Monstress Vol 1: Awakening
Written by Marjorie Liu
Art by Sana Takeda
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Oh my god – can anyone help me out? There’s a bit right at the start of the first issue of Monstress where one character predicts the death of this random guy “Sir Conroy. Two months from now, your wife is going to find you in bed with another man. Soon after you’ll be found stone cold dead. Curiously, no one will be charged.” And it’s on the tip of mind that I’ve read or seen something just like it somewhere else I just can’t for the life of me remember where. Can anyone help me out? I can’t remember if it’s a comic or a book or a tv show or what but it’s driving me CRAZY.
Sorry – where was I?
Oh yeah: Monstress.
So. For those of you who don’t know: at the end of last year this Book Club did this big 2017 in Review thing where instead of choosing one particular book to talk about we opened up the whole thing to let anyone say anything about any comic that they wanted and yeah the whole thing was pretty popular. Lots of cool and interesting recommendations (some of which I’m still following up on… Altho who was it that suggested Aliens: Dead Orbit? That book was…. not good). But yeah anyway…. One of the books that got love from a few different places was Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda. Here’s a brief little recap if it’s slipped your mind (and maybe it’ll be good if I’m not the one that has the first word for once right?).
Shout out to Loz for putting the first volume on the Peckham Library comic book group. This is a very rich epic fantasy series about a young woman who has escaped from slavery, and who harbours an evil spirit within her which can destroy the world. I use ‘rich’ in the same way as I would to describe cake or wine – it’s a book to savour and luxuriate in, largely a result of the luminous artwork. And it has a high calorie count – both plot and panels are crammed full of details. I would sum it up as Northern Lights meets Warcraft III, and would recommend if either of those things appeal.
Ilia’s comment about this amused me because the brief notes I’d written about Monstress, anticipating writing about it for this thread, revolve around the word ‘rich’ (richly conceived world, characters; rich with artistic detail). So I’ll be lazy and just second everything he says about it. I’m really excited to see where Monstress goes. Twelve issues in, it feels like the creators have progressed the main plot and characters sufficiently to maintain interest, but there’s still a lot of the world of Monstress left to explore.
Abidali in his list of 28 things that completely ignored the format that everyone else was kind to follow listed “Monstress” as his number 18 thing (is that good or bad? Only he knows….).
This is an east meets west take of art set in a steampunk horror telling of a young survivor girl Maika Halfwolf that must be try and restore order in the dangerous war torn between the humans and the monstrous Arcanics. She must uncover her mysterious past to find out the truth before a mysterious monstress lurking in the shadows hunts her down. The artwork is beautificully and intricately drawn by Sana Takeda taking on a very manga style with hazy and washy hues of colour thrown into the mix with comic design done by Rus Wooton.
And oh – ok then…. here’s me – (spoiler: I didn’t like it):
No. No. No. And oh my god – no. I mean – I guess I should have had my suspicious when I saw that Neil Gaiman quote on the cover of the first volume (“Remarkable: a beautifully told story of magic and fear.” – blurgh) but this comic is not good. I mean obviously this puts me in a minority of one: not only are you guys praising it here – but it’s also been a notable hit in the Barbican Comic Forum these past few months with lots of people giving it a smile and a nodding head: but I honestly have no idea what you people are seeing in this thing. It’s like the comics equivalent of the kinda middle-brow TV that I long ago learned to avoid – Arrow and Gotham and all that… Where the point seems to be nothing more than filling some time and feeling a vague sense of personal empowerment… Which yeah ok whatever. It’s just that the writing is so damn clunky reading it feels like being trapped inside a a rusted grandfather clock.
I tried. I mean I really did. But Monstress is part of that very small subset of comics I’ve read this year that were so bad that I couldn’t even finish it. It’s like trying to eat day old porridge – every panel another heaped spoonful of gruel in my mind. I mean – I think Ilia and Amanda are both smart cool people so I actually went back this morning to give it another shot (maybe I was just in the wrong mood when I read it?) but no – come on guys – like I get that maybe I have a heightened sensitivity to this stuff or something but in the first few pages alone we get stuff like “If there weren’t a stalemate in the war, there wouldn’t be a wall and all you inhuman freaks would be in chains.” (CLUNK). I mean – one. Who speaks like this? two. Isn’t there a more interesting way to do exposition (especially in a comic!) than just having a character spell things out like this? three. YAWN. YAWN. and YAWN. And oh my god – it’s never-ending. Seemingly every other character speaks like this – like they’re in a bad TV show with every other page pointing towards some bullshit seeming mystery that’s only put there to keep you reading (oooh! Why is that photo important? oooooh! What happened in Constantine? ooooh! what’s the deal with her mother? ooooh! What’s the answer to all of the above? = I don’t care).
Not a fan. Sorry.
Which yeah – ok. I actually think that works pretty well as an opening gambit. So I’ll just leave it there for now and we’ll see what happens…
Everyone else: what do you think?
Haven’t read this or anything else by the creators so don’t have any opinions on it, but the bit you mentioned sounds reminiscent of Jason Blood (the Demon’s alter ego) in Alan Moore’s swamp thing who tells a travelling salesman he’ll be killed by a swordfish in the near future!
I thought they did a great job of world building and the art is very detailed, but the story didn’t do it for me. Didn’t want to keep reading.
Same. I think the art is beautiful but the story itself is pretty generic.
The writing seems pretty dire, everyone seems to speak in exposition, but god this comic is beautiful!
I totally agree with everyone using ‘rich’ to describe it – the amount of detail, the light, the colours, it’s all so sumptuous, makes me really slow down and enjoy it. Everything is textured, and the colour palette is so tasty.
I wonder if maybe that hurts the story, I’m struggling to read it because I keep getting distracted by how nice the art is in every panel. Is it possible for a comic to have art that is too good? And is it good comic art if it distracts from the story?
The first book definitely suffers, if you are not getting drawn in by it, by having not only a lot of exposition but also a lot of unexplained exposition, you are told a lot of things about this world but it’s not connected together. The time jumps at the start alienate and annoy rather than bewitch and enthrall. But book two, and what has been published so far of book three, are a lot less convoluted and more action oriented.
Monstress reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Dune (one of the best science fiction books ever if you haven’t read it) in that it also has this very strange society and rather arch clunky dialogue. You just have to buy into it and roll with it. It’s part and parcel of the alternative world, like the elvish songs in Lord of the Rings and the awkward thee and thou in bad American fantasy lit.
The Northern Lights comparison works on the exposition front as well, in that the first two chapters of that book are literally a lecture overheard by the main character, and then the following chapter is this long 360 montage of the protagonist’s life so far and the city she lives in. It’s also a clunky way of doing it, and the ch 3 option just isn’t available to Monstress, which as a comic would find that kind of montage difficult to do. So it just stuffs everything in the characters lecturing at each other.
One of the things I liked about the first volume was just how compressed it was. Things that would build for chapters on end in a novel happen in a couple of issues. It’s taking advantage of the comics medium, which privileges brevity and action over description. The second volume was a bit disappointing in that respect, as the pace slackens and it tells a more linear quest story. I’m still going to keep reading, but I wonder whether the series will continue to spool out rather than wind up back into the tightly-wrapped story package of volume 1.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
First up – I just want to say thanks to Tam. Like: I’m not sure if the travelling salesman / swordfish thing is the exact thing I’m thinking of. But at least it did enough to put my mind at rest (for a while anyway….).
But yeah ok: Monstress.
Well hell – it very much gladdened my heart to see that at least I’m not the only that found this comic to be a disappointing load of meh. And yeah: can I upvote Rat’s “everyone seems to speak in exposition” comment like 100 times or more? Because that’s basically the whole problem right there. Like: if you can’t even trust a writer to get the basics right then it makes it very difficult to want to stay for the full thing right?
Like: those of you saying that you just have to stick with it. I mean: half of me wants to believe you (it would be great to read a comic that was worthy of such resplendent artwork). But the other half of me is just convinced that you’re suffering (at best) from a case of something like stockholm syndrome and (at worst) it just makes me doubt your critical faculties completely. Like: if you’re not turning your nose up at the flavorless food that they’re serving as a starter – then why should I trust you when you say that the next course is where it’s at?
