second Sex (2011 [1949]). De Beauvoir uses these terms to describe the state of both women and men. She asserted that women were repeatedly kept in a state of immanence, thus making them objects and so ineffectual and inactive, whereas men were in a state of transcendence: active, subjects, and in control. (De Beauvoir 2011: 37) Comics frequently support de Beauvoir’s point with female characters serving as romantic interests, sidekicks, or killed to spur the hero into action. These immanent depictions show the ‘absolute evil’ de Beauvoir saw as the limiting sterility of women’s lives. Alternatively, male characters are given the transcendent roles in series, allowing them to, as de Beauvoir describes it, ‘accomplish[] freedom […] by perpetual[ly] surpassing toward other freedoms.’ (37) Liu however, creates in Monstress a world of transcendent women by giving them the power in the societies of her series, and at the individual level with characters like Maika, Kippa, Tuya, Sophia, Yvette, Atena, and Syryssa, Liu shows women striving and being active agents in their lives.

Thus, after a brief summary of Monstress’s plot and characters, this article explores how Takeda’s hybrid art and Liu’s adaptation of Eastern and Western folklore exemplify Kant’s sublime and de Beauvoir’s transcendence. This hybridity extends into the next section, where the art and story of the series are examined revealing transcendent cultures, races, and by extension characters. Following on, it addresses the effects of war and violence within the series, and how these transcendent races and matriarchal cultures are not immune to atrocities and martial politics. Finally, women’s bodies, their use, and their representation in the series are analysed to exemplify how this female-driven, empowering comics series is effective and successful.

Monstress Summary

Monstress’ setting is the Known World, an alternate, Asia-centric reality that is divided between humans and Arcanics, who are half human half Ancient—anthropomorphised animal-gods. This division resulted in a war, with the humans lead by the Cumaea, a female ‘religious’ order of witch-nun scientists who use Lilium, magic harvested from the bones of Arcanics. The main Cumaeans are Sophia, a scientist obsessed with discovering the truth behind the destruction of the city of Constantine, her mother Yevette, and Destria, the Mother Superior of the order. The story picks up five years after the battle of Constantine, where a bomb-like weapon killed all combatants on both sides and only eight Arcanic children survived. One of those survivors is Maika Halfwolf, the protagonist, who looks human, but is granddaughter to the Ancient, Queen of Wolves. Maika, like all Arcanics captured by humans during the war, was kept in a slave concentration camp where she met her best friend Tuya, also a human-appearing Arcanic, and during their escape at the battle of Constantine, Mika loses her left arm from the elbow down. After the war she and Tuya stayed together as friends and lovers, but Maika eventually leaves Tuya to investigate her mother Moriko’s murder and the monstrum, Zinn, that lives in her left arm and causes her to have a nearly insatiable hunger driving her to slaughter living things. The monstrum are the Old Gods who were killed long before the series begins, leaving only their colossal ghosts haunting the countryside. Zinn is one of the few still alive.

Maika’s search leads her to be sold into slavery and hunted by Destria, after Maika escapes and steals a piece of a mask that grants great power to the wearer. However, not all humans in the Known World hate the Arcanics: Atena and her Arcanic brother Resak are trying to mobilize the human government against the Cumaea after an extended period of undercover infiltration, and the cities of Thyria and Pontus are still home to many Arcanics, though tensions and resentments exist between their human and Arcanic citizens. Overall, the series’ world is full of creatures inspired by Eastern and Western folklore, dominantly populated by women within all the races—excluding the hermaphroditic monstrum—and the societies’ cultural and racial diversity echoes our own.

Hybrid Style

Monstress is not the first comics series to combine manga and comic book art styles, but its hybrid setting and story add significance to that choice of style. It is the result of Liu’s plan for the world and Takeda’s wish to ‘make it something unique.’ (Magnett & Takeda  2015) Takeda and Liu wanted a world of decadence, so they combined the look of art deco with steampunk resulting in panels that cause the eye to linger as it is pulled into the intricate details, patterns, and accents that make the world seem alive with a history and art movements of its own. The human spaces of Monstress are shown with brass metal accents, pipes, guns, vehicles, and science. The combination of art deco and steampunk makes these spaces intricate and nuanced to look at and enhances the horrific actions of the humans by juxtaposing them against the beautiful artistry of the background space. Such as when, early in Awakening (Volume One), a series of panels depict the dissection of an Arcanic cyclops by Cumaean girls as a university elective course. The space within the laboratory is busy with the tools of their craft as well as Takeda’s addition of patterned walls and hanging electric lights, while also showing the severed limbs, heads, and organs of the children being harvested. That an earlier flashback showed Maika out on the steppe, hunting a pack of hyena-looking creatures and eating a heart while crying, contrasts both spaces. The Cumaea, here, are shown taking innocent children and butchering them for the scant magic in their bones, while Maika is shown hunting out of a hunger she cannot yet control. That Maika cries while the Cumaean students are apathetic, fosters horror in differing ways around similar acts of consumption. One is the horror of brutal acts done with indifference, the other is the horror of a creature with a hunger she cannot control.

