Back from the Worldcon in Helsinki this August, a gathering of science fiction’s great and good. Japanese attendees maintained a strangely low profile at an event that often made me muse upon the thinning of the old guard, and the continuing onrush of the new. While a block of fifty Chinese fans paraded big-name authors, pushed their upcoming Asia-Pacific convention in Beijing and ran a riotous party, the Japanese huddled at a dealers’ table and rarely seemed to venture out. I found myself on two anime-related panels having to apologise for the lack of native speakers, with representatives from the homeland of anime and manga seemingly unwilling to volunteer to talk about it publically. Despite this, two awards were dished out with Japan connections, both sneaking in under Japanese fandom’s radar.
One was for Ada Palmer, sometime historical consultant for Funimation and the founder of the Tezuka in English website, although her accolade here was a John W. Campbell Best Newcomer award for her novel Too Like the Lightning. The other was the Best Graphic Novel Hugo, handed to writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda for their ongoing comic series Monstress.
Although drawn in Japan by a Japanese artist, and hence perfectly deserving of a manga tag, Monstress is far better imagined at the forefront of modern “woke” comics, intimately concerned with the powerlessness of slaves and chattels in a colonialist society – what it feels like to be an object in someone else’s world. Trawling through online reviews, I see many readers ascribing a manga sensibility to the artwork. This is news to me – Takeda’s imagery seems to strive to be as un-manga as possible, luxuriating in the availability of a colour palette, thin lines and a sedate panel progression – if it reminded me of anything it was Colleen Doran. One imagines that faced with visceral, violent imagery, some American readers are immediately prompted to pronounce something as “manga” – which is also ironic, considering the reputation that Image Comics already enjoys without any help from across the sea.
The cast are largely women, but Takeda refuses to objectify them. No fan service here – instead these are characters getting on with their various stories, showcasing a cast of widespread ages and grotesqueries, as if Orange is the New Black were suddenly invaded by a coven of steampunk cannibal witches. It’s Liu’s writing that imparts Monstress with its true chills – feral, fearful creatures with magical powers, locked in eternal conflict with predatory, flesh-eating ghouls, constantly fighting to gain control of their own destiny.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article previously appeared in NEO 169, 2017.