By Laura Stump
It’s not every day I come across a comic that feels as though it could have been ripped from the day’s headlines, but Monstress Issue One fits that bill. Writer Marjorie Liu pulls no punches in drawing on the events of Earth’s past to inform the world of Monstress and to shape the experiences of its inhabitants, while artist Sana Takeda brings them to brutally beautiful life. Their illustration of the ways dehumanization and demonization of one’s enemies in times of war allow for the commission of atrocities cuts deeply. The way this theme is woven through the first issue of Monstress calls to mind real-world analogs both current and historical.
Five races occupy the world of Monstress: Cats, Old Gods, Ancients, Humans, and Arcanics. They rarely mix, with the Old Gods having been banished from the world, and the Ancients, with their animal-like characteristics and immortality, mostly ignoring the cats and humans. But, every now and then, humans and Ancients take one another as lovers, until the day the first hybrid is born – the first Arcanic. The arrival of this fifth race leads to the rise of the Cumaea and their obsession with maintaining the purity of human blood to prevent the spread of these seemingly unclean new creatures.
It is in this world that the reader meets the Arcanic Maika as she stands naked and chained at auction, preparing to be sold to the highest human bidder. Her very ordinary appearance prompts a buyer to ask if slave-broker Ilsa is certain her latest offering is not human: “We wouldn’t want to buy a human by mistake. We’re criminals, not savages.” Everyone in the room is aware that the events are wrong, but hey, they aren’t selling people, so who cares?
The characters of Monstress live in a world so obsessed with the idea of blood purity to distinguish human from Arcanic that they have developed tests for it. These tests literally determine whether someone can be beaten, starved, bought and sold, treated like an animal or should be treated with respect. One of the Cumaea’s guards talks about how grateful she is, how she thanked Marium when her blood tested pure. She follows that with an almost offhand remark about how Maika must have reconciled herself to being an animal by virtue of having, at most, one fully human parent. After all, she wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the bars that separate them or be one of the prisoners who falls victim to her cattle prod and the Cumaeas’ knives.
Finding oneself a target of the most powerful religious order on the human side of the wall and their magic-wielding witch-nuns, powered by the lilium distilled from dead Arcanics, is a terrifying thought. The Cumaea teach humans from an early age that Arcanics are worthy of disgust and unworthy of basic decency because they are not fully human; they might have some human blood, but it isn’t enough.
It’s a strategy straight from the white Western/European playbook. One so reminiscent of the treatment of slaves brought from Africa and the delineation of Spaniard/mestizo throughout the Spanish empire that, as a white person who has directly benefitted from the consequences of those systems, reading about it prickles my spine uncomfortably. This sort of systemic dehumanization based on blood purity can be used to justify incalculable cruelty, and Liu and Takeda use Monstress to demonstrate that cruelty. After all, society loves to tell itself the past is in the past, and that people have moved on from depraved indignities to a more enlightened era. Monstress’s creators hold up a mirror on our own society and dare us to forget the ways dehumanization breeds depradation.
Nazis and Nazi sympathizers bought into that same sort of propaganda the Cumaea employ in Monstress to assuage their consciences about the treatment of Jews. They participated in the transportation of real, human beings to concrete camps where those human beings were stripped of their clothing, starved, forced into slave labor, and experimented on before being sent for “showers” that killed them, painfully. But the Jews were enemies of the state, portrayed in Nazi propaganda as subhuman creatures with exaggerated features engaged in behind-the-scenes treachery with the British and Russians.
Because Arcanics are not considered human enough, the human world has justified their enslavement, starvation, and use by the Cumaea. Even the Cumaeas’ guards speak with loathing about what happens in the Cumaean strongholds, but they aren’t horrified enough to protest it or to find another line of work. Instead, they drag the captive Arcanics from dungeon to laboratory and back, in one piece or in smaller pieces. They participate in the degradation and harvest of the Arcanics’ bodies to further the war effort, because the Arcanics aren’t fully human, and they have convinced themselves that anyone not fully human deserves the treatment put forth by the Cumaea.
It is easy to see the past examples Liu and Takeda clearly drew on for inspiration in creating Monstress, but it is painful to be forced to look at the hundred large and small ways in which it is also a reflection of the present. Dehumanizing language is used around the world, to “other” those who are not Exactly Like Us, no matter who a given “us” may be. Calling people from certain groups animals or monsters, coining terms for those on the opposite side of a border to put distance between us – these are the tricks of the demigogue and the shit-stirrer, useful a thousand times over for simplifying the process of whipping people into a frenzy against a “subhuman” enemy.
Because, as much as we would like to imagine that such horrors aren’t going on under our noses, that we are better and more civilized than the world depicted in Monstress, we simply haven’t changed or learned that much since the days of the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials or the Holocaust. Right now, in 2018, in the United States we have children locked in cages. Separated from their families. Treated as chattel. All for the crime of coming to our borders seeking asylum. We have allowed this to happen because, like the Cumea, we have bought into our own propaganda. These are “rapists” and “criminals” and “terrorists,” everything but human beings fleeing nearly unimaginable hardship to make a life in a country where they don’t know the language or the people but believe the rule of law to be capable of keeping them safe.
Members of the incel (“involutarily celibate”) movement refer to women as “females” and “femoids” before driving down a street in a rented van to murder them for the grave crime of not being willing sexbots at the incels’ beck and call. ISIS labels its opponents “devil-worshippers,” “infidels,” and “pagans” to justify murder, rape, and enslavement; burning someone alive can hardly be a sin if they have turned their back on God, can it? The Myanmar military use false posts on social media to incite violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority, driving them from the country and murdering many of those who remain. These aren’t events from our past, as much as we would like to pretend they are; they are happening in the here and now.
At the end of the day, we have to realize a simple truth that Monstress shines on us, intentionally or not. The Cumaea are our past. They are, as much as we don’t like to admit it, our present. And, if we don’t correct course now, they are our future – a future where we are not the heroes of the story. For a comic written some three years ago, Monstress makes a damn good mirror for our true selves.
Published by Image Comics in 2015
Written by Marjorie Liu
Drawn by Sana Takeda
Lettered by Rus Wooton
Laura Stump’s writing has appeared all over the internet, including at Women Write About Comics. You can find more from her on her twitter page here!
Monstress #1 was voted as the 41st best comic of all time by critics! Head here to find out more!
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