Marjorie Liu on the Road to Making Monstress

The comic-book writer discusses working for Marvel, the loneliness of novel-writing, and why her epic-fantasy series is mostly populated by women and characters of color.

Nina Subin / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

When the comic-book series Monstress introduces its haunted heroine, she has the look of someone just barely surviving. Maika Halfwolf is naked, missing part of an arm, wearing a metal collar, and being sold at a slave auction—a casualty in a bloody conflict between humans and Arcanics, a race of magical creatures. Of course, Maika is more than she seems. An Arcanic who looks human, she’s enraged by her mother’s death, her missing memories, and the atrocities she’s suffered. There’s also a strange, deadly power taking root in her body and mind—one she can neither understand nor control.

Written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda for Image Comics, Monstress is a sprawling epic fantasy that drops readers into the middle of a magic-filled alternate history. Described as a kind of “matriarchal Asia,” Maika’s universe is wracked by a race war and inhabited by violent witch-nuns, vicious deities, and innocent civilians—all of which is brought to life by Takeda’s exquisite manga-style, Art Deco–inspired art. Liu doesn’t ease her audience’s arrival into this intricately designed world by defining new terms or supplying a linear history of Maika’s life (the scale and complexity of the worldbuilding has earned Monstress comparisons to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books). Still, Liu and Takeda’s series differs from most genre fare, comics or otherwise, in at least one key way: There are almost no men or white characters.

The Eisner Award-nominated series is the high point thus far of Liu’s own rather unusual career path. In her mid-20s, Liu had graduated from law school and was working at a firm when the sale of her first book convinced her to switch careers. She churned out romance and fantasy novels for years before getting her first gig to write a comic for Marvel, somewhat to her surprise. “It was crazy enough to desire being a novelist,” Liu told me. “I enjoyed reading comics, but it never occurred to me to actually write them until years later.”

After a stint at Marvel working on series such as NYX, X-23, and Astonishing X-Men, Liu took a serious break before reuniting with a former colleague, Takeda, to start their own ambitious series together. Hailed when its first issue came out in 2015, Monstress saw its second volume published this summer. (While the next issue, #13, was originally slated for a fall release, it’s now being pushed until January because of how big the new story arc is.) For The Atlantic’s series on the business of creativity, I spoke with Liu about giving up a law career, working for Marvel, why she quit writing novels, and the decision to make women the stars of Monstress. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Cruz: Since you got your start writing novels, what was the learning curve like when you did your first comic?

Liu: I realized I was thinking about fiction two-dimensionally. When I’m writing comics, I’m also visualizing how the story will look on the page—not even always art-wise, but panel-wise, like how a moment will be enhanced dramatically by simply turning a page and getting a reveal. It requires thinking about story in a way I never had to consider when I was writing prose.

I didn’t have any teachers. I got into comics because I wrote an X-Men novel for Pocket Books, and I introduced myself to the head of recruitment at Marvel. I’d heard through the grapevine they liked the book, so that gave me the courage to go up to them and be like, “Hey, if you ever need a writer, here I am.” But I learned how to write comics through Googling scripts, having read a ton of comics, and getting guidance from my editor at the time, John Barber.

Cruz: What was the editing process like at first?

Liu: One of the most significant notes I recall is from when I was writing NYX, which was a Marvel book about these teenage mutants who are living on the streets of New York. And [the character] Kiden, one of her powers is that she can stop time. I remember the editor writing, “This is not a film. So how do you guide an artist when it comes to describing stopped time? Because literally everything is already stopped on the page.” That was a real eye-opener to how this was a very deep medium I was working in.

Ultimately, a comic writer is writing for the artist, and a script will not be read by anyone except whoever is behind the scenes. In the best moments, I think of my scripts as love letters to artists. I want to give them the best story possible so that they will have the best time possible drawing these things. It’s not just their livelihoods; they also invest in your work creatively and emotionally. I love writing novels, but there is something deeply invigorating about the comic-book medium. It’s not just the kinds of stories we’re able to tell, but it’s also the relationships that are built and the collaborative force that generates between you and your whole team when things are going right.

Cruz: What has your partnership with Sana Takeda been like?

