BAM Interview: Marjorie Liu on Writing Comics, the Eisners, and Monstress
Over the past ten years, comics have gone through a bit of a renaissance. The medium has matured and blossomed from the early days of superheroes and spandex. Today writers are looking at comics as a medium to tell a deeper and more thought provoking story while incorporating a violent realism to science fiction and fantasy epics. Because, let’s be honest, there’s nothing more real than death and gore.
Enter the prowess and talent of Marjorie Liu. Liu – originally a novelist – began her comics career with none other than Marvel writing for NYX, Dark Wolverine, X-23, and the Astonishing X-Men. But her new series, Monstress, goes beyond superheroes to tell a wholly original tale, complete with striking critiques of race and sex and the portrayal of complex women in a medium dominated by male characters and female stereotypes. Complete with the astounding artistry of Sana Takeda, Liu’s Monstress leaves readers craving more.
We were able to catch up with Liu just prior to the release of Monstress Volume 2 to talk about her start in comics, working with Sana Takeda, and writing.
BAM: What made you get into comic writing? You started with Marvel Comics with their tie-in novels, but what about the medium was alluring to you? Were you a big comics fan before you started writing for them?
I loved reading comics, particularly the X-Men, but I fell into writing them sort of by accident. As you pointed out, I started out by writing an X-Men novel called Dark Mirror, and the story itself had to be approved by the folks at Marvel. My wonderful editor at the time, Jennifer Heddle (who has now since moved on to being an editor for the publishing arm of Star Wars) passed on some of their positive feedback, and that gave me the courage to approach their head of recruitment at the first (!!!) New York Comic Con. I said, “Hey, if you ever need a writer…” And, amazingly enough, they were very open to the idea of me working on a book for them. My first project was NYX: No Way Home, which led to Dark Wolverine, Black Widow, X-23, and more.
I instantly, utterly, fell in love with the medium. There was something so joyful about having access to both prose and the cinematic in my storytelling — to create a narrative that isn’t limited to just words, but also involves the collaboration of an artist to create a visual landscape that readers can play in. It’s a beautiful feeling to write a script for an artist who I love and then see that story come to life through the shared lens of our imaginations.
BAM: You were recently nominated for an Eisner Awards, congrats! It’s a fantastic list this year and the inclusion of Monstress was very deserving and the category it is in (Best Publication for Teens) has some other great books. What were some of your favorite comics and graphic novels from the last year?
Thank you! And I love pushing books on people, so everyone should go read THE BEST WE COULD DO by Thi Bui and BOUNDLESS by Jillian Tamaki (along with her other book that I adore, SUPERMUTANT MAGIC ACADEMY). I also loved the manga, WANDERING ISLAND by Kenji Tsuruta — and CLEAN ROOM by Gail Simone. If folks aren’t reading the web comic AGENTS OF THE REALM by Mildred Louis, get on that — and the same is true of Minna Sundberg’s STAND STILL. STAY SILENT. I also really want to read Sharon Shinn and Molly Ostertag’s SHATTERED WARRIOR, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
BAM: What is your favorite scene in Monstress? Any particular panel or image from Sana Takeda that you especially enjoy? She’s absolutely fantastic.
What DON’T I love from Sana? Every page she sends me is pure joy, from my point of view. I just write the words — she brings them to life. In one case, though, there’s a scene in Vol 1 where little Kippa sees Ren after they’ve been separated, and she gives him a long hug that we stretched into three panels so that we could fully see her emotional breakdown. I adore how that turned out. It breaks my heart and makes me laugh at the same time.
BAM: Can you describe a little bit about the writing process with Sana Takeda?
The most basic description of our process is that I write the scripts, send them to Sana and her translator — and from there she works her magic. Which completely ignores all the prep work we do before we even begin writing or drawing — there’s a ton of time spent on world-building, on character design, on the story itself. I would love to say that this is an easy book to create, but it’s not. We both inspire each other, though. For sure, Monstress went into completely different directions than I expected because of sketches that Sana sent me early on. Kippa, for example, has become a central character, and she wasn’t even part of the story until I saw her on the page in the background, and my heart exploded around her.
BAM: Is there a character that you especially feel attached to in the series?
Maika. But attachment doesn’t make her easy to write. She’s actually the most difficult character I’ve ever tried to tackle, simply BECAUSE she matters so much to me. I’m too close to her, which means I have blind spots around her character that manifest in really weird ways. For example, I’ll plot out an issue and suddenly realize that I’ve devoted 80% of it to every character BUT Maika. Now, if it served the plot for that particular issue, that’d be okay. But usually this is a fully unconscious act — I’ve avoided her because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to feel her pain, her confusion, her rage. When that happens I sit back, have a nice chat with myself, and then return to her with new mindfulness. I’m happy to say, though (after two entire arcs), that the avoidance is fading. Maika and I are growing more comfortable with one another.
BAM: It’s the world of comics, so that means fan art, crafts and cosplay. Do you have any stories to share about what fans have shared with you?
Our fans are so amazing and creative — and generous. That can’t be overstated. Our readers are super kind. But beyond that we’ve seen the most amazing tattoos, the loveliest fan-art — one young woman actually sculpted a “monstrum” vase out of clay, which is probably one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen. But recently what took my breath away was a life-sized Professor Tam Tam plush doll that a friend made from scratch — complete with a “chocolate” mouse hanging from a string. I was going through a particularly rough time after the death of my grandfather, and when I saw that — and felt so keenly the kindness of that tremendous gift — I think I may have cried. A lot.
BAM: What do fans ask you about most often in Monstress?
Readers really, REALLY, don’t want anything bad to happen to Kippa. More than anything, I get asked about her! Given the world of Monstress, I completely understand their concerns.
BAM: The world of Monstress feels so dense and fully realized. How much did you have planned out before writing the first script?
Oh, man, I was so naive. A year before the book came out I had the “idea” — and it felt strong, alive, in my head. But then I started writing, and I realized how many questions I hadn’t answered. And then Sana began sending preliminary sketches which totally changed how I thought about the book, and the very world itself. So, to answer your question, in the beginning I only THOUGHT I had the world planned — but the real planning began several months later, until we came to the world you see now — which is still unveiling itself, even to us. It’s big and messy and beautiful, just like real life, and we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. That’s why the Professor Tam Tam lectures are so much fun for us to do at the end of each issue, because it’s a way of delving deeper into parts of the world we wouldn’t have room for otherwise in the text.
BAM: Monstress along with much of your fiction work is set in supernatural or fantasy worlds. What is it about the fantasy genre that you’re drawn to as a storyteller?
Fantasy is a great estrangement from very difficult ideas. For example, Maus is non-fiction, but by having cats and mice as the main actors, it adds just enough fantasy that those who might otherwise avoid a memoir about the holocaust could find themselves reading — and benefiting greatly — from it. And it’s not just readers who benefit from this estrangement, either. As a writer, there are some ideas that are still too difficult for me to approach directly. Creatively, I need to take a circuitous path to them, and fantasy is one way of doing that.
BAM: Volume Two of Monstress comes out very soon (so excited!), for those of us that are trade-waiters and haven’t read the single issues, what can you tease out about the second arc?
Whether you’re an Old God or a teenage girl, be wary of seeking the truth — particularly about ourselves or our families. You might not like what you find out.