Monstress Vol. 02 – The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

My review of Monstress Vol. 01 — here.

The Blood reveals a few missing pieces about Maika Halfwolf’s family and our young protagonist’s complex relationship with her mother, while it also answers several mysteries first set up in volume one.

What did I like about this volume the most? I think it was the revelation of the full scope of the power the Ancient within Maiko used to posses, as well as the relationship he had with the infamous Shaman Empress. I won’t spoil it because I don’t wanna feel guilty all day after posting this review but…

One of the most visually stunning characters introduced in this volume is a fox Ancient, imprisoned within the island on which Maiko hopes to find answers about the nature of the god inside her. What Takeda has done with Greybeard, as Maiko affectionally calls him, is everything you can hope to ask from an expert comic book artist. His cold, almost eyes, the guarded expression, the proferred piece of gold in his hand, they tell us readers more about this ancient arcanic than the first few dialogue bubbles do!

Revelations aplenty — who’d have ever thought that our Lovecraftian monstrosity, this god abomination that has consumed one of Maika’s hands already, has a heart? The nature of the gods is touched upon as well, with a sibling of our monstrosity introduced through flashbacks.

Maika herself continues to shine. Whether she’s exchanging verbal blows with pirate captains or very real ones with a variety of creatures intent on ending her life, Maika responds blow for blow at anything coming her way. Monstress wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t throw some tough curveballs Maika’s way — illusions, drowning, emotional bombshells — but our girl does her tiger uncle Seizi proud. What tiger uncle, I hear you ask? I ain’t saying more!

And of course, there’s always Kippa, affectionately called Little Fox by Maiko. She’s a source of light much needed in even the darkest moments Monstress’s plot throws our way.

This is a solid second act that continues to do everything that Volume 01 did right — theworldbuilding astounds, characters grow and evolve and the art– oh, the art! There’s a reason why this series won an Eisner for best multimedia artist AND for best cover last year. I’ll occasionally open up The Blood just to take in the art and let me tell you, it does not lose its appeal one bit.

The Blood is good, dear reader. It’s damn good. Worth every cent of your money and every minute of your time. Buy it, read it, enjoy the hell out of it. I know I did, and I am looking forward to what comes forward!

Die Vol. 01: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans (Artist) – Graphic Novel Review

Kieron Gillen has written some of the finest comic books over the past decade. When I heard that he would be penning a new project that sees D&D and Jumanji come together, I was excited–thrilled, in fact! And when the first few pieces of art were revealed, I was ecstatic. Now, nine months after I first found out about DIE, I finally got Vol. 01: Fantasy Heartbreaker. The wait has been more than worth it.

The key concept behind DIE is the kind of idea that’s bound to win most RPG nerds over, and I stick to anything that has to do with ttRPGs like a bee to an unpollinated flower, so it was a match made in heaven from the get-go. But as a self-proclaimed expert on Kieron Gillen’s work, I’m also going to draw a comparison to some of his other work here, since DIE is thematically different and contrasts quite a bit with his other major recent work, WicDiv.

First off, who are our characters? A bunch of flawed, damaged individuals in their mid forties, all of them bound together by past tragedy and trauma but disconnected in every other way that counts. Dominic/Ash is our lead in this group of five, the tall blond bloke in the middle of the last panel from the page above, his character in the RPG gameworld a tall platinum blonde with the powers of a Dictator — “a diplomat with teeth. A cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli” — definitely erring on the side of Machiavelli by the end of vol. 01.

The Dictator class has the power to control emotions with their voice; this power works kind of like Marvel’s Purple Man’s does but with a much greater degree of subtlety; it requires more ingenuity on Ash’s part, too. The other members of the party are Ash’s kid sister Angela, who plays a “cyberpunk” or Neo, which is basically a drug addict but instead of a human on crack, the Neo is addicted to Fae gold and as soon as she gets her hands on some, becomes a high-tech jet-pack wielding heavy-hitter (useless without any Fae gold, naturally); Chuck who plays the Fool and acts like one for the most part but is at the same time a pretty conniving guy; Matthew, who plays the Grief Knight, a warrior/paladin whose power comes from negative emotions; and Isabelle, the Godbinder, who used to be all edge and so wanted to be “some kind of atheist with gods for pets”. They each got a single many-sided die, each of them different from the others. The last one, the d20, went to Solomon — our sixth, the guy who came up with the game and who plays the Master.

