Graphic Novel Review: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1

Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk

Publisher: Image Comics on July 13. 2016

Source: Publisher

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My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war

Many critics have called MONSTRESS VOL. 1: THE AWAKENING the best comic of the year and I, for one, couldn’t agree with them more. Sana Takeda’s artwork is absolutely stunning and Marjorie M. Liu’s writing strikes the perfect balance between being sparse and lyrical. This dynamic duo has dreamt up one of the most fascinating, rich fantasy worlds I’ve encountered in comicsย orย in novels.

Set in a steampunkish, matriarchal 20th century Asia, MONSTRESS VOL. 1: THE AWAKENING follows young arcanic Maika Halfwolf as she strikes out on a brutal, harrowing quest for revenge — and answers. Hybrids of humans and ancients, magical beings who take the shape of anthropomorphized animals, arcanics are considered monsters by humanity and garbage by the ancients. In the eyes of the Cumaea, the witchy nuns who minister to human settlements, arcanics are abominations and fuel for chilling experiments to push the boundaries of magic. Maika risks torture, death, and even war when she cons her way into the heart of the Cumaen’s compound, but if Maika doesn’t find the information she’s seeking then she’s dead anyway. Because something terrible is happening to her…something she can neither understand nor control.

Image: Sana Takeda & Marjorie M. Liu
Image: Sana Takeda & Marjorie M. Liu

This is a dark, brutal, and at times gory comic that examines what it really means to be a monster, what it truly means to be human, and how it feels to be caught between the two. While wrongdoers abound in MONSTRESS VOL. 1, it’s clear that the real evils in the story are war and hatred. For such a slender volume, this comic does a wonderful job tackling tough issues and posing profound questions about judging one another based on what we look like and disregarding what’s on the inside — whether that’s kindness, malice, or an ancient evil being.

But ย not to worry, this comic isn’t all doom and gloom! Along the way, Maika picks up companions in the form of a two-tailed cat and a fellow arcanic in the form of a young fox girl, adding biting wit and sweetness to the story, respectively. The Cumaea also have their fair share of fascinating characters as layers of the shadowy Allmother and her team of personal Inquisitrixes are slowly pulled back throughout the volume. This is one twisty story, and the hits just keep coming with every few pages, and there are lots of unanswered questions that have me clamouring for volume 2.

Monstress Excerpt 2
Image: Sana Takeda & Marjorie M. Liu

Maika’s flashbacks to a time before she struck out on her journey were some of my favourite moments, as they gave us a glimpse into her relationship with her dearest friend Tuya. There’s clearly a lot of love there (the queer is strong with this one, y’all), but the truths Maika uncovers in her search will rock their friendship to its core. I love a strong female friendship in my fantasy media so I’m anxiously waiting to see what happens to the pair!

MONSTRESS VOL. 1: THE AWAKENING is a dark, complex comic set in Asia that features a young woman of colour and a magical cat…and encourages readers to reflect on war, hate, and humanity. What’s not to love? Highly recommended.

Have you read Monstress Vol. 1? What are some of your favourite comics right now? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Wow — that artwork is unreal. It’s really neat how you can see (even just in the couple panels you posted) that there is a distinct blend of manga-like and western-comic-style character designs. I’ll definitely give this a read!

    • Yeah, I absolutely loved the blend of art styles in this one! I’m not enough of an art aficionado to know a lot about why certain choices were made, but as a reader I couldn’t have been more pleased.

  • I bought a copy over the summer and started reading it, but got distracted by review books and for whatever reason never got back to it. Your review makes me want to, though! Although, it’s VERY violent and even for me, a little too much.

    • If violence and extremely dark topics are too much then I definitely recommend giving this one a pass, Tammy. As much as I loved it, I can certainly see how it could be a bit full-on. It’s a wonderful story though!

  • I’d read this, I like that it looks at the monsters too

    • It does an amazing job of looking at the monsters and what it means to be one!

  • What a cool cover! I don’t think I’ve ever read a graphic novel. I get distracted easily and would get sucked into the illustrations. ๐Ÿ˜€ 20th century Asia sounds like an awesome setting! I’m loving all the love in the book. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m glad you enjoyed this one, Danya! Wonderful review. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • There’s definitely an art to not getting distracted by the artwork in graphic novels, haha. The first couple times I read them I struggled but I’ve got the hang of it over time.

