REVIEW: Monstress #22 continues this book’s best arc yet

By Zack Quaintance — Check out some of these quotes without context that I took from Monstress #22: Calm yourself, short-lived being. .... There was a war. There is always a war. War is the deadliest child of the living… …As the poets say, victory is a pair of twins named boldness and caution. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point—I doubt I will soon read a comic with better writing than this one. Marjorie Liu is one of the industry’s best, from her long-form plotting to how she uses simple turns of phrase like those above.

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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

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

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

Top Comics of 2018, #1 - #5

By Zack Quaintance —  A difficult thing about a strong year for comics (like this one) is doing a retrospective Best Of list. Now, to be sure, no one mandates websites do rankings. That would be a clear violation of civil liberties. There is, however, a part of the pop culture blogger brain that goes wild for it, whispering all year long...where does this one rank...and if you don’t satisfy that beast—well, bad things happen.

So, here we our with ours, freshly formulated for 2018 by our committee of one. Before we dive into the third and final and (let’s face it) best part, which features in descending order selections #5 to #1 (Top Comics of 2018, #16 - #25 and Top Comics #6 - #15 are also up now, btw), let’s rehash our ground rules:

  • No trades or OGNs: Building out our OGN coverage is a priority for 2019. We’re just not there yet. So, while I absolutely loved work like Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Box Brown’s Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, and Ryan Lindsay and Eric Zawadzki’s Eternal, you won’t find them here. Ideally, next year’s we’ll have an entire post dedicated to OGNs.

  • No webcomics, manga, or newspaper strips: Again, our site is a bit deficient covering these (if you are into these things, we’d love to chat about you writing for us!). I should, of course, mention that in 2018 someone under the pen name Olivia James took over the long-running Nancy strip and did amazing things with it (Sluggo is lit), but, again, you won’t find it on our list.

  • Longevity matters: New this year, you will find what I consider a key stat—how many issues were published this year. Late debut series like Die, Electric Warriors, and Bitter Root have tons of promise. They just haven’t been around enough to be a definitive comic of 2018. Ditto for comics that ended in April or earlier.

There you have it: guiding principles of our Top Comics of 2018. Now, without further adieu, let’s finish this bad hombre!

Top Comics of 2018

The Immortal Hulk by Alex Ross.

5. Immortal Hulk
Al Ewing
Artists: Joe Bennett
Inker: Ruy Jose
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: Cory Petit
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Issues in 2018: 10

The first of the Big 2 titles to make my Top 5 Comics of 2018 is the Al Ewing and Joe Bennett-driven Immortal Hulk, a startlingly-blunt take on a long-time hero that reads more like a creator-owned book than a shared universe corporate story. We’re late in the superhero trajectory, with comics having constructed, deconstructed, and exported the concept to other mediums plenty. Our best modern stories are those that get closest to capturing a character’s core, and rarely has a title done this as well as Immortal Hulk.

At the same time, this book has found a darker place that was always there, taking existing elements and extrapolating them so thoroughly they feel novel. It’s found ground not possible for the sensibilities of the 1960s, Hulk’s heyday. Both artwork and audience have evolved, becoming more sophisticated and thereby allowing Ewing, Bennett, and others to push Hulk further into monster territory while at the same time making Banner the emotional blank slate he was perhaps always meant to be. In this book, Banner is backgrounded, standing in for humanity at large as darker base impulses drag him places no one wants to go (ahem, hell). The Hulk is not the hero—that honor goes to anyone who can live a contented and peaceful life.

On the surface, this comic has also benefited from consistent artwork from Bennett who has needed few guest replacements, plus early chapters that provide satisfying narratives independent of what came before or will come after. This is a bit of a lost art, but still very much welcome, and it’s something that Immortal Hulk did expertly.

This gem by Ryan Sook and Brad Anderson from Action Comics #1006 is quite possibly the comic book page of the year.

4. Action Comics / Man of Steel / Superman
Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Patrick Gleason, Yanick Paquette, Ryan Sook, Ivan Reis, w/Doc Shaner, Steve Rude, Jay Fabok, Kevin Maguire, & Adam Hughes
Inkers: Wade Von Grawbadger, Joe Prado, & Oclair Albert
Colorists: Alejandro Sanchez, Nathan Fairbairn, Brad Anderson
Letterers: Josh Reed
Issues in 2018: 5 / 6 / 6

In 2017, Brian Michael Bendis—a leading voice at Marvel Comics for almost 20 years—announced a jump to the distinguished competition, leaving fans with questions that ranged from whether Bendis could thrive there to which titles he would take over. Some suggested this would spark a creative rejuvenation for Bendis, a chance to recapture energy from bygone days. Here’s the thing, though: Bendis had quietly been doing some of his best work at Marvel. Following the stumble that was Civil War II, his Infamous Iron Man, Jessica Jones, and Defenders titles were all excellent.

