The author on writing for Marvel, race and invisibility, and the radicality of romance novels.
In the first panel of Marjorie Liu’s recently released comic, Monstress, Maika, the heroine of the series, faces the reader in a full-page portrait, her expression somewhere between a scowl and a dare. There’s a shackle and chain around her neck, a whip threatening in the distance, and what is either a tattoo or a brand between her breasts. Maika is also a partial amputee; her left arm ends at her elbow. And she’s completely nude. All in all, it’s a visual sucker punch. And yet, the image projected is not one of fragility or fear; even without reading the text, which tells us she’s exactly where she wants to be, Maika’s body and gaze emanate confident defiance.
Like Maika, Marjorie Liu is also a force to be reckoned with. A bar-certified lawyer trained in biotech and international law, Liu has published more than twenty novels, novellas, short stories, and comics, making both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Liu is highly prolific, her work inarguably popular; that she has found success as a young woman of color in the white and male-dominated world of comics is especially noteworthy. While working with Marvel, Liu wrote Astonishing X-Men, which featured comic books’ first gay proposal and wedding, earning her a GLAAD Media Award nomination for “outstanding media images of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.” Her own comics are similarly bold, her characters robust and complex, and her worlds richly imagined.
Monstress is set in an alternate Asia, in the uneasy aftermath of a long war between humans and Arcanics (a.k.a. monsters). Its world is rendered by artist Sana Takeda in fantastical yet gritty detail—an aesthetic Liu describes on her website as “art deco-inflected steam punk.” The first issue, released in November, follows Maika’s search for information about her mother’s murder. True to genre, the panels are action-packed and often violent, moving through history and the present, across devastated post-war landscapes and thriving cities that have rebuilt themselves from dust. But, in stark contrast to mainstream comics, the population of Liu’s world is predominantly female: there’s Maika’s half-fox, half-girl prison mate; Tula, Maika’s close friend; Lillet Ho-Yum, a wily, bloodthirsty matriarch; and a band of witch-nun-engineers.
The themes Liu explores are invariably more universal, more fundamental, than the fantastical quality of her work might suggest. Through the intricacies of her characters’ relationships and experiences—whether a paranormal romance between shape-shifters, mermen and extra-abled-humans (Dirk and Steele series), a tattoo-covered demon huntress’ mandate to defend life as we know it (Hunter Kiss series), or a young girl’s battle to discover and define her identity (Monstress)—Liu asks again and again what it means to be human, and how we might go about the task of loving those different from us, as well as our own composite, faceted selves.
In Monstress, the age-old complexities of war—propaganda, the anxiety of borders, unchecked and unjustifiable cruelty—provide a rich backdrop for these questions. In a note to readers following the final panel, Liu admits that she wants to “confront the question[s]: How does one whom history has made a monster escape her monstrosity? How does one overcome the monstrousness of others without succumbing to a rising monstrousness within?” As the mirror worlds of Marjorie Liu’s creation offer possible answers, they also—perhaps most importantly—allow us to glimpse both the flaws and possibilities of our own self-made, or inherited, monsters.
On a gray November morning, Liu spoke to me over Skype and by phone from her home in Boston. We talked about what it means to be a woman of color in America; the products of immigrant culture; and renegade writers finding fulfillment, a sense of self, and a home in words.
—Lauren K. Alleyne for Guernica
Guernica: Can you tell me the story of your history with stories? How did you start writing?
Marjorie Liu: One of my earliest memories is of the children’s book, Pat the Bunny—a classic where babies and children can touch the rabbit in the book. I remember being held in my mother’s arms in a doctor’s office, seeing that rabbit, watching her flip the pages. My mom was always taking me to the library, giving me books and paper and pens to play with. A love of reading fueled my imagination in really powerful ways. Words were beautiful.
From a young age, too, I always told stories to myself—again, reading inspired daydreams—and as I got older I started writing things down. But it was terrible, awful, all my stories sucked. Really, just the most terrible clichés of purple prose. I think the words “shadow” and “soul” showed up about a million times in my high school fiction and poetry. So much angst!
