Why yes, this did originally come out back in July. It’s been sitting on my “to review” stack for that long too. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to actually getting out my thoughts about this particular title. Probably because this first volume of “Monstress” is a very ambitious one with the story it’s trying to tell and the world it’s trying to create and it’s not entirely successful in these areas. Yet it’s still an amazingly beautiful comic with an unusual and intriguing dynamic between its protagonist and the monster sealed inside her.
This story takes place in a world of industry and magic. Where the Human Federation and the Arcanic Realms maintain an uneasy truce after one of the Federation’s cities was instantly destroyed through unknown means during the war several years back. While the Federation believes this was due to a secret weapon of the Arcanics’, the truth is that anthropomorphic animal immortals and the human halfbreed offspring of the Realms had nothing to do with it. However, one Arcanic knows the truth.
Her name is Maika Halfwolf. A former daughter of nobility whose mother was researching the Shaman-Empress, the first and greatest of the Arcanics. Maika’s mother found out something on an expedition that cost the woman her life, and irrevocably changed her daughter’s fate. Having grown up in and subsequently escaped from a Federation prison camp, Maika also has no real memories of her childhood. She aims to get them back, and sees infiltrating the Federation city of Zamora, and one of its Cumaean strongholds as the best and fastest way to do so. The Cumaea are a religious organization dedicated to human supremacy and exploiting the magical nature of the Arcanics for all they’re worth. Maika is right to think that they have secrets that will help to regain her memory. Unfortunately for her, the same is true of the dormant beast that she carries inside.
If that sounds like a lot to take in, be assured that it reads doubly so on the page. There’s also the hierarchy of the Cumae to consider, the Dusk and Dawn Courts of the Arcanic Realm, the shadowy monster ghosts that roam the countryside, and the species of cats in this world who are shown to be teachers, mercenaries, and nekomancers (which is the best pun). If nothing else, writer Marjorie Liu does a good job of demonstrating how much thought and detail she has put into creating the world of “Monstress” in this first volume. The problem is that it can be a little overwhelming to absorb it all, even after multiple re-reads. While the basic structure of the story is still easy to grasp even if some of these details are fuzzy, this is the kind of story where you wish for an extra issue’s worth of supplemental information about the world at the end of this volume. Professor Tam-Tam’s between-chapter explanations are a good start, but more is needed here.
Another knock-on effect of this issue is that some of the character motivations can be hard to grasp at times. Particularly as the cast becomes substantially larger as the story goes on here. The good news here is that Liu keeps the story’s focus squarely on Maika and her, uh… “dark passenger.” There’s a clear through-line with her narrative that will hold your interest as her backstory is slowly spooled out over the course of these issues and we see her struggles to escape the Federation. Maika also has an appealingly stubborn mindset, with some ruthless tendencies, that serves her well in this quest and makes her a more interesting protagonist as well.
Yet the most interesting thing about this first volume isn’t the world, or Maika herself, it’s the relationship she has with the monster inside her. At first it looks like it’s going to be the kind of setup where Maika has made a deal with the devil that will allow her incredible power that slowly consumes her the more she uses it. Liu manages to subvert that trope as the story progresses and we come to learn more about the monster inside. We get hints that it has its own tortured past to deal with and find out that it can be surprisingly understanding regarding the practicalities of its current status quo. I wasn’t expecting to see Maika develop an uneasy partnership with this otherworldly thing, but that’s what makes their relationship so interesting.
Even if you’re not completely drawn in by the narrative of this first volume, there’s a chance the art from Sana Takeda may do just that for you anyway. This is one of the best-looking comics I have seen all year. If you think that cover looks nice, expect to see that level of detail throughout the volume. The first chapter is particularly stunning as we get an up-close look at the opulence and decadence of Zamora from its steampunk outside, to the unearthly magic lurking within its walls. Takeda’s art presents a stunningly realized world and I can see why everyone flipped out over that first issue. While the rest of the story, most of which takes place at night in a forest, isn’t quite as eye-catching, there are still some impressive sights to take in and the artist’s impressively emotive characters to appreciate as well. In particular: fox-girl Kippa never stops being adorable, there’s nightmare fuel lurking under the Mother Superior’s mask, and Neil Gaiman’s quote on the back cover about “Monstress” having some of the best cats in comics is spot-on.
Vol. 1 does end with a bit of chaos in its final act with a couple subplots hastily footnoted for future reference. Still, this is one of those rare series that I’d continue to follow simply for the art alone. It really is that good and helps to account for some of the overly ambitious steps taken with the narrative. Still, the ambition is impressive and leaves me wanting to know more about this world while I also want to see where Maika and her monster’s relationship goes (as well as what its name actually is). While I’m certainly onboard for the journey “Monstress” is taking, I certainly wouldn’t be averse to seeing more info about its world as a supplement to the next volume.