Comics creators Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda swept through Seattle shortly after a jam-packed weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, and I sat down to chat with them about their new, creator-owned work, Monstress. Both Liu (writer) and Takeda (artist) have spent a good chunk of their careers working on comics series started by and owned by someone else; Monstress is their first creator-owned comic, and it has been near the top of Amazon’s graphic novel bestseller list since its release in mid July.
Monstress tells the tale of teenage Maika Halfwolf, who is fighting the humans who have enslaved her half-human, half-Arcanic comrades. As Maika does almost anything to defeat the oppressors, it opens up the question of who the monster in this underground war really is. Fantastical and complex, Monstress has been sucking comics and fantasy readers into its vortex, leaving them hungry for the next issue, which comes out October 13.
Amazon Book Review: You two just came back from San Diego’s Comic-Con. What were your thoughts on the show this year?
Marjorie Liu: I’ve been going to SDCC every year since 2007 or 2008. The first time I went it was an overwhelming experience because I wasn’t expecting all the people; I wasn’t even expecting all the joy. People are so excited to be there, so happy to be there. That blew me away. I came from a background where, when I was about eighteen or nineteen, I found comic-book fandom. But it was the fandom of online communities. And within those communities there was a tremendous amount of excitement and joy, but I’d never been around people in such a large group setting where this joy was pouring out of them. It was a revelation. You fast forward [to today], and it’s gotten bigger—there are more industry people. But what hasn’t changed is the level of excitement and happiness. I brought a friend this year who’d never been before; she’s not part of that world. She came into it as an observer, and by the end of it she was running around, taking pictures of people. She’s in; she’s a convert.
The one thing that stood out for me during the last few days at Comic-Con were how hungry women and women of color are to see themselves in books. And not depicted as caricatures of how women should be—not the strong action hero, badass woman, or the virgin, or the whore—but to see women carrying all these different roles in which they are human. They are human and doing all sorts of things and expressing a wide range of emotion—anger, lust, happiness, revenge, grief.
Sana Takeda: The last time I was at San Diego Comic-Con was six or seven years ago. I was surprised by all the changes. The big surprise was that there were more people than there used to be. And there were a lot of crazy things going on all at once! But a lot of people were enjoying it and having fun, which affected me as well. I was at the booth with Marjorie, and the fans were so hyped to meet us and were saying how beautiful the artwork was. But before I came to Comic-Con, I was at home alone and not talking to any people as I worked on the pages. But during Comic-Con, I think I met a lifetime’s worth of people! It’s a fascinating thing. It feels a little strange, honestly.
How did you two decide to work with each other on Monstress?
Marjorie Liu: We first worked with each other on X-23. The first time I saw a page from Sana, I was staggered, blown away. In this one page, she managed to capture the loneliness and the walls that this heroine had built around herself—just in her face! Not only did Sana get the character, but it was extraordinary that she was able to do this with just one image. We worked together on several arcs on X-23, and every time the pages came in, I was so excited, so moved. When we couldn’t work together anymore at Marvel, I was profoundly sad. I missed Sana, and I missed her work very, very much. So later, when I was approached with the possibility of doing creator-owned work, Sana was the first person I wanted to work with. I couldn’t imagine anyone else. There was no one else.
Sana Takeda: When I first saw the script for X-23, I was surprised, because it told a lot about the inner world of the character, which I’d never had before. I wanted to do more work with Marjorie because of that. When I was contacted by Marjorie about this project, I was really happy about it but a little bit frightened about the scope. I felt a mixture of being hyped, and anxious, and feeling very responsible for this all-new project. Many mixed feelings. Also, when I started Monstress—I had to start everything from scratch, unlike the work I did for Marvel. I felt a lot of responsibility.
Has it gotten easier?
Sana Takeda: No! [Laughs.] It’s grown bigger and bigger. More pressure but more excitement as well.
What are the best aspects of working on your own creator-owned project?
Marjorie Liu: The best thing about Montress being creator-owned is that we have complete freedom. I can’t imagine us being able to tell the story and do what we’ve done anywhere else but Image. This is not by any stretch of the imagination a corporate book. It’s been a labor of love, one in which we as the creators and collaborators can really pour our creative energy into, knowing that this is our world and that there isn’t someone who isn’t going to step in and say, “No, you can’t do that. No, your vision doesn’t belong here. No, you can’t have talking cats. No, you can’t depict slavery and racism and inequality in this way because it’s just too much.” We do have an editor at Image, and we do want this to be the best book possible, but when it comes to the message that we’re trying to send out, there are no gatekeepers. It’s been a beautiful experience. And it’s been a beautiful experience working with Sana, just seeing her gift and her genius explode on the page. I knew she was a genius when were worked on X-23. But on Monstress, her art has become this living thing that has been truly extraordinary to witness and be a part of. It’s been an honor and a blessing to write scripts for her and see this world and these characters come to life.
The opening page of Monstress is amazing. You’re immediately in the story and you’re wondering, Who is this woman? Why is she so defiant? Why is she missing part of an arm? It’s a fantastic start.
Marjorie Liu: Thank you. That was a very deliberate decision to show this main character in a moment of what should have been absolute vulnerability. But instead the look on her face tells you that she’s anything but. And it was meant to subvert what we often see in mass entertainment, where we see women chained, we see women subjected to horrible violence, women in terror. Instead, this is a situation where you see this woman with power insider of her. That was important to get across.
