Comic book writer Marjorie Liu: 'Comics have never been just for boys'

“I want to write comics but everyone tells me it’s just for boys, so how do I even have a chance?”

A powerful question asked by young women around the world – one reeking of sexist stereotypes, gender boundaries, and little girls' dampened dreams – is a question Marjorie Liu, award-winning comic book writer and creator of the bestselling Monstress series, has heard one too many times.

"That was the saddest and most infuriating thing I ever heard – over and over. I would get so angry, because the idea of comics being just for boys was the biggest dumbest lie ever concocted."

On a mission to rebuke this sexist stereotype, Marjorie speaks up on behalf of the many female artistic voices who were lost to the world of comic books because of that "idea."

"Those men in kept that lie. Comic books and poetry and film and all the amazing gifts of the imagination have never been just for boys." 

Because really – who still says that?

Definitely not Marjorie, who isn't here to play. The woman behind Monstress has garnered both New York Times bestselling status and critically-acclaimed distinction among epic fantasy fans, proving that comic book writing isn't just a man's world.

I mean, who else can claim to be the first and only female to ever win the presitigious Best Writer Eisner Award? Literally, no one.

From February 8-10, Marjorie Liu paid her Manila-based fanatic readers a visit for her Monstress book signing tour. During her stay, she took the time to personally share with Rappler her inspiring yet relatable journey as a once-struggling writer.

The inspiration behind Monstress

Since Monstress' first volume in 2015, Marjorie and her Japanese artist Sana Takeda have taken readers through the dark, immersive world of an alternate, matriarchal 1920s Asia via lead character Maika, a young girl trying to survive the trauma of war with a psychic link between her and a powerful monster. 

A "richly-imagined aesthetic of art deco-inflected steam punk," her Monstress series, which bears powerful war, slavery, racism, and feminism undertones, is what brought Marjorie to recent Eisner fame.

With such a strong-themed work of fiction headed by a young female lead within a heavy, post-apocalyptic setting, one may wonder: what could have possibly inspired Marjorie's bestselling work? Surprisingly, it was her grandmother, who up to this day, serves as Marjorie's shining inspiration.

"She was this warm, funny, rascally woman, who would always tell me stories about her survival in China during World War 2. What she went through, all the times she almost died – and it made a profound impact on me."

Combined with a strong feminine figure, growing up in the 80s was another factor that sparked Marjorie's imagination.

"I was growing up in the 80’s, when Hollywood was churning out apocalyptic, war-time narratives left and right – and that, combined with sitting at my grandmother’s knee, sank deep hooks into my imagination."

"I’d always wanted to write an epic fantasy about a girl surviving a war – but the story never quite came together. Until, one day in Tokyo, I took a photo with a statue of Godzilla, and something clicked, the wheels began turning, and eventually Monstress was born."

Lost in reverie, Marjorie recalls further the personal legacy her beloved grandmother had left behind, sharing that she thinks of her often as she writes. "She reminds me how friendship is essential to survival, how survival doesn’t have to be ugly, even when ugly things happen to you. You can heal, you can reconstitute yourself and have a beautiful life."

Despite Monstress being a dark book on the surface, Marjorie made sure that the story stayed rooted in her grandmother's optimism and fundamental belief in hope and its power. This energy is what helped fuel Marjorie as she wrote.

From laywer to comic book writer: Marjorie's career journey (risks included)

It's easy to look up to someone like Marjorie, who seems to have it all figured out – a dream career built on passion and craft, with a shiny distinction to match. But we had to ask: What did it take? What did she have to give up, suffer, and insist on to reach the top?

Just like many successful people, her journey to acclaimed comic book writer status was hardly linear – filled with foiled plans, sudden detours, family barriers, and a lot of self-doubt.

It all started with a childhood love for reading, her discovery of comic books at age 18, and a wild obsession to follow.

"Once I started reading them in college, I was a goner. I became one of those hard-core collectors with long boxes stacked in my dorm room – and later, my garage."

This obsession drew her even deeper into her imagination, which Marjorie shared was a place she loved to live in. Naturally, with such a vivid imagination, an interest for writing grew – but for a long time, it remained just that: an interest, quietly tucked away.

"I never really thought I would be an author, though. Writing as a career? That seemed as much of a fantasy as Lord of the Rings." 

Why a fantasy? Because Marjorie belongs to a Chinese-American family – and this meant you were either going to be a laywer or a doctor, no questions asked, she quipped. 

And so obedient Marjorie pursued law school, finished her degree, but in probably the sharpest detour of her life, suddenly dropped everything to live on a farm in solitude to write, write, and write.

