From its first panel, Monstress assures its readers that they’re entering a world that will be both beautiful and unsettling. Indeed, in many ways that seems to be the definition of monster that Marjorie Liu is using. The world of Monstress is awash in forces that are flattering in their beauty and haunting, even uncomfortable, in their familiarity. This is the baseline Makia Halfwolf is met by when we open Ms. Liu’s first creator owned series.

Set in a world where war between humanity and the animalistic Arcanics has been the norm, Monstress throws the reader headlong into a complex web of politics and history with a protagonist who’s broken to some, sub-human to others, and undeniably vengeful. It’s bold and it’s awesome, in the older sense of the word. In fact, awesome is a good word for this series, because all those comforting stories about how awesome you are don’t apply here. Makia is a badass and she’s compelling to read, but she’s no action hero. This isn’t the fantasy most people think of. Think Game of Thrones if it didn’t care about your expectations or what hurt you. The world is cruel and no one is right and there’s definitely important context that you’re not in possession of and you’re going to have to decide who’s the bad guy anyway.

On some level, stories are the art of enforcing order on and making sense of a world, real or imagined. Liu is excellent at creating a grim, realistic world without abandoning that purposefulness of storytelling. The other thing that she’s really amazing at doing is just writing beautifully. It’s hard not to feel like Liu is floating you through this comic on the power of her words, like some kind of psychic bard.

Besides comics, Liu has also found success as a novelist and, accordingly, this book feels eminently literary in a way that few mainstream comics even reach for. The expanded page count allows Liu to let the story breathe and there’s a depth to her telling that’s hard to deny.

All of that said, the challenge of secondary world fantasy, or at least something close to it, proves difficult to overcome. There are a lot of terms and a lot of history and Liu’s admirable reluctance to delve into unjustified exposition is a double-edged sword. It avoids some of the more obnoxious elements of traditional secondary world tropes, but it, very consciously, leaves some elements of the story unclear. There’s a degree to which that’s part of the suspense, a hook to draw you back, but it reaches a point where it interferes with the reader’ excitement, or at least significantly changes it. There’s just too much of this world for one issue and, at least for a debut, Monstress #1 isn’t all that interested in explaining it to you.

This interacts poorly with the other major flaw of the issue. Simply put, there is a distance in this story. Makia keeps everyone at arm’s length and the writing follows suit. It’s an effective technique but this too lowers the energy level of the issue and prevents it from connecting with the reader to its greatest potential.

In many ways, Monstress #1 is a much better issue than it is a first issue. However, credit where credit is due, it’s actually kind of fascinating to read in isolation. Obviously that’s the only way to read it at present, but I will be very interested to look back on it once I’ve read more. As much as this is only the beginning, and a somewhat vague beginning, to a much larger story, it functions rather beautifully on its own – beautiful used in a somewhat haunting sense.

The modern monthly comic book owes a great deal to, and is in some ways a holdover from, the serialized novel with increasing influence from ongoing television series. The self-contained graphic novel makes no question as to what its prose equivalent is. Monstress #1 is merely the first chapter in a series, but it reads like a graphic short story. There’s a lot here that resembles the kind of storytelling you’d find up for consideration on a speculative fiction award ballot.

Monstress #1 is a mysterious book, but perhaps the greatest question it leaves the reader with is ‘where has Sana Takeda been?’ As far as I can tell, Takeda has almost exclusively done cover work for Marvel over the last four or five years, with her only consistent exception, unsurprisingly, being Liu’s work with X-23. That’s fine, but she can clearly tell a story and do it at cover art quality. If she works at a remotely doable pace for a monthly comic, I have no idea why someone hasn’t snatched her up. Scratch that; I have no idea why she hasn’t had writers fighting over her.

All gushing aside, Takeda does some truly beautiful work on this issue. The linework is incredibly fine in every respect and there’s a detail and there’s both a detail and a simplicity in the panels. The style clearly draws from manga but the influence of western comics is visible too. Even better, it feels like an asian style influenced by American comics, rather than the other way around. Especially with those eerie monstra eyes watching over the issue, Monstress takes me right back to my days spent obsessing over Fullmetal Alchemist.

Speaking of which, the fashion in this issue is pretty fantastic. There’s a westernized aesthetic, particularly among formal clothing, but all of the attire possesses both a grounding in East Asian design and an ornate fantasy beauty unique to this world.

Though the layouts are not nearly as brilliant as the art itself, they’re utterly competent, able to tell a story quickly and cleanly. There’s a force and a motion in the choice of how to pace panels that really works and the art is incredibly effective at conveying realistic reaction and movement while remaining beautifully stylized. Admittedly the vagueness of the story leaves some things unclear. Are the chibi styled characters a distinct trait or an artistic embellishment? Especially with the humans, I just don’t know.

Some Thoughts:

Grade

B+

Conclusion

With sixty-six pages of gorgeous art and haunting storytelling, Monstress is certainly a debut that demands your attention. Marjorie Liu is telling a story with the kind of breadth and polish that you’d usually only find in Saga. Add to that that this book is beautiful and different from nearly anything else on the shelves and you’ve got quite a start to an intriguing series.

The only problem is that Monstress #1 is a very difficult read and one that doesn’t necessarily pitch the series well. You won’t necessarily know if you’re going to love this series when you put this issue down, but Liu and Takeda seem to be counting on you being too blown away to mind.

It’s a weird start to a series, but a masterful issue. Trust that there are big things in store and trust that you’ll be hearing more about Monstress.