Comic series “Monstress” addresses survival, trauma and disabilities

BY BEATA GARRETT ’20

Written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, “Monstress” is a comic series that follows protagonist Maika Halfwolf’s journey in learning about her mother’s death and unlocking a devastating power within. The series is set in 20th century Asia during a war between humans and Arcanics, a race descended from gods. The comics highlight the way women of color survive the trauma of war both alone and through the relationships they form with one another. The content is violent — touching upon topics such as slavery, physical disabilities and PTSD — but never becomes exploitative.

Several characters, including Maika, have physical disabilities which Liu presents not as deficiencies, but rather as markers of survival that simply require characters to maneuver the world differently. There are physically disabled characters that use prosthetics and wheelchairs, but still demonstrate their prowess as fighters or tacticians. Maika is the most prominent example of a physically disabled character; she begins with a missing left forearm devoured by the monster within herself, an Old God she has inherited. A major part of her journey is about learning to control the monster’s hunger and preventing it from consuming her both mentally and physically.

The series also depicts women in a variety of roles, allowing them to shine with a complexity that most comics don’t allow. Liu shows the violence that women, especially those in power, inflict upon other women, but balances that violence with relief. After Maika frees herself from slavery, she wakes up on a wagon and allows herself to cry in front of her new companions. She is a sympathetic and strong character who slowly reveals her vulnerabilities as she forms relationships with those around her. Her relationship with Kippa, an Arcanic fox that she frees from slavery, is one of the most important examples. As she becomes a mother figure to Kippa, her gentle side and her history with her own mother are revealed. Kippa’s lack of fear towards the monster within Maika reaffirms her humanity in a world that dehumanizes her, and encourages Maika to continue her journey without succumbing to the monster.

The worldbuilding in the series intertwines magic and technology well, but can be dense and difficult to understand at points. Liu relies on characters and imagery to give readers the information they need on the various cultures and political tensions in the series. There is a sense of cosmic horror to the comics as Takeda draws mysterious Lovecraftian creatures lurking in the background of the story, later revealed to be Old Gods. These gods are depicted as awe-inspiring figures of old magic that the Arcanics trace their lineages to. She also blends South Asian and East Asian influence with art deco and steampunk in her depiction of architecture, clothing and technology. The most prominent example of this mixture is Tear Shed, a refugee camp full of pagodas that are strung with Chinese lanterns and engraved with characters. One of the pagodas eventually reveals the defensive machinery of the camp within itself.

One of the few criticisms that arises upon reading “Monstress” is the comic’s depiction of racism. Fantasy racism, such as in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, often forgets to talk about “real world” racism, focusing instead on the prejudice between humans and other, magical species as a metaphor or stand-in. There is little insight into the respective racial and ethnic tensions among humans or Arcanics because the human-Arcanic dynamic already symbolizes the othering of minorities. However, the characters in “Monsters” have no distinguishable ethnicities, and the darker-skinned women are sidelined for lighter-skinned women. Colorism is an important topic within Asian communities, so seeing this happen in a series focused on racial tensions is unfortunate. “[Colorism] is not often explored in mainstream media,” said Jane Zhang ’20. “I definitely think it is still prevalent, especially in Asian culture, where being pale is considered more beautiful.”

Overall, “Monstress” is a comic series that portrays how women of color survive war and violence without letting themselves lose their humanity. There are currently three volumes available online at Image Comics, collecting issues #1-18. If readers enjoy “Monstress,” they should explore “Saga,” another epic fantasy series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, and “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee, a science fiction novel about the journey of a ghost and a captain that set out to redeem themselves.

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