Sccccarrrrrrrry, as Chuck would say.

Only, it’s not a game, and after rolling their dice, our party of teens disappears from the face of the world for two years, without a sign left behind. That was then, as the first panel makes clear. Now, twenty seven years later, drinking in a bar with his sister, Dominic gets a little something for his birthday — a certain familiar d20 in a package without a return address, only a criptic ‘happy birthday’ message on it. In spite of his first impulse being to smash the damned thing with a rock, Dominic decides it’s not his decision to make and instead brings the band back together to discuss options. Soon as the die is in the open, however, it doesn’t seem interested in anything the members of our party might have to say. One minute, they’re all in Chuck’s parlour and the next…

“We’re back,” Ash says in this two-page spread in the completed Vol. 01.

Shit gets real.

Now that our characters are back in the fantasy world they lost two years of their lives in, things are markedly different. The world is a hodge-podge of familiar fantasy and sci-fi tropes with their own unique spin; it has some horrifying, bleak parts but beautiful ones, as well. Unfortunately, most of those latter ones are poisoned by the past and the memories that come with it. Seems like in their past stay, our heroes made choices that were less than wise, the kind of choices that have a steep price for everyone involved.

A stark reminder of one such choice comes early on, and I won’t spoil it but let’s just say it shows a lot of Ash’s personality as well as the scope and depth of their powers. It’s a damn good scene and probably the one during which I fell in love with this story. It’s the sort of sequence that

Following the first issue, we’ve got some heavy world building in the second, then some fluffy worldbuilding in the third, as Gillen himself describes it in one of the essays at the back of the volume (Guys! There are essays in the back of this volume! How cool is that?! I hope as all hell that’s something the next volumes of Die will also have!).

More about the world is showcased, and our characters shine in action. What’s there to say about it but…what brilliant, fantastic art! Dynamic, beautiful, downright stunning. Hans explains that she “cut the book into sequences, to which I assigned a colour gradient. Each has a meaning but almost all of issue one is a preparation of the double-page spread with the big reveal of the DIE world with intoxicating reds and vivid pure colours…ho, and space. All the sequences before that are bleak, almost claustrophobic; air is heavy, dark…” See, I was going to try and explain the difference as we build up to that reveal in the first issue myself, but Stephanie does it so, so much better. This is an excerpt from her essay, “The Space Between Words” on p. 181 of DIE Vol. 01. There is a lot there, in just over a page about her artistic choices, as well as the inspirations she drew from in designing this exciting cast.

This book would not be what it is without Stephanie Hans, that’s for sure. My recommendation? Get your hands on it, and do it quick! There’s so much to unpack on your own. What I’m giving this one is a full 5/5 on Goodreads, and a 10/10 in my heart.

Before I go though, I do want to take a minute to talk about the tonal difference between this and Wic/Div. While Wic/Div has always had a feeling of hopelessness underneath its loud, colourful surface (“Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead.“), it’s still vivid, filled with neon-coloured characters imbued with a sort of joyful ‘fuck you’ manner towards a world that’s out to get them.

DIE is bleak and brooding, a darker place at its very surface. It twists familiar tropes to a degree that’s barely recognizable, and it asks some fascinating questions about our relationship with RPGs not only in terms of our agency inside these fantasy worlds but also what the effects of that agency are on us. It’s the sort of delightful, “when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back” logic I have a deep appreciation for. The answers…well, I’m looking forward to delving into those, myself.

Thanks for reading!

Monstress, Volume 01: Some Good #%@!ing Art

There, I said it. That’s all there is to it.

What’s this? I should probably give you a little more than that? Persuade you, you say. Alright, don’t get your feathers ruffled like so, I’ll do it. I’ve taken the initiative now.