But I kept at it. Books, words, were my most treasured escape. I lived inside stories, I breathed them. I felt like they made me more human, or a better human. My parents encouraged all this reading, though as I got older—closer to college—my dad became incredibly concerned, rightfully so, with me doing well in school. He’s an immigrant; this is part of the tradition. Reading for pleasure was another way of being lazy. As a kid, he’d read all the time, lived inside his head, and didn’t get into the best college. He didn’t want that for me. Writing, to some degree, was a similar sort of impractical pastime—nothing that could ever feed me, or put a roof over my head.
I joke sometimes that I had to fulfill the educational requirements of becoming either a doctor or a lawyer before I could actually pursue my dreams of anything else. Chemistry and biology were too much, so I went to law school. And it was there, in my last year, that I had a revelation: I loved law school, but I didn’t want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life. At all.
But I was stuck—I’d already gone that far, and didn’t want to just give it all up. That would have been crazy. So I graduated, was accepted into the bar, and I thought, “Okay, while I’m looking for work, let me just sit down and write.” I had written before; I’d published here and there, very small things, but never seriously, and I had never actually finished anything that was novel-length. But there was this voice inside my head, an instinct, telling me, “You have to do this now! You’re never going to have another chance again. You won’t have the time!”
And so, being a crazy, type-A personality, I sat down, did the numbers game, told myself, “Marjorie, if you write 3000 words a day you’ll have a novel in a month.” And I did it!
Guernica: So you just wrote every day for a month? You did your own NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month]!
Marjorie Liu: Yes, except I didn’t know what that was back then. I’d get up at 6 a.m. every morning, write all day long, and go to bed at 3 a.m. And it was the best time of my life. I’ve never felt so happy and so free. Like, really, absolutely deep in my soul, joyful. Even though what I wrote wasn’t perfect, it was pouring out of me in ways that felt right, like I was finally owning my life, taking up space for myself. Only in the last couple years have I been able to talk about what it means to take up space. The concept was completely foreign to me, and what I began to realize is that so often we’re compelled to give ourselves up, compelled to make room for others. Especially as women, we’re taught from a young age that we’re supposed to help people, to act a certain way.
And for me, the act of writing—putting aside the practice of law, even for a month, to sit down and write a book, to indulge myself—was a great act of rebellion. I was saying for the first time in my life that it didn’t matter what anyone said, or if it was impractical—I loved it. I loved it, and I was going to take it. I was going to do it, and it was mine.
I find it wild and sad that this notion, this idea that I’m permitted to have a life and take up space and be who I want to be no matter what anyone says, is something that took so long for me to understand on a conscious level. And there’s no small amount of guilt attached to it. It’s something I’m still wrestling with, this feeling of remorse, that if I’d been a good girl, I would be practicing law right now, would have a professional career. And I live with that—I live with the feeling that I should have been someone else.
Guernica: It’s interesting, though, because the notion of guilt implies that you’ve done something wrong, that you’ve taken something that belongs to someone else. But in this case, the “something” is yourself.
Marjorie Liu: Exactly, yes. And it feeds into the notion that my life is not my own, Rather, it was something I was always snatching at; I had to compulsively steal it—steal my own life, for me. And over the last ten years, I’ve been dealing with the ramifications of that, and feeling, at times, that that was not my right. I don’t know if that’s related to being part of an immigrant family, I don’t know if that’s related to gender, maybe it’s a combination of both. But it’s powerful! It’s so powerful and so trans-generational that for me to act outside of it, I felt, required something really traumatic—that’s why I talk about writing as such a huge act of rebellion. I was born into a very particular set of expectations, and those expectations were non-negotiable, and they were so non-negotiable that I didn’t even realize they were non-negotiable. They were just life. It’s a very difficult and weird thing to wake up from that, and say, no, actually, that’s not true.
The inhibition around discussing racism and what it means to be a person of color in this country is profound.
Guernica: How do you see that immigrant background transfer into your work?
