I first got my start as Comics Editor here at the Cultural Gutter because of a zine I made. It was a personal zine I started after spending a few years running Mad Cow, the zine for the University of Toronto Women’s Centre. I was excited to write about a lot of things I hadn’t really written about for Mad Cow and a lot of that was about monsters. And as the zine took shape, each issue was organized around a different monster, so I called it, Monstress. The name came from a performance of a Balinese shadow puppet play performed by I Wayan Widja I was lucky enough to attend. The play was about Arjuna’s battle with the demon king Niwatakawaca, but there was, of course, a romantic interlude, in which Arjuna pitches woo to Supraba, his best friend Kresna’s sister. The quality of his woo causes it to permeate all of nature with everything from animals to humans to monsters pairing up for some lovin’. I Wayan Widja announced each creature pairing off with a mate: the lion and the lioness; the tiger and the tigress; and then he showed us two monsters and said, “the monster and the monstress.”
Feminized nouns kind of irk me. I can play with poetess, patroness and authoress and have fun, but at the same time they rub me a little wrong. But there was something arresting about “monstress,” something that subverts the feminized ending, monsters and maybe even femininity itself. And because I am always curious about understanding my own responses to things, especially things that I find disreputable, I called my zine, Monstress. I took it to Toronto’s zine fairs and had a swell time at the Buffalo Small Press Fair (which you should go to. Seriously, it’s my favorite). And in early 2006, I was sitting a table at Cut’n’Paste with my stacks of zines, coloring in the hand-colored bits when Jim Munroe walked up and bought a couple zines. He came back later, told me he liked them and asked if I’d want to write something for the Cultural Gutter. The next thing you know, here I am.
When I saw previews for Marjorie Liu and Takeda Sana’s Monstress (Image, 2015-ongoing), I was really intrigued. I like dark fantasy and was excited by their collaboration on a dark fantasy epic. I admired Takeda’s polished, Art Deco-infused art. Her range is amzing. I was intrigued by Monstress’ syncretistic mix of fox spirits, cats, airships, fairy-ish courts, Lovecraftian gods, and kaiju. And I was intrigued by the title. There had been another Monstress in comics, a member of the Legion of Superheroes, but she had never caught my interest. She didn’t seem quite monstrous enough. Liu and Takeda’s Monstress gets to that complexity that had caught me by surprise with I Wayan Widja’s word, “monstress”–the female and the monstrous, together; the mysterious, ineffable monstress within.
Liu and Takeda had worked together before on X-23, a book about a young woman cloned from Wolverine’s genetic material who struggles to become more than a weapon. X-23 and Monstress do share some things in common, the focus on a young woman finding out about herself and her history, the complicated relationships between women, a diverse cast and, possibly, the experience of being a weapon–maybe even the experience of fearing being a monster. And as a writer of urban fantasy novels (some reviewed by Chris Szego right here), Liu tells Comic Beat, “Heck, I’ve been writing about women and monsters from the beginning of my professional career.”
I always wondered to myself: “How does one reconstruct themselves after the trauma of war?” After you survive war, what does it take to put yourself back together again? Maybe some people just bounce through it, but other people don’t. So, what does it take to become human again after you’ve been dehumanized?
That was very much what I was thinking of when I started Monstress, I had this vision in my head of this girl who has survived a cataclysmic war – she’s psychically wounded, she’s physically wounded and she has to put herself back together. That was one of the driving forces as I was thinking about the story, and the other one was racism. You know…flat-out racism and how we dehumanize others, how we can explain away another person’s humanity as a way of excusing some really horrific behavior.
Monstress is set in the aftermath of a devastating war between the Federation of Man, the Ancient Ones and the Arcanics, people who are offspring and descendants of offspring of humans and the Ancient Ones, theriomorphic spirits. Something happened during that war—an Old God appeared and destroyed everything around it. In the face of this nearly world-annihilating event, Arcanics and humans made peace, but they still distrust each other. The Ancient Ones retired to their Dusk and Dawn courts, while the Arcanics and humans co-exist by limiting contact. Among the humans, the Cumaea, as secret order of women with psychic powers, capture, tortured and killed Arcanics, tapping them for lilium, a miraculous healing and life-extending elixir.
Maika Halfwolf, the orphaned daughter of Moriko Halfwolf, survives and escapes an internment camp for Arcanics. Maika allows herself to be captured by the Cumaea and brought into their stronghold in Zamora. Maika was looking for more information about her mother, but steals a piece of a mask and a photograph. Maika is also struggling with a secret. Maika Halfwolf has a problem, a monster lives inside her very literally–a monster that forces her to kill and eat others to sustain itself. Worse, it might be the mother of all monsters. Subsequent issues of Monstress have followed Maika as she tries to escape the Cumaea’s Inquisitors, agents of the Ancient Courts who want the monster within her, all while trying to control the monster within her.
Maika also has some swell companions. Kippa the fox-girl escapes with Maika and adorably hugs her tail to comfort herself. Ren the two-tailed cat claims to be of great help, but might have his own agenda. They are beautifully, expressively rendered and entertaining and, best of all, a fox spirit and a cat spirit. Cats who grow very old, grow a second tail. The older a cat–or a fox–get, the more tails they have. And there are so many Ancient Ones with multiple tails in this. And I am quite optimistic that I caught a glimpse of someone who looks to be based on the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.
And that brings me to something else, most of Monstress‘ characters are female. In that way, Monstress has some similarities with two very different projects, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image, 2015-ongoing). Lauren Faust created MLP: FIM with the idea of giving little girls a smart cartoon with a wide variety of female characters presented. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s exploitation women-in-space-prison epic is a pointed, feminist project. She wrote the book in part in response to reactions to her work on Captain Marvel. Some people thought it was too angry and too feminist.
“But there was some kernel of: ‘This is not angry feminist. You want to see angry feminist?’”
So DeConnick started writing another, very different comic called Bitch Planet. The story is about a futuristic world dominated by men, where women who are deemed “noncompliant” are placed on a prison planet.
In reading the first issue Monstress, I gradually became aware that all the characters I encountered were female. And I wondered if maybe this was significant to the world Liu and Sana were revealing. Then it just became apparent that there were men, that it was not an issue with the world after the war, and that the predominance of female characters was totally pointed, but not remarked upon or justifed within the book. So, what happens when most of a story’s characters are female? Pretty much the same thing that happens when there is a diverse cast in any context. The femaleness of the characters becomes less significant and each individual character is less fraught with the weight of representation. And “female” doesn’t become it’s own kind of character. There is no Smurfette. And when the preponderance of characters are female, there is less chance of any one role being stereotyped as “female.” The characters become complex people.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Bitch Planet play this a little differently. My Little Pony is making a concentrated effort to offer Equestria in all its diversity. Bitch Planet is presenting a dystopia–a planet where non-compliant women are sent, making the focus on female characters pointed, but part of the structure of the world. But despite this difference, Bitch Planet and Monstress elaborate on some of the same concerns: incarceration, institutionalization, othering and dehumanization. The fear and fears of women who might be out of control. These concerns have long been presented in fiction by and about women from Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea‘s madwoman in the attic to Homicidal and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! to Ginger Snaps and Kuroneko to The Stepford Wives and Under The Skin. Bitch Planet is exploitation at its most feminist. And Monstress is dark fantasy, following a woman as she tries to put herself back together and find out what happened to her mother, while tamping down the monster within her, exploring the boundary between human and monstress.
One day, Carol Borden will learn to control the monstress within.
This piece was published by The Cultural Gutter on May 19, 2016.