When you first crack open the whopping 66-page premiere issue of "Monstress," which hit comic book stores back in early November, you probably notice something that might strike you as odd: this gorgeous steampunk world has giant monsters, cold-blooded witches and war-torn orphans, but very few men.
That's on purpose, novelist and comic book writer Marjorie Liu says -- but there's no in-universe reason for it, like a plague that only affects men or a matriarchy that favors women. It's just the way she felt like telling her story.
"You know how in fiction, popular culture, movies, television, a lot of times in action movies -- not even action movies, just in general, just your average detective show -- it’s like five men for every woman? Or there’s this deep gender imbalance. There’s typically way more men and just one or two women just to give that touch of, I don’t know, feminine power, female presence," she told MTV News over the phone.
"And I thought, 'You know what? I don’t want to do that. If I’m going to be doing this, let me go all the way and flip that on its head and tell a story where its five women for every man and no one ever comments on it.' Because no one ever comments on the other stories in these other mediums where we're seeing all these dudes running around and one chick. No one ever says a word, it’s totally naturalized. And we're going to do that here."
Of course, the overwhelming presence of female characters doesn't define the world of "Monstress" -- it's just a nice bonus for those of us who enjoy seeing stories told from new and different perspectives than we're used to seeing in mainstream comics. And "Monstress" is certainly new and different: set in an alternate 1900s Asia, it focuses on the story of Maika, a young teenage girl who's struggling to survive in the wake of a terrible war.
Liu says her inspiration for this rich, dense world came from a lot of sources -- her fascination with monsters, her love of steampunk, and of course her partnership with artist Sana Takeda, who directly influenced the direction the story took with her amazingly detailed monster drawings. But above all else, she was most inspired by the horrifying experiences her Chinese grandmother went through while escaping Japanese troops during World War II.
"Here’s a woman who was probably one of the most cheerful, calm, laid-back women I've ever known," she said. "And it was always this weird thing for me because she would tell me these awful, awful stories, and then I would look at her photographs and she would kind of just shrug and smile and was like, 'Well, that was that.'"
"It really got me thinking, especially in the last couple years, about what it takes. As a kid you kind of accept it and take it for granted, and [later] you think, 'Oh my gosh, what does it take for a person to go through all that and still sort of hold on to their humanity and their sense of humor and their sense of self?' Because some people don’t."
Another powerful motivator in the way Liu shaped her new world was in how she created the Cumaea, a community of witch-nuns (though they don't call themselves that, of course) who commit terrible atrocities upon Maika and her animal-like race, the Arcanics. In their design, Liu hoped to challenge preconceived notions of what a powerful religious order is supposed to look like -- which, again, involved playing around with gender roles.
"I wanted to subvert the idea of religion being a male-dominated arena," Liu explained. "Because so often it’s weird with religion, it just -- sometimes, the way its portrayed, it feels very masculine. And I thought, you know, I’m going all the way on this, I might as well go one step further. I might as well create this religious order that’s just the opposite... I've always been fascinated with the idea of witch craft and witches, and I wanted to use that term, but in a way they invoked an actual religion and science."
Liu first got her start as a novelist, but eventually found her way into the world of comics around 2008, writing predominantly for Marvel -- including critically acclaimed runs on "Dark Wolverine," "X-23" and "Black Widow." This is her first independently-published comic, and she can't imagine returning to Marvel (although she still has one more commitment to the company in the form of a short mini-series) now that she's tasted the creative freedom she gets at Image Comics.
"I could be shooting myself in the foot, but in some ways I feel I’ve said all I’ve needed to say when to comes to, say, the X-Men," she admitted. "I think I’ve hit the bright points, I think I’ve hit what I wanted to hit and I can be happy moving on doing other things."
While Marvel and DC might dominate public consciousness when it comes to comics, Liu says that it's the independent scene that's really changing the game -- specifically because there are more opportunities for women and people of color to create their own stories, whether via smaller comics press or by publishing their own work directly online.
"They are driving the setting, the tone, and driving the way for a lot of change, that we're beginning to see within the comic book industry," she said, noting how social media in particular has changed the comic book landscape since she first got involved. "I mean, people were talking about it, but they weren't talking about it with a capital T the way they are now. It’s made a difference, it’s really, really made a difference."
The "Big Two" has even started to play catch-up, and both of their recent marketing campaigns (#DCYou for DC and All-New, All-Different for Marvel) have really brought diversity to the forefront, both in terms of character and artistic style. But some onlookers worry that many of the big changes that make headlines are only surface level, and don't speak to the real lack of diversity in comics that exists beyond the page, as most major comics creators are predominantly white and male. One such example: Marvel made headlines for their current run of hip-hop variant covers, but many fans and critics alike called the campaign an ex in cultural appropriation -- and while a good number of the artists involved were themselves African American, almost none of them work regularly on the comics they were drawing covers for.
"It's great we have a female Thor, it’s great we have a black Captain America," Liu said. "But those are just optics, it's optics of change... Unless you have the structural diversity, the structural change behind the scenes -- more women, more people of color actually calling the shots and editing these books -- those optics won’t last."
Which doesn't mean that the industry isn't moving in an overall positive direction (albeit much more slowly than it sometimes acts like it is), and Liu stresses that five to ten years from now, we'll most likely be having a much different conversation about the diversity of comic book creators. Unlike movies and television, she said, comics is a much "more nimble" medium that can adapt more quickly.
"If you’re an artist, if you’re a storyteller, all you have to do is just create," Liu concluded. "And [if] you’ve got the internet, a Tumblr page, a website, you can start setting up your work and actually beginning to share it. It allows you to be seen in ways, and appreciated and shared and in the ways that you can’t in every other medium. So that’s why I have a lot of hope for this industry, that we will see real change and a real reflection of that change much faster than perhaps we will, for example, in Hollywood."
Issue #2 of "Monstress" hits comic book stores December 9.