I started reading Monstress for a bit of relief in the midst of researching my masters dissertation – it was vaguely relevant, as I was looking into teratology (the study of monsters) as it relates to the idea of alterity and to fantasy fiction, but mainly it was an easy-to-read comic with pretty pictures. Volume 2: The Blood continues in much the same vein. Sana Takeda’s beautiful art is some of the most decorative you’ll see in a comic: it’s very polished, with a conventional high finish, and while it’s not too generic it is pretty much idiomatic, and adopts a Westernised manga style (big eyes on small cute things, more mimetic on big important things). However, Takeda’s intensively decorated surfaces, and her gleeful rendering of the tale’s more horrific and Lovecraftian elements, give the book a pulsating, darkly psychotropic aesthetic. Marjorie Liu’s script continues to outline the adventures of a young woman with a dark other welded to her being, and it is an expertly paced essay in measured revelation and deepening mystery, peopled with engaging characters and amusing asides (Professor Tam Tam’s pages of explication in particular).
Liu imagines a matriarchal world, one in which men occupy some positions of power, but where, for the most part, ‘person’ means ‘woman’. This, for me, is the greatest strength of the work, and it is a credit to her that this idea is worn lightly enough that the reader doesn’t really notice (they probably would if they were an entitled and insecure man who hates the idea of a female Dr. Who, but any reasonable reader…) The more works of the imagination our culture produces in which women play a prominent role, not as some sort of gimmick, but just because sometimes women are prominent, the better; and particularly in the field of speculative fiction, the more writers show that it is equally possible to imagine worlds in which our own society’s gender politics are not directly reproduced, the less those politics will be reinforced and perpetuated. When the whole world is up for grabs, why imagine one which is exactly the same as ours in its principal social axes? The Blood continues to deliver a narrative which is distinctly feminist in its fundamental assumptions, without overtly beating a feminist drum in its plot or themes. This is no utopian fantasy, but a world like our own, in which ‘-archy’ gives rise to inequality, coercion and conflict, regardless that it is ‘matri-‘ rather than ‘patri-‘.
The setting is not ‘steampunk’, although the book is marketed as such — at least not if steampunk means a setting in which information technology is founded on Victorian engineering. There are airships, there is nineteenth century styling, and there is a good deal of polished brass and wood, but this is a story and a setting located unproblematically slap-bang in the middle of the fantasy genre, in which something called ‘magic’ shapes culture and society in much the way that things called ‘electricity’ and ‘internal combustion engines’ (and in this example, ‘race’) shape our own world. This thing called ‘magic’ might be imagined to have something to do with the thing called ‘monsters’ which is also a theme here, given that both are founded on an idea of otherness, of a marked alterity in relation to the prosaic. This may be true, but it remains to be revealed whether either of these things will turn out to be more than genre-specific stand-ins for technology and adversarial power respectively. The more of the scheme that is revealed, the more this seems likely, sad to say. Such a substitution is characteristic of the fantasy genre, which tends to be written by people who have never thought much about magic or monsters (or indeed fantasy) as anything other than features of fantasy fiction. I imagine that Monstress will continue to be an entertaining read regardless, as it is written and drawn with great technical skill. Both authors, but Liu in particular, have a kind of professionalism, of the sort that dominates modern commercial film-making as well as comics, which probably precludes any fundamental formal or narrative innovation, but which guarantees a rip-roaring yarn that is beautiful to look at. At times, that’s all you want, and Monstress continues to deliver for me.