9:46am PT by Graeme McMillan
'Monstress': Inside The Fantasy Comic About Race, Feminism And The Monster Within
Monstress, a new comic book series from Image Comics which launches this week, is all about hidden depths. Not only for the title character — a teenager who literally has a monster living inside her — but for the series itself, which uses the fantasy genre to explore real world issues in a new and fascinating way. Writer and series creator Marjorie Liu (Marvel's Astonishing X-Men, the Hunter Kiss series of novels) talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the origins of the series, and why Monstress is even more than she anticipated.
"I didn’t realize how massive it was until I started writing it, and realized I had totally underestimated both the size of the project, and my own ability to wrap my head around it," Liu says of the series. "I wanted to write about girls and monsters, which has been a theme of mine from almost the start of my career — girls and giant monsters, and the supernatural. I wanted to tell a story about war, and surviving war — and I wanted to set it all in an alternate Asia."
The result is a first issue that includes not only girls and giant monsters, but also world-building on a scale rare in mainstream comics. The story touches on social and political issues as lead character Maika goes from slave to prisoner to … something altogether different. (No spoilers.)
"I told myself, 'I got this, I know what it is, it’s going to be epic.' But that was overconfidence," she continued. "It’s like being in a candy store — my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Everything from the characters, to the world-building and the plot, I had to attack again and again, and keep restructuring and refining. It required reaching out for trusted help — I talked a lot with my boyfriend, I brainstormed with Sana [Takeda, Monstress artist and series co-creator] — until finally, after months, this story began coming together. But it wasn’t easy."
Monstress was influenced by a number of people, ideas and experiences from Liu's life, she explained. "For example, growing up with my Chinese grandparents who were always talking about WWII — how they survived, how they fought. It wasn’t just the war they discussed, but what came after: how they had to piece their lives back together. But what’s striking to me are the photos from this time, especially the ones of my grandmother. She’s always beaming. Her smile is amazing. You would never have dreamed she went through hell."
That pushed Liu into considering inner strength — "What does it take to hold on to one’s humanity when you’re forced to suffer the long, continuous, dehumanizing experience of war? Is it just strength? Is it something in your character? Is it the kinds of friends you surround yourself with?" — which is one of the key themes to the series. "Other questions I’ve wrestled with, both in this book and others [are] what it means to be of mixed race, what it means to straddle the borderlands of two cultures," she added.
"The world of Monstress is one that has been torn apart by racism, slavery, by the commodification of mixed race bodies that produce a valuable substance that humans require like a drug. Even if you look human, you might not be safe. It’s a familiar story to people of color in this country, and in the last four or five years I’ve found myself deeply immersed in the study of identity and race, especially in the Asian American context."
The most important theme of the series, however?
"Women. Women, women, women. I can’t say that word enough, and I’m not talking about women as a gender — I’m talking about sisterhood," Liu said. "Again, as a kid, this was something I didn’t think much about. Even as an adult, it’s only been in the last four or five years that I’ve come to understand the tremendous power and importance of women as a collective, in every facet of my life — especially women of color. Whether it’s the women in my family, or amazing friends — or even the amazing sisterhood of Genki Spark, where I’ve been taking Taiko Drumming lessons — I make an active effort to expand my circle of female friends and influences. It’s changed my life. And, when I think about my grandmother and her friends, female friendship saves lives, too."
Monstress is set in a matriarchal society, with each of the main characters being female, giving Liu a chance to explore feminist issues outside of the traditional gender-conflict context in entertainment. "If men disappeared tomorrow, we’d still be having the abortion debate," she reasoned. "If men disappeared tomorrow, there would still be racism, and conflicts over religion. If men disappeared tomorrow, we might not be as concerned about sexual violence, but that would still exist — women batter other women, and women are enablers of rape culture. If men disappeared tomorrow, we’d still have war, poverty — the exact same problems we have now. We like to imagine that women would do a better job of ruling the world — and I’m one of those optimists — but women aren’t a superior kind of life form, just because of our gender. We’re awesome, but not perfect. We’re human. Just like men."
In fact, Liu feels that the series enables her to talk about issues that might frighten many people in what she describes as "very sneaky ways": "For example, most people are super resistant to direct conversations about race. We’ve been conditioned to be incredibly avoidant. 'I’m afraid I’ll be called a racist if I say something wrong,' is the familiar retort. Well, okay, that’s scary and difficult, but staying silent, avoiding the issue, doesn’t mean that racism goes away. With fiction and poetry, we can have these conversations within the intimate spaces of reading. We can pretend we’re not having them, of course — that’s totally cool. I can’t control what a reader takes from a story. But if someone wants to delve deeper into these other ideas — if something catches — then that’s cool, too."
At the center of these grand themes and expansive world building, however, is Maika — the lead character and heart of Monstress. She is, according to Liu, "a teenage girl, a former slave with a mysterious past, who is terrified that she’s losing her mind and becoming a monster. Except she’s not crazy, and yes, she is becoming a monster — because there’s one living inside her."
As the series continues, she promises, readers will discover that "two vast powers — human and supernatural — want that monster for themselves. What they can’t foresee, what they can’t possibly imagine, is that the resolve of this girl, her unbreakable spirit, is more than a match for them — and the creature inside her."
Monstress debuts Wednesday in comic book stores and digitally.