Marjorie Liu: I’m mixed race; my dad is Chinese and my mom is white. On the one hand, I felt that I had, you know, this very normal childhood. We didn’t have a lot of money, but there was a lot of love; I felt loved. I grew up in Seattle, and every weekend, we would go up to Vancouver to see my grandparents, and so I spent a ton of time with the Chinese side of the family. My grandparents owned a laundry—I mean, talk about stereotype—and I would spend my weekends in that laundromat hanging out with them, all my Chinese cousins and aunts, and that was natural, that was my life. But then, during the school week, I’d be back in Seattle and I’d be going to schools—I went to a public elementary school and transferred to a private school in the fifth grade—that were very white. The kids of color were mostly mixed race kids, like me.
It was an interesting phenomenon, being of mixed race, especially in the eighties. And actually, things haven’t changed all that much, because people still don’t like to talk about race. The inhibition around discussing racism and what it means to be a person of color in this country is profound. Growing up, there was no space to talk about racism. If anyone brought that up at school, suddenly that person was a troublemaker. And as a mixed race kid who had a lot of mixed race friends, if anyone talked about racism we were held up like little trophies. Literally, people would point to us and ask, “How can there be racism? Look at all these biracial kids running around. How is there racism when we see a melting pot?” We were the biological representatives of a post-racial society, and that created an incredible silencing effect.
I saw racism against my parents. My parents got married in 1977, less than 10 years after the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to ban mixed marriages. Growing up, my parents would walk into a restaurant with me in tow and people would stare as if we were weird. My dad faced racism at work, too. He had a good job as a chemical engineer in a paper mill north of Seattle, and he was the only Chinese guy there. Other employees would draw caricatures of him and hang them up all over the place—wearing the cone hat, mouth full of buckteeth, the slanted eyes. To them, that was funny.
My dad was very stoic about the whole thing. “Don’t make waves, don’t talk about it,” he said. He never outwardly expressed any anger, never really expressed disappointment and the loneliness of what it meant to be the only Chinese guy in the mill. I think, in my dad’s mind, and my mom’s, too, everyone would come around eventually, so it was okay to endure the ignorance.
It’s taken me all these years to wrap my head around all those different forces surrounding me, what that was doing to my sense of self. But I see it most clearly in my work, because I was obsessed with the “other,” with telling stories about monsters that are misunderstood, monsters that are incorrectly judged, that are vilified because of the way they look.
As a kid, this felt completely natural. Beauty and the Beast was my favorite fairy-tale for a reason. And now, as an adult, I look back and realize this was my way of dealing. Every story I wrote as a kid, and as an adult, was my way of negotiating this part of my life, that didn’t require me to face racism head-on but allowed me to integrate it in the ways that fiction allows people to handle difficult topics. It allowed me to address these ideas without having to… name them.
Guernica: Do you think that’s also why you write fantasy, as opposed to a more realist genre?
Marjorie Liu: Absolutely. It’s funny, because I’m in my late thirties, and even now, I’m only just beginning to find a voice within myself that will allow me to write about these issues outside a fantasy framework. I actually tried about five years ago to write a non-fantasy contemporary novel about a character who is biracial. But as soon as I began, it was as if a wall came down—a barrier between myself and the words that was so impenetrable I couldn’t imagine a way to the other side.
At the time I thought, “Well, you know, I’m a fantasy writer, so whatever.” I didn’t think about it too hard, what it might mean—but now I realize, no, the inhibition was powerful; it was too painful. I couldn’t. It was still too much for me to actually face head-on. And, you know, we tell ourselves all kinds of stories to deceive ourselves, to explain who we’ve become—but the truth is that sometimes there are pains and grievances that are too much for us to think about. We bury them, and we have ways of handling them that won’t force us to deal with the actual wound. Writing fantasy novels was my way. I wrote eleven paranormal romances about monsters and gargoyles, mermen, shape-shifters, psychics, all of them looking for love, acceptance, family, friendship, home.
There’s nothing more positive in a romance novel than a woman embracing her sexuality and being fulfilled sexually. There’s nothing shameful about it.
