Today marks the debut of a new Image Comics series from writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda, exploring what it means for women to be "Monstress." Set in a fictionalized Asia circa 1900 where powerful monsters walk the earth, just out of reach from humans who would enslave them, "Monstress" blends dark fantasy with incredibly real human experiences. In this brutal landscape, teenage Maika forms an unexpected bond with the most dangerous of these creatures, establishing herself as even more of an outsider and now a target for the insatiable powers that be. But if her enemies think that Maika will comply with their demands, they are sorely mistaken -- for as the young girl bonds more deeply with the monster inside of her, her humanity gives way to unimaginable powers.
The first issue is 66 pages, making it three times larger than most single issues, and there isn't a single bit that goes to waste. Between Takeda's bewitching artwork and the creators' immersive world building, it's clear this story needs to take up space. Much like the characters Liu and Takeda have created, "Monstress" is commanding, impressive and, at times, terrifying.
CBR News spoke with Liu, uncovering more about how Takeda's art took the series in a new direction, the surprising amount of gore she finds herself writing and the inspiring moments in women's lives that shape their series.
CBR News: One of the most stunning things about this issue is that it truly includes a diverse range of women -- physical appearance, age, levels of power -- but if what we've already seen Maika is capable of is any indication, no character in this book should be underestimated. What was the character design process like?
Marjorie Liu:Some characters I could see very clearly in my head -- Maika and Tuya, for example. And it was as if Sana read my mind when she drew them -- really, straight from my imagination to her pen. Others, I knew their personalities, not their faces -- and, again, Sana drew them perfectly. So, the character design process was a collaboration, with most of the credit going to Sana.
And you're right -- every character in this book has a role to play, a journey. I'm writing a long story -- characters that don't seem like much now will eventually come back around -- hopefully, in some surprising ways.
Let's talk about the main character, Maika. How has the character grown and changed as you've developed her? What is the most challenging part of her story for you to tell?
Maika is a child of war -- a former slave who escaped, has made a new life for herself, but just can't let the past go. She's got a vendetta, unanswered questions, and something worse: she's not convinced of her own sanity.
It took me some time to find her voice. The initial version of her was just too nice. Which isn't to say that I wanted her to be a complete psychopath, but her personality wasn't accurately reflecting the trauma she'd been through, and what she was still enduring. I wrote many different drafts, many different outlines, until finally Maika started to come together. But she's still a challenge. Maika doesn't know herself -- that's what terrifies her. She feels lost inside her own head. The problem with that is I tend to channel my characters, and even though I know Maika, when I'm in the moment and inside her I also feel the same temporary confusion. I have to keep reorienting myself.
The first issue is absolutely beautiful. What was your reaction like when you saw the finished pages?
To say that Sana is one of the most talented artists I've ever worked with is an immense understatement; she's a genius, plain and simple. Her initial sketches, just of the world and the heroine, were breathtaking -- and completely altered the direction I was taking the story. "Monstress" was going to be a very different book, once upon a time -- and then, art happened. And sometimes when "art happens," that triggers a whole other chain of events.
The first issue is quite large (thankfully, because I never wanted it to end). What influenced the decision to present this in single issues versus an OGN?
Thank you! And yes, it actually crossed my mind that publishing this as an original graphic novel might be the way to go -- but there's something deeply pleasurable in the monthly comic -- for me, as a reader. I like serialized storytelling, getting my stories in dramatic chunks. Even the wait is part of the fun, especially with a book I really love.
Was there any resistance when you decided the first issue needed to be this size?
Sana is so wonderful. She really took it in stride, and was like, "Okay, all I need is [this] amount of time." Image was also very supportive. It was suggested, gently, that we might consider breaking the first issue up into two or three parts, but ultimately I couldn't do it. It didn't feel right. The first issue is huge because there's a lot of story that needs telling; fortunately, all other issues will be a standard 20-22 pages.
How did seeing Sana's finished work inform where you would take the story next?
Well, let's just say that there are two characters -- Kippa, the fox girl, and the cat -- who were never meant to have large roles in the book. But after I started writing -- and saw Sana's art -- that all changed. She's infused them with tremendous life. They're fun to have around, and their voices have become important, too.
The art is such a blend of sweet, tender and gruesome. How are you and Sana balancing these elements in the story? And is there a larger theme of balance that will come into play as the story unfolds?
Sana deserves the credit when it comes to creating balance. All I type is, "Blood, blood, more blood." Which is sort of a joke, but not really? This story is gruesome, there's no way around it. It's about slavery, the trauma of war. These are difficult topics. But there's also love, friendship, sisterhood. There's hope.
We've talked before about the importance of telling stories about powerful women, and women who have people trying to take their power away. With Maika, we see a woman learning how to fight for herself, how to make space in the world. What are some of the most important moments for you to include in this kind of a story?
In every woman's life there's a moment when we have to make a choice -- to fight, stand up for ourselves, take up space, use our voices, demand respect -- or, not. There's nothing wrong with "not," believe me. I've ceded so much space in my life I'm lucky to still have an inch of earth to stand on. But there are the moments when we don't cede, when we say, "Enough, enough, enough," and that's a powerful choice. That's a powerful decision to say, "This is my life." And really mean it, in all the ways that matter. So when I write "Monstress" -- and Maika, Kippa, Tuya, all the women in this book, good or evil -- I'm telling a story about every moment a woman says, "Enough."
What does it mean for you personally to bond with something monstrous?
In my mind, bonding with something monstrous might require recognizing our own monstrousness, our own capacity to be terrible, selfish, hateful -- or, alternatively, our own prejudices, our ignorance, all the ways we diminish the world around us out of fear. But that's called being human. It also means acceptance -- claiming our own inner monsters as something not to be despised, but learned from and understood, and forgiven. It's an opportunity to grow.
"Monstress" #1 is on sale now from Image Comics.