 

Takeda uses a vertical eye motif repeatedly throughout the series in both designs and dress patterns. A symbol revealed to be linked to the Shaman-Empress and the sublime Old Gods. This recurring eerie imagery creates a feeling of observation as well as oppression and manifests literally in the monstrum Zinn living in Maika’s left arm.

Takeda’s style creates a rich world with diverse peoples, exemplified by how Maika’s confinement in Zamora contrasts with the open space and freedom of her time on the steppe. Maika and Tuya’s costume and yurt resembles the style of dress and abode of the nomadic tribes of eastern Asia, though with Takeda’s invented patterns. This contrasts with the ornate floral designs and Chinese-style dress of the Cumaean women and the busy spaces within the laboratory. This juxtaposition shows the humans as being more industrial and ‘civilised’ while the Arcanics are shown as free roaming and more tribal, avoiding the ‘civilization’ which seeks to make them slaves. Overall, Takeda’s panels are always full, and she often uses canted angles to fully present the ornate opulence of interior spaces, emphasising the imposing and busy spaces of the various cities and buildings, with the vast open spaces outside it. She also uses them in the traditional cinematic sense, indicating suspicious or sinister characters with angled views. Comics are a hybrid art form, borrowing from films, art, novels, and photography. Thus, Takeda’s use of not only angles and distance, but also forced perspective to create the feel that one is standing in the space on the page, combined with her already hybrid art style of manga and Western comics, creates a world of varying cultures and spaces inhabited by people with traditions and styles of their own, though familiar to readers.

Takeda’s comics style has always had hints of manga to it, but with Monstress she is able to extend that style further to the look of the characters so that they are Eastern-looking Asians and not just Westerners drawn in an Eastern style. She still uses the comics format of full colour panels, and does so to its upmost as she fills each space with details from the world, making her backgrounds more like a photograph or a film instead of flat, blank, or empty. This extends to the fashion of the world which is distinctly Eastern with some Western touches. We see Maika’s mother, Moriko, and Yvette wearing archaeologist-style tan clothes in an old photograph, but in person and in flashbacks both women wore more traditional robes or costumes with Takeda’s art deco geometric patterns for Moriko and peacock feather prints for Yvette. The style of clothing clearly shifts between cultures and cities in the series, from the Chinese dress of the Cumaea in Zamora to the English and pirate style dress of the port city of Thyria. This creates a fleshed-out world of distinct people and cultures with unique styles. While Takeda appropriates fashions from our world, her art and the actions of the characters re-inscribes the clothing with hybrid signification: combining our world’s associations with the new associations from the series’ cultures and societies. Takeda uses a vertical eye motif repeatedly throughout the series in both designs and dress patterns. A symbol revealed to be linked to the Shaman-Empress and the sublime Old Gods. This recurring eerie imagery creates a feeling of observation as well as oppression and manifests literally in the monstrum Zinn living in Maika’s left arm. The visuals of Monstress’ world are as hybrid as the material that is their subjects, with Liu’s writing pulling from Eastern and Western folklore, these style combinations are a perfect fit for their subject matter.

Hybrid Folklore

Liu stated that she drew from Chinese and Japanese folklore for the inspiration for the creatures and people of her series, particularly the Japanese yōkai and kaiju. (Brothers 2016) Many yōkai are hybrid creatures that are part human or present a human illusion, and this quality is seen in Liu’s invented races: the Ancients and the Arcanics. Both appear as some iteration of an anthropomorphised animal or a human with animal characteristics. They have some degree of magic in their bones because they are either descendants of the Ancients or are Ancients themselves. The Ancients often have multiple tails indicating their great age, a concept also taken from yōkai. Liu’s Nekomancers are based on the Japanese nekomata, bakeneko, and the Chinese senri. These creatures grow additional tales as they age and were believed to be able to raise and control the dead with their magic and ceremonies, all of which Liu incorporates into her cat race. They are strongly persecuted by humans, but within Arcanic-sympathetic spaces, are shown to thrive, have temples, and often quote their poet-sages.

