Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
In a steampunk fantasy world, Maika Halfwolf is searching for answers as to what happened to her mother and why an entire city was destroyed. Her clandestine actions threaten a tense truce between the humans and Arcanics of her world, and she comes into possession of a heretical artifact that makes her a target of both the fanatical Inquisitrix of the humans and the secretive Dusk Court of immortals. Nearly friendless, Maika endangers herself and everyone around not only with her reckless pursuit of answers but also with the one of the Old Gods hiding in her body, threatening to overtake her consciousness and consume all it can see. Harried from within and without, Maika’s personal vendetta puts her on a collision course with everyone who has an interest in maintaining the oppressive status quo.
Horror from Beyond the Stars
Along with the fantasy and steampunk elements, Monstress is overflowing with violence, brutality, gore, and a helping of Lovecraftian horror. All of these elements, though, fit organically within the narrative and setting. None of the blood or horror is there for shock value; it all works in service to the story. In the setting, the levels of technology, magic, social control, and what not all make sense in context, and it is clear that a lot of planning went into not only crafting the setting but also choosing how much and how little to explain about it. The background information is doled out a bit at a time to the reader instead of with what would have been large, irritating exposition dumps. In between chapters there are “Lectures from Professor Tam Tam” about the setting, but these don’t occur until halfway through the graphic novel, meaning they act to expand upon the information readers have already learned rather than overload them with needless lore. Author Majorie Liu almost always hits the mark when deciding how much the reader can be trusted to keep up with the story.
The few times that Monstress seems to miss a step is when it switches to characters with whom readers have only a tenuous connection, such as the start of chapter four and the middle of chapter five. For some readers, it may also diminish the power of the horrific entity residing in Maika that it seems to get more and more time on-page the deeper into the graphic novel the reader goes. There is a paradox in becoming familiar with the thoughts and desires of an unfathomable entity, and its mystery, power, and terror are at risk of being diminished the more it appears. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and the shark from Jaws are all more fearsome from limited screen time. Monstress hasn’t yet squandered this opportunity, but readers craving that element of horror might not like the increasing frequency of that Old God appearing.
Hierarchy of Consumption
In conjunction with the cosmic and body horror is the social horror. The systematic cruelty and dehumanization is terrifying not only in its nature but also in its casual occurrences. Slavery, mutilation, unethical experimentation, and extrajudicial killing are all standard behaviors. Humans are killing and processing Arcanics and immortal Ancients in order to harvest Lilium from the bodies, a substance that allows human to expand their minds and their lifespans. Propaganda and predation rule the day as humans use their non-human neighbors as an exploitable resource. As such, their whole society has become disfigured by this prejudice and thirst to live longer at the expense of the lives and well being of people who look different. The metaphor isn’t a difficult one to grasp.
On top of this is another layer in which Maika, albeit unwillingly, and the Old Gods have an even more voracious appetite that threatens humans as well as Arcanics. The fear of being devoured touches just about everyone in the graphic novel to one degree or another no matter how much some characters may think they’re safe. This reinforces the theme of the horror of dehumanization because it takes the idea to its most primal conclusion: stripping away all sense of dignity, worth, self, and purpose to be the most basic commodity—food—for someone else.
Monstrum in Her Skin
Sana Takeda’s art is rich and evocative. The level of detail helps to convince readers that the world is similarly vibrant and lived-in, and nearly all the characters have unique and interesting designs to make them identifiable at a glance to readers. Some panels may seem a bit busy, but the intended effect it to slow down readers, having them pay attention to everything happening.
Volume one of Monstress is a great start, and anyone interested in a deep and imaginative fantasy setting with as much story as it has horror and style should pick it up.
Liu, Majorie; Takeda, Sana. Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening. Image, 2016.
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© 2018 Seth Tomko