This is my way of saying I predicted Bendis at DC would be successful. He’s generally praised most for early work on Daredevil, as well as for creating Jessica Jones and Miles Morales (who’s having a moment with new film Into the Spider-Verse). What gets lost is that Bendis is likely the most prolific comic writer of a generation, consistently producing three to five monthly titles and rarely (if ever) suffering delays. As I’ve written, part of what I love about comics is the deadline-driven schedules force creators to just do the damn work, to put forth ideas without belaboring them as one must in film or prose writing. When it comes to embracing child-like excitement, love of comics history, and just doing the damn thing—Bendis is the best.

Still, even I didn’t predict what he’s doing with DC’s Superman titles. Flanked by the best artists to work on the character in decades, Bendis is telling a story that breaks this hero and his mythos down to its core before (seemingly) building it back up with slight tweaks for 2018. His Action Comics, Superman, and Man of Steel miniseries have all felt both classic and progressive as he revels in iconic stature while viscerally having a blast using the DC Universe that’s been off limits for so long. The end result is that both Action and Superman continue to rise, as satisfying as they are epic.

From Monstress #18. Artwork by Sana Takeda.

3. Monstress
Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics
Issues in 2018: 6

This was the year of Monstress, with Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s expansive creator-owned fantasy hitting big at the Eisner’s and (presumably) finding a much larger audience. For fans of the book from the start, it was incredibly rewarding to see this story get its due. Liu’s world-building is phenomenal, drawing loosely from traditions while first and foremost exploring original elements. Takeda’s artwork, meanwhile, is second to no artist keeping as regular a release schedule (save for possibly the great Fiona Staples), with an intricate manga-influenced look that makes every panel of Monstress feel like the product of months of design work.

This year saw Monstress play out its third arc, a grandiose story heavy with confidence. The world-building continues, but it’s not as noticeable as it was in earlier arcs (both of which were also phenomenal, btw). The real focus of the story now is the journey of the main character. Given this is a fantasy comic (the fantasy comic of the decade), we wouldn’t have it any other way.

What started as a revenge story in 2015, has grown into a powerful young woman reckoning with a range of life: her relationship with her history, with her mother, with the mysterious power inside her, with the most responsible way to use it, and with the repercussions for noble actions that grew out of a simple desire to escape oppression and survive.

Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Quantum Age, Doctor Star, and Chtu-Louise.

2. Black Hammer
Black Hammer: Age of Doom / Doctor Star and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows /  Quantum Age: From the World of Black Hammer / Black Hammer: Cthu-Louise
Jeff Lemire
Artists: Dean Ormston, Rich Tommaso, Max Fiumara, Wilfredo Torres, Emi Lenox
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Todd Klein
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Issues in 2018: 7 / 4 / 5 / 1

This past year also saw the establishing of a new superhero universe: Black Hammer. Technically, this homage-heavy universe was created back in 2016 with the advent of Black Hammer #1 from writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dean Ormston. That issue was the start of a specific story. The wider universe grew later, doing so with an adjacent miniseries that broadened the plot in 2016 (Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil from Lemire and artist extraordinaire David Rubin).

In 2018, however, we got an even broader expansion. This past year, the Black Hammer universe continued with its main title, while adding two more miniseries and a one-shot. Add to that all kinds of rumors about what’s coming in 2019—from Lemire himself writing/drawing a 12-issue series, to a crossover between Black Hammer and DC Comics—and all signs point to this universe being here to stay. I had a chance to interview Jeff Lemire at San Diego Comic Con, and he agreed, saying as much.

I point this out as a way to note Black Hammer is so well-done that it has found a strong foothold in a market over-saturated by superhero concepts since basically 1970 (if not sooner). This is Lemire in all his brilliant Lemire-ness, following his deepest ideas and tragic lonesome sensibilities. He’s created a tone that allows him to write a few pages of funny before lapsing into full-blown meditations on the nature of generational comic book stories. Shared superhero universes function best with a strong guiding voice or perspective (see Marvel in the ‘60s). Black Hammer is doing just that, and I for one feel lucky to experience it in real time.

Saga #50 (cover by Fiona Staples) finds the family in happier times.

