Art deco, cannibalism, female power: Writer Marjorie Liu on her new comic ‘Monstress’

12.03.15 1 year ago

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The world and story of new comic “Monstress” are so rich that its first installment couldn”t fit into a typically-sized issue.

A monster of an issue in and of itself, it has 66 pages of story (and 72 pages total), about three times longer than the norm for an individual issue of a comic.

Launching the series with a mega-sized issue is among several freedoms Marjorie Liu enjoyed when writing “Monstress,” her first creator-owned title, for Image Comics.

Mega-sized though it is, that first issue is a page-turner, a dark and gorgeous tale – and we mean dark. Open up this book and be prepared to delve into the horrors of slavery, vivisection and cannibalism.

The ongoing series is about a 17-year-old girl named Maika who is psychically connected with a monster. The story takes place after a war in an alternate early 1900s Asia in a matriarchal society populated with witch-nuns called Cumaea, Kaiju-like monsters, Arcanics – part-human, part-supernatural people like Maika – and all sorts of other compelling personalities.

Much of “Monstress” was inspired by experiences of Liu”s Chinese grandparents during World War II. “I grew up hearing my grandparents tell nightmarish stories. Heartbreaking, too. And also heroic beyond words,” Liu wrote in the closing notes of issue #1.

“Monstress” reunites Liu with artist Sana Takeda, who both worked on Marvel”s “X-23.” Liu has written several fantasy novels, and among her other Marvel credits are “Astonishing X-Men” and “NYX.” Writing the prose “X-Men” novel “Dark Mirror” in 2005 was her way of entry into comics-writing.

Read on for HitFix”s chat with Liu about creating “Monstress,” diversity issues in the comics industry, why it was essential to have the comic drawn by a woman, the Tokyo museum that inspired the series” look, about crafting her main character”s wartime-guided morality, and more.

HitFix: When you have a story idea, how do you decide whether to put it in comic or novel form?

Marjorie Liu: I spent a long time writing novels, and it just never occurred to me that I could tell stories in a comic book format. I grew up reading prose, writing prose. I didn't really start reading comics until I was 18. Even though I”m a very visual writer – when I write, it”s very much like a movie's playing through my head – comics just weren”t part of the equation. But then I started writing for Marvel. I started writing [comics] and becoming more practiced within this medium, and I realized, “Man, I”ve been missing out.” The beautiful thing about writing comics is it”s that perfect middle ground between novels and film. You have all the interiority of prose, but then you have all the visuals and action of film. Going through my notes a couple years later, I looked at all these ideas that I thought were kind of interesting but had never done anything with. And I realized the reason I never did anything with them was because they worked better as comic books. They were really better suited for this visual medium. It”s nice knowing that I have the option, that I can move between these two different mediums at will to tell whatever story”s inside my head. That”s incredibly freeing.

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How did you come to collaborate with Sana Takeda?

I worked with her on “X-23.” She was the fill-in artist just for a couple pages here and there and then she became a regular artist. Her work always took my breath away. Even back on “X-23,” in her pages she always managed to capture the angst and the emotion and the quiet moments. I love writing quiet moments. When you”re just looking into the character”s eyes. She was really good at capturing despair. And it happened that the character I was writing, X-23, is a character who”s just full of despair. I loved working with her. Then we didn”t work together for quite some time. I was traveling back and forth to Japan, and every now and then I would see her, and so at one point we were having lunch and I said, “Listen I would really like to do something creator-owned, and I can't imagine anyone else I'd rather work with.”

Was it important to you that the artist for “Monstress” be a woman?

Oh yeah. To work with a woman, to work with a woman of color, to work with another Asian woman was incredibly important to me. There needs to be more of us. Because of the nature of this book, because of the story I wanted to tell. I”ve worked with tremendous artists who are men, but this needed to be a woman, and I wanted the story to be told through the female gaze, whether it was the art, whether it was the writing – even our editor”s a woman.

What is a particular part of issue #1 where you”re really glad you had a woman as your artist, where it would have been different if drawn by a man?