Guernica: I want to hear your thoughts on the romance novel as a genre, because on the one hand, they establish and perpetuate certain norms for women, but on the other hand, I think the way you write romances is quite transgressive. So why romance? What do you see as the value or potential of that particular genre?
Marjorie Liu: For the most part, romance novels are stories about women finding and taking up space for themselves. And not just taking up space, but daring to find happiness. And yes, romance novels are about the fantasy—the heterosexual fantasy—of having the perfect relationship with a man, but it’s also about women taking power over their sexuality, women taking control over their lives, women making themselves vulnerable to all the intimacies of love. Love can be devastating. It’s hard, actually, falling in love. It requires making yourself vulnerable, and romance novels are all about women making themselves vulnerable, and finding strength and happiness from that great act of courage.
The other thing is that women and their sexuality are often painted in a very negative light, not just in popular culture and other media, but on a societal and cultural level. In romance novels, though, a woman’s sexuality is always incredibly positive. There’s nothing more positive in a romance novel than a woman embracing her sexuality and being fulfilled sexually. There’s nothing shameful about it.
It would be a mistake to say that romance novels are perfect, but in these books, women are getting everything they want. They’re getting perfect love, in which they’re appreciated; they’re getting great sex that they’re not condemned for or made to feel ashamed of; they’re pursuing careers and adventure, and while they’re on their own adventures they’re coming alive to themselves. It’s beautiful, uplifting, escapist fantasy. As someone who had never read romance novels before I was in my early twenties, it was a revelation; I ate them up like crazy because I’d never seen such positive and uplifting messages around women’s sexuality. I’d never seen such a positive portrayal of this desire to be loved and to live a full, unapologetic life. I felt a lot of hope and constant reinforcement that sex is healthy and sex is good, and that we’re permitted this part of our lives in ways that have nothing to do with shame.
Guernica: The body seems to be central—critical, even—to all of your work. There’s that attention to the sexual body, there’s shape-shifting to change from one body to another, and I also noticed the number of differently-abled characters—major characters who are missing an arm or a leg. I’m curious about these various presences of the body, and what you’re trying to accomplish when you address embodiment in your work.
Marjorie Liu: I’ve always been super-aware of bodies, of my body. I was bullied in school because I was overweight and not athletic. When your body is always being compared to other bodies, when your body is always being called out for its deficiencies, it makes you very aware of such things.
Then, there’s the racial side, where bodies of color are always being singled out. You can’t be an Asian woman, growing up in a society that fetishizes Asian bodies, and not have thought about that.
But the racial element goes deeper, and is more disturbing. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed how people will look away from you? I saw this growing up with my family, with my dad, where seeing a person of color would cause white people to look away. It’s not something you might pick up on immediately, especially as a kid, but eventually as you get older you start to notice how people turn their gaze, as if the sight of a person who is different is too much. Like, they just can’t do it. Or maybe they want to stare, but don’t want to be seen looking. Whatever the reason, it’s a thing—white people actually trying to erase us from their line of sight, because whatever it is about us is just too unsettling.
The same thing happens to people who are differently-abled, where, you know, you get someone who is missing an arm, a leg, is in a wheelchair, and suddenly they don’t exist. People see them, and then look away. It is something that has really bothered me my whole life—our inability to hold the other, to hold difference, to acknowledge and see it, is really disturbing to me. And so when I write characters who are missing limbs, when I write characters of color, I am trying to fight that. I’m trying to create a character who is seen.
Guernica: I mean, yes, if we look that first panel of Monstress, there’s no escaping Maika’s gaze; you’re confronted with her entire body, and what that means for her is that she’s missing a part of it. It’s a wonderful encounter.
Marjorie Liu: Thank you. It was a very deliberate choice. So often we’re not forced to actually look. We’re not forced to acknowledge, and we must. It’s incredibly important. And I think it’s harder in our culture now, with our phones. This is the crazy, scary thing—that it was hard enough back in the eighties, and we didn’t even have social media or smart phones then. People had to engage each other face to face, and they were still looking away. And now, with people glued to their phones, they have a perfect excuse to look away, to not see. They’re living lives of not seeing, period. I find that disturbing.
