The world of Monstress as imagined and brought to life on the page by writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda is a complex fantasy at times sublime and terrifying and always full of awe. Societies are matriarchal though hardly ideal. An uneasy truce that has been in place since the Battle of Constantine between once warring nation states the Federation of Man and the Arcanic Empire is at its most fragile point since its inception. Arcanics are amalgams of beastlike and immortal Ancients and humans. Within the Arcanic Empire are two rival factions: the Dawn Court and the Dusk Court. An oppressive class system is in place in Arcanic society and they all loathe humans with such intensity as to murder any found inside their borders. Rather than killing Arcanics, full blood humans make slaves of of them instead. The most feared of the humans are the Cumaea, an order of witch nuns, who have the knowledge and machinery with which to extract a powerful substance called Lilium from Arcanic body parts.
Enter a young Arcanic woman named Maika Halfwolf, daughter of Moriko Halfwolf, and a direct descendant of the fabled Shaman Empress. Seven years before Maika forged a friendship with another young girl named Tuya while they were both imprisoned in a Federation camp. The Cumaean Ilsa conducts cruel experiments such as holding a small portion of food over the heads of a group of prisoners to see who will win the fight for it. In this particular instance it was Tuya who offers to share some of it with Maika. Liu and Takeda have yet to tell the story of their escape.
Maika seems largely devoid of emotions other than perhaps anger and disgust which resulted from years of being degraded and enslaved. In turn Maika doesn’t have qualms with manipulation, torture, or murder if it means self preservation, and in this world it always comes down to that. Tuya displays compassion and concern while at other times she may appear reserved. If Maika is like a weapon waiting to be used then Tuya may be the practiced markman taking aim or perhaps more akin to the insightful strategist planning an attack.
Memories of Maika’s childhood have revealed how revealed how her mother Moriko trained her. Liu very sparingly reveals information about Tuya’s life before the fateful day that she and Maika met in the prison camp. Tuya is connected to the Dusk Court in a manner which will surely prove to be pivotal as events continue to unfold. On occasion an eagle accompanies Tuya while at other times Tuya is drawn with eagle wings in place of arms. A seemingly chance encounter between Maika, her newly found companions Ren and Kippa, and an eagle near the end of chapter six alludes to Tuya’s Arcanic nature.
A brand put on Maika’s chest by an Arcanic religious order marks her as something more than Arcanic. The mark signifies Monstrum (plural Monstra) or monstress. Indeed, a monster does exist within Maika’s physical body and she is able to communicate with it. How this happened remains a mystery. Despite Maika’s willingness to hurt and kill, she’s appalled when the monstra is able to physically manifest and feed on people and so strives to achieve and maintain control over it; it will be an exercise in futility. While Maika is the main protagonist she is by no means the only character to whom the comic’s title applies as a reading of just issue one by itself will easily show.
An interesting side note about monstra. The monstra inside Maika refers to its sibling that it encounters in volume three as “sister brother”, indicating that monstrum bodies may be both female and male or that monstrum consider gender differently.
The hints that Maika’s and Tuya’s bond is more than friendship are at first ambiguous and or easily dismissable. Tuya attempts to dissuade Maika from her mission a month before putting it into motion. “Are you listening to me? We survived the war. We made lives for ourselves.” Certainly Tuya’s plea can be read as one friend expressing concern for another. Similarly, Tuya’s awareness of Maika’s peculiar, shall we say, condition and willingness to abide it can also be taken as unconditional support of a friend. Even Maika’s inner regret at leaving Tuya after beginning her mission might be taken as missing the presence of a good friend. Such arguments are rendered null with the opening sequence of issue #13. Both women intimately cling to the other while in bed. Maika feels bliss and love and in turn is loving. Tuya’s attempts to talk are rebuffed by Maika in the hopes of resting in this emotional space as long as possible, but then Maika awakes to a different reality. Was it a dream, a memory or something else as yet revealed which brought them together in an other worldly fashion? Later in chapter 15 they’re together again. Tuya sits on the edge of a circular, drained indoor pool or pit which is filled with dead bodies from which Maika attempts to remove herself. Stern words expressing disappointment in and an inability or unwillingness to continue to protect Maika any longer are reflected as shock on Maika’s face before the dream abruptly ends.
How Maika and Tuya’s relationship develops will prove to be interesting. An apology is extended if this bio is vague. I’ve tried to avoid spoiling as much of the plot and reveals as possible for anyone who may yet read the series.
It remains to be seen how these various matriarchal cultures view sexuality in terms of identity. For convenience sake several tags have been applied.
Monstress is an ongoing series which has been collected in three volumes to date. Look for them at your local comic shop or book store or find them on Amazon.
Art by Sana Takeda
All rights reserved Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda