With “Monstress,” Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda have not only created a complex and beautiful comic, they have done it at a distance: Liu lives in the U.S. and Takeda in Japan, and the two are seldom in the same place at the same time.
The pair worked together on “X-23,” and Liu told CBR last year that Takeda was her first choice when she started developing “Monstress” “Working with her was always such a joy,” Liu said. “I’d write the story and hand her the script, and what would come back would be amazing. Not just amazing visually, but amazing in the ways she developed the story visually.”
Apparently, that synergy is still working, because when we met up with them recently, they were excited to be together and to talk about working on their series. “Monsters” took a break from monthly releases over the summer, as the collected edition of issues #1-6 came out in July; now serialization has picked up again with issue #7, which came out in October.
Editor’s note: Mari Marimoto translated for Sana Takeda.
CBR: How often do you two see each other in real life?
Sana Takeda: Almost never.
Marjorie Liu: At most, maybe once a year — although this year it’s been twice, so it’s a record.
Takeda: I don’t think we even met once since we decided to work on this and the first volume came out. When we saw each other at San Diego [in July] I remember that I was almost in tears.
Liu: It was wonderful we were able to spend so much time together, because we went on tour right after that. We went from San Diego to Seattle to the Bay Area, so we basically spent over a week together, and that was really amazing.
How do you communicate when you are working remotely from one another?
Sana: I submit a draft [of the art] and Marjorie will comment on feedback for corrections, alterations, that kind of thing, and send it back to me. I work on it, and send it back to her.
So you start out by sending a script to her?
Liu: Yes. In English.
Takeda: I have a translator who translates the script into Japanese. I do get the original English script, but I also get the translated script from the translator, so I work off of that.
How did you first create this story? Did you do that over e-mail as well?
Liu: Oh, yes. We had an initial meeting—we did one or two in person—where we talked about things face to face, but at that point my ideas were so all over the board that I could only give Sana a general impression of how things were going to be, so all the fine details were worked out over email. We are on the same wavelength. That helps.
You have a very complicated world. Did you work that out in detail before you began?
Liu: No. That makes me laugh, because just even over dinner the other night, we were still talking about some of the ideas that are in my head, what’s coming and what may be coming. When Sana started working on this book, I had big ideas about what the world was and what was happening, but I didn’t have everything entirely worked out. She really took a leap of faith and was like, “OK, well, let’s just do this,” and she brought her own vision to it. Because of her vision, mixed with some of these ideas that I came to the book with, and evolving it, “Monstress” has been in some ways an evolution.
Can you give me an example of something like that was refined as you went along?
Liu: Originally, the [monsters] were supposed to be these very physical creatures that were in our world — not in another dimension, in our world — and it wasn’t working well. Then Sana submitted these beautiful, beautiful designs, and these creatures were like ghosts. They were so gorgeous. And after I saw these designs I realized that these creatures shouldn’t be physical, they should be spirits or at least seem like spirits, and the story would work so much better if at least initially the monster wasn’t some giant physical thing but was actually inside of her. That was completely inspired by Sana’s work.
The other thing that was completely inspired by Sana’s work was Kippa. Kippa was not supposed to be a major character in the book, but Sana’s design of Kippa was so amazing and so full of life and spirit that suddenly she took on a life of her own. That’s how she became such a huge presence—because of the way that Sana drew her.
Takeda: I have to beg to differ—and also say “ditto”—in the sense that it is because her depictions in words are so complex yet so easy for me to understand that I am able to produce the art that I do. It is thanks to her vision that she is able to delineate in words. It makes me think and it makes me work harder, and the whole thing about how we seem to think on the same wavelength, it’s thanks to the fact that she can put that on paper. Whether it’s the animal characters or the Monstra, I just put on paper what she tells me. So it’s the fact that she can tell me in a way that I can understand it and yet challenge me to fit that vision. It’s not me, it’s her.
Liu: [Laughing] Pshaw! This is our endless battle.
Takeda: The translator in Japan watches us interact through all this and he once said to me, “It seems like you duke it out, you with your art, and Marjorie with her words.”
I want to talk about the art for a minute. Some comics with detailed art are hard to read because there’s the same level of detail all over the page, so there’s no hierarchy to the images. It makes the images hard to decode. Your world is exquisitely detailed, and yet at the same time it’s very easy to read the page. How did you approach that?
Takeda: I can’t tell you how grateful and happy it makes me to hear you say that, because that’s one of the things I deliberately pay a lot of attention to, to make sure it is not overwhelming to the reader. This is purely my own personal opinion, but I feel that sometimes what you describe in the other works, where it’s so complicated that the reader kind of gets lost, is because the artist maybe gets too into working and gets too involved in what he or she is putting on paper and thus forgets they are producing this for someone else’s consumption.
When I’m drawing a particular page, or a particular scene, I’m always thinking about the reader and always thinking about first of all what is Marjorie’s focus? Does she want the reader to focus on the character in a particular scene, or sometimes you want them to focus on the background. That’s what I focus on myself. And the beauty of working digitally is that I can go back very easily and say “Oh, no, no, the character has lost focus” or “The background has lost focus,” and I can take out detail—or if I feel more detail is needed I can always go back and add it in without having to put [in] as much effort as if I was doing it by hand.