Guernica: There’s a lot of violence in the worlds you create, and I wonder, do you think there can be world-making, or can there even be narrative, that doesn’t have violence at the core? Is it possible to write or to envision a world completely without violence, or do you think it’s really all about managing how, against whom, and for what reason violence is deployed?
Marjorie Liu: I’ve never liked watching horror movies, but I have no problem whatsoever writing horror. And I don’t know what it says about me that I’ve always been drawn to writing violent stories. I don’t know if it’s a kind of anger management. Women, after all, are so often not allowed to express rage. People are wary—deeply, deeply wary—of female anger. We’re taught to always be pleasant, and that’s not healthy. I think of myself, and whether or not I can acknowledge that I have a lot of anger, and the answer is no. I suspect I have a lot of rage buried deep inside, and the only safe outlet for me is in my fiction, as if a slasher flick is playing in my head, and lands on the page.
With Monstress, however, I’ve been very conscious of the violence I’m writing. The choices are deliberate. I’ve been thinking a lot about WWII, and war in general, its tremendous cruelty, and all the terrible things we do to one another in the name of righteousness, and the superiority we bestow upon ourselves. Like, ‘I’m entitled to rape you, because not only are you a woman, you’re of this class, you’re an enemy, you’re just a thing, and I’m going to do this to you because I have a right to.’
I’ve been very conscious of that while working on Monstress—the experimentation, people being hacked apart to serve science, slavery, even cannibalism… None of these are new inventions that I created for the story. These are all practices committed in wartime, and I didn’t want to shy away from them. In Issue 3, for example, there’s a very disturbing scene that was not easy for me to write, but one that was taken directly from the history books: the Rape of Nanking. It is not a rape scene—I want to clarify that—but it is a scene of potentially horrific cruelty. And it’s not new. It’s there because it happened. Again, this is all about compelling readers to see and to hold.
When I’m working, I’m dealing with my personal obsession with monsters.
Guernica: Another question about world-making: your vision of diversity or inclusivity, in building a world where everyone is seen, is clearly important. What do you try to do in the writing to enact that idea of inclusivity?
Marjorie Liu: When I’m working, I’m dealing with my personal obsession with monsters. The debilitating, profound unfairness of people being judged by their appearances is something I feel deep within me. That, more than anything else, guides my hand and my mind as I write. Sometimes it’s unconscious—I look back to see what I’ve written in a day and think, “Ah, there we go again.” It is a deep impulse within myself that requires me to tell stories in which these ideas are addressed. So far, the pull has been inescapable.
Monstress, however, was the product of many different ideas; my grandmother’s experience of the Japanese occupation of China, for example, my desire to explore what it is to be monstrous. But it also had to do with women—more precisely the representation of women. I watch a lot of television. I read a lot of books. I love my pop culture, but I watch shows in which you would think the female population of earth had been ravaged by a terrible virus that only allows one of us to exist for every five men. I mean, it’s kind of wild. I was watching Into the Badlands, this new dystopian show, and in the first thirty minutes there are literally hundreds of men and boys and just three women, two of whom are dead and one of whom is the evil, conniving wife of the villain. And that’s not unusual. I wish I could say it is, but in a lot of ensemble shows there’s one or two women and a gaggle of dudes. The Smurfette effect: a town of male Smurfs, and one lone female Smurf. What’s up with that? Really?
I wanted to reverse that and tell a story with five women for every one man, and not comment on it. There’s no virus that eradicated men; the book is just not about them. Instead there are a ton of women running around, ruling the world, making war, having adventures. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but what’s been interesting is seeing how surprised people are at the amount of female representation in the book. I knew there would be some commentary that Monstress has a lot of women—I wasn’t actually being deliberately naïve—but readers have been really taken aback. They keep saying it’s “bold territory” that men aren’t the focal point, and this says to me that the only feminist stories we’ve been able to consume and tell are ones in which the patriarchy is still front and center. What has been made clear to me after seeing the response to Monstress is that we’ve basically accepted this civilizational lie about women that we don’t have agency, that women on average don’t make an impact on the world, that women aren’t really that important. That’s the great lie of patriarchy—and patriarchy won’t accept that the average woman has made this world just as much or more than its greatest men.
