Dang! It has been a very long time since an English book has graced this space. I’ve spent so much time in Japan this year (and am about to fly back across that ocean yet again!) that I haven’t actually had the chance to read much stuff in English. Most bookstores in Tokyo don’t have books in English, and when they do, they’re way more expensive than books in Japanese or those same books in English in a bookstore in Canada. But then there is not the same abundance of bookstores in Toronto that there is in Tokyo, so when I’m on this side of the ocean, it’s a bit more difficult for me to randomly encounter interesting books.
So I suppose it’s not surprising that I ran across this particular English book in Tokyo. The encounter was random, but my interest in it was not. The corner of the internet I inhabit has been aflutter with Monstress since the first issue, and I was very intrigued with what I was hearing about it. But much like I find reading a chapter a month in a manga magazine annoying, I also hate reading single issues of North American comics; I am one of those people that pretty much always waits for the trade paperback. So I made a mental note about Monstress and then studiously ignored all talk of it online for fear of ruining it for myself. But when the first volume of the trade came out this summer, I was, of course, in Tokyo.
However, being a city of weird magic, Tokyo brought the book to me! In the hands of one half of the creative team, Sana Takeda herself! Yes, I live a blessed comics life, friends. Through a series of convoluted associations and events, Sana ended up being a part of a Canadian comics event that I was working at in my capacity as OFFICIAL INTERPRETER for TCAF. As soon as I saw the short stack of the first trade on the table in front of her, I knew I was going to have to get a copy even though I was only a week away from flying back to Canada, and therefore very aware of how much stuff I had to cram into my luggage. But how often does the universe bring a book to you? You can’t just walk away from a gift like that. Especially since she was selling them for what amounted to the US retail price, a steal for a Canadian book buyer! And she kindly threw in issue seven on top of that! Sana Takeda is a pretty nice person, is basically what I’m saying here.
She’s also a great artist. Flip Monstress open to any page at all, and you will find a feast for your eyes. Gorgeous textures, rich and moody colors, and ugh! Her lines! Thin and loose, but with a real warmth behind them. I just want to stare at the book all day long. And Takeda’s artwork combined with Liu’s writing is almost too much to bear. A fantasy tale where the world is ruled by people who act like monsters challenged by a protagonist who houses an actual monster! With treacherous talking cats who can’t be trusted, but who are nevertheless entirely adorable!
So the world is at war, basically. Even if there is a kind of uneasy peace in the present moment, it is based on a whole bunch of atrocities. The Arcanics are magical creatures that come in all kinds of half-human, half-animal form, and the humans don’t much care for them. In fact, they have the Cumaea, a whole religious organization dedicated to destroying the Arcanics for a magical substance in their bodies that heals humans, extends their lives, and all kinds of other madness. After being a slave during the war, the human-looking Arcanic Maika is free and living a nomadic life with her friend Tuya. But she can’t let go of her anger about the past and goes on a quest looking for answers about what happened to her mother and who she really is. And that quest has her selling herself into slavery, deliberately this time, in order to infiltrate the Cumaea and see the woman she believes knows some of those answers.
But of course, in the tried-and-true tradition of any coming-of-age tale, Maika realizes she has a monster inside her. But in the less tried part of that tradition, she has a literal monster inside of her. One that is capable of decimating populations, like what happened at Constantine, something so horrifying that the people who managed to live through it are still haunted by it. I love this monster-made-real way of dealing with a character’s demons. A concrete reason to hate yourself, but one that presents an actual need to learn how to deal with your own damned self. Internal growth made painfully real.
There is also some fine, fine world-building going on in these pages, and it is so subtle and deft and complex that it feels entirely natural to have a cat named Tam Tam be an “esteemed professor” giving lectures about the history of the war and the world to a group of kittens at the end of every chapter. Also understated is the fact that the story focusses almost entirely on the women of this world. Men appear here and there (most notably in the form of Ren, the double-tailed nekomancer cat [and yes, I am delighted that cat society in this world includes nekomancers] and the tiger-headed mobster Seizi), but the backbone of the story is shaped by women of all kinds. So if you were looking for some fantasy on an epic-scale, but tend to roll your eyes at the white dudeliness of so much epic fantasy, jump into this world and explore your inner monster.