2020’s Warchild (Monstress, Volume 5) collects issues 25 to 30 of Marjorie Liu’s ongoing cosmic-horror-fantasy-war comic series. Art is by Sana Takeda.
The previous war between the Federation of Man and the Arcanic Empire ended when the city of Constantine was annihilated, taking over a hundred thousand people with it. The Federation credited the weapon used to the Arcanics — inaccurately, although the Arcanics were in no hurry to correct the error — and lacking their own equivalent, backed down to regroup.
When the Federation’s holy city of Aurum is obliterated by a seemingly similar weapon, the logical inference is that the Arcanic Empire is to blame. They are not but the war is back on regardless.
High on the Federation’s to-conquer list: the city of Ravenna.
Ravenna has impressive defences — by the standards of ages gone by. How well its impressive walls can withstand the Federation’s modern weapons is unclear, but “not very well” seems a reasonable guess. Additionally, the garrison is poorly staffed. Nevertheless, the walls offer better protection than any available alternative. Thus, the legions of desperate refugees swarming towards the city.
The “the” in the term “the Arcanic Empire” implies far more unity than actually exists in the Empire. It does not take much for one group of Arcanics to dismiss another as irrelevant, expendable, or actively dangerous. The refugees, for example, might overburden Ravenna’s supplies. Spies might use them as cover to infiltrate the city. Therefore, those within the walls are very much inclined to abandon those outside to the Federation’s mercies.
Enter Maika Halfwolf, determined to save the city despite itself. Some of the garrison are disinclined to follow the one-armed teen’s lead. No worries: among Maika’s many resources is the eldritch horror Zinn that lives within her. In moments of stress, Zinn has been known to consume those unlucky enough to be near Maika. As the would-be mutineers discover shortly before their demise, Maika can choose to release Zinn at will.
So, unity of purpose: sorted. That leaves only the vast, heavily armed human army outside, the Federation’s witches, and, oh yes, helpful allies doing just the wrong thing at the wrong moment from the best of intentions.
Have a free “horrible things happen to children” warning.
A considerable part of the story takes place far from Ravenna and involves the struggles between various factions on both sides. The Federation turns out to be almost as disunified as the Empire, even if the Federation has previously been more adept at strong-arming subordinates into submission. Think of the Empire as decadent, run by demigods whose best days are long behind them, whereas the Federation is an authoritarian state run by actual demons wearing human meat-suits. Turns out that even if they don’t know about the demons, lots of people even within a totalitarian state have problems with their policies.
To be fair about the warning above, horrible things happen to people of every age in Monstress : the story is about a total war between two societies that despite their differences agree that some people are inherently expendable. Which people are deemed surplus to need (or worse, useful as raw materials) varies from Federation to Empire, but neither side gives kids of despised groups a free pass from the horror.
In case the general setting was not bad enough, this collection focuses on siege warfare, which is never fun. People looking for a rah-rah war story would be better advised to look elsewhere.
The episodes are skillfully written and plotted; Takeda’s art is as beautifully horrific as always. The collection isn’t a comfort read, what with all the death, dismemberment, and worse, but none of it is gratuitous and one cannot deny the artistry of the creators. Recommended if you like that sort of thing.