Guernica: I noticed it immediately as I was reading Monstress—the villains are women, the witches are women, the prison guard’s a woman. There isn’t just one single depiction of womanhood, there’s a diversity, which I think is great.
Marjorie Liu: Well, yes! My God, half the world is women, and we all have amazing, unique, lives. We all look different, we have different personalities—gasp! How shocking! I feel that this should be natural in the media we consume: that there’s more than one kind of woman that can be present in a story as part of our fictional framework.
But have you seen the movie Ex Machina? It’s about this guy who creates this artificial intelligence and puts it in the body of a woman. And another guy comes to his mountain base to interview this female cyborg to see if she is convincing as a human being. This film was touted as feminist science fiction. But it’s not. It’s a film told through a very male gaze, where a man is the only one with the power to bestow upon a woman her humanity, where a doe-eyed white woman uses her sexuality to connive and deceive and kill men. That’s not feminism. That’s a standard trope of male fantasy in popular culture, the idea that women and their sexualities are monstrous; that the humanity and agency of women falls under male control.
Of course, that doesn’t even begin to address the messed-up racial problems in the film. There’s rampant Orientalism—one of the most intriguing characters is this absolutely silent Japanese woman who is only there to be a slave and a sexual object. She has no agency until the white woman cyborg whispers in her ear and tells her what to do. And later, this white woman cyborg literally flays, literally tears the skin off the other Asian robot and puts it on her body. She is literally wearing the skin of a person of color and taking everything but her face, because whiteness does not want to give up whiteness, but it does want our bodies.
I saw this film because I’d been reading reviews and everyone was calling it the best thing ever. I thought, “You guys are blind! We did not see the same film.” And why would we? As a woman of color, my read of things, my gaze, is very, very different. And that is why having women and people of color within the arts is so important. The lack of our voices, the lack of our vision, the fact that stories aren’t being told through our eyes, means that we’re bombarded with the same kinds of stories over and over again: ones that constantly reinforce a destructive and inaccurate picture of what our world is like, and who we are.
The optics of diversity is one thing—I love seeing people of color on television and in comics, but the majority of these characters are being written by white men. I’m talking about the need for structural diversity. It almost makes me speechless, the significance of it, because we live in a world in which we’re not being heard, our stories aren’t being told. Again, it’s this whole thing of not being seen. Of people looking away from us. Of us not existing, just being wiped away, out of existence. And things won’t change unless we actually start telling stories, and we’re able to mobilize and start using our voices. We’re at a point now where that has to happen. It must.
Being a woman or person of color in a space dominated by white men is like wearing a Klingon cloaking shield: as long as you don’t need to open fire, no one is going to notice whether you’re there or not.
Guernica: You worked for Marvel, which has a reputation as the ultimate male comic company—is this perception accurate? What was your experience like writing mainstream comics versus writing your own, and working with a company like Image?
Marjorie Liu: This is not an easy answer, because there are a lot of women working behind the scenes at Marvel. My editor for many years was a woman—Jeanine Schaefer—and I was given tremendous opportunities to take on some wonderful and important properties, such as Dark Wolverine, X-23, Black Widow, and the X-Men. As a creator, as a fan, to be able to inject my voice into those stories was a really amazing adventure.
But I was one woman out of many, many, many male creators. At any given time, there was less than a handful of women writers working on a monthly title, and that’s still the case. For years I was the only woman on the X-Men panel at San Diego Comic Con or the only woman at the X-Men retreat. And for years I was the only woman of color, the only person of color, at these gatherings. I did fine, but that’s not the point. Why didn’t that ever strike anyone as odd or problematic?