Liu: Early on in X-23, we needed a fill-in artist for a couple of pages. Sana came on and only drew two or three pages, but they really stuck with me. Later when we needed a new artist, I specifically requested her. It was a wonderful process; it felt like she was reading my mind. Eventually, as it happens with all books at Marvel, the series ended, but I never forgot what a great experience it was to work with her. So two or three years later, I was in Japan [where Takeda lives], I looked her up and we had lunch, and I said, “Hey would you ever want to work together again?,” and she was like, “Sure, sounds great!”

Working on Monstress has been a very, very different experience than when we were working on X-23, and not only because that was a work-for-hire book. Both of us, in those years apart, went through our own journeys of growth, and when we came back together, we were in very different places.

Cruz: What do you mean by that?

Liu: How do I put this ... while I was working on X-23, I was dealing with a lot of depression. I was feeling really burned out as an artist, as a novelist specifically. I was really unhappy, and I felt really guilty for being unhappy. I was writing for a living, I was living a dream. So why in the world was I so unhappy?

Writing is very isolating, and I didn’t have a lot of balance in my life. There was always a reason for me not to be out in the world, because I could just say, “I have a deadline.” For someone who is already sort of shy and occasionally socially phobic, that was a very deadly trap to fall into. So I woke up one day and realized, “If I’m not careful, this is going to be my life forever until I die, and I’m going to be profoundly alone.” I told myself, “I can’t do this anymore. My writing does not matter more than my life.”

I had to make certain decisions. I mostly stopped writing novels, but I kept writing comics because A) I needed money, but also B) I still enjoyed it. Writing comics wasn’t draining me. Between X-23 and Monstress, I underwent this huge life change where I moved, I quit writing novels, and I focused on what I wanted for my art and from life. Now, when I look back on who I was then and who I am now—it’s not that I’m unrecognizable. But there are days when it feels close to that.

Sana had gone through a similar journey, but in the opposite direction. After X-23, she couldn’t get work at Marvel or DC. They basically told her that her style was “too manga.” There was no room for her. So she started doing other things: designing, working for a gaming company, teaching. She thought, maybe, she wouldn’t ever do comics again.

Without those years of growth, Monstress would not be the book it is today. If you look at Sana’s art in X-23 versus the art in Monstress, chances are good you’d think they were done by two different people. Sana wanted to push herself. I don’t know many artists who could change so radically even in just a couple of years. It wasn’t like a leap forward, it was more like a leap sideways, going from one incredible style to another.

Cruz: What is the process of making the newest issue of Monstress like?

Liu: I wrote an outline for this arc, and I broke that down into six issues. I sent the outline to our editor, Jennifer Smith, who sent the outline to Sana, and everyone made notes and sent them back to me. Then I started writing scripts. And it’s a long script: Issue #13 won’t be coming out now until January. This is an oversized issue, and we wanted to build enough time to have more oversized issues in this next arc because it’s a lot of story. The script goes through my editor, who makes her notes, then I send it to Sana, who gets it translated [into Japanese]. She’ll send me character designs, layouts, and background scenery art, just to see if our vision is matching up for how the world looks. But I leave her alone once she starts drawing.

Cruz: What was it like going from writing big comics based on famous properties to creating something that’s entirely your own?

Liu: Oh, it’s scary! Writing for Marvel was a tremendous amount of fun, but it could be frustrating. Because you’re still working for a corporation, and at the end of the day, you don’t own anything you write. I would invest myself in these characters and sometimes, without much warning, be told the book is ending. Going into these books, you always tell yourself, “Don’t get too attached.” But sometimes the only way to write these characters is to get really attached.

Now, writing for Monstress on the other hand. It was funny, because I thought I knew how to write comics; I’d been writing at Marvel for so many years. It was so much harder than I expected, because I’d spent the previous years playing in someone else’s sandbox. I was writing someone else’s characters, writing in a world that was much like our own. Monstress is so much bigger and complex. So when I started writing it, and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m in trouble.” I had to step back and teach myself all over again how to write comics. Because writing a huge epic fantasy requires way more organization, worldbuilding, and character.

There’s a reason why the first issue of Monstress was triple-sized. Everything that needed to go into that first issue couldn’t be done in 20 pages; it had to be done in 70. You can get a sense of the difficulty I was facing, telling this huge story when technically you’re limited to a very small amount of space. Every panel has to count. It took me a really long time to get it right—about seven to eight months of constant hard work. But once I got the first arc and that first issue hammered out, it was like, “I can breathe now.”

