It’s not uncommon for an inexperienced writer of secondary world fantasy to try to share the massive, complex world they’ve designed with their reader all at once. That’s not a problem Monstress has. In fact, so far, it’s kind of been the opposite. While Maika’s basic situation and the threat of the Cumea has been established quite well, the world of Monstress is still a mysterious one. Why are some Arcanics more human than others? What role do the Cumea play in the larger human culture? What was the war like before Constantine? Perhaps the best indicator of the fog hanging over this title is the fact that Image and Marjorie Liu pushed this series as taking place in an alternate history Asia, but, beside a couple of references to Christianity, there’s been almost no acknowledgment of this fact. I think the somewhat microscopic view and wealth of mysteries surrounding this title have been both a help and a hindrance to this title, but, in an exciting move, we’re finally starting to get some answers and a broader picture of this world.
As much as I just complained that this series needs to give us context about the world, there’s no denying that the strongest plot hook and the greatest mystery surrounding Maika is the monster inside her. It’s fortunate then that this issue gives us our first real sense of her shadowy stowaway and a bunch of solid interaction between the two of them.
Marjorie Liu gives the Monstrum a powerful and specific voice almost entirely through clever use of ellipses. It’s a simple strategy, simpler than bolding or some brilliant lettering trick, but Liu’s usage is thought-provoking. Ellipses have power because they’re one of the few tools available to the comic writer that automatically gets nearly all readers to consider how the dialogue sounds. I admit that there are times where comic dialogue is words on a page for me, sometimes even wonderfully crafted words on a page, but there is a dimension of depth that is only present when you can imagine the words as sound. By, not only using ellipses in the Monstrum’s dialogue, but using them in the middle of sentences, Liu encourages her readers to wonder how her monster sounds and what his(?) pauses represent. It’s a wonderful way to encourage active reading and it instantly puts a voice into your mind.
It also helps that Liu avoids the tedious cliché of having an all-powerful malevolent force caged solely by the protagonist’s grit and willpower. Not only is Maika not able to simply discount the threat that the Monstrum presents, both of them feel trapped and diminished by the other. Seeing them interact gives this issue a kick of energy because suddenly there’s another dynamic that’s worth reading this series for.
But that’s not all that this issue has to offer. There’s also some fascinating worldbuilding and high fantasy politics as the queen of wolves meets with her warlord. The purpose of the meeting is not entirely clear, but getting a sense of how the Arcanic society functions is very rewarding, especially when written so deftly.
As with Maika, the nameless Warlord’s interactions are all the more intriguing for the twists on classic tropes that define them. The Warlord is at once a noble, truth-seeking heroine, at odds with the world and a system of lies and a violent reactionary, resistant to even the consideration that humans be trusted. Likewise, her second interaction with royalty has a natural flow and bounce to it that makes it hard to dislike, but, of course, there are hints of a darker motivation behind her seeming benefactor’s kindness. Plus I’m a sucker for Monkey Kings.
Despite these improvements, there is still a degree to which the series feels like it hasn’t fully escaped Liu’s head. While things don’t confuse this month, not every tease will pique the reader’s interest and though its starting to be torn down, Maika’s mysterious brooding still feels distancing and off-putting at times. Still, I see this not as a continuation of the flaws of previous issues, but a potential start for the next and stronger phase of this title.
There’s a really nice balance between the starkly serious and the warmly humorous in this issue. Though she exists largely as an object in need of protection at this point, Kippa’s resilient child is a welcome archetype for this series. And resilience is clearly a big part of this series. I love that no one is judged for crying in this issue. A child needing to bawl or a young adult showing some vulnerability are treated as reasonable reactions to this situation.
Marjorie Liu is writing some really fantastic scenes on this book, but, she’s blessed to have Sana Takeda as a collaborative partner. Though comparisons, praising or dismissive, to manga are common and understandable, Takeda’s artwork is so much more than some copycat creation. Rendered in full color, with incredible detail rarely seen in the average mangaka, and a cinematic pace befitting Image, Takeda’s art is not only beautiful but broad in its appeal and influence. I, personally, haven’t noticed this series taking the world by storm yet, but no where is this stranger than the lack of attention on Takeda.
Though a real, muddy black presents a vein of consistency throughout the issue, the two halves of the story allow Takeda to show of different facets of her art. Though there’s plenty of fine detail in both, the openness of the Warlord’s ruins contrasts sharply against the claustrophobic scenes set in the forest or within Maika’s mind.
Much of what I said about Liu’s writing applies to the art as well. There’s a fantastic sense of silence in Takeda’s panels that accentuates the sharpness of the dialogue and the interplay between the solemn and the comical is great. I also appreciate her attention to movement. This is particularly evident in the shifting shape of the Monstrum. There is a quiet stillness about it’s panels, but you really get the sense of its changing form as it moves, unconstrained by traditional anatomy or panel boarders.
Monstress #4 is, by far, my favorite issue of this series so far. Admittedly it still feels a bit like Marjorie Liu is struggling between a desire to tell us everything and keep everything a closely guarded secret, but the balance is much stronger this month and the choice to split the politics and inner struggle into two separate sequences works wonders. Sana Takeda hasn’t missed a beat yet and it seems like she’s not going to any time soon. Though the ingredients still don’t fully combine, this is an indisputably artful comic on every level and a hint towards the great things this book may have in store.