Let”s just dissect the first page for a moment. [See that page below.] This is the first time you meet the heroine. And she is buck naked. She is collared. She is being sold as a slave. It requires a very particular kind of artist, a very particular kind of eye, a very talented hand to draw that heroine in a way where you look at her and you're like, “Yeah, this girl is not anyone's fool.” Look at her eyes. Look at her posture. Look at the way she's holding herself. She knows what she's doing. She is not afraid. Or if she is afraid, she”s got it bottled up so tight, you would never know it. This is a girl on a mission. I”m not saying a guy couldn”t have drawn that, but I think we are so used to seeing women objectified and seeing women though the male gaze. The way we fetishize violence against women is everywhere we look. Even though I wanted to start the story out with this image of this girl in a very bad situation, what I wanted everyone to take away from that was “This girl is in a bad situation, but she”s in charge.” And I didn”t want a man drawing that. I wanted a woman drawing that. I wanted that shown through a woman”s eyes, this woman who”s absolutely in control. Sana brings with her such a sense of style and this rich eye. She manages to make things absolutely beautiful and horrifying at the same time. It wouldn”t have been the same doing this story with a dude.

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How much did you see people like yourself, people of Asian descent represented in comics when you started reading them?

I see it represented a little more now than then. But still it”s pretty limited. When I first started reading comics, I had Jubilee. But she was being written by white men. And now we have people Greg Pak and Gene Luen Yang – Korean-American and Chinese-American, respectively – writing great characters, stories about people of color. Jillian Tamaki too – wonderful, wonderful cartoonist and graphic novelist from Canada. But I feel like I”ve spent most of my life engaged in popular culture in which I'm seeing fetishized versions of Asian-Americans. And whether it”s in a typical television season, in movies, in novels – just everywhere I look, I'm seeing a very, very narrow idea of what it is to be Asian. And in some ways, completely inaccurate, without nuance. It is, at best, a stereotype and, at worst, this mishmash of – I don”t know – it”s ugly. It”s not cute.

As a kid growing up in America, even as an Asian-American kid growing up in America, mixed race, you become acclimated to that stuff. It”s really weird. As a kid, you become used to seeing those representations, and maybe you don't think much of it or you”re like, “Okay, this is whatever.” But then when you get older you start thinking, “Okay, this is kinda crappy. This is actually not cute anymore.” I”ll be blunt: I”m really tired of seeing Asian-Americans written by white people, especially white men. Especially to see how Asian-Americans, our bodies and our culture are still worn like costumes. Just in the last two years we”ve had more than one case of yellowface in which we have white actors portraying Asian people. Like “Aloha,” for one thing. This was supposed to be a mixed race Hawaiian woman, and she”s being portrayed by someone who”s of Scandinavian descent.

And now we have that whitewashed “Gods of Egypt” trailer.

Oh my gosh. It”s the worst. I'm like, “Come on guys, we can do better than this.” I know within the comics industry – Marvel, recently they were patting themselves on the back for having a female Thor and a black Captain America, and that”s great, but those are just optics. It”s great in some ways to have the optics of diversity, but if you don't have structural change, if you don't have structural diversity behind the scenes, you”re not getting anything that's going to last. And that's why “Ms. Marvel” was such an important book because that came about because of structural diversity. That came about because the editor herself was Muslim, and she was like, “I want to see a book about a teenage Muslim girl who becomes a superhero. I want this, and we need it.” That”s what structural diversity does. It changes things on the inside. And that”s what we need more of.

This is your first creator-owned title. Tell me some ways that has made this experience different from other comic-writing for you.

Man, where do I start? It”s a very different thing to write someone else”s characters. Because the X-Men, Black Widow – they”re already established. And the world is already established. So what you”re doing is, in a sense, you”re putting your own spin on these pre-existing characters. I approached “Monstress” as I would writing a novel. But the problem was with comics the pacing is all different, and the world-building is all different. I realized, I would say, about halfway through that I was going about it all wrong because I wasn”t integrating the world, I wasn”t building character in the way that I needed to. I was treating it like I had all the time in the world. With novels, you don”t really have all the time in the world, but it”s a different process. I really had to go back and restructure everything. It took me some time to figure that out. We had to delay the book. It was originally supposed to come out in June of 2015, and we delayed it to November because I needed more time to sort things out. 