Cruz: How has the way you think about money changed over the course of your career?

Liu: Money is always a concern. Part of the reason why my folks—why any immigrant family—wants their kids to go into law or medicine is because there’s the promise of reliable work. That’s a powerful idea that got hammered into my head growing up: Be this thing or else you’ll starve.

So to walk away from practicing law after I sold my first novel, that was tough. My family was happy for me, but there was also pressure because of the uncertainty. I had to do a lot of soul-searching, though at the end of the day, there was no way I was not going to write novels after selling that first one. The choice I had to make was whether to write full-time or write part-time and practice law. The catch is that I got a four-book contract with that first novel. I made a gamble and told myself that if I write two to three novels a year, then I can hopefully build my career faster than if I’m writing part-time and practicing law.

But I was super poor for those first few years. I lived on the family farm [in Indiana] so I wouldn’t have to pay rent, and I made barely anything at first. Ninety-nine percent of writers can’t live off their earnings alone; they need a day job or a spouse or family who’s willing to support them. Part of why writing comics was so attractive was that it was a regular paycheck. I wrote one to two comic-book issues a month, which meant being paid every month as opposed to just two or three times a year for novels.

But back to your original question: The way I think about money hasn’t really changed at all, in the sense that being an artist of any kind is a perilous endeavor financially. There will be months or years when everything is going great, and just as quickly that can dry up without much rhyme or reason. But I tell myself the same is true for any career. How many lawyers do I know who can’t get work practicing law? A lot. So I’d rather take my chances with a pen in my hand telling stories.

Cruz: When writing Monstress, how did you decide to make anger Maika’s defining emotion?

Liu: Female rage is not really permitted in real life. Angry women are called bitches, too emotional, hysterical, whereas male rage is often portrayed as heroic, righteous, intelligent. In Monstress, Arcanics wear collars around their necks to keep them from exercising their full selves. And I think one of the collars around the necks of women is society’s views about female rage. Which isn’t to say anger is necessarily a force for good. Rage can be energizing and sustaining, but it’s ultimately problematic if it doesn’t lead you to a deeper exploration of the source.

I’d argue the other defining emotion for Maika is grief. There’s a tremendous amount of injustice in her mind that needs to be answered for, and anger sustains her. Put another way, her anger is revolutionary. But like most revolutionary impulses, the consequences on the individual tend to be terrible. Women need rage to survive in society, but female rage without a project of emancipation in the long run might not be as rewarding as we want it to be.

Cruz: When I first read Monstress I was struck by how overwhelmingly female it was, and with so many characters of color. It reminded me of how little people have come to expect on the diversity front in mainstream art, where movies and shows get praise for even the smallest instances of representation.

Liu: Monstress is my response to and a product of my frustration with being bombarded by stories I’m told I should be grateful for. Like when we see TV shows where there are like a million white people and one Chinese woman, if we’re lucky. It’s a lie of white supremacy—the visual lie that tells us our heroes, our stories, our love lives, and everything that we aspire to, everything that is heroic and romantic, is white. Being surrounded by that, I think, really deforms the imagination, and it deforms the heart as well.

I grew up loving epic fantasies, and almost all of them were written by white men. With white, mostly male, casts. When you’re a kid, you don’t always think about what that means, but you do as you get older. I was deeply immersed in Chinese culture in my community and my family growing up, so how come when I was writing fiction as a kid, all my stories were about white people? Even though my personal life was incredibly diverse, my imaginary life was very white.

Monstress was my response to that. When it comes to diversity, people act like, “Oh, we can’t do this.” Bullshit! The easiest thing in the world is to say, “Every single person in this book is going to be a person of color.”

When I look at Hollywood, I don’t think it even occurs to the people in charge that they can make these choices. I talk a lot about the importance of structural diversity over the optics of diversity. Optics are fine. But without real structural diversity behind the scenes, ultimately the optics either won’t last or they’ll replicate the same system they’re coming out of. When I mentor young writers of color, I say we need more creators of color, more writers of color, and more women in order to see lasting change.