(I realise that may be a little unfair – but in fairness – I was originally going to say dogpoo instead of well… You know what? Whatever)
Re: Ilia’s comments about Dune and The Northern Lights. I mean: I guess this is like my whole problem with Monstress in that (from the very little I read before I threw the book on to my fireplace) is that yeah – it treats itself like it’s bad TV with everyone just constantly stating all of this mind-numbing exposition stuff. (There’s one page in particular in the first issue where I think it’s actually every single line is a reference to one thing or the other “Well – yes at the battle of Thingie that took place over a thousand years ago. But we haven’t seen the Obviously Going To Be The Bad Guys since that point and anyway now the world is at peace” etc. I was going to copy it out and go through line by line and roast the whole thing – but 1. I don’t have the book in front of me right now and 2. Life is too short. Anyone that gets this kind of stuff will obvious realise it already – and the rest of you I guess it’s too late and the brain parasites have already made their way to your spinal cords and any attempt to reserve the process will probably just end up killing you anyway.
I mean I don’t want to be one to state the complete obvious – BUT IT’S A FRIGGING COMIC. And there are so so many cooler ways to do exposition stuff and fill people in on the your crazy world-building or whatever without just having a character tell another character loads of stuff that they already know.
Halo Jones (which was one of the first books we did a Book Club on) which yeah throws you in the deep end and then just expects you to swim. I remember the first time I ever read it – the experience was like jumping off a diving board into a swimming pool of alphabet soup. Nothing bad sense and everything was just all of these bonkers words and phrases that made no sense whatsoever and it’s only after you think things through and start to piece bits together that things take shape. In a sense – it’s almost as if Halo Jones works as a response to the clunky clunk of Monstress only that takes into account that – oh yeah – HALO JONES WAS WRITTEN OVER 30 YEARS AGO. (good grief).
Another good example:
Prophet (which I would love to do a Book Club on – but I don’t want to alienate everyone – altho – ahem I did write a thing about it a while ago) goes the exact opposite route – where it basically doesn’t explain anything and just leaves your brain scrambling like an egg on a frying pan to work out all of the crazy images that get chucked out you one after another. I mean – it’s not a comic that I love as much as Halo Jones but gosh darn it – at least it tries you know?
Like summing it up in a handy little soundbite – Monstress likes to have characters talking about how there used to be a war instead of well: just getting Sana Takeda to draw some cool stuff that would tell you that there had just been a war on (maybe a tank being used as a clothes line or something similar?).
So. erm. yeah. In the nicest possible way I think that Ilia’s comment about “It’s taking advantage of the comics medium, which privileges brevity and action over description” might be a little wide of the mark… But maybe that’s just me?
The ‘oh, it starts off bad, but just give it a season or two’ is a weird thing of geek culture. The problem is, the entertainment industry is beyond saturated, there are so many amazing series out there that I just can’t be arsed with something that takes a dozen episodes to get going.
I have a problem with ongoing series for much that reason, I way prefer graphic novels, stories that do their bit and then finish rather than going on forever. I think it’s the difference between a TV series and a film.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
The only exception to that which I’ll give would be The Walking Dead (as covered here) which yeah starts as just this dull cookie-cutter kinda thing and then just grows and grows to more wild proportions (Kirkman got his teeth into me – what can I say?). Altho I guess the difference here would be that I don’t dispute those who don’t get it straight away you know? “Yeah – it’s dull and flavourless – but it gets better!”
Part of wants to agree that the good thing about comics as opposed to TV is that comics don’t wear out their welcome. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that each page is precious because it takes so much time for the artist(s) to make it while TV (mostly) has a certain amount of time for each episode that it has to fill – so it’s more prone to wheel-spinning. But I disagree with the “can’t be arsed” bit. If only because in my head I can imagine someone saying something like that about Halo Jones and things like it. And if anything the thing I have against Monstress is how eager to please it is. I mean you know – give me some meat to chew on yeah? Instead of just another Neil Gaiman style wet dream about fantasy creatures that are just like us yawn etc.
I guess that would be my question to all of you Monstress fans out there – what is the point of this book? Apart from the artwork (which yeah ok obviously): what is it about Monstress that you love so much / what is it that I just don’t get?