As a writer, I write scripts and I give my descriptions to Sana and I’ll use keywords like “defiant,” or I’ll say that she’s standing there naked with a symbol on her neck. But those are just words. The extraordinary thing about comic books and graphic novels is that they cannot exist without the art. If my words disappeared tomorrow, well, whatever. This is a visual medium in which the eye and the mind work together to bear witness to story, to lives. Having such a talented artist translate my words into glorious art is my great joy.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Marjorie, but it seems like your characters often live in a gray moral area. They do the wrong thing for the right reason, or even the wrong thing for the wrong reason. Why do you like writing in that area?
Marjorie Liu: Nice characters are boring! The story of Monstress is a brutal one. You don’t survive a war the way Maika has and not come out unscathed. In my first versions of Maika, she was too nice; she was too boring. My grandmother [in China] pulled herself together after World War Two, and when I was a kid, she would talk about it while laughing. I’m not sure that was the case right after the war. I like writing upbeat characters—that’s my natural tendency—but I knew that wasn’t appropriate for this book. Maika’s not nice; she’s not going to be nice for a very long time, if ever. That part of her has been sliced away. But it’s for a good reason. What we’ll see in the second arc [starting in October] is that when she goes back to the city where she was a child, the people there who remember her, well, they remember her as someone completely different. As someone who laughed and smiled and was kind. She lost that side of herself. And so this is part of a larger arc. Her character and her choices are very deliberate, in the same way that Kippa’s choices are very deliberate.
Sana, what scenes to you find the most challenging to draw?
Sana Takeda: To be honest, everything. In Monstress, there are a lot of characters, and I put a lot into finding the balance within each of the characters. Each character has its own characteristics—some may be innocent, some may be evil within. But we—all of us—have all those characteristics within us in different portions. So when I draw, I deeply think about how each character should be and the balance of the characteristics.
Do you think about this while you’re drawing the character, or do you do most of your thinking before you put the character on paper?
Sana Takeda: I think while I draw, and I keep on thinking while I draw, and I keep on thinking until the last minute when I have to turn in the pages.
The comic book industry has been known for not having many women or people of color in its ranks. Have you seen this changing?
Sana Takeda: When I was in the booth [at SDCC], there were a lot of female fans who stopped by. And I met a lot of female creators, many creators of different ethnicities, compared to the last time I came. There was more diversity this time in who attended and in the content shown at Comic-Con. I was surprised by that. I met a lot of female creators who were energetic and powerful, and I was astonished by them.
Marjorie Liu: I started out writing romance novels, and that’s a side of publishing that’s very female oriented. 99.9% of the writers are women, most of the editors are women, and these are books written for the female gaze. And so my point of view—the way I looked at fandom and publishing and writing—was all about women. So for me that’s what was natural, that’s what was comfortable. And then I moved over to comics. And all of a sudden it was… Pardon the expression, it was a sausage fest. It was an endless sea of dudes. But I knew that wasn’t an accurate representation of what things were like in real life. In real life, I knew that fandom was made up of women, and women of color, and women of all ages. But on the publishing side of comics, it was a lot of white, straight men. It was often jarring to me to be the only women at a meeting or at a panel at a comic-con. Fortunately I had mentors who were not blinded by my gender and who said, “Yes, we know you can write these books.” That hasn’t been the case for everyone. What gives me great hope is that in the eight to nine years since I’ve started, I’ve seen tremendous growth. I’ve seen a tremendous shift especially in indie comics, where everything that I knew existed, and everything that I experienced in fandom back in college and law school, was finally rising to the surface in the publishing of comics and graphic novels. So now, as Sana pointed out, I see all these young women who are out there creating. They’re making these great web comics. Their graphic novels are getting published. They’re making all this wonderful art. They’re powerful. There’s this vital energy about it that’s really, really beautiful that eight, nine years ago I knew existed but I didn’t see so clearly.
When I first started out [in comics] they would put me on these Women of Marvel panels, and these young women would come up to me and say, “I really want to write comics but I don’t know if I can because I’m told that it’s just for guys.” I would say, “That’s bullshit. That’s absolute bullshit. Look at me!” But the one area where we still need to work on is that we need more women of color. That’s not common thing yet. I believe it will be in the future, in the next eight or nine years. I believe that the mainstream publishers, DC and Marvel, need to catch up as well. Out of the fifty-odd books that are published each month, just a handful are written by women, and even less of those are written by women of color. It’s not right, and it’s not good for the companies in the long-term. It’s also not good for fans, for readers.
I have a great deal of hope. I think that change is here, it’s happening. But I know that if we think it’s just going to happen on its own, that’s not the way it works. We need people to keep talking about these things and living the charge. Not just talking but doing. Making art, putting it out there.
I’ll just say one more thing: Women are expected to give up space. We’re trained to give up space to others. If we fight or are aggressive or use our voices, that’s a negative in a lot of environments. Not all environments but a lot of environments. And that’s wrong. The important thing about doing art and writing is that we are using our voices and using them really, really loudly. And to any girls or young women who want to write comics, I tell them, “You have to use your voice. You have to take up space.” We have to fight to be heard. No one else is going to fight for us.
What else are you working on now?
Sana Takeda: I’m working on a short story for Marvel, for Civil War Two, and some covers for another publisher.
Marjorie Liu: I just finished writing Han Solo—I turned in my last script a few weeks ago. There’s a graphic novel for children that I started writing that I want to finish this month. It’s very close to my heart, and it’s a fantasy. And then at some point I would like to finish my novel. I really love writing novels. I started out as a novelist, and that passion for prose is still inside me.
The one thing about being a creator, about being an artist, is that you get to explore your ideas. We’re fortunate that we’re in the position to do that, and I don’t take it for granted.
[Editor’s note: Sana Takeda spoke through a translator, and when the translator said “she,” referring to Takeda, I have swapped in “I” or “me” and changed verb tenses accordingly.]
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