3:30 pm EDT, November 4, 2015

Marjorie Liu talks diversity, balancing the horrors of war in ‘Monstress’

Monstress issue 1 is available today, and we spoke with writer Marjorie Liu about the series and her thoughts on diversity in comics.

About ‘Monstress’

monstress cover

Monstress, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, is about women of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. Some of them are slaves, and some are the slave-drivers. Some are consumed by monsters, while some of them are the monsters.

Taking place in the early 1900s in an alternate universe, the world is overrun with Leviathans possessing supernatural powers many people would love to get their hands on. Maika, our hero, bonds with one of these monsters, making her a target for those who want that power for themselves.

But that bond comes at a terrible price, and her newfound power could either save humanity… or end it. Read our review.

Interview with Marjorie Liu

How did you get into the comic book industry?

It was sort of an accident. I had been reading comic books since I was 18, and I loved them. I was obsessed with comics. I was a huge comic reader. Especially the X-Men. After I sold my first novel, my agent found out by accident that I loved the X-Men, and she happened to know the editor at Pocket, and Pocket had just signed a licensing deal with Marvel to publish Poe’s novels based off of their properties. So I submitted an X-Men proposal, a book that eventually became Dark Mirror, wrote the book, and the guys at Marvel liked it — they had to approve it — and so that gave me the courage to introduce myself and be like, ‘Hey, if you ever need a writer, here I am.’ And shockingly enough, they actually said yes, so a couple years later they offered me NYX and that led to Dark Wolverine and that led to Black Widow and X-23, Astonishing [X-Men], and the rest is history.

With the tide of comic book consumers leaning more toward women now, do you think this is going to be reflected in the industry sooner rather than later?

As far as having more female creators? Yes, I do think it will be. We’re already beginning to see that movement. We’re seeing way more female creators in indie comics. In independent comics I feel like there are a lot of women publishing really amazing books — graphic novels — and that’s just going to keep growing. As far as the big two goes, DC and Marvel, which is interesting because DC and Marvel are so visible, they still lag behind as far as having representation of women and people of color. But I think we are going to see changes in that. I think we’re already beginning to see changes. I think corporations are always a little slower to catch up. I think it’s important that we see the optics of change, so it’s really great that we see characters of color and we see more female-led books, but if the structure of change and the structure of diversity with more creators who are women and people of color [is] not in place, then it’s not enough to just have the optics of change. We need to have structural changes as well. And I think, again, that’s beginning to happen in DC and Marvel, but much more slowly than what we’re seeing within independent comics.

x-23 marjorie liu

How is this project different from your previous projects?

It’s like writing a novel in comic book format, but I also have complete freedom. I loved writing Astonishing X-Men, I loved writing X-23 and Black Widow, but at the end of the day I’m writing someone else’s characters and I’m playing in someone else’s sandbox. This is my sandbox. These are my characters. I can tell whatever story I want to in the craziest way imaginable, and really focus on the themes and messages that interest me, and not worry about anyone saying, “Oh, no, you can’t do that.” So that’s been really wonderful.

Why is diversity in comics important to you, specifically?

As a woman of color, as someone who is Chinese-American, when I was first exposed to the X-Men, the only person I saw that I felt was representative of who I was, and not even in personality, but just out there, was Jubilee. She was this young Chinese-American kid in California, and I really loved her character. And I didn’t love her character just becaue she was Chinese, but having a reflection, being able to read a comic and say, “Oh, there’s a Chinese girl there,” that was really, really fun for me. As a woman of color, diversity in comics, both structurally and optically, feels like a natural given. The comics we read should reflect the real world, and the real world is incredibly diverse. DC and Marvel do themselves a disservice if they don’t recognize that, but I think the readers are hungry to see themselves reflected in these stories that everyone is so passionate about. We saw this with Spider-Man and we see this with Thor: These are powers and archetypes that are not dependent on race. They’re not even dependent on gender. These are fluid archetypes. All archetypes are fluid.

jubilee x-men

Talking about Monstress specifically, can you talk about some of the creatures we’re going to see in the series?

