A dark, involute surface

Monstress is pretty much the only commercial comics series I’m following, other than 2000AD and its associated properties. I enjoy it basically for Marjorie Liu’s straightforward fantasy storytelling and Sana Takeda’s absolutely sumptuous art: it’s something I can enjoy as entertainment without having to think about it too hard. Its aesthetics are more or less tailor-made for me, presenting the reader with a dark and involute surface that speaks of illimitable depth. That the comic does not, by and large, deliver on that promise of depth is not really any kind of a criticism: it’s intended as a recreational read, and it certainly credits its readers with a need for grown-up language and well-imagined characters.

In this fourth omnibus volume, we see the continued, gradual unveiling of the past of the central characters: most of the series’ initial mystery has been uncovered by now, but further areas of uncertainty are constantly introduced. As Maika, the principal protagonist, learns more of her own history the stakes of the politics in which she is implicated get steadily higher; at the same time, the travails of a secondary protagonist, the adorable young fox Kippa, become more central to the narrative. The plotting is very professionally done, designed to draw readers in and to sustain their attention through careful management of tension and release. That kind of storytelling is not always what I want to read – it feels very artificial, and in anything which purports to ‘represent’ experience it is clearly a falsification, but here it’s exactly what’s called for. Every section of narrative has its arc and its climax, but we are building to one hell of a big climax across the whole series, with each of the four parts so far inflating the reader’s expectations further.

The story is a fantasy, set in a world divided between humans and the magical ‘arcanics’. Various powerful factions on both sides are jockeying for influence, and their likely war seems set to open up the world to an assault from darker and more potent external forces. The world is built from East Asian steampunk visual materials in Takeda’s manga-derived art, layered with decorative intricacies that treat the eye whenever the storytelling allows it to pause. Occasionally her visual storytelling stumbles in this volume, and some sequences of panels are not clear in their intent, but I guess that’s a trade-off against the voluptuous beauty of her pictorial surface. The world is predominantly matriarchal, although not in a rigid way; Liu exploits this, and the division of her societies between humans and arcanics, to explore gender and race in a nuanced way, which does not interfere with the excitement of the narrative, and which is never heavy-handed or worthy.

The monsters at the heart of the story have already, in earlier volumes, been announced as powerful beings with the priorities of all powerful beings, and as such they have been demystified and ‘de-monstered’. They have been displaced at the spiritual centre of Monstress by a monstrous behaviour, an inherited practice exhibited by Maika – rather more reluctantly than by other members of the bloodline to which it attaches. While I feel that, philosophically and morally, Liu’s world has pretty much bottomed out, and true monsters are not really a possibility there, there is still a sense of fundamental transgression. Exactly what questions the reader will be asked to engage with remains obscure, just as it should, although I imagine that the story’s status as a commercial entertainment will impose certain limits on that challenge. As it is, there is enough darkness to make a fairly traditional story of power and self-discovery far more interesting than the average.

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