What kind of research did you do while you were working on that world-building?

I went through fashion magazines, I went through historical documents. So I was in Japan, taking inspiration from y?kai exhibits, mythological creatures out of myths in Japanese culture. I visited this art museum [the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum] that had once been the palace of the prince. And he had an obsession with art deco. He loved it. I went into that place and it was absolutely stunning. And I said to myself within 20 seconds, “This is what the world needs to look like.” Everything needs to be art deco from the architecture to the outfits to perhaps the design of some of the monsters.

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How do you describe the Arcanics? Are they human, are they not, does it matter?

The question “Are they human or are they not?” is an interesting one because it all depends on who wants what. Arcanics I see as a species of mixed-race people. Some Arcanics are more pure blood than others. Some are more human than others. But at the end of the day, they are part supernatural being and part human. And this comes out in different ways. You have some Arcanics that can pass as human in the same way that we have some mixed race people who can pass as white. And then you have the Arcanics who can never pass for anything but what they are, and perhaps their ancestry is far closer to the supernatural than the human. But at the end of the day, they are a people who have been commodified by sort of the quote-on-quote “pure humans.” The humans who consider themselves totally natural. And godly – or goddess-ly. It”s always in the best interest of the person doing the commodifying to dehumanize the people that they wanna use. The Arcanics may not be quote “fully human.” They are full of humanity. But you would never know that if you talked to the Cumaea or talked to certain human groups because it”s in their best interest to dehumanize the Arcanics and refer to them and call them and treat them like animals. Because at the end of the day, the Arcanics are there to be harvested. Their bodies produce an incredibly powerful element – the combination of human and supernatural blood creates an element, lilium, that is incredibly powerful and incredibly valuable to particularly Cumaea but humans in general. So when you want to harvest the bodies of quote-on-quote “your enemy,” you”re not gonna be like, “Oh, these people are just like us.” So that question “What are they?” all depends on who”s asking it. But yeah, they”re a combination of the human and supernatural.

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Tell me about crafting Maika”s morality. It would have been easy to have the witch-nuns be the bad guys that are the only ones who do horrific things to other living creatures, but Maika will not hesitate to burn someone alive, for example. So how did you figure out just how far she”ll go and what in her past is pushing her to those lengths?

For the first couple versions of Maika, I was writing her too nice. It was just boring. And it didn”t make sense either because this is a girl who”s been through some really horrific things. I see her as this young woman who started out really sweet. She was loved by her mother. Her mother is a central figure in the book that we'll see more and more as the story continues. This kid was loved. She had a good, safe, protected life, and then it all went to hell. She had to learn how to survive some really really horrific things, and it just f—ed her up. I know this character deep down still has that core goodness. But she couldn't survive on goodness. She had to survive on ruthlessness. She has friends. She”s not a particularly good friend. But she has trouble building close, intimate relationships because so much has been stolen from her and deep down she's still just a scared little girl. But she's just found ways to cope and to bury it and repress it.

I thought, “What does it take to put yourself back together when you”ve been completely dehumanized by war?” Some people just bounce back. I look at my grandmother, and she went though some really crazy stuff during World War II, and she bounced back. Maybe not deep down, but on the surface of things, she lived a very full life in which she was dancing, she was out, she was living, she was partying hard. If she dwelled on her past, she didn”t let it hold her back, and it didn”t warp her into a terrible person. But not everyone”s like that.

Were your grandparents in China or the U.S. during World War II?

Oh, they were in China. My grandmother, when she was 14, she had to pick up and leave. She had to evacuate her village with her classmate because the Japanese troops were coming. She had to get out. She walked across China. I have the map – she literally walked across China. Well over a 1,000 miles on foot. There were many times when she should have died. She wasn”t supposed to live until she was 90. The things that she went though were just wild. I don”t think I could go through that and live and be the person that she was. And my grandfather was in the Chinese air force. He spent part of the war in China, but he was part of a group that was sent to America to train with American air force pilots, and then he was sent back. But he also has just wild, wild stories of the battles that he participated in at the end of the war and actually during the civil war against Mao. They were deep in it.

