Monstress: Vol.1 (Awakening) & Vol. 2 (Blood)

Choosing to fully flesh out the monster in each one of us, Marjorie Liu, NYtimes bestselling author of works like Hunter Kiss series and comics like Dark Wolverine and Black Widow, literally brings out an exhilarating interpretation to this: Turning her attention to medieval China, layering in a fully realised and a wonderfully epic world (daresay the likes of which hasn't been seen in Graphic novels in recent times!) she and artist Sana Takeda in collaboration, have churned out this groundbreaking series, Monstress (Volume 1 & 2 are out - Vol.3 will hit the stands around Sept) After having quickly run through the first two volumes, I think this one takes the podium, displacing the meandering bloated Saga (currently at Volume 8) from my mind as the best ever running series for a graphic novel. Captivating storytelling that is nuanced, deep and backed up by some brilliant swirling artwork.

Set in a sprawling fully realised magical world that is inspired by the early 1900's Asia, it is populated by different classes- chiefly the oppressed humans, roving half-breeds, sentient cats(!) and evil sorceresses. Volume. One traces what is revealed as  the 'Awakening of the Monster" - We land smack in the middle of a planned infiltration into the Cumean (humans/witches endowed with supernatural powers through sorcery) stronghold by this teenage girl, Maika Halfwolf. Letting herself be captured, Maika gains access to the Cumean witch-queens to basically unravel secrets about her own mother, Moriko Halfwolf and her intentions for Maika.

Maika comes across as a bull-headed strong willed girl hell-bent on getting her way through this brutal cruel world. Her story is immediately arresting - bleak themes of child slavery, aftermath of a devastating war and the brewing tensions that might escalate into a heady conflict between the two races of the Arcanics (anthropomorphic beings with animal shapes who are actually half-breeds between the humans and the Ancients, powerful beings no longer alive today) and the Cumean witches, are what draws you into the story in the beginning. However, Maika obviously is not what she seems like as small hints starts to point out that theres something much larger, hidden within her. A fear of a devastating power that had decided the fate of the last war is keeping the Cumeans from declaring an all-out war on the Arcanics  but little do they know that this power, is a whirling mad multi-limbed, multi-eyed monster from a time and age forgotten that resides within this girl. It is a constant seesaw of will and power between these two beings locked within each other and it plays out just brilliantly over the course of the first two volumes.

A prehistoric monster that is always 'hungry' for 'food' living things, one that is waking up after a long long slumber into an unknown world and a girl setting out to the perilous corners of the known world that has not been mapped before, in search of answers and discovering herself in this process.  Its a brilliant juxtaposition of these two. The characters in this series are predominantly women and this is by choice, flipping historical norms and tropes. While I didn't really like Maika the teenage protagonist so much, there is so much to admire about her. The iron-will to keep the hungry monster inside her in check and her dauntless display of courage in the face of mounting odds are characteristics that keeps her alive in this bleak dark world.

The writing is pacy and powerful. There is so much to digest in the slim volume, in terms of world building that I had to go slow and re-read a few times. Clever devices like a poet-cat ( Oh cats! They are another of the predominant species in this world. They talk, philosophise and shoot the breeze, in addition to being history-keepers and noted poets. and they try to divine the future as well from ghosts and dead bodies!) walking us through events that shaped this bizarre wondrous world was pretty nicely done. The action is unapologetic, with copious amounts of gore and blood splashed across the colourful pages every now and then. Maika's quest to know her real mother keeps things ticking, moving us from the Cumean empire out to the ends of this world, to the dangerous Isle of Bones by volume two. And yet there are questions that remain. Mostly around the Monstrum itself, the history of this beautiful world is getting revealed slowly with multiple stakes at hand, numerous conspiracies unfolding - all of them centered around Maika Halfwolf and her union with a monster from the past, her link with a prophesy of apocalypse and also her past with the most powerful Shaman-Empress who had dared defy the Gods, Old Gods and Ancients with her bid for power.

Apart from Maika, there is the adorable little half-fox kid and of course, the poet-cat who bring in the much needed levity to the dark dark situations. There are tons of other characters who are strange but just so well fleshed out that I have lost track over two volumes now. The plot is convoluted to say the least but Marjorie sure knows to keep those pages turning. Tanada's art is the perfect foil to the depth and nuanced writing of Marjorie - From minutely detailed panels to sprawling whorls of absolute chaotic marvel, this graphic novel undoubtedly has one of the best art. (Give it up for the Hugo 2017 winner!)

When I say, this one is a masterpiece, I don't mean it lightly. It is complex, confident and absolutely bewitching with the  wondrous visuals sprawling across the pages. I love the direction in which the creators are taking this series and there's the overarching feel of an impending doom in the shadows. I cannot wait until September when the collected volumes forming Part-3 will be released. Here's to Maika and her Monster! 


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