The story of Maika Halfwolf, the protagonist of Marjorie Liu’s comic book series “Monstress,” has been a part of the author for decades waiting to be unleashed like the monster sleeping deep inside Maika’s body.
Maika, an Arcanic war survivor born out of a union between a human and an Ancient (a powerful, magical race), was deeply inspired by Liu’s Chinese grandmother who was a survivor of World War II.
“I think the story has been a part of me, it sounds like an exaggeration but it has been a part of me for decades. Long before I decided to become a novelist. Part of it had to do with growing up with my Chinese grandmother and spending a ton of time with her. She was a survivor of World War II when she was 14 years old. She had to leave her village, along with all the other children and young women. They walked across China as part of these massive refugees to escape the invading Japanese Army,” Liu said.
“The stories she told me when I was growing up about that journey were just heartbreaking and terrifying, beautiful in some ways and inspiring. Partially because when she was telling them, there was no sense of fear, no sense of regret. She had no sense of bitterness. She would tell these stories with a smile. ‘I lived, I survived, I’m here,’” she added. Liu was recently in Manila for her “Monstress” Book Tour organized by Fully Booked.
Steampunk and Art Deco
Published by Image Comics, Maika’s story plays out in a matriarchal world embroiled in a war involving several races—the humans; the Ancients, a powerful, magical race in the form of wolves or beasts; the Arcanics, half-breeds born out of a human and Ancient union; the Old Gods, or harmless apparitions, which were once-powerful race of massive ancient beasts with tentacles and numerous eyes; and, yes, the Cats, a race known for being manipulative, cunning and poetic.
The known world of “Monstress” is set in the 1900s and is heavily inspired by steampunk and Art Deco, beautifully drawn by artist Sana Takeda. Liu and Takeda worked together on Marvel’s “X-23.”
“One thing that Sana is really, really good at is I see the soul of the characters in their eyes. Like when the character is looking off the page like I feel like they’re alive, I feel like they’re emoting in ways that I have not often seen in art. It’s soulful and that really spoke to me and so when it was time to do something independent and sort of move away from Marvel, she was the first person I thought of,” Liu said.
Now as far as the inspiration for Maika’s Old God monstrum, Zinn, goes Liu said she been fascinated with monsters.
“I was in Japan and I was in front of Toho Studios and they have a Gojira (Godzilla) statue right in front. I took a photo with it and I was standing there and thinking to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Godzilla was my friend?’ And all of a sudden it was just this idea of a girl surviving in a war and Godzilla was her friend. Now of course the book is completely different. ‘Monstress’ is a completely different beast compared to that initial idea but this idea of war and monsters and survival and friendship all came together sort of in that moment,” Liu said.
Liu won the 2018 Eisner Award for best writer and best continuing series for “Monstress.” Takeda won best painter/multimedia artist. Liu was the first woman to ever win an Eisner.
Asked about this award, she said: “Before I started Monstress I haven’t won anything and I wasn’t expecting to win anything. You know it’s all right. I am just writing books, it’s fine. Whatever. It was shocking when I won. I was super honored and super grateful and then I found out the next day that I was the first woman. No one knew, none of us knew. Maybe some people did but almost none of us knew I was the first. I certainly didn’t think I was the first because I couldn’t imagine it. I could not fathom. Honest to God, it never crossed my mind that I was the first woman. It wasn’t until the next day and I saw a tweet and they were like, ‘Yo, Marj. You are the first.’ No sh_t, yes. There’s no way. You got it wrong. And I saw another tweet and I was like, ‘OK. Let’s look this up.’ Thirty years (of history). I’m like there’s no way. So I go to Wikipedia (laughs) … so I can get a general sense and I’m like, OK (while scrolling down) Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman (laughs).
“I was like, ‘Oh, these bastards. These bastards, there really hasn’t been another woman.’ I’ve got to tell you I was not thrilled. It made my win bittersweet. It wasn’t like I was not grateful for the win, I was just still just as honored and thrilled for it I mean yeah I wasn’t gonna hand it back, no way. But it was bittersweet because I should not have been the first woman. It was not that comics need another wake-up call because we get so many but let us just say that for me anyway it is another wake-up call that even though I have seen things change for the better in the last 10 years, the power structures in comics the narrative around who is worthy to be acknowledged as a comic book writer is still straight white men. That will change, that will change. It is already changing, ” Liu said.
The Eisner win has a lot to do with Liu’s world-building prowess but also with her character building especially of Maika. Asked about writing about strong female characters, Liu said: “They have to be nice. They have to be courageous in a particular way. They can’t be too offensive but they also can’t be too weak. Right? There are all these different balancing acts that women have to do in real life but also female characters. The female characters I grow up with have to sort of, they fit in certain types. Women are not types. The reality is that we are angry, we are happy, we are sad. Women are capable of a full range of human emotions. I want to write characters who have been through really some sh_t. She (Maika) really had an impossibly difficult life. You don’t come out of an impossibly difficult life and be like (nothing)… That’s what would happen, she’d be angry. She had a difficult relationship with her mother. She went through war. She was in a concentration camp. She lost her arm. She nearly starved to death. She was experimented on. She’s not gonna come out of that and be like, heeeey (laughs).”
Marjorie Liu’s Maika is the “Monstress” of a difficult beauty: “I know. She’s gonna be angry, she’s gonna be bitter. She’s not gonna be nice, she’s not gonna be likable but that doesn’t mean she isn’t worthy of real love. It doesn’t mean she is worthy of compassion, that doesn’t mean she’s not worthy of having a journey that allows her to feel and become someone new. That doesn’t mean that she is disposable, that doesn’t mean she isn’t allowed forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that she can’t forgive. And so that’s Maika, that’s why Maika couldn’t be not cookie-cutter nice girl who’s nice despite what’s happened to her but a girl who is just cruel and awful and eats people (laughs) and yet when it comes to do that and discovers herself and feel and forgive and be forgiven.”