1. Saga
Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Letterer: Fonografiks
Publisher: Image Comics
Issues in 2018: 6

I’ve written about this often, but it’s easy to take long-running creator-owned comics for granted, forgetting what a rare thing it is to have talented writers and artists string together wholly original stories with only their keyboards and pencils. For many of us, our lifetimes have been marked with a mainstream comic selection dictated by corporations and distributors, plus whatever experimental work was on the fringes. In recent years, this has changed, and, leading that change, has been Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ familial sci-fi epic, Saga.

This year, however, was one in which we were all but forced to stop taking Saga for granted. The first reason for this was Saga’s latest story arc (which ran in issues #49 - #54, and wrapped up in July) was obscenely consequential. I don’t want to give anything away, but $@#% goes down and it’s bad, so bad I wrote about why it hurts, partially to make sense of why I was so devastated. It’s a testament to this story that it can hit such intense emotional beats so far into its run.

Second, the book announced it would be going on a year-long (minimum) hiatus. Obviously, you can’t take something for granted once it leaves you. Kind of bummer (we’re compensating with a year-long Saga re-read), made all the more bumming (is that a word? ah well) by how good the comic got before the announcement. There really is, quite simply, nothing else like Saga, not in terms of the scope of the story, the artful thematic explorations undertaken within, or the industry-best action and design graphics generated a whopping six times a year (or more!) by the massive talent that is Fiona Staples.

This site is dedicated to discussing comic books in thoughtful and analytical ways as the medium enjoys a new golden age. To us, Saga remains the leader of an ongoing renaissance, and a big part of the reason we think it’s so important to volunteer time to cover the artform. It is an absolute honor to give the book and its devastating 2018 story (kind of fitting, in sooooo many ways) our Top Comic of 2018 honor.

Check out Best Comics of 2018, #16 - #25 and Best Comics of 2018, #6 - #15! And check back later in the week for more year-end lists, including our Best Single Issues and our Top Creators of 2018!

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

Monstress #18 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda, & Rus Wooton

Monstress #18 is the crashing finale to this Eisner-nominated comic's third arc.

By Zack Quaintance — I’ve been reading Monstress issue-to-issue from its start, enthralled by writer Marjorie Liu’s depth of vision as well as the unparalleled artwork produced by Sana Takeda, as lush as it is detailed. The book blends anime stylizations, fantasy novel trappings, and hints of Eastern mythology, creating a unique reading experience. It also seamlessly alternates from subtle issues that explore its world and strengthen the bonds between characters, to issues that serve as high stakes crescendos.

Monstress #18 is decidedly of the latter category, ranking as the most consequential action-heavy issue since the series’ searing debut, which was a statement about the marginalized striking back against abuse. Reading this issue, it struck me that our protagonist Maika’s being part of an oppressed group is an idea that has faded a bit in favor of her own personal hero’s journey, of her growing into an almost mythical savoir from a powerful line.

It’s a transition that has given her more agency than she had at the start. Maika was threatened in early issues by horsemen and soldiers. By comparison, she has now become the living world’s lone defender against a threat that could end it. Maika’s development feels patient, too, a reward to long-time readers that makes her heroism in this issue all the more impactful.

And this is just the first panel.

In the end, we are left with a sense that the threats and bad actors in our story are not quite what they seem, and while this could feel unwieldy—if every development is OMG SO HUGE AND WOW!, no developments are OMG SO HUGE AND WOW!—Liu simultaneously uses her supporting cast to remind us of the relatable stakes for our protagonist. It’s a wise choice, one that ultimately makes this one of my favorite issues of Monstress this arc.   

I’m tempted to call Monstress under-appreciated, although I’m not sure that’s right, as I often see it prominently displayed on end caps in independent bookstores alongside the likes of Saga, Ms. Marvel, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther. This comic has its readership, to be sure, and it is, perhaps, better-suited for trade, so dense is its plotting. I do, however, think there’s quite a bit to like for monthly readers who haven’t tried the book, all of whom are missing out on—at minimum—some of the industry’s best artwork.

Lastly, it should be noted that there will soon be three Monstress trades available, and that there’s never been a better time for new readers to give it a shot.

Overall: The finale of Monstress’ third arc does not disappoint, continuing to illuminate this world’s mythology. This issue is action-heavy, yet it takes time to seed its next arc with a more relatable crisis. Simply put, Liu and Takeda continue to build something truly special. 8.5/10

SPECIAL NOTE: For more thoughts about Monstress, see Top Comics of January 2018.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.