There are many kinds of monsters in the world. This much is clear in Image Comics’ Monstress #1, written by Marjorie Liu, and drawn by Sana Takeda, who both last teamed up in Marvel’s X-23. Of course, the presence of monsters in this book is a given, thanks to the name, but Liu works at a deeper truth to what it really means to be a monster; how monsters are made, and how they may appear to others. The protagonist of the book, Maika, is the titular Monstress, though her pretty, slim appearance seems to belay that fact. Despite that fact, Maika is also malformed, a mysterious brand on her chest, and one arm maimed from the war she has evidently survived. Throughout the issue, however, it becomes clear that her physical scars are not what has most affected Maika. Rather it is the psychological toll; the trauma her experiences have affected in her, that have most contributed to her character. It is that which has made her a monster. Maika then, is not a monster in the most general sense of the word- her physical grotesqueness comes only in the form of her amputated arm, and with the stunning art of the book, this is not enough to make her truly grotesque. Rather, Maika is a monster in the violence and cruelty that is done by her and unto her. There is, of course, also the monster whose consciousness sometimes lurks inside her, a connection to a physical being that has yet to truly be explored or understood.
Maika is certainly not the only monster present within the pages of Monstress. Indeed the monsters present range from sympathetic characters to ones less so; from cute, to beautiful, to the sheerly grotesque. For starters, there are others like Maika, of a species known as Arcanic, most of whom have appearances and abilities different from those of regular humans. These are monsters in the traditional sense, in that their appearance is abnormal and mystical. Alternatively, there is the woman who sells Arcanic children as slaves, whose motives and history have yet to be explored, but who is clearly not a simply, straightforward character, despite the monstrosity of what she does. There is then, of course, the witches she sells the children to, who seem to enjoy causing harm to their victims before killing them, using their bodies for monetary gain. Amongst these are women both physically attractive and not; some who seem psychopathic while others are just bullies.
The last of these women is older, human and form, and with an attractive figure, but a scarred face, and a certain monstrosity unlike other characters in the book; it appears she enjoys eating the organs of the witches’ victims. Finally, there is the giant, kaiju-like monster to which Maika has a psychic connection. This monolith, huge, terrifying, and monstrous in appearance, is so far unexplored, but still yet another facet of monstrosity to be examined within the book. Yet, not all monsters in Monstress are created equal. The story takes place in something of an alternate, steampunk Asia, sometime after a devestating war has raged between humans and Arcanics, with the Arcanics having been mostly subdued, and many enslaved by humans. Maika is one such Arcanic. While there is much of her character left to be explored, some things are clear; she is only half Arcanic, a mixed race girl that looks human but is treated as though she is not. She has clearly experienced the war as a great hardship, has at least once herself been through slavery, and while it is unclear how she got out, both the war and the enslavement that followed have taken a toll.
It is those experiences, the comic seems to suggest, rather than her psychic link with a beast-like creature, that have shaped Maika into a monster. And she is. While Maika is meant to be a good character, and clearly comes across as sympathetic, she is not particularly nice. She has one friend to whom she fails to show much affection, and even when she is trying to save others, she is harsh and cold to them, in one instance, commanding a scared young girl to pick up and carry weapons for her as a response to the girl’s nervous greeting. Violence too, is something that not only is Maika good at, but something that she seems to enjoy, or, at the very least, something she’s grown numb to. She kills without a single care, and it is aspects such as these which make her monstrous.
Our protagonist’s monstrosity does not make her irredeemable, however, for as much as this book is about monsters, it is also about war, and the effects of war. It is clear that Maika has been deeply affected by her experiences and by the war, and while she has not come through unscathed, the book praises the fact that she has survived with goodness still within her, and suggests a path which will explore Maika’s monstrosity and both the events which led to its formation, as well as those which may lead her out of it, and help her to heal from her past; to do more than merely survive, and perhaps even grow close to those characters she surrounds herself with while still embracing the monsters within her.