Liu uses the kaiju tradition as the inspiration for her Old Gods. The Ancients rose up and waged a war that killed them making them ‘ghosts of dead gods’, whose ‘shadows haunt this world’, which do not react or interact with living creatures. (Liu & Takeda 2016: 45 & 168) Takeda’s drawings of the Old Gods are arguably the best examples in the series of the Kantian sublime. These creatures are massive, unnatural, and Takeda draws them with vertical eyes and bodies that seem to be made up of many writhing tentacles or worm-like lengths. They are mostly transparent, enigmatically appearing along valleys and out in the wild in their various forms. Through a flashback we see Zinn’s full form and learn that the Old Gods are genderless or possibly hermaphroditic creatures as they refer to each other as ‘sister-brother.’ (Liu & Takeda 2017: 93) Rather than being mindless giants who are only there to destroy cities and battle against each other, the Old Gods are just seeking a home, but are unable to do so without draining the life from the places they inhabit. These creatures are presented as higher beings, transcending gender and form, with the implication of the horrifying yet beautiful infinite that Kant saw as sublime. These creatures establish a history, and in the form of Zinn, a challenge Maika faces and understands, after discovering knowledge about herself. While Maika threatens to get rid of Zinn and is afraid of it as a hungry horror living within her, by the end of The Blood, she and Zinn are united and are able to work together to deal with the threats they face, rather than each taking a turn or trying to dominate the other. That she works with her monster rather than trying to kill or get it out of herself, mirrors her own process of dealing with not only the trauma of her time in the slave concentration camps, but also reflects her attempts to reconcile her troubled relationship with her mother. Once Maika accepts her hybrid state she and Zinn are able to work together as they seek out answers to their pasts bound up in the enigma that is the Shaman-Empress.

Liu’s characters and story draws from Western folklore as well as Eastern mythologies. For example, The Blood introduces a race of mermaids who have two tails, resembling the French melusine or Greek sirens and when Maika sets sail for a dangerous island, she encounters a ferryman of bone similar to Kharon, the ferryman of the dead from Greek mythology. Additionally, the pirates Maika encounters in The Blood are like those of Treasure Island (1882), and the Dusk and Dawn Courts that are the two Ancient factions, resemble in name and theme the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Irish, Scottish, and English fairy tale tradition. The Dawn Court’s Monkey King is a nod to Sun Wukong, the Monkey King traced back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279 BC) of China and is perhaps best known as a protagonist from Journey to the West (1592 print). Zinn and Maika’s shared memory space resembles the inside of a pyramid or ancient Egyptian temple with hieroglyphics and Egyptian symbols and patterns. Maika’s ancestor was known as the Shaman-Empress and is often shown with a jackal head mask with Egyptian-style accents and designs emphasising how she existed in the far past while conveying that she had great power in that time. Using signifiers like ancient Egyptian art styles triggers readers to associate anything depicted in that style and space as likewise being ancient, and the combination of shaman and empress for her title not only emphasises her magical ability as one that interacts with spirits, but also that she has total rule. The hybrid title embodies the interactions between not only magic and power, but also between the cultures and history associated with both terms. These examples of allusion, adaptation, and hybridity enhance the overall hybridity of the series, and by presenting it in Takeda’s style Monstress exemplifies a multicultural, richly diverse world that reflects America’s own multiracial population and cultural history.

Some of these allusions to folkloric tales are more explicitly used as a means of transgressing readers’ expectations and associations for these tales and mainstream comics’ tropes. In Awakening, Maika is placed in a ‘naraka sarcophagus’ which, in keeping with Takeda’s style, has a brass metal locking mechanism, the vertical eye motif, and a transparent window at the top showing Maika’s sleeping face. (Liu & Takeda 2016: 171) This continuation of Egyptian and steampunk imagery is now combined with a Snow White allusion allowing its accompanying associations and expectations to be transgressed as Maika wakes and frees herself from her magical sleep without a prince’s intervention. Her capability is reinforced repeatedly throughout the series. While Monstress is not the first comics series to have a capable, mixed-race female lead, Maika’s hybridity combined with her capability allow for an empowering example of female and minority representation. Others give her assistance throughout her journey—especially Zinn—but it is always only Maika driving herself onwards and she pulls the others with her as she faces down and deals with every impediment to her journey. The lack of a prince, or any male romantic interest for her, adds to her transcendent character as she is more interested in her relationships with women than those with men. The only exception to this is her relationship with Seizi, an old friend of her mother’s. Overall, romance in Monstress’ first two volumes has only appeared between same-sex couples: Sophia and Atena (two human women), Seizi and Kenzi (Arcanic tiger-men), and the Queen of Thyria (human) and the Mermaid Queen. These relationships are not seen as taboo, or anything but normal, with the world’s diversity of people being the main source of discrimination, and at times, extreme racism. Monstress in this regard is a series that addresses many of the usual disparities common in mainstream comics: it presents a diverse range of cultures, ethnicities, and peoples. It subverts the usual patriarchy to present multiple matriarchies, and it creates a world where love is not limited by sex or race.

