Monstress: World-Building With a Feminist Twist
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s award-winning Monstress (2015 to present) from Image Comics has received rave reviews from critics and fans alike for its fascinating characters, engrossing political intrigue, and manga-inspired art. Set in a matriarchal fantasy/steampunk world inspired by early 20th century Asia, the comic follows the adventure of Maika Halfwolf who is host to a mysterious demon with a ravenous appetite. Accompanied by Kippa, a little “fox” girl and Master Ren, a talking cat, Maika sets off in a quest to uncover her past and understand her legacy, while facing constant dangers from various groups who are all vying for her monstrous powers.
Monstress stands out due to its ambitious world-building à la Tolkien and George R. R. Martin as well as its no-holds-barred depiction of a brutal female-centric human/animal hybrid world. These creative decisions taken by Liu and Takeda have allowed, in effect, for the exploration of gender, sexual and racial dynamics through a unique lens. This text will analyze these artistic choices and their role in building a new ground for conversations surrounding female representations and the place of feminism in comics.
With two female rising stars of the industry at the helm, an overpowered foul-mouthed female protagonist and a conspicuous absence of male characters, it is easy to assume that Monstress ticks all the necessary boxes to be a flag-bearer of the feminist movement. But the comic’s nuanced approach to issues of representation deserves more credits as it manages to break away from the binary approach which dominates comparative situations.
Modern Western thinking has the tendency to favor a dualist framework when it comes to comparisons. For instance, contemporary debates tend to be reduced to two sides: hero vs. villain, Black vs White or the man vs woman. Such dualism is not inherently wrong because it is, after all, a cognitive imperative of human nature, as explained by Susan Stanford Friedman in “Why not compare” (2001). 1 Humans will instinctively base their perspectives on a known set of knowledge out of familiarity and practicality. Think of how marketing campaigns often package the message of a simple comparison to an already known product (this text is definitely guilty of such practice). But the main issue according to Friedman is when binary comparison becomes the norm. Instead of proceeding with compare and contrast, the whole practice can turn into a matter of judging and choosing. Binary comparisons, unfortunately, favour dominant values and standards. So, in order to disrupt the monopoly, Friedman suggests cultural collage or relationality.
Inspired by Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of relations 2, relational comparison focuses on factors that create links among cultural products, which would otherwise never be put in dialogue. In the context of Glissant’s text, French literature would create a power structure whereby every literary text coming from the former/current colonies would be evaluated, criticized, consumed, accessed and marketed according to the standards established by French critics and academics. The centre/periphery dynamic invariably promoted one-way dissemination of information and culture, but with relationality, Glissant argues that non-dominant groups can attempt to add their voices to the mix. Consequently, the periphery can now reach the centre as easily as the other way around and most importantly, the peripheries can reach each other. Glissant understands that relationality is not a solution to break the monopoly of conventional comparison but it gives a platform for others to navigate and maneuver away from the default framework.
Therefore, in order to fully appreciate Montress’ contribution to the topic of female representation in comics, this text will adopt relationality as the comparative methodology.
The plot concocted by Liu and Takeda is not by any means, ground-breaking since the story of an amnesiac anti-hero with uncontrollable power is a common trope found in manga or fantasy work. However, by exploiting this familiar arc, the cartoonists shine the spotlight on their western/eastern fusion world. The relational approach removes the focus on Maika in the sense that readers are not immediately preoccupied with her character building, but rather with the world that has shaped her. As the title and opening chapters would suggest, Maika fits into the character trope which is already familiar to comic book readers and is equally accessible to newcomers, but unbeknownst to them are the elements which dictate her actions amidst the political struggles occurring in her world.
Maika’s arc is reminiscent of Wolverine’s, the iconic Mutant from Marvel who similarly struggles to repress his berserker instinct while coincidentally caring for a younger sidekick (multiple ones in his case with Jubilee, Kitty Pryde, X-23). Likewise, Maika’s story bears some resemblances to Top Cow’s Witchblade, especially in regards to the mysterious weapon attached to the arm (albeit a more clothed version). In short, there is an abundance of works from which comic book fans can draw comparisons but ultimately, Monstress maintains its unique voice in part thanks to its world-building.
Reshuffling Battle Codes
The matriarchal nature of the universe is evident fairly early in the comic. It is clear that, even though there are glimpses of male characters, the main focus is set on the women of that world. The more interactions Maika has, the more the readers understand that women occupy dominant and revered positions in the society: from the slavemasters and chief scientists, to soldiers and the prison warden. It is therefore logical that the female characters are also the main perpetrators of cruelty, exploitation, and violence. They occupy the roles of the antagonists and this creative decision disrupts the binary setting whereupon men are seen as the automatic enemies of women. Monstress is somewhat refreshing in assuming the full matriarchal nature of its world and purposely remove male characters from the roles of the villains, grunts or cannon fodder – they are simply set aside.
Instead, we are confronted with gruesome sequences of violence among female characters. Graphic fight scenes among female characters are nothing new, but it can be argued that the intensity displayed in the sequences from Monstress helps break down the clichés of female combat scenes. More often, defeating male characters acts as a barometer to show how strong a woman is. By removing such standard, Liu and Takeda withdraw the agency of measuring Maika’s “badassery” in relation to her achievements against male counterparts.
