Why you should be reading the Eisner Award-winning comic Monstress
The series swept every category it was nominated for at the industry's biggest awards
Every year, San Diego Comic-Con offers a plethora of pop culture goodness, from new movie trailers to previews of upcoming TV seasons. But don’t forget the word “comic” in the name. On Friday night, Comic-Con hosted the Eisner Awards for the 27th consecutive year, bestowing the greatest honors in the entire comics industry. One of the biggest winners of the night was the Image Comics series Monstress, by writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda.
The series won five awards, sweeping the categories in which it was nominated: Best Continuing Series, Best Publication For Teens, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist, Best Cover Artist, and Best Writer. Liu shared the Best Writer award with Tom King (Batman, Mister Miracle), but even so, she became the first woman in Eisner history to receive the honor. It was a groundbreaking night, but since Monstress hasn’t yet been optioned for a big-budget movie or TV series adaptation, many people outside the comics world probably haven’t heard of it. Even so, trust us when we say that Monstress is very much worth checking it out.
To begin with, Monstress centers on a young woman named Maika Halfwolf, and that last name isn’t just for show: She’s literally the descendant of an ancient wolf goddess. Inside her, there’s something even older and stronger than that — a Monstrum, a Lovecraftian demon-god from beyond time and space, all tentacles and eyes and insatiable hunger. It’s quite a burden to carry such a being inside one’s mind and soul, but Maika’s monster might be the only hope of saving her war-torn world. As the descendant of one of the animal gods called Ancients, Maika is a half-breed known as an Arcanic. Her world is filled with such human/animal/god hybrids; she even picks up another one, an adorable little fox-girl named Kippa, during her travels.
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Unfortunately for Maika, Kippa, and everyone they know, Arcanics are despised by most of their world’s human population, especially the order of sadistic scientist witches known as the Cumae. There’s a war on, the bad guys are winning, and they aren’t playing nice. The series opens with Maika enslaved in Cumae captivity, and even after she escapes their dungeon, she has to run from one threatening locale to the next in order to stay ahead of her pursuers — not just the Cumae and their possibly demonic Mother Superior, but also the Arcanic leadership (divided into the Dawn Court and the Dusk Court) and everyone else who wants a taste of that massive power inside her.
Also, there are cat wizards.
If all that mythology sounds a little hard to digest in one sitting, don’t worry, the best way to understand the complicated mythos of Monstress is to dive in headfirst and let it wash over you. You might not understand everything right away, and that’s fine, since answers are doled out over the course of the series. Every issue, for instance, ends with a one-page “lecture” from Professor Tam-Tam, one of the aforementioned cat wizards, as he teaches his pupils about the history of their world.
On top of that, you don’t need to know much to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of Takeda’s art. No other comic looks like Monstress. Takeda’s painting creates a world where dreamlike and horrific fantasy creatures exist side-by-side with incredibly complex steampunk technology. Every character looks different from the next; not only do they each have different levels of human and animal characteristics, they also each have their own fashion sense. Even the cat wizards all have different numbers of tails, to denote their various levels of magical skill. Most incredible of all, the gruesome monsters inside and outside of Maika exist alongside the Studio Ghibli-style cuteness of Kippa and their cat friend Ren (who himself can alternatively look adorably playful or darkly threatening, depending on the situation). The juxtaposition of cuteness and horror (and the ease with which one flows into the other here) never gets boring to look at.
Liu’s sharp characterization keeps the comic’s fantasy elements from ever feeling stuffy or claustrophobic. Maika has been through war, torture, and slavery, and she has the sarcastic attitude to prove it. She likes to get to the point, which makes for a great dynamic with the arrogant, grandiloquent demon-god inside of her (whose name is Zinn, by the way). As Maika uses more and more of Zinn’s power, she is forced to consume other creatures (from livestock to monsters to humans) in order to survive. Her gradual acclimation to the necessity of this violence makes for its own compelling dynamic with young Kippa’s beliefs in peace and justice.
Drawing great power from a demon trapped inside oneself is not an uncommon trope, especially in anime: The titular protagonist of Naruto has to learn how to contend with the Nine-Tailed Fox sealed inside of him, just as Princess Mononoke’s Ashitaka struggles to use his cursed power to help the world before it consumes his entire body. Monstress is different from those stories, of course, in that it thrusts this situation on a young woman instead of a young man. That’s the whole dark pun of the title: “Monstress,” as in a female monster, and “monstrous,” as in the adjective so often hurled against women who thrust their ambition and desire on the world. Maika’s insatiable hunger is specifically a female hunger, and thus draws the kind of reactionary violence that female hunger often elicits in the real world. (Incidentally, writer Chelsea Cain is tackling a similar theme of female hunger and male fear in her own way in her upcoming Image series Man-Eaters.) Of course, most of the violence Maika must contend with comes from other women, from the Cumae to the Dawn Court. In fact, if you don’t count the cat Ren or the demon-god Zinn, it takes about four or five issues for a major male character to even appear in Monstress.
As a creator-owned Image Comics series, Monstress operates a bit like a high-profile HBO show. The series comes out, issue by issue, in individual story arcs when Liu and Takeda are ready, with slight hiatuses in between these “seasons.” The third arc just wrapped up with issue #18 earlier this month, and the collected edition of that story should be out in a couple of months. Volumes 1 and 2 are available right now, either in print or digital form (though be especially aware of big digital comic sales that often pop up on Comixology during and after Comic-Con).
Other big winners from this year’s Eisners include My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by writer and artist Emil Ferris (EW’s favorite graphic novel of 2017), and the Marvel series Black Bolt, by writer Saladin Ahmed and artist Christian Ward (which takes a superhero somewhere they rarely go: prison). It’s a good time to be a comics fan.