A Multiracial World

Monstress presents a hybrid, diverse world not just in the mixed-race Arcanics, but through Takeda’s drawing the series’ characters with clear racial markers indicating a world as racially diverse as ours. The series starts in Zamora, an alternate China dominated by an ethnically diverse range of women. Atena’s presence within the dominantly Chinese space of the Cumaea indicates that there are other human races in this world as she has dark brown skin and features that suggest African ancestry, though her hair is white as a side effect from a magical treatment. In a flashback of Maika with Tuya, Maika appears hybrid-Asian, as signified by her teal eyes. When she and Tuya are shown together it is clear that they are from different races. Tuya has darker skin and her dress resembles a Mongolian nomad and her appearance hints at a mix of Asian and African ancestry. In The Blood we are shown Thyria which is a port town dominantly inhabited by black, human women in western-style three-piece suites, ties, trousers, shirts, and jackets, but with the lower labourers wearing Japanese-style yokata robes. In Thyria, Maika boards the Jolly Ravager with a crew which is dominantly Arcanic and captained by an Arcanic woman with dark brown skin, but who does not resemble the Thyrian women. This shows not only a diversity within the human spaces, but serves to reinforce the hybridity of the Arcanics, not just from their Ancient blood, but also their human parentage.

The Ancients are split into two groups the Dusk and Dawn courts. The Dawn court, where Maika’s aunt and grandmother reside, draw heavily from a mix of European-fantasy style fashion. The Warlord, Maika’s aunt, is clearly Asian with a human face and three black wolf tails. Maika’s grandmother, the Queen of Wolves, is an anthropomorphised female grey wolf. The other members of the court appear with other ethnic indicators, a diversity mirrored in the Dusk Court. The first member of the Dusk Court introduced is Corvin, a ravenborn Arcanic lord who ethnically appears to be a mix of Asian and Native American. With this mix of races and ethnicities Liu and Takeda have created a world that, while smaller than our own, greatly resembles the diversity of contemporary America. That these races are hybrid and ambiguous enough that none of them elicit a direct association with any specific ethic group from our world, speaks to Takeda’s skill as an artist, but also allows Monstress to create a mirror that reflects not only diverse America, but also diverse comics readers. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz stated,

There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. [… so] if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. […] And part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it. (Donohue 2009)

Monstress creates these mirrors for its readers through its rich cast of characters. However, male readers may find it hard to find these mirrors, as there are few men in the Known World. The first men appear at a distance, with the panel’s view looking down on a room of old men sitting in armchairs at what could easily be a gentlemen’s club. This beginning might lead one to expect yet another story set in a science fiction or fantasy patriarchy, but this expectation is interrupted when Sophia, there to acquire Arcanics for the Cumaea, steps up to take not only Maika, but three other Arcanic children, from the Arcanic slave auction. Since Arcanics within the human spaces have no rights they are often used as slave labour or harvested by the Cumaea. At first, Sophia is shown sitting in the back, almost bored, but when she stands, she dominates the panel. That she leads Resak, an attractive, burly, brown skinned but white-haired male Arcanic with wolf ears, by a chain hooked to collar around his throat, makes her position in this society all too clear. It also shows the position of Arcanics in this society. The chain to his collar rests in her mostly-open hand, indicating that it is more a formality than actual leash. Resak follows obediently without expression or fight, and his Disney-Aladdin-esque clothes are designed to complement Sophia’s in colour scheme, and the tattoos on his right shoulder and arm match the floral design on her dress. These indicators set up the racial lines within the city of Zamora between humans and Arcanics. Choosing to have the first space introduced as predominantly Asian, while also showing that the Arcanics are also of Asian appearance, allows Liu and Takeda to present what is usually a racial minority as a racial majority. That there are dominant and oppressed demographics in a series is nothing new, but Monstress, like many others, uses the oppressed characters and the discriminated race of the Arcanics to serve as an example of how sometimes it does not take a different skin colour or completely alien difference for people to discriminate and subjugate one another. In the case of the Arcanics they also suffer from being a people who have no true homeland, ideology, or allegiance. They are literally hybrids of human and Ancients and as such are often without history or a true people to belong to, an experience many refugees and displaced peoples can identify with.

