When I heard that Marjorie Liu had created comic book history last month by becoming the first woman to win an Eisner Award for Best Writer, I couldn’t help recalling my encounter with her at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival.
“I don’t have a very good track record of winning awards,” she said. “I’m very proud of the work I’ve done, and I enjoy what I do, but my work doesn’t tend to get recognised in that way, so I’ve trained myself to have incredibly low expectations when it comes to things like awards.”
It is, of course, something she will likely not have to think about anymore – not only did the creator-owned fantasy comic Monstress win her the ground-breaking honour (she shared the award with Batman writer Tom King), the Image Comics-published book also netted her and her co-creator/artist Sana Takeda a whole slew of wins at the prestigious comic industry awards.
These include Best Continuing Series and Best Publication for Teens, as well as Best Painter/Multimedia Artist and Best Cover Artist for Takeda. (Monstress also won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story and the British Fantasy Award for Best Comic/Graphic Novel, both in 2017.)
It is perhaps rather apt that it was a series like Monstress that achieved this first in the Eisners’ 30-year history. Debuting in 2015, the comics are an absorbing fantasy epic set in a matriarchal world that is part steampunk and part 1900s Asia-inspired. It centres on the story of Maika Halfwolf, a teenager who is an Arcanic – a race of magical creatures with animal parts who can sometimes pass for human.
The Arcanics have been enslaved by humans, and there is a war between the two races that is being fuelled by an order of human sorceresses called the Cumaea. These sorceresses not only oppose equality and intermarriage between the races, they actually consume the Arcanics’ animal parts to increase their magical powers.
When we first meet Maika, she is seeking revenge for her mother’s death – but is also dealing with a literal monster living within her that she fears will take over her body and mind.
Focus on women
Both in terms of plot and world-building, Monstress features many elements that are still sadly lacking in much of mainstream pop culture.
Heavily focused on relationships between women, Liu tells a story which is both about gender and isn’t. While Maika’s femaleness and the matriarchal structure of her world are essential parts of the tale, Liu consistently shows that these can sit by side-by-side with a story that is exciting, adventurous, and complex.
And this is no accident. For Liu, it was absolutely essential to tell a story that did this.
“I grew up reading fantasy stories that were about men. Even if there were female characters in the book, she had no female relationships, they were all with men. They were these highly masculinised stories.
“And it’s like that everywhere, in books, on television, in movies. There were so few of us represented, and even those were a select few – there were almost no women of colour, for instance. I decided that I wanted to reverse this, I wanted to tell a story where almost all the major characters were women,” she said.
Monstress is also heavily informed by Liu’s experience of growing up as a biracial person in the United States: her father is Taiwanese, while her mother is an American of French, Scottish, and Irish descent. Born in Philadelphia, Liu grew up in Seattle.
“When I was growing up, there were no conversations about race,” she said. “If race came up, they’d say, you mixed-race kids are proof that racism doesn’t exist anymore. But there was a disconnect between this and the racism that I saw around me, that I or my dad experienced.
“So this absence of conversation came out in my work. When I wrote Monstress, it was a reaction to this silence, my own silence, the silence I grew up with. It’s a fantasy graphic novel about slavery, racism, colonialism, about being a woman. And if it’s contributed to anything, it’s hopefully to show the absence of these things around it.”
For Liu, comics are a form that allow the sorts of storytelling unavailable elsewhere. And while she has written novels – largely paranormal romance and urban fantasy – it is perhaps in comics that she has found a special niche. Besides Monstress, she has also done much-lauded work for series like NYX, X-23, Dark Wolverine, and Star Wars: Han Solo.
“The beautiful thing about comics is that they are the perfect intersection between prose and film. You have all the interiority of prose, and all the action of film.”
Liu is quick to share how essential her Monstress co-creator Takeda’s artwork is to the series.
“Oh, it’s everything! I’ve been very lucky in my career, from NYX to Han Solo to X-23, to work with some of the best artists in the business, particularly when they were first starting out. I look back at this with no small amount of awe.”
While Liu’s Best Writer Eisner is a monumental achievement, Takeda’s wins for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist and Best Cover Artist are just as significant, as her art is a huge part in what makes Monstress such a great work.
Based in Japan, Takeda began her Western comics career with Marvel Comics, working on titles like X-Men, Venom, Civil War II and Ms. Marvel. She first worked with Liu on the X-23 title in 2010 before co-creating Monstress in 2013.
In a 2016 interview with comic book news site SKTCHD, Takeda said she was impressed with Liu’s handling of plot, sense of humour and intelligence when they first worked together on X-23. On her cover work, she told SKTCHD that she tends to “struggle” whenever she draws the cover.
“I am aware that I am not good at drawing art for the cover, which is supposed to attract people’s interest. What I simply try to do for Monstress is to demonstrate all I have. I never draw for the purpose of attracting people’s eyes,” she said, adding it is the same for her interior art.
“If you try to draw to impress people, you will end up drawing boring art. All you have to do is to demonstrate all you have!”
In a 2017 interview with The Japan Times, Liu called Takeda “one of the finest artists I ever worked with”.
“Sana is capable of illustrating silence, quiet moments. That’s rare in comics,” Liu said in the interview. “Sana’s art makes me feel like I’m pulled into moments, standing right in front of the characters as they think about things, not just watching them fight.”
Monstress is currently on its third story arc; 18 issues have been published so far, with the first 12 released in two collections and a third volume expected this year.
Liu said this part of Maika’s story represents a shift in her thinking. “She’s been on an interesting journey. She starts off motivated by revenge, but learns that she can’t get by on brute force and anger. She learns that she needs community, allies, that she can’t do this alone.”
It is perhaps a lesson that one can hope more people in both the comics industry and the larger pop culture circle will realise – that inclusion and diversity can result in spaces for exciting, unusual stories and voices that will ultimately only enrich creators and readers alike.
“It shouldn’t be so difficult to have more of this,” said Liu. “It should be the easiest thing in the world to have more women in your stories. And it needn’t even be only for women, lots of men read Monstress too. It’s not like men cannot engage with female characters – it’s just that there’s been no opportunity to.”