By Jean Arboleda
Brooding heroine with a mysterious past, on a quest for answers. Epic fantasy adventure set in a complex, immersive world. Gorgeous Art Deco-inspired steampunk illustrations. Welcome to Monstress, an award-winning comic series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.
This beautiful comic drew me in from just the cover alone, to say nothing of the compelling story of the mysterious Maika Halfwolf, who has a strange tentacled demon growing out of her left arm and eating at inopportune moments. The demon is slowly taking over Maika’s mind and body, and she has to figure out just what to do with it. On top of that, there’s a war brewing between the magical Arcanics and the Cumaean witches, and she’s right in the thick of it.
You’re thrown into this fully-imagined world without any introduction, but you’re immediately hooked. The mythology is pieced together bit by bit through excerpts from a history professor’s lecture, so you start to learn a bit more. But there are no easy answers in Monstress, and that’s the beauty of it—you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next.
So of course I rejoiced along with the other fans of this beloved series when Fully Booked announced a three-day Monstress Book Tour in Manila with author Marjorie Liu. It was definitely a privilege to listen to this award-winning writer talk about her work. For a female Asian comic reader like myself in particular, it was inspiring to hear from a woman who has succeeded in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
You might know Liu best from her graphic novels, but did you know that this powerhouse woman actually started out as a lawyer? In true Asian-American tradition, she never saw writing as a viable career. But she claims that it was her love for romance novels that kept her going through law school. No wonder her first novel Tiger Eye turned out to be a paranormal romance!
She also loved dabbling in fan fiction. “There’s no pressure [in fan fiction]. You can let yourself play. You can let yourself experiment. I credit fan fic for giving me the confidence to write.” Liu, who was a big fan of the X-Men animated TV series, started writing X-Men fan fic to sharpen her storytelling skills. This soon led Liu to writing for Marvel Comics, garnering acclaim for her work on X-23, Dark Wolverine and NYX. Liu also wrote for the Star Wars: Han Solo series.
But it was one thing to play in someone else’s sandbox, and another thing completely to build an entire universe from scratch. Monstress sprung from an image that had always lingered in Liu’s mind, of a girl standing on a battlefield. Growing up, she was fascinated with the heartbreaking stories her Chinese grandmother would tell about the war. What does it mean to survive a war, that has affected us in profound and untold ways? How does history shape who we become? These are but some of the questions that Liu tries to answer in Monstress.
Some authors might shy away from such heavy issues as racism, slavery, genocide, and war, but not Liu. “I was afraid I wouldn’t tell a good story, but I wasn’t afraid to tackle these topics.” She says it helped to frame the issues in terms of fantasy, citing graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus as inspiration.
Considering her body of work, it may surprise you that she initially had no idea how to write comic books—she admits that she once Googled how to write a comic book script! She explains that there’s a big difference between writing a novel and writing a comic book, which is a largely visual medium. “When I’m writing a novel, I can just keep going until the story is finished. I can’t do that with a comic.” It helps that Liu has such a good working relationship with artist Sana Takeda, whose gorgeous, intricate art is as much a part of the world-building of Monstress as the story is. Consider the challenge in including a 300-foot monster on the page. It was Takeda who came up with the idea to depict them as spectral beings, and it was perfect.
Liu, who is the first woman to win the Eisner Award for Best Writer in its history, is a loud advocate for a more progressive and inclusive comic book community. She was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for writing the first gay wedding in the Marvel Comics. The matriarchal world of Monstress is composed almost entirely of women and people of color, who don’t easily fit into the female archetypes we’ve all come to know and expect. These changes matter, and here’s hoping to have more female readers and authors change the game!
To aspiring creators, Liu’s final words of advice: “Read more than you write. Finish what you write. Revise. And don’t give up.” The Monstress Book Tour MNL may have been quick, but Liu has definitely inspired a younger generation of artists, writers, and readers.
The Monstress Book Tour was held last February 8-10, 2019 at Ateneo de Manila University, Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street, and Fully Booked Alabang Town Center. You can check out Marjorie Liu’s books at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda. Read her First Look Club reviews here.
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