Wow, I can see how those stories would find its influence into your writing.

Dude, I couldn”t get away from them. I spent so much time with my grandparents growing up – every weekend, just being in Vancouver with them. My grandfather loved talking about the war. He couldn”t stop. My grandmother didn”t talk about it quite as much as he did, but she would still talk.

Intergenerational trauma is a thing. What my grandparents went though they passed down to their children, to my dad, and he passed certain aspects of that trauma down to me. It”s really interesting to sit back a couple generations later and think about the people that you grew up with, who raised you, who formed you and think about how much violence, how much war was a part of the narrative of their lives. There are times I think I take it for granted – but not recently. Not since I started work on this book. It”s really made me examine what I grew up with and the things I was hearing.

Did both of your grandparents pass before you published “Monstress”?

Yeah, they did. I do feel the regret that young people do when they realize in hindsight that they should have tried harder to spend more time with family.

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There”s a lot of horrifying stuff in “Monstress” – slavery, vivisection, cannibalism. How do you come up for air from that? Do you have to go watch or read something warm and light and fuzzy after that?

I don”t know. I bounce back pretty easily. I think my head is able to simultaneously exist with both daisies and kittens and sunshine and with absolute horror – both nestled up right next to each other very comfortably. [Laughs] There are times when I”m writing when I feel like my interior self is in one of those cult B slasher flicks. I”m writing “Monstress,” and I”m writing a children”s book at the same time. It”s a 120-page graphic novel for middle readers. It”s very gentle and sweet and whimsical and all that. It is a weird shift. Yeah, it”s strange. I don't have to do as much decompression as one might think.

Issue #1 being 66 pages long – how did that go over with Image Comics?

Image is actually incredibly supportive. Image just kind of stands back and lifts up their hands, “do whatever you want.” I didn”t realize the story was going to be that long, and I just kept writing it, the first issue. It was very kindly, very lightly suggested that perhaps, perhaps I should cut this first issue up into three parts. I wrestled with that for a little bit. But I was like, “I can't do it.” I consulted with a couple other comic book people, and they were like, “You know what? The beauty of Image is we”re allowed to do what we want.” If we want to publish a first issue that is 60 pages long, okay – we can actually do that. To ignore that freedom and go the safe route just seemed like a huge mistake. And it would have been a huge mistake because there was no natural break in that first issue that I could see that wouldn”t have just confused things and weakened that first introduction to the world. It had to come out in one big shot.

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And tell me about the title, “Monstress.” I love the double meaning and the inventive spelling that puts the comics” themes and ideas front and center. How did you settle on that title?

Women and female power is so often painted as monstrous. So, for example, “Ex Machina” – I had a lot of problems with that movie, both for the race stuff and for the way it portrayed women. I know it was lauded as a feminist movie, but it followed the same trope, the same idea that a lot of other films do that female power is a monstrous thing, that female power is deceptive, that female power is one of betrayal. That happens a lot in fiction and popular culture where strong women are called “bitches.” Not even just pop culture – in real life. Heck, forget movies – in real life, it”s super-easy for a woman to suddenly find herself called a “bitch.”

How many years has it taken for me to learn how to speak up for myself and take up space? And how, as a little girl and a lot of other little girls around me were taught to be good. That”s just another way of controlling girls in a way that boys aren”t necessarily controlled. That”s where the title comes from. That”s what “Monstress” means to me.

There is a lot packed into that one-word title.

We”ve got a girl who”s dealing with monsters, and she herself thinks she is a monster, and, in fact, there is a literal monster inside of her. And it”s all these ideas of what is a monster, who is monstrous, how do you unpack that? Maybe it”s okay to be a monster sometimes. Maybe that's what”s needed. 

Issue #2 of “Monstress,” published by Image Comics, will be released next week on Wednesday, December 9.

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