"The first summer after law school, when I was looking for work, I had some free time and decided to write a paranormal romance novel."

The decision came from "its story needing to be written," with Marjorie just going along for the ride. The story then poured out, and the work was done in a mere month. She sent it to different publishers, and 8 months later – a 4-book deal was sold. "It was a dizzying beginning to my career," she chuckled.

Marjorie risked a stable career path, her family's disapproval, and a clear-cut life ahead for an incessant hobby and wistful dreams. 

"I was the Chinese-American daughter of an immigrant, and being a doctor or a lawyer was my future.  I fulfilled the lawyer part, but somewhere along the way, the writing I’d been doing as a hobby became a far more powerful force in my life."

Since then, Marjorie never looked back. 

Marjorie's years of self-taught practice and passion landed her an impressive job at Marvel Comics, doing extensive work on titles like Astonishing X-Men, Dark Wolverine, NYX: No Way Home, X-23, and Black Widow: The Name of the Rose. 

Now, with an additional 18 novels to her name, including the urban fantasy Hunter Kiss series and the paranormal romance series, Dirk & Steele, Marjorie has proven that the comic book world knows no gender boundaries.

"I chose comic books because the versatility of the medium is endless. You can write a memoir, do journalism, create a cookbook, tell the wildest craziest stories from the most perverse depths of your imagination – and there will be a home in the comic book. I love it, madly."

A warning to writers

However, Marjorie is quick to tell aspiring writers that her journey to writer success isn't all it's cracked up to be – it took heaps of blind bravery, risks, loss, failure, challenges, and tons of self-doubt.

"I can't say that magic fairy dust sprinkled down upon me and it was happily ever after.  Being a writer is really hard – way harder than I ever imagined it would be."

"You have to be real comfortable with risk and failure when you’re a freelance writer. A thick skin, and a lot of humility are necessary, too," Marjorie adds.

To put it bluntly, the money isn't good, either. This very realistic reason is what convinced Marjorie to enter law school, despite initial hesitations.

"I certainly didn’t choose a different path just because people told me I would be poor forever and the work would be difficult.  As the daughter of an immigrant, there were a lot of pressures and good reasons not to become a professional writer."

However, Marjorie acknowledged this hard-to-swallow writer's reality from the get-go, refusing to let her self-doubt and fear of failure paralyze her.

"Being a writer is difficult, but I’d rather live this difficult life than any other. I threw aside everything in my life to pursue that career because I knew, in my bones, that I had to at least try.  If I didn’t try, I would regret it profoundly – and sometimes you just have to take those leaps of faith, even if it seems crazy."

Truly, a writer's journey involves a lot of risk, but there's a lot of freedom too, waiting on the other side.


An award of a lifetime

Marjorie's determination and courage paid off heaps – she slowly but steadily rose to comic book fame, garnering bestselling status, fans all over the world of all ages, and the coveted recognition of being the first ever female to bag the Best Writer Eisner Award – a title Marjorie never expected to receive.

"It was surreal and bittersweet, winning that Eisner. I had no idea I was the first woman – I don’t think anyone did, really."

Marjorie's initial reaction was of incredulous shock; even denial. "Nah, that must be a mistake," she said upon receiving the news. She bagged the prestigious honor, ecsatically, but wishing that "there should have been others before me."

Undeniably, the Eisner award isn't just a win for Marjorie's hard-earned career – it is also a loud triumph for the underrepresented community of female artists and writers around the world.

"The industry is changing for the better," Marjorie says strongly. "There are now more women and women of color working as writers and artists than when I first broke into comics 11 years ago."

But Marjorie sees this game-changing win as still another reminder that the community still has a long way to go. "We need these reminders, otherwise it’s too easy to fall asleep at the wheel."

In terms of real, lasting change, Marjorie isn't quick to celebrate completely.

"That change requires persistence and time. It requires radical structural shifts that introduce more women and women of color, diverse voices from the LGBTQ community, into positions of structural, decision-making power."

Realistically, it also takes a changing of many's mindsets – that there's "only one kind of person who writes and reads comics – the white man, or just men."

Championing behind causes that matter to her, Marjorie also utilizes her platform to remind aspiring young female writers that their dreams are just as valid as hers; that they are dreams not to be looked down upon, but rather, to strive for even harder.

"There is always a way for your voice to rise – that’s what I tell young women who want to be artists.  Never be silent, always push, always ask for more, always be you. Be you, in your whole true self, be grounded in that self, and you will find a way to be heard." –  

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.