In addition to the ‘mirrors’ these diverse characters create for readers, the fact that the writer and artist for this series are both Asian women gives the style and voice of the series additional significance. Carolyn Cocca in her book Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation (2016) asserts, ‘For so many years, women, and especially women of colour, have not been able to tell their own stories and to challenge the ways in which others have been telling their stories.’ (Cocca 2016: 6) It is because these women have been denied a voice and place in the realm of comics that Liu and Takeda’s work has the power and significance it does. These two women are not conforming to standard comic book expectations. They have intricate designs and fully dressed characters on their covers, rather than overly sexualized women in unnatural poses. They have minorities as the majority and created a world that makes it seem natural rather than forced. Their women are transcendent rather than immanent: they are active agents not passive objects. Cocca notes, ‘Fans have become increasingly active and organized in pushing for more diversity among creators, against objectification of female characters, and for more diverse representation in terms of both the demographics and characterizations of those characters’ and Monstress answers these demands. (215) This series creates not only new mirrors but furthers the possibility for other such series to be created. As Jennifer Stuller notes in her book Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology (2010), ‘the powers that be assume audiences aren’t interested in superwomen when, in fact, they just aren’t interested in subpar movies about superheroes.’ (Stuller 2010: 2) Stuller has hit on an important distinction: women-lead narratives are not the problem, badly produced narratives are. Monstress serves as a counter example to the idea that woman-lead stories do not sell. It also disproves the idea that an Asian woman cannot be a popular lead character in a popular American comics series. Liu admits, ‘That this is also an ongoing monthly comic written and drawn by two women of colour, two Asian women—Chinese-American and Japanese—is also satisfying on a totally different level.’ (Salazar 30 Sep 15) This is why Liu and Takeda’s work has the significance it does. That these aspects are still worthy of note and exceptional, shows that series like Monstress are needed to counter current negative representations.

Holding onto the Past

War and trauma are an integral part of Monstress’ narrative and creation. Liu states, ‘Monstress is the story I’ve wanted to tell for years, a dark epic fantasy about a young girl who has suffered tremendous loss and who isn’t quite certain how to put herself back together—if that’s even possible.’ (Salazar 2015) The war of the series has been over for five years, and the scars and trauma of that time remain in both the background of the world and as the motivator for many characters’ actions and attitudes. With the establishing panel for the city of Zamora, Maika narrates: ‘So much was destroyed during the war. And yet some cities rebuilt themselves…as if nothing happened. Too bad people don’t rebuild themselves so easily. Only five years. I’ve forgotten so much already. I can’t afford to forget the blood. Or who spilled it.’ (Liu & Takeda 2016: 4) This narration indicates much about a past we only glimpse in traumatic flashbacks. Maika’s reference to not only people’s inability to rebuild themselves and her own forgetting shows an internal war between forgetting or trying to move on, against holding on and being haunted by the pain of the past. Her vow not to forget the horrors and who caused them indicates that she is planning more violence and that she needs to keep recalling her past trauma to keep herself on the path she has chosen. This tells the reader that this is not only a choice made by Maika, but also that it is one she has to repeatedly renew. Maika chooses to hold onto and dwell on her trauma and the past, rather than try to heal and create a new future. This past-focus is repeated throughout the two volumes.

Genealogy is another theme of the series, as the parentage of not only Maika but many of the other characters is established and emphasised within the context of mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, and the link of racial family through Arcanics with similar animal traits. While in the town of Thyria, Maika and Kippa pass an Arcanic child and father who have fox traits like Kippa, they are clearly emaciated, the father ‘was a soldier in the war…but the witches took his legs…’ (Liu & Takeda 2017: 15) Thyria is safe for Arcanics, but is not a happy host to them, as their presence brings pressure from the Cumaea. Maika quickly pulling Kippa from the begging child and her rejections to Kippa’s pleas for generosity reflects the coldness that Maika is holding onto. In the panel showing her face as she drags Kippa away, she is gritting her teeth and has her eyes closed, a reflection of her attempt to not see those in need lest they pull her from her path. This sentiment is also reflected in her excuses that they might need all their money later and so cannot spare any now. Her fight to hold onto her trauma almost breaks while in Thyria when she visits Seizi, a tiger-man Arcanic who was good friends with Moriko and is Maika’s goddess-father. Seizi embraces Maika saying, ‘Who has held you since your mother?’ the next panel shows an extreme close-up of Maika’s face as she fights back tears while he continues, ‘Maybe one day you’ll remember that you had a life before the war.’ (21) Seizi and Maika have only just reunited, but already Seizi sees the difference in Maika. His words and actions indicate to the reader that Maika was not always the hard, embattled woman she is in the series that maybe before, she smiled. This suspicion is confirmed in the next panel when we see Maika being truly vulnerable for the first time, she looks up to Seizi and replies, ‘That’s why I’m here. To be…me…again. To feel like…a person. To remember what it is to Dance.’ (21) This hug is an echo of the one Maika received from Resak at the beginning of the series. Here, the moment serves as a reminder that Maika was not always the way she is now, that it was the horrors of war and enslavement that turned her into the determined killer she has become. That once, she danced, an action we have never seen her do, even in her flashbacks. We have seen her as a child with her mother, but more often we are shown her suffering in the slave camps or as a young woman after the war trying to find a new normalcy in her life after losing half her arm and gaining the psychological scars of trauma. This focus on the past for not only bloody purpose but also solace from a time before her pain, reveals the innate problem with seeking either: dwelling on either good or bad keeps her from living in the now and moving on. Five years may have passed but Arcanics are still being taken as slaves as evinced by the opening pages of the series, and the legacy of the war has resulted in a public dislike and sometimes hatred for the Arcanics. This exemplifies how war fosters a social schism between those being protected from the enemy and those who do the fighting. The cost of defending the Arcanics meant the humans of Thyria had to defy the Cumaea, resulting in the loss of many Thyrian lives. This created enmity between the human citizens and the Arcanics. Humans are not the only ones in the Known World racist towards Arcanics. What glimpses we have of the Dawn court tells us that they do not value Arcanic or human life unless those individuals are somehow linked to them personally, or they are of some use. This is made extremely clear when the Warlord has the Nekomancers kill and use their magic on six Arcanic children who survived Constantine to try to discover who unleashed the weapon that day.