Volume 01: Awakening has a unique art style, slick and gorgeous, showcasing the full skill of Sana Takeda. Obviously inspired by Manga, it’s also informed by Takeda’s work on Marvel series such as X-23 and Ms. Marvel, resulting in an amalgamation that’s unlike most art I’ve personally come across:

Gold and brown and grey are often the colours that dominate the many panels of the first issues of Monstress in particular, creating a human world that looks luxurious but feels cold and metallic. Dominated by science and religious fanaticism alike, the human side of the world of Monstress is nothing short of disturbing. The upper echelons of human society are unnerving, to say the least — humans auction off arcanics (we’ll get to those in a minute) for pleasure, experimentation or …a meal. Disturbing how easily it would be to see this happening; all we need is a comfy distinction of human versus ‘other’ and what ammounts to cannibalism is suddenly acceptable.

Arcanics are half-human and half-ancient. That is to say, they’ll often look like humans, only they’ll usually have a fluffy fox tail, or cat ears or angelic wings; something giving away the fact they’ve got a bit of magical, immortal biped animal-like grandpa/grandma genetic material in them from several generations ago. Arcanics will always be mortal…I think. There’s a lot of them though. Part of the beef arcanics have with humans is that the power behind the human government. the religious Cumaea sect, has been chopping arcanics for their bones, producing a magical resource called lilium for a little while. Lilium has all kinds of wonderful properties — enhancing life duration, healing those at the very edge of death, and only Marjorie M. Liu knows what else.

Knowing this, it’s understandable how humans and arcanics traded some serious blows a while back, a war that ended in tragedy and death, and a tentative peace hobbled by mistrust and downright hatred. I mean, humans hunt cats and put them in cages because they are in fact an arcanist-allied race of hyperintellectual, many-tailed…well, cats. Nothing unusual about that, actually.

The tone of this graphic novel is dark, as you might’ve guessed by now. But it needs to be said and underlined: this is a dark story, a story of death and brutal violence, much of it perpetuated by our own heroine, Maika.

Maika

Maika is dangerous. Possessing power that no arcanic should, Maika’s ignorance of that same power makes her both horrifying and sympathetic. A tragic backstory plays up the sympathy but the power slumbering inside of her is hungry; and whenever that hunger manifests, we get treated to some pretty dark shit. As for who she is as a character? Determined, angry, looking for answers. There is an underlying softness to her, a caring that she seems intent of not showing but which nevertheless comes to display every once in a while, in particular towards the later issues of this volume, whenever we see supporting character and adorable girl-fox-who-is-scared-shitless Kippa.

Kippa is kutta! And by that I mean, cute. I don’t know what phonetic
nonsense I was going for there. She’s loyal despite being afraid most of time
— but she’s got a really good reason so don’t think any less of her.

See? She IS adorable!

What else, what else? There’s a cat! His name is Ren, he’s a nekomancer,
which I’m pretty sure sounds intentionally like a necromancer and that fucks with my head in several ways, mostly because I want to see a cat raise the dead, oh how I want that. New short story idea? You bet! But also, this cat is way too much like me, it’s uncanny.

If you know me, you’ll see the resemblance.

I am in love with this, and it’s no surprise how successful, popular and
critically acclaimed it has become. The writing is on point, offering dramatic tension, character development and plenty of conflict. The art, as you have seen, is a wonder. This truly is a praiseworthy graphic novel, an example of the heights that this mode of storytelling can reach, up there with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Kieron Gillen/Jamie Mckelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. I’ve already ordered the next two volumes and can’t wait for the fourth, releasing in October of this year. I wish I hadn’t waited this long to get my hands on it, Monstress truly is that kind of story. No wonder it’s won a bunch of Hugo and Eisner(Nominee) Awards!

Oh, and the antagonists? Some of them are pretty fucking scary, and you just can’t put them in the ground, no matter how hard you try. Besides, no matter how hard you try, you won’t do as well as Maika Halfwolf will so you might as well take a seat, open up this volume, and enjoy the ride!