      Hahaha yes the love in this one is great! Very excited to see where the storyline goes. Thanks, Alyssa! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Maraia

    Gaah, I just adore the artwork in Monstress. I want more! The only other comic series I’ve read are Saga and Paper Girls.

    • The artwork is PHENOMENAL. I’m actually thinking about getting some cartaban prints of some of the panels made to display in my office!

      I’ve just signed out a super adorable comic from the library called Goldie Vance, I have very high hopes for it. Fingers cross that it’s awesome!

      • Maraia

        Ooh, yes, that would be amazing!

        I haven’t heard of that one, but it sounds great! Let me know how it goes. ๐Ÿ˜€

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    Graphic novels are not really my proverbial cup of tea, but this one’s artwork looks amazing and delightfully detailed, and the background unusual enough to have piqued my curiosity…
    Thanks for sharing!

    • You’re very welcome, Maddalena! I think this is a graphic novel that appeals to a lot of people who don’t really read that medium (kind of like Saga), just because the story and setting are so unique.

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I loved the first issue, but still need to catch up with the volume (I read it before this was released).

    • There are so many twists and turns in the rest of the volume! Can’t wait to hear what you think of them, Lisa.

  • I wanted to love Monstress but just didn’t. That said, there were enough things I liked about it to make me look forward to seeing where it goes next. I think I’m way more into the idea of Monstress than the execution of it, if that makes sense.

    • Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that! What was it that you didn’t love? Oh yeah, I know what you mean about the execution of an idea. Well I’ll definitely be reviewing the second volume when it’s released as a trade and hopefully that one will be more your cup of tea!

  • I got the volume 1 tpb for Christmas! So excited to read this, I’ve flipped through it already to admire the art and it is glorious!

    • Eeeee I’m so excited to hear your thoughts on this one, Mogsy! Sana Takeda’s artwork is absolutely insane, just so damn gorgeous.

  • Greg Hill

    Ooh I’ve seen this one around and wanted to read it. I need some new graphic novels. I like that it’s twisty, the art is awesome and I love the two tailed cat! I must get this. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Who wouldn’t love a two tailed cat, right? Monstress is definitely a great series to pick up when you need to reboot your love of graphic novels and start in on a new story!

  • Jessamine Julian

    This looks so beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

    • It is a gorgeous comic, both in terms of the artwork and the writing. I hope you’ll have the chance to pick it up, Jessamine!

  • I absolutely loved Monstress!!. So I’m glad you did too! Favorite comics right now are, black panther (Coates), saga, bitch planet, sex criminals and now monstress lol

    • I loved Bitch Planet too, and I really want to read Black Panther. I’ve fallen super behind on Sex Criminals though and I need to play catch up soon!

  • Lynn Williams

    OMG – those illustrations are so beautiful – look at the cat! *wants*
    Lynn ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Right?! I loved the arcanic characters in this one, but the cats were definitely the coolest species in my opinion!

  • I’m glad to see that you enjoyed this one. It sounds pretty good! Great review.

    Krystianna @ Downright Dystopian

    • Thanks Krystianna! Monstress is definitely one of my favourite comics now, and something tells me it’ll be on my “best of 2017” list too. Starting the year off right!

  • It’s funny you should review this as I was eyeing this up in book shop yesterday. I think I’ve decided my book budget doesn’t include graphic novels and comics because they tend to be pricey. Anyway, I was eyeing this up and wasn’t sure if I should invest or not. Obviously, I should have because this sounds fantastic. I’d heard a bit about it but I’d not actually read a review so I wasn’t sure if this was just hype.

    The artwork is absolutely stunning so that made me think it would probably be pretty good but the story sounds really interesting too. I wish I’d bought it now. Maybe next time.

    • You’re so right, comics and graphic novels can get quite expensive. Thankfully the library system in North America subscribes to this database called Hoopla, which has a ton of comics for free! Yay! ๐ŸŽ‰

      I’m not sure if it’s made its way over to the UK yet, but you should ask someone at your local library just in case! This is definitely a comic worth buying, especially since it’s out in trade paperback now. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to pick it up soon!

      • Well just rub in how accessible comic and graphic novels are for you while I’m stuck with the UK library system where it’s pretty much a potluck with what you can get your hands on.

        And I may, we shall see. I mean, my library sometimes has things available which I don’t expect. I am ready for them to surprise me.