Liu and Takeda deliberately use a combination of literary and literal imagery that evokes the experiences of persecuted peoples from World War II in Monstress to establish the context of the series’ war for their readers. The first page of chapter five features a full panel image showing Maika and Tuya as children behind a barbed wire fence jammed together with other Arcanic children, in the rain. The next panel pulls out to show that they are all clamouring and begging for two noodles held out by the slaver Lady Ilsa. She does this to see ‘who is the hungriest of all.’ (Liu & Takeda 2016: 146) Tuya grabs the noodles, jams them in her mouth, and immediately the other children dive in, trying to pull her hands from her mouth to get the noodles for themselves. Maika, thin and frail though she is, fights them back. Tuya spits out the remains of the noodles to share with Maika once the other children have been successfully driven away. They smile in the rain as Maika says, ‘You and I… We’ll always take care of each other forever. I promise,’ but her narration contrasts with these innocent words saying, ‘My body isn’t my own. There’s something else inside me.’ (147) This scene elicits associations with the Nazi concentration camps and American internment camps for the Japanese, clearly giving its readers an idea of what the war was like beyond Maika’s short flashbacks. This association extends to the destruction of the city of Constantine, which is an allusion to the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as it ended the war between humans and Arcanics with similar devastation. However, the past crimes against the Arcanics and the present threat to their persons, keeps the tension between humans, Arcanics, and Ancients alive. This threat, as well as the cycle of vengeance, is an ever-present force in the background and often the foreground of Monstress. Liu and Takeda present this world full of racial and ethnic diversity through dress, design, and appearance, then overshadow it with a recent war, showing that even in matriarchal spaces, violence will exist.  

Bodies That Are Their Own

The representation of women in comics is a topic that has been covered in many books, articles, and even within comics themselves, but what Liu and Takeda have created is something that responds to that history while also challenging new comics to be better. Liu states,

[…] powerful women are always imagined as monstrous. Bringing women, monsters, and power together—setting this in a world that never was, and could be—is something that speaks to my heart. […] And me writing about a young warrior woman is less a fantasy than a reflection of what it means to grow up a woman in societies like ours. (Salazar 2015)

Liu’s writing and Maika’s character have a high standard for Takeda to meet: she must present Maika, as well as the other characters of the series, in a way that matches Liu’s vision. Takeda establishes from the beginning a standard that continues throughout the first two volumes, she does not shy away from nudity, many moments of Liu’s script call for it, but she also ensures that the bodies shown are not sexualized in their depictions. For example, the first page of the series features a full art page of Maika naked, collared, showing her vertical-eye brand between her small breasts, and how her left arm ends at her elbow. Takeda uses Maika’s long hair to cover her nipples and uses Ilsa’s riding crop pushing Maika’s chin up to draw the reader’s attention to Maika’s face and her defiant glare. This moment, framed with Maika’s narrations saying ‘It took three years to find a name. Another two to find the person. And now I’m here’ could easily have been drawn in a sexualizing and objectifying way. (Liu & Takeda 2016: 1) Instead, while Maika is naked, her body on sale at a slave auction, Takeda’s art does not invite sexual objectification, though the old men present are implied as having that inclination in mind. Cocca notes,

When an underrepresented group of people is repeatedly reduced to objects, when the narrative’s point of view is consistently at that group instead of from that group, the objectified group’s story is not being told, empathy for that group is less likely, and the group’s power is subverted. […] It can naturalize inequalities. […] The underrepresentation of women, the reliance on stereotypes of gender, and the repetition of inequalities in fiction as in other areas of life are unacceptable and can and must be changed. (Cocca 2016: 5)

Monstress is a perfect embodiment of what Cocca is calling comics to be. The bodies of women within the matriarchal societies of the series are subjects. Even when the women are buxom or wearing flattering clothes they are being active: Sophia is a scientist, Syryssa is the captain of the Jolly Ravager, Destria is a terrifying leader of a religious order. While many of these bodies are marked by their mixed heritage, the war, or from monstra, these women make decisions and are the dominant actors of the world. We see women battling other women, helping other women, mentoring, loving, working together, all done without the intension of attracting a potential male partner.