Well, here’s the deal: being a woman or person of color in a space dominated by white men is like wearing a Klingon cloaking shield: as long as you don’t need to open fire, no one is going to notice whether you’re there or not. No one at these Marvel retreats noticed the absence of women because even the possibility of their participation didn’t exist. “Women can’t write superheroes,” I was told by a top dude in the company. You can’t get much more straightforward than that. My presence at these meetings was an anomaly and the product of a savvy male editor who put me on a hyper-masculine book—paired with a male co-writer—that happened to sell very well. But if I hadn’t been there it would have been business as usual.
That’s not a small thing.
It’s also not a small thing that all the people at the top who make the definitive decisions at Marvel are men—mostly white men. There’s very little structural diversity at Marvel, and in the same way that we see Hollywood refusing to acknowledge or take steps to fix the tremendous absence of diversity and gender parity in film and television, the comic book industry has similar failings that are reflected month after month in its line-up of creators and in the stories being told. Are things improving? I would hazard to say they are—but I’m very cautious. Without diverse voices at the executive level, long-term change will require constant, insistent pressure to maintain this upward tick in the inclusion of women, people of color, LGBT creators, and so on.
Writing my own comics has also been like trying to break up with a really hot, billionaire boyfriend who also happens to be a smothering control freak. I want to walk away, I know I should walk away—and hell, I have walked away—but it’s hard to stay away. The X-Men are better than a diamond necklace. The X-Men are a beautiful, false promise. And the attention that one receives for writing the X-Men, or any Marvel property, is equally as addictive. But in the long run it leaves you with nothing: no creative ownership, no retirement fund, nothing that is yours. The experience is amazing, but in the end, I had to forge ahead and do my own thing.
The reason isn’t entirely financial. As a writer at Marvel I didn’t have to worry about world-building—unless I wanted to. Characters already had existing histories and personalities; all I had to do was put my own spin on them—which was tremendous fun, and a challenge in itself. But what I realized, once it was time to write my own original comic, was that I’d fooled myself into believing that I knew what I was doing. I thought that because I’m a novelist, because I know how to write comics, that I’d be able to mash those two things together.
I was so wrong. The demands of writing the X-Men are very, very different from the demands of writing an original story like Monstress, which requires intense world-building and character development from the ground up. The good thing is, I learned a lot. I pushed myself. I stretched my abilities. As a writer, that’s all we can ever ask of ourselves—to keep pushing, and striving to do something new. To not rest.
Now that I’ve experienced the freedom of writing a creator-owned comic—which is a similar freedom to writing a novel—I can’t go back. I’ve got one more brief project at Marvel—hot billionaire boyfriend, remember—but then I’m done. For real. The freedom is so much sweeter. I’m telling stories that I can’t tell anywhere else, in any other medium, and I’m representing for all the girls of color out there who dream of doing this work, but aren’t sure how, or if it’s even open to them. I’m here to tell them it is possible, that we need their voices and their dreams. We can’t survive without them.
Guernica: What are you working on now?
Marjorie Liu: A couple things. One of them is called The Comfort Woman Project. I wrote a short comic about the comfort women, but I plan on expanding it to novel-length. It’s deeply personal to me because my grandmother, when she was fourteen years old, had to leave her village with her classmates because the Japanese army was coming. She had to walk across China—over 1000 miles, on foot—and if she had not done that, the chances are very high that she would have been kidnapped, and turned into a comfort woman, a sex slave.
Historians are still unsure of the numbers—anywhere between 200,000 to 500,000 women across Asia—who were conscripted into being sex slaves for the Japanese military. The Japanese government will barely acknowledge the crime, and the official line is that these women were volunteers; that they were all prostitutes, and willingly gave themselves over. But that’s a lie. Women were stolen, and all the documents prove that, as does the testimony of those who were kidnapped, whose lives were devastated—these girls, these children, who were raped by men every day, sometimes for years.
So that is a project I’m passionate about, that I’m working on now, that I’m trying to do something larger with, because it is what could have been. That could have been my family; that could have been my grandmother; that could have been her life.
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