REVIEW: Monstress #21 is the best issue yet of one of comics’ top series

Monstress #21 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Since it first launched in the fall of 2015, Monstress has established itself as one of the best and most interesting things happening in American monthly comics. The book’s debut issue—Monstress #1—was a fully-realized and extended affair that seemed to promise complex thematic interests and vast storytelling potential. It delivered to us an angry and compelling protagonist, a world in which nearly everything works against her, and a hybrid of science-fiction/fantasy/mythological potpourri rendered in exquisite detail by Sana Takeda.

Monstress #1 played like an action movie, a revenge story in which the oppressed discovers a deep and violent power within her and wields it in the service of violent and angry survival. It could have maybe been a one-shot and still left a major impression. It, of course, wasn’t, and the story went on to plunge protagonist Maika Halfwolf into a traditional fantasy journey, replete with challenges, new friends that might also be enemies, triumphs, setbacks, revelations, and more.

The book has been a powerhouse ever since, going on to win industry-wide recognition at this past year’s Eisner Awards held at San Diego Comic Con. What I, for one, didn’t realize when I watched it finally get part of its due was that this comic was yet to peak, that the narrative was, perhaps, just then preparing to ramp up into its endgame and take readers to a more dramatic, entertaining and immersive place than any of its nearly 20 issues had in the past. What we get in Monstress #21, essentially, is a clear statement that we as an audience—to be a bit crass—haven’t seen shit yet.

Simply put, this most recent issue of Monstress is absolutely packed with graphic sequential storytelling goodness. It starts on the first page with a steamy dream-like sequence in a decadent bed chamber that segues into a frenemy’s machinations against our hero. It’s a tantalizing scene in more ways than one that seems to promise future interesting complications. From there I could single out any number of other scenes to praise and describe, but instead I’ll focus on some of the broader strokes that make this issue feel so packed and consequential.

From the start of this story Maika’s relationship to her deceased mother has loomed large, influencing her actions as well as the world around her. What we get in this chapter now is the arrival of her other parent, her father, whom she doubts and questions from the start. The man is steeped in shades of gray, which serves the plot and the character’s feelings toward him quite well. He works to exert control over her while acting crass and a bit removed throughout. Writer Marjorie Liu absolutely nails this sequence, writing some of the best dialogue in comics all year, dialogue that hints at a well of complexity behind all that’s happening.

The comic then bounces to the grandiose, giving Takeda the chance to render a vast force making preparations for way, as well as a host of new characters that show up fully-formed, at once giving Maika an opportunity to learn more about her father and his forces, while also laying down a swaggering display of her own knowledge and power. I am absolutely in awe of the narrative structure of this comic, the way it packs so many high quality and disparate beats into these 20 or so pages. It’s really stunning stuff, a nice reminder of why we read monthly comics.   

Overall: One of the best issues of Monstress yet, this is the type of comic that at once reminds why you fell in love with this series while also stoking excitement for events that are to come. Just fantastic work all around. 9.8/10

Monstress #21
Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics asBatmansBookcase.