What I have discovered about myself is that I have a very love/hate relationship with independent comic books.
The ones that I enjoyed in the last few years, I have tended to love. Even when I have only read the first trade or two so far, I have found titles like Saga and Sex Criminals that I am eager to read more of whenever I have some mythical free time that will allow me to read for fun.
But the ones I haven’t really caught on with? I have tended to almost despise. We will get to some of those in a little bit as a comparison point.
It’s not intentional, but I feel that if I am reading a new indie book with characters I am not connected to, I get even more distanced from the book? Hm… we’ll get back to this point in a bit, too.
This intro was brought to you by Foreshadowing.
Writer and Artist: Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Protagonists: Maika Halfwolf
Antagonists: Witch nuns!
Monstress is a very Eastern-inspired book both in the art and the story. It opens in what feels like the middle of the life of the main character, Maika Halfwolf, but also at a crux that will create a new beginning for her.
The world the reader is introduced to is one torn apart by war and prejudice. Liu is completely unafraid to just throw a lot of unfamiliar words at you and let you figure out what they mean within in the context of their usage in the story. “Arcanics”, “Cumaea”, “Lillium” and other concepts are bandied about pretty loosely to let everything feel natural without too much in the way of introductory speeches (“We will use some lilliim, which, as you of course know, is blah blah blah…”). Maika is an Arcanic, which is basically a magical non-human being. They live on one side of a wall, while the humans live on the other. Maika has crossed the wall to start the story and allowed herself to be sold as a slave to get close to the people that killed her mother.
In the midst of her revenge, she finds part of a mask owned by the woman who betrayed her mother. She steals the mask, further empowering a monster that lives deep within her, and causing its hunger to build to the surface. This causes some problems for Maika trying to get back home, and the true story of Monstress starts from there.
When it comes to Independent press books, one of the things that can either sell me or lose me is pacing. There is an entire world filled with (hopefully) brilliant characters, and a writer needs to mete that information out appropriately, or else it all goes right out for me.
I mentioned earlier that I would discuss some renowned indie books that didn’t sit well with me, and here’s where I will mention two, because my problem with each was pacing. First, we have Umbrella Academy. This was a book that was zero-to-sixty in just a few issues. Everything felt very slapdash and hurried, and by the time the first arc ended, I just didn’t care about anything. The characters were blank slates, the story was a mess, and it desperately needed some lengthening so there could be an engagement. The second book is East of West. I read two trades of East of West, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what happened in it. The plot jumped all over the place, the book wanted to establish way too many goings-on far too quickly, and it felt like nothing was being held back. I read that book and was convinced that every idea was regurgitated out in the first fifty pages, and again… I just didn’t care.
With Monstress, we have a book that NAILS its pacing. There’s obviously an enormous world at play here, and the backstory of the war and the monsters and the different races is all very enticing… but the book smartly sticks to Maika and builds her up as a fierce protagonist worth following. It also starts off right in the middle of things, so while the details of Liu and Takeda’s world can trickle in, there is an immediate sense of urgency. Monstress hooked me early by neither giving away everything too quickly nor by jumping around the world and losing focus.
Maika is a dangerous character as a protagonist because she is brooding and pissy and an asshole, and there’s very little reason to want to cheer for her. A big factor in how I enjoy Monstress going forward will come down to in which direction she grows. As it stands, she feels a bit derivative or hollow in the beautiful world that surrounds her, but I imagine she will become more worthwhile based on what we see in the first trade.
Sana Takeda’s art is a stand-out here, as always. Her art is breathtakingly marvelous. The detail in every piece of background material is remarkable, and her fantasy creatures are, at turns, original, intimidating, adorable, and life-like. She is beyond reproach, and I will say that a huge selling point for me was seeing her name on the cover.
Talking Point: So I alluded to this above, even if it’s not really applicable to Monstress, but: which is worse? A bad indie book starring characters and world you aren’t invested in? Or a poorly done Big Two book which has characters you are connected to?
After reading just the first HALF of the first trade of Monstress, I went out and bought the second and third collections. This is a book that is both written and drawn in stellar fashion. This could definitely move up to 9-10 territory once I read more of it.