The opening scene of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s “Monstress” #2 is wonderfully written, with Liu’s captions providing the “facts” known to the Federation. The contradiction between the investigation report and what unfolds through Liu’s dialogue and Takeda’s visuals is a clever, dark commentary on the manipulation of history and the use of propaganda.
The introduction of the Mother Superior and her Inquisitrixes is spectacular, in all senses of the word. Liu gives some of their victims brief lines of dialogue before they are silenced, but the level of horror doesn’t rise to what was shown in “Monstress” #1; the nuns’ murders and dissections of Arcanics are shocking and repellant by any measure. Technically, the Mother Superior and her posse are even more evil, since even the nuns fear them. They’re higher in the hierarchy and there’s definitely more blood on their hands, but the military often doesn’t look as bad as the Mengeles of history, perhaps because they arouse competing emotional reflexes. The Inquisitrixes are muscle, and intelligent muscle at that. By itself, that inspires more awe than disgust.
Takeda’s panel compositions and energetic action scenes make the Inquistrix’s movements balletic, even when she’s killing several people at once. It’s like watching an action movie heavy on martial arts. Takeda’s costume designs and Liu’s dialogue emphasize beauty, strength and ruthlessness. They quickly build up a picture of a formidable adversary. Takeda’s scene-closing close-up of the Mother Superior’s sinister, shell-pink Mona Lisa smile leaves a lasting impression.
Comparatively, the next scene focusing on Maika’s past is duller. Liu and Takeda’s world-building is rich, but the characterization is still weak. All the reader knows about Maika is that she’s brave, angry and determined, and that she’s driven by a three-fold identity struggle. She’s a survivor of trauma, there are family secrets that she’s chasing and something else that is “monstrous” is awakening inside of her. These are all compelling plot points, but they are exterior to her, not interior. Her character lacks the kind of small, specific details that would make her seem more like a real person and less of a placeholder. Her speech patterns are bland, and her emotions — while sympathetic — are not distinctive. As Marykate Jasper mentioned in her review of the first issue, Maika doesn’t invite the reader in. That’s consistent with the psychology of trauma, but it also creates difficulties for the creative team when the main character is evasive, even in the flashback where Liu writes some first-person voiceover captions from Maika’s POV.
All three of Maika’s travelling companions fare better, even though they are also familiar types. The two-tailed cat, Ren, is an indefatigable and resourceful Puss-In-Boots type, while Emilia’s calm, philosophical nature and bravery show a path to non-violent resistance. Her maturity and patience draw attention to Maika’s sharp edges and brashness. Kippa is also a foil for Maika in her innocence and cuteness. Together, the three outshine Maika but also define her further through contrasts. That may be enough until Maika’s character and powers develop further.
Liu continues to avoid information dumps and “Monstress” #2 maintains emotional urgency throughout, even though it remains a denser-than-average read. The final cliffhanger is beautiful and eerie, showcasing Takeda’s talents in creating mood and suspense. The story is still hard to follow at times without re-reading, but it rewards those who do with its luxuriant detail and ambitious breadth.