I always focus on making sure that the reader enjoys the experience of reading — “enjoy” in terms of if they are meant to feel sad, I want them to feel sad — but I am focused on the reader and not on my own satisfaction. Often when I am interviewed I am asked “Do you love drawing?” and I say “It’s actually a lot of work and it’s not that fun,” and the interviewer gets this weird look on their face, but that’s why. It’s because of the way that I work. It’s not meant to be fun for me. I’m meant to produce something that is enjoyable for the reader.
Liu: On Sana’s part it’s very artistically generous. When she is producing art, as she just said, she is not thinking of herself, she is thinking of the reader, she is thinking of the story, and that’s what I mean by artistically generous. I think she is a genius. I think she’s brilliant. She pours herself into the story, she pours herself into the heart of the work and the emotional part of it, outward to the physicality of it, the look of it, so it’s very much an inside out process. At least that’s my impression of it when I watch her work and when I see how the book comes together. It feels like there’s so much spirit, so much heart in it. And that’s also part of what I mean by generosity—the way she puts herself on the page.
Sana, I keep reading in reviews that your art is manga-influenced, but I’m not so sure. Did you grow up reading manga, and what influences do you see in your art?
Takeda: I think pretty much everyone in Japan at this point has grown up watching and reading manga, not necessarily going out of their way, but you just grow up reading manga and [watching] anime, and to a certain extent I do believe I do have some influence from that.
There are so many things I have drawn inspiration from or feel I have been influenced by, it’s hard to narrow down to one kernel, but if I had to mention something specific, when I was a child I used to borrow out of the library these novels that were written for young boys that had illustrations in them. They weren’t manga style per se, they were more gekiga style, and they were actually from the 1920s. It was new to me because it was old, the old became the new, and they were really cool. I remember distinctly that both the male and female characters were drawn very beautifully and very strikingly. That left a strong impression on me, but they weren’t a manga type of art.
[With help from a bystander, we identified these stories as the work of Edogawa Ranpo.]
Most of the characters in “Monstress” are women, and that feels very natural. Why did you choose to go in that direction, and what did you do to make it work?
Liu: Why, when we watch popular television shows or films, do we think it’s natural to see men everywhere? I very deliberately wanted to reverse that. It’s not that men have been wiped out by a virus, it’s just that there are women everywhere. People keep calling this a matriarchy. I’m not saying it isn’t, but in some ways that is simplifying—that is labeling something—it’s putting it within a system. In this case, perhaps it is a matriarchy or perhaps this is just a story [where] in the same way we see men everywhere in film and television, this is a world in which we just see women everywhere, and it is just natural. It is the way things are, and we don’t question it in the same way we don’t question that it’s the reverse.
It feels natural because these women are being depicted as human. They are not fulfilling stereotypical roles. They are not archetypes. They are not the virgin, the whore, the classic “strong female protagonist” kickass heroine. These are complicated women living their lives, engaged in their societal roles, in their jobs. They are human beings.
I think that what we miss a lot when we are writing and talking about women in fiction is the fact that women are human beings. We are not invisible. We take up space. We use our voices. We are half the imaginary world, and that is not often expressed—or is expressed in really very boxed forms. Women are not formulas, in the same way that male characters we see on television are not formulas.
For example, [the British television show] “The Night Manager,” with Tom Hiddleston. That’s a story in which men fulfill these really interesting, complicated roles, psychologically interesting, and there are two main women in the story. One dies; she is a “whore”—quote unquote, she’s actually called “whore”—she dies, and then we have another woman who is fulfilling the same role, where she is sort of the mistress, her role is to be sexualized visually all the time, and eventually she is saved, she comes round, she has a child. Her whiteness and her innocence allow her to be saved at the end. Imagine if we reversed everything and this was a story about a former female soldier of war who decides that she is totally traumatized and done and she wants to be a night manager for a hotel and she encounters the abused boyfriend, who has been hooking up with this incredibly powerful and savvy female weapons dealer. Just imagine, we could tell the same story but with women, and we chose not to because I think it doesn’t even occur to people to do that. Because, again, we put female characters into formulas and into boxes. You can tell all these stories you see on television, these great, amazing, complex stories, you can tell them with female characters and it would be absolutely amazing. You could tell them with women of color, and it would be amazing. You would have the same complexity, the same story, just with women. And we choose not to do this.
Takeda: What I feel is, having known Marjorie and interacted with her, Marjorie herself does not put people in categories in terms of gender. She does not deal with someone differently or in a particular way because the person she is dealing with is male or female, and I feel that’s what comes through in her work as well. She treats everyone as if they are human. She treats everyone equally.
Liu: Maybe. That’s very generous, but I think one must never underestimate the way that systems work on us unconsciously. I would like to think that I do that, but I am also aware of the fact that I am raised in a system where from birth I have been bombarded by certain messages, so while I try to be conscious of the way I treat people, I cannot assume I am doing the best job possible. We have a lot of unconscious bias. I would love to be that way, I would love to think that I am that way, but I don’t know that I am. I can’t give myself that much credit, and I don’t think anyone should.
Where is the story going? Do you know how it’s going to end?
Liu: It’s definitely ongoing. We had a conversation the other night at dinner, where we were talking about where the story is going, and what the end possibly looks like, but as far as how many issues it will take to get there, I actually don’t know.
But there will be one single story arc?
Liu: Oh yes. It’s definitely going to be multiple volumes. There are a lot of moving pieces. We set up the story to be a big world. I want it to feel like the best, most complicated epic fantasy you ever read, where by the end if it you [feel] everything fit together, all those moving pieces, every one has a resolution and it feels whole.
Takeda: I am equally looking forward to seeing how the story develops!