It is not that other comic books do not also have active women, or women-dominated worlds, but rather that Monstress’ treatment and hybridity creates a powerful representation worth noting. Cocca asserts, ‘Given that there are many fewer female than male characters, the repetition of their being posed in these ways [broken back, broken neck] makes it seem as if female superheroes are objects to be looked at rather than subjects to view the story through. Such portrayals have persisted through [to] the present.’ (12) Thus, it is a matter of repeated representation: if we are not seeing a diverse range of women in multiple depictions, but rather one dominant type of depiction over many examples, then it becomes easy to believe that sexual objectification sells. Monstress provides a counter to that toping the sales charts in 2017, thus showing that well written and well-drawn, empowered characters sell even better. (McDonald 2017) The bodies of this series are not all female and not all human, the few men in the series are treated just like the women: as active agents in their lives, physically fit, and drawn as beautifully as Takeda draws almost all the characters. They are in the world, not discriminated against for their sex, but they also do not seem to be threatened by the matriarchal space they inhabit. Thus far, gender has not been an issue in the series as much as race is. Racism manifests in the slavery which is a large part of the diegesis of the series, with Maika, Kippa, Tuya, and Resak all slaves at one point in the story. There are others shown but not named, from flashbacks and in the background in Zamora, showing how bodies can be owned by others. There are also the slaves who are processed by the Cumaea for the magic in their bones. This use of bodies, and Ilsa selling Maika’s body as ‘wild beauty, for your wild tastes’ to the room of men in the beginning are all framed not as a means of encouraging the objectification of those bodies, but as a means of repulsing the reader from objectifying them. (Liu & Takeda 2016: 2) That the young Cumaea girl can lament ‘This Lilium Engineering elective is disgusting I should have taken Neurocraft instead’ while holding the foot of a cyclops child, not only disturbs readers because of the horrific actions she is performing but shows that this is a society that has no sense of personhood or moral compunctions against these brutal acts. (32, original emphasis) The space for this scene is a laboratory, busy but tidy, and Takeda’s art embellishes the walls with more art deco designs. The women all wear white shifts over their clothes giving them a virginal-sacrifice air, all contributing to the horror of this scene, as the combination of beauty, innocence, and brutal horror play out.

The bodies of women are particularly important in Monstress. Firstly, it is only human women who can use the lilium’s magic. Secondly, bodies are important because of genetics. Moriko sought to harness the blood of the Shaman-Empress within her, meaning she had to seek out a man who was also from that line, but it was only in Maika that the power manifested. It is the female line that is traced back to the Shaman-Empress, and only a female descendent can manifest Zinn. This gives women a latent power not only among the humans—for those in the Cumaea—but also among the Arcanics. These matriarchal societies extend into the sea, with the merfolk, who, while shown with bare breasts, have only the scales detailed on them rather than nipples, emphasising that Takeda does not want their appearance to encourage objectifying sexualisation, but rather an understood manifestation of that creature’s form. Likewise, for the Queen of Wolves, who we see naked, has her grey wolf fur covering all her body, thus nothing encourages objectification. Maika’s body, especially with her missing arm, is an example of how disability within the series is present but not unaccounted for. In her flashbacks Maika has a prosthetic arm that seems to have all the dexterity of an organic arm, showing how Arcanic society, possibly due to the war, accommodates those with missing limbs and does not discriminate against them. A man calls Maika ‘deformed’ during the slave auction due to her arm and brand, but his protests are dismissed as Ilsa replies ‘Not that most of you still have all your limbs implying humans also have citizens who are likewise living with physical disabilities and are accommodated for. (2) Through the exclusively homosexual coupling within the series, it naturalizes such bodies being together, that most of them are also mixed-race pairings further normalizes what is often, in the real world, taboo or scandalous. All the series’ bodies, as hosts for monstra or magic, as possessions, as racial signifiers, and as powerful agents, re-examine the role bodies can play within a comic book series. These bodies make the story and the world of Monstress, they populate the world and reshape what women can and should be in comics.  