There’s a race called the Archanics. They are a racial other, a mixed race people. They are part human and part supernatural. I based what they are off of the Yōkai in Japan. Sometimes they look like demons or animals, sometimes they look perfectly human. What binds them all is they’ve got that one draw, they’re mixed race. Because they are Archanic, their bodies are useful. The humans, the Cumaea, the witch nuns, have found a way to commodify their bodies, to monetize them, which has led to this devastating war, which has led to slavery, which has led to all this terrible experimentation. And as I’ve mentioned, we have this other side here. We have humans. And not all the humans are bad. The Cumaea, which is a religious order of witch nuns, these women who are devoted to science. It’s a religion that’s devoted both to a goddess and the purity of science. So these two groups are very much at odds. They have very conflicting interests, obviously. One wants to commodify the other, and that’s not a great basis for any relationship.

What made you decide to go with a steampunk vibe for this story?

I love steampunk! That’s it! I don’t care! Why not? Because. Because steampunk.

What made you decide to give your heroine a physical handicap?

This is a girl who has survived a cataclysmic war. She survived this. Part of her journey is her finding a way to put herself back together again, to regain her humanity that she feels she has lost. There are many ways of showing mental scars, psychic scars, but I also want to show physical scars, that she did not come through unscathed. And I think it’s implied when you read the first issue about why she lost her arm. Whatever the circumstances, she suffered deep trauma, both physical and mental, during this war. And I think this is not an unusual thing. We look at a lot of war veterans who come home every day — from Iraq, from Afghanistan, going back, WWII, Vietnam, all these different wars — people who are in war, whether or not a member of the military or just a civilian, people do not come through these things unscathed. They have all these different wounds they have to live with afterwards. So it just seemed natural to me to not have her be physically whole.

monstress issue 1

How challenging is it to write a character who is missing part of one arm?

Her missing arm is the least of her problems, really. There’s a scene in the book where [she sees] her ghost arm. She has this moment where she can still feel her arm there. Even though in the entire first issue she never references her missing arm, she never talks about it, that’s the one moment where you realize, ‘Oh, but this is still on her mind. She can still feel this thing.’ The pain of its loss is still with her, even if she appears, for all intents and purposes, to be past that.

How much influence did you have over the style?

Sana [Takeda, the illustrator] is a genius. Sana is absolutely one of the finest artists I have ever worked with. I told her cute, adorable fox girl and she just went poof. And I was like, “Cannibalism.” And she was like, poof. I didn’t have to give her too much direction and she just went with it because she has this really beautiful vision. She and I sync up very closely when it comes to the book.

Related: Cover reveal: Monstress issue 2 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda

How important is it to you to balance the adorableness and the grotesque?

It comes naturally. Life is not simple; life is complex. We see it on the news all the time. You’ll see something really horrible on the news and the next segment will be, “And…kittens!” Pairing the grotesque with the really adorable is something that people, in some ways, are used to because it’s around us all the time. In some ways we’re trained to handle that. We’re trained to see it, we’re trained to absorb it and incorporate it. Who wants to read a book that’s purely about horrible things? I would have a hard time writing that let alone reading that. It’s important to actually balance this stuff out. We saw that with Joss Whedon, what he did with Buffy, where really terrible things would happen and then in the next moment it’d be like kicks and giggles. Again, we’re trained to see these things and absorb them, and understand what they are and that they are like a balance.

Any last words about what you want people to take away from Monstress?

Monstress is the origin story of a warrior woman. It’s a story about what it takes to put yourself back together again after surviving a really horrible experience. It’s also a book about what it means to be a monster. Who exactly is the monster in this book? What is monstrousness? I hope that when people read this, not only do they just enjoy the story, but maybe they think about these things.

monstress issue 1 cover

Monstress issue 1 is available today!

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