I spent this past weekend at New York Comic-Con. When I wasn’t manning the Epic Proportions booth, I was able to sneak away and meet with writer Marjorie Liu. She makes her long-awaited return to comics with Image Comics’ Monstress, reuniting her with X-23 artist Sana Takeda.
In the first part of this exclusive, wide-ranging interview, Marjorie and I discuss the origins of the book, her childhood obsession with the apocalypse, the influence of pre-World War II China, and what it was like reuniting with artist Sana Takeda.
RAYMOND: So, what is Monstress?
MARJORIE: There are a couple ways to describe Monstress. The first way is as a dark steampunk epic fantasy about a girl who has a psychic connection to a monster. On another level, there were a lot of ideas I was wrestling with leading up to Monstress. I grew up listening to my grandparents talk about WWII. My grandfather was in the Chinese airforce; my grandmother was 14 years old, on the ground. She had to run from home and join this wave of child refugees that basically crossed China on foot to escape the invasion. And I grew up listening to their stories. In hindsight, I realized that really affected me. For a long time, I’ve always been thinking about what does it take to survive a cataclysmic war? What does it take to put yourself back together again after surviving something that horrific?
You know how kids get obsessed with different things? Some kids get obsessed with vampires, some get obsessed with zombies. I was really obsessed with the apocalypse. I always thought it was just around the corner. Part of that is from my grandparents, growing up in the ‘80s, listening to the news about the Cold War and all of that. The apocalypse was on my mind.
And then with your grandparents’ memories of something, not apocalyptic, but cataclysmic…
Yeah, cataclysmic. It was always there. So when I was creating Monstress, that was one of the central ideas behind the book. This is a world that has suffered a cataclysmic war and the war still looms. War is not over.
There’s definitely a feeling in the book that everybody is still on edge. Nobody’s at war but they’re still on edge.
Yeah, they expect that the war is going to come up again. It’s not done. Everyone is preparing themselves and looking for, like, the new weapon.
That for me feels very real. So that’s where the story begins. That’s where the characters come from. But I also wanted to tell a story about what it means to be “othered.” I wanted to tell about how people dehumanize others for their own power, their own privilege. This is a world in which the humans, this religious order, the Cumaea Witch nuns. Humans have found a way to monetize and commodify the bodies of this other race, the Arcanics. How does that excuse all sorts of horrific behavior?
I read in another interview how you were talking about this pre-WWII China as being a setting that has fascinated you and influenced this story. I really like that idea because I feel like Chinese popular culture right now is constantly going back to that period. You know, 1920s Shanghai…
It’s like that idyllic period before it all went to hell.
Yeah. Because to me, the prime example has always been how men at that time would choose between wearing the cheongsam or wearing a suit to be “Western.” But after that period, it’s Mao suits; it’s Communism.
The West is this thing that’s capitalist and evil, so you wouldn’t do that anymore. So there’s this kind of question: “What would modern China look like today if the feelings of 1920s had continued on?”
If there hadn’t been World War II…
It’s something I think about a lot because Shanghai of the 1920s was like the Paris of the East. There were artists, bohemians, business men. That was the place. And it’s really interesting because the influences of Asia still were really vast and unexpected. For example, there was this exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, at least a month ago, showing Asian influences within Western fashion and architecture and art and furniture design even. Little things like embroidery…
Chinoiserie is a style all its own.
Exactly! The influences of Asia were really powerful in ways that I’m not sure people recognize. And it still continues. But I wanted to tell an epic fantasy set in Asia. And I wanted to bring in elements of “the West” but incorporate them in this setting that is a fantastic version of Mongolia, China, Japan, Hong Kong. Eventually, we’ll go down to Hawaii. You know, the entire Pacific.
Because we know the story is set on earth, I was wondering how big the world could eventually get.
Oh, it’s going to get big.
I mean, the world is already very big in my head. I have this map drawn out. So really incorporating elements of this world’s history and weaving it together in to this tapestry that, hopefully, when people read this, they will recognize elements of not just myth but real places
Will you be incorporating traditional Asian mythologies?
I read a preview of the first issue, and that was tremendous!
It was a whole story, and we were just starting, really. And I have to know what happens next.
Good! I’m relieved!
You got someone hooked, at least!
Great! That’s good!
But, I will say, it seems like it’s another world where it’s going to be dangerous to get attached to any characters.
Well, we’ll see. I’m attached to a lot of characters. I think issue #2 will be surprising for some people. I think certain things revealed in issue #2… how should I put this? Things are not what they seem.
It’s hard to talk about this book because there’s a lot happening. There’s so much to say, but it’s hard not to spoil it.
Yeah. Exactly. It’s 70 pages, and I know what’s going on in the story, but there’s clearly so many other things happening…
It’s a big world. Each issue will just unveil even more of that world and show little parts of it. It’s the same thing when you’re traveling to a new place, you may see the world, but you don’t really see the world. You may get little bits and pieces of it, and sometimes the bits and pieces that you get are fragments of a larger whole that you don’t entirely understand.
I’m not saying that was a deliberate choice on my part when I was writing this, but I’ve spent a lot of time traveling through Asia and being the “stranger in a strange land.” And even though I’m familiar — I grew up surrounded by the Chinese side of my family and am very familiar with Chinese culture — to actually travel through China and Taiwan, to go to Japan and Hong Kong, after growing up in America, it’s a very different culture and place. In some ways, I wasn’t trying to capture the feeling of what it was like for me as an 18 year old going to China for the first time, but I do remember what that feeling was like where you didn’t have all the answers.
Looking for that sense of wholeness in a way.
How long have you worked with Sana Takeda? X-23 was the first?
X-23 was the first time we worked together. It was just beautiful. I loved her work. She’s just so talented. And then when X-23 ended, we parted ways. But I go to Japan off and on, and I would see her there. And she was no longer working in comics. She was doing other things. I was like, “well that sucks!” I had this idea in my head, and I’d always wanted to work with Sana again. So I thought, let’s just do it. Working with her is so easy because she’s such a genius. Every time I see the pages come back, I’m like, “what the fuck?” It’s so beautiful.
When I was brainstorming the story, she sent back designs for the kaiju that made me change everything. I saw her designs and thought…
I can’t not use that!
Exactly. The story now has to change. I can’t do what I was going to do anymore! That would suck. This is the book that we have to have because of what she dreamed up in her head. It’s really been a beautiful working relationship, and I just hope once Monstress ends, I’m going to be, like…
Hey, we have another thing!
Yeah, because I cannot stand to not work with her.
Well, you give her a tremendous amount of things to do. I mean, the range of emotions in that first issue. Everybody’s got a different thing going on.
I wanted each character to have something to do. I think it’s sad when you read a book, and you have all these secondary characters who just stand around. I’m sure that’s going to happen eventually at some point — because it’s hard to keep an eye on everyone — but it’s great to see each character be intrinsic to the story. I always think that’s fun.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of my exclusive conversation with Marjorie Liu from New York Comic-Con.