Conclusion

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda have created an award winning, bestselling series that embraces hybridity. With the integration of Eastern and Western styles, imagery, folklore, races, dress, culture, and people, Monstress challenges any claims against female-led narratives, as well as ones dominated by minority characters. Takeda’s art creates not only a complex depth to the world with her intricate designs, and motifs, but also her incorporation of dress and racial complexions allows for a hybrid world where mixed raced people have nuance and a history. Liu’s use of folklore creates a milieu that Takeda’s art realizes. The Old Gods are a Kantian sublime that horrifies while being hauntingly beautiful. The Nekomancers and fox Arcanics are clear nods to Japanese yōkai while the Monkey King is an iconic Chinese figure. The Snow White allusion makes clear how Maika’s character is meant to be understood, not as a damsel waiting for a man to save her, but as a strong woman who got that way by choosing to fight. The matriarchies and racial diversity of the cities and races creates a world closer to America, though still a few realities away. These combinations, allow for moments of sublime, and their choice to create women who are all transcendent is a model for subsequent comics to follow.

Liu’s and Takeda’s hybrid style and characters present a standard that other comics can join, reach for, or surpass. Comics like Monstress are growing within the industry, series written by both women and men with female leads are increasing and proving popular. Examples such as Sex Criminals (2013-Present), Rat Queens (2013-2017), Ms. Marvel (2013-Present), The Wicked and the Divine (2014-Present), Bitch Planet (2014-Present), Lumberjanes (2014-Present), Pretty Deadly (2014-Present), and Giant Days (2015-Present) all have transcendent, active women leading and supporting these narratives. Monstress is in good company with these other series and authors, and this growing shift reflects the industry acknowledging the growing number of women reading and buying comics. (Arrant 2017) The decadent horror, hybridity in style and characters, folkloric inspiration, and the transcendent women in Monstress are timely and relevant, and most important of all, are an example of minority women telling a story of minority women not only dominating the story and action, but also a world full of diversity that creates many mirrors for their readers and a standard for their successors and the industry to follow.


REFERENCES

Arrant, Chris (2017), ‘Comic Book Sales Up 6% In Bookstore Market In Past 12 Months, And 37% Women’, https://www.newsarama.com/36895-comic-book-sales-up-6-in-bookstore-market-in-2017.html (last accessed 20 April 2018). 

Brothers, David (2016), Marjorie Liu on Monstress & Travel’, The i Word, Image Comics: Podcast Episode.

Ching, Albert (2014), ‘Milo Manara’s “Spider-Woman” #1 Variant Cover Draws Criticism, Brevoort Responds’, https://www.cbr.com/milo-manaras-spider-woman-1-variant-cover-draws-criticism-brevoort-responds/ (last accessed 20 April 2018).

Cocca, Carolyn (2016), Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

De Beauvoir, Simone (2011 [1949]), The Second Sex, New York: Vintage Books.

Donohue, Brian (2009), ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz tells students his story’, http://www.nj.com/ledgerlive/index.ssf/2009/10/junot_diazs_new_jersey.html (last accessed 20 April 2018).

Liu, Marjorie & Sana Takeda (2016), Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening, Image Comics.

Liu, Marjorie & Sana Takeda (2017), Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood, Image Comics.

MacDonald, Heidi (2017), ‘Diamond: No sign of a Sales Rebound in July Numbers’, http://www.comicsbeat.com/diamond-no-sign-of-a-sales-rebound-in-july-numbers/ (last accessed 20 April 2018). 

Magnett, Chase & Sana Takeda (2015), ‘EXCLUSIVE Interview: Monstress Artist Sana Takeda Discusses Kaiju, Evolving Art Styles’, http://comicbook.com/2015/10/05/exclusive-interview-sana-takeda-discusses-monstress/(last accessed 20 April 2018). 

Salazar, Kat (2015), ‘MONSTRESS lends steampunk flair to Kaiju-infested fantasy | Press Releases | Image Comics’, https://imagecomics.com/content/view/monstress-lends-steampunk-flair-to-kaiju-infested-fantasy (last accessed 20 April 2018). 

Stuller, Jennifer K. (2010), Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, London: I. B. Tauris.

Wolk, Douglas (2008), Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo.

Images Referenced

Visit the Image Comics webpage for Monstress to view the 3-page previews for all the collected volumes and issues: https://imagecomics.com/comics/series/monstress

The cover for the #1 issue is a good example of Takeda’s incorporation of steampunk and art deco with a background image of the jackal-masked Shaman-Empress: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/monstress-1

For the Nazi-inspired Arcanics slave camp see the issue #5 preview: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/monstress-5

For the Jolly Ravager‘s captain and some of the crew see the issue #8 preview: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/monstress-8

See the cover of issue #4 for a great example of not only the Jackal-hooded Shaman-Empress, but also the manifestation of Zinn integrating with Maika with the pattern work shifting from organic to circuits: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/monstress-4

For Maika in the sarcophagus see the #6 issue preview: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/monstress-6

See the #1 issue preview for Maika’s introduction and the slave auction: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/monstress-1

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