One of the best moments in Image Comics' Monstress — creator Marjorie Liu's story about a girl battling her way through a magical, postapocalyptic world inhabited almost entirely by women — comes at the beginning of chapter four, which opens at the scene of a bloody massacre. The focus of the first panel is a tall woman mounted on a white horse and wearing a foxlike mask; she's about to bludgeon a kneeling man to death. The man begs, but the woman gallops toward him and lops his head clean off. Blood flies everywhere. “No, I’m not overreacting,” she says before dismounting and walking calmly away from the scene.
This sort of violence — and the perpetrator's cool reaction to it — isn't new to comics, but in Liu's book, it's unrelenting. Monstress (Volume 1, containing issues one through five, came out July 19) tells a dark, bloody story, and many of its themes are a response to how women are depicted in pop culture. (Besides the victim described above, there’s only one other male character in Volume 1’s 200-plus pages.) “We’re not accustomed to giving women the space to express the full range of emotions and flaws that men are permitted,” Liu told Vulture. “Anger and aggressiveness aren’t part of the scale of what is acceptable behavior in women, whereas men — in reality and in fiction — are allowed a much fuller range of emotion.”
So she gave women that space: a beautiful, terrible, postapocalyptic world of their own — one modeled in part on the stories her grandparents told her about WWII–era China — in which they live, fight, love, die, and strive to overcome (or enforce) horrific institutions and ingrained prejudices, all sans dudes. In the center of this world is Maika, a girl who lost her mother and most of her left arm and is on a quest for answers or vengeance, whichever comes first. She’s defensive, quick to anger, and not entirely convinced of her own sanity. In other words, she's a fictional woman imbued with all the faults and flaws of a real one.
Shortly before the release of Volume 1, Liu spoke to Vulture about a handful of cultural influences, and the sorts of depictions of women she sought to address with Monstress.
The Smurfette Principle
“You would think that the female population had been ravaged by a terrible virus” in many movies and TV shows, Liu explains, because the proportion of female to male characters is so off-balance. The Smurfette Principle (the presence of a single female Smurf in a town of hundreds of men) is a well-documented trope, and the danger, Liu believes, is that we’re beginning to take it for granted. “As a kid I didn’t think about it as much," she said. "But as I got older, I would watch these shows and think, ‘Wow, this is really weird.’ Yet the Smurfette Principle plays out everywhere across pop culture. It’s not unusual.”
In many cases, Liu adds, the few existing female characters fall into tired archetypes: “The really sexy woman, the quote-unquote ‘kick-ass’ woman, the evil woman — bam, bam, bam.” Monstress was a conscious effort to subvert the norm, “just a ton of women running around having adventures, no explanation needed." And subverted, the norm was, in a way that caught many readers off-guard.
"I knew there would be comments on the number of women in the book, but what surprised me was that people seemed really taken aback,” she said. “It said a lot to me. It means we’ve basically accepted the lie that women on average don’t make an impact on the world — to that point that we believe a story needs men. It seems odd because we’re force-fed this striking imbalance in the other direction. But when we get a book in which the reverse is true, all of a sudden it seems like a paradigm shift that’s gone too far. It shouldn't stand out — it should be just as normal.”
The violence against women found in shows like Game of Thrones
Monstress is a gut-wrenchingly violent book. It's an exaggeration to say someone dies on every other page, though just barely. Most of the bloodshed is thanks to Maika and her vengeance quest, but she’s a product of her environment, and her environment is a nation struggling to rebuild after a devastating war. What the omnipresence of blood and guts does is reframe the violence so often committed against women, both in fantasy and in reality.
“As women, we have to deal with constant threats of violence,” Liu said. “And it’s in our media and fiction, too. So we internalize it.” She cites Game of Thrones as an example — a show that’s been criticized for its gratuitous rape scenes. “It’s awful. In some ways it’s too much. But part of the reason that I enjoy the show is because it's another way to negotiate and deal with this ever-present threat. When we encounter it in fiction, we're encountering it in a controlled way.”
Monstress responds to violence committed against women by giving them agency (and even the upper hand) in violent situations. It’s still an incredibly violent story, but in a context that makes it impossible for the violence to be based in misogyny.
The male gaze in movies like Ex Machina
One of Liu’s favorite books is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In it, women operate as servants assigned to carry out various tasks — cooking, cleaning, childbearing — while men govern. The heroine is a designated child-bearer who identifies all that’s wrong with the system and works up the nerve to undermine it. Liu calls it one of the most important books she’s ever read. But she points out that, although it’s a feminist narrative, it takes place within a framework designed by men.
“What she’s dealing with, and what we as readers have to deal with, is the institution of patriarchy,” she said. “But we can also tell feminist stories that have nothing to do with men or their institutions. Because there are almost no men in Monstress, we’re focused completely on women. It’s removed from traditional structures.”
That, she said, is where so many allegedly feminist narratives fall flat. “Take Ex Machina," she continued. "Everyone said it was one of the great feminist works of science fiction. But what I found disappointing is that everything about the main female character is defined by men.”
In the movie, a male scientist creates a female android, Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), who eventually triumphs over her inventor and escapes. But according to Liu, Ava does so by relying on her sexuality, thereby playing into the trope of females as wily sexual predators. “When you’re looking at stories about women told through the male gaze, that’s standard,” Liu said. “Female empowerment is tied to female sexuality, but at the same time female sexuality is dangerous. And men are the victims. Men are always the victims.”
As a story told by women about women, Monstress is relatively unique in the comics landscape. It’s an engrossing story, but it’s also a signal flare for how women ought to be represented: as diverse, complex individuals whose stories build on, and move beyond, misrepresentation, rather than repeating it.