Another stereotype the cartoonists avoid concerns the relationship between the level of attractiveness and the ferocity of the battle. Simply put, fight scenes involving only women tend to be sanitized and even worse, sexualized especially if the characters are good looking. For example, Wonder Woman’s battles against Cheetah are always strangely toned down considering the power level of both. Big hits are allowed, but rarely to the point of dismembering or disfiguring each other as you would expect from a male-on-male or even male-on-female fight sequences. Therefore, to see Maika incinerate and stab female characters regardless of their good looks is quite a departure from the traditional codes of violence involving female characters. It has to be noted that Monstress is not the only comic out there challenging such trope (for example Greg Rucka’s and Michael Lark’s Lazarus or Norihiro Yagi’s Claymore), but the key remains that the matriarchal society places female characters at the forefront of everything. So, when Maika is willing to kill anyone standing on her path regardless of their gender, race or class, it disrupts the stereotypical expectations of how girls and women should react in the face of violence.
The female-centric universe also provides the opportunity to question sexual dynamics. From a binary perspective, it may be tempting to assume that Monstress challenges heterosexuality with the numerous same-sex relationships involving several main characters. But once again, Liu and Takeda go beyond dualism.
They make a point of showing homosexuality but they certainly do not imply that it is the dominant form of sexual orientation. If anything, it seems that same-sex relationships are experienced mostly by the higher class of the matriarchal society. Though not stated explicitly but implied by the esteemed Professor Tam Tam’s explanations (a cat professor), heterosexuality led to miscegenation which in turn, brought to civil wars among the various races. The use of the term “breed” in regards to the history of the Arcanics (half-breeds of Ancients and humans) sets the tone regarding the society’s views on interracial relationships and suggests that this racial group is nothing more of a pariah as it was “breeding” too fast. Another possible reading of the context is the fact that love can only be found in same-sex unions. At several occasions, heterosexuality is linked to reproduction and lust with love completely left out of the equation while we witness various intimate and emotional moments among the female characters. But in chapter 20, readers witness the strategic and clearly loveless marriage of the two female leaders of the Arcanic courts to avoid further bloodshed.
To indirectly add fuel to this argument, characters in Monstress seem to treat motherhood as either a weakness or a political tool. Liu and Takeda make a point of balancing the representation of mothers in their work, but they do not hesitate to tackle the misrepresentation of women as instinctive loving mothers starting with the fact that Maika was conceived on the basis of an experiment. We witness the brutal ways Moriko (the mother) raises Maika with the excuse of preparing her for life and ironically, it is Seizi (male tiger Arcanic and godfather) who shows more compassion and parental instincts. In fact, it is telling that Maika allows herself to be vulnerable in his presence – the other person being Tuya, her childhood friend/love interest.
Liu and Takeda’s depiction of motherhood in the matriarchal society makes the readers question the concept of women as natural caregivers, an image rationalized by heteronormativity. In the surrounding where they are not playing second fiddle to men, women are in control of their bodies but it does not mean that the conversation is over and that the feminists have won. More than that, the cartoonists want to challenge the readers’ perception of motherhood, making sure on one hand, not to demonize it and on the other hand, not to dismiss the stakes linked with it.
Monstress‘ world also allows Liu and Takeda to experiment with gender identity. In this case, the way they conceived the character of Zinn, the monster host, merits attention.
Interestingly, the parasite inhabiting Maika’s body is ungendered. With a unisex name of Zinn, Liu purposely keeps that side of the identity secret. In dialogues, the writer is careful to always use the pronoun “I” or “you”, specifically avoiding “he/she” and when referring to other Gods, Zinn is seen using my “sister/brother”. This unconventional take adds to the approach preferred by Liu and Takeda of bypassing binarism. Distorting the representations of gender dynamics, especially in regards to a God such as Zinn, allows the cartoonists to experiment with the importance of gender in our society and religious beliefs. The main modern religions of the world are largely dominated by the worship of male gods but when thoroughly analyzed, it is noticeable in each religion that some deities or concepts straddle the gender line with the reference to a divine gender or the use of genderless pronouns to describe the actions of their Gods. In the case of Hinduism or Shintoism for example, the conceptualization of gender goes beyond binarism to the point that being genderless is part of their identities.
In a Western/Eastern fusion world, it is, therefore, an opportunity to mix the beliefs of numerous religions, bring up issues which may not be otherwise discussed in a conventional world and above all, transcend the dualism favoured by the modern society. This fresh take on gender dynamics is perhaps more readily accepted by readers thanks to the world where Monstress is set, where every convention is challenged and dictated by the female-centric world – even for the Gods.
Monstress deserves to be lauded as a feminist comic book, not only for shining a positive light on powerful female characters in a female-dominated environment, but instead for tackling common misrepresentations in regards to women and girls. Liu and Takeda have woven an extraordinary world with unique characters inhabiting it and thanks to their artistry and creativity, they rise beyond the binary nature of conversations around female representations in comics and popular culture.
As Claire Landsbaum from Vulture 3 would aptly state:
“As a story told by women about women, Monstress is relatively unique in the comics landscape. It’s an engrossing story, but it’s also a signal flare for how women ought to be represented: as diverse, complex individuals whose stories build on, and move beyond, misrepresentation, rather than repeating it.” (2016)
- Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Why not compare?” PMLA, Vol. 126, No. 3, May 2011, pp. 753- 762. ↩
- Glissant, Edouard, Poetics of Relation, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, (1990 French Version), 1997 (English translation), Epigraph, pp- 4-9, 23-35; 141-57; 205-09. ↩
- Landsbaum, Claire. “The Bloody Comic Monstress Is a Response to Game of Thrones, Ex Machina, and The Smurfs.” Vulture. Sequential Art. July 22, 2016. ↩
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