Take a bit of social commentary on twisted, corrupt adults, add in schoolgirls who use monsters as transformed weapons to fight them, and then throw in a game where kids compete to kill the most baddies and you’ll get something like MonsTABOO. It’s something of a trip; an over-the-top story that hides some decent plot points and action under a pile of a few tropes too many, resulting in an overstuffed-feeling book that falls just short of being actually good.

The strongest point in its favor is the basic concept behind its monsters. In the story’s world, adults who are somehow corrupted turn into animal-like monsters, sometimes known as “groan-ups.” We don’t always know what corrupts them – in a few examples, we can see that being a sexual predator is one way it happens, but our main monster, Mochizuki, has no idea why he and his coworkers at the zoo became groan-ups, and that opens the door for some interesting commentary. Certainly there’s something to be said about how Mochizuki and his coworkers are more obviously animalistic in their appearances – Mochizuki looks like a giant bipedal rabbit, which he theorizes is because that’s the animal he worked with. But the more vicious groan-ups are more human in their appearances, with their monstrous features easily hidden behind masks or under their clothes, and those features are typically insectoid. Is this because they were always monsters who hid in plain sight? Or could it be due to the fact that humans are monsters unto themselves, while Mochizuki’s corruption took on the form of a generally less corruptible species? The other “good” groan-ups we meet, the family of one of Maruka’s classmates, also have obvious animal attributes, so it bears thinking on, even if there’s no major indication that the series plans to delve much further into it.

Instead, the focus of this volume is on Maruka’s meeting and teaming up with Mochizuki (whom she calls “Zukky” because she thinks it’s cuter) and learning that there are plenty of teens who also team up with a less-evil groan-up to hunt down the worse ones. In a page from Soul Eater‘s book (and Ghost Reaper Girl‘s), good groan-ups can transform into weapons to be wielded by these plucky kids, again implying that their corruption is perhaps less virulent or flat-out evil than the several would-be rapists Maruka and her classmate Emma encounter. Maruka certainly doesn’t mind fighting groan-ups, though she doesn’t have the same zeal for it that Emma or the group of boys also operating in the field do; she’s more interested in being with Mochizuki, on whom she appears to have imprinted. (She insists that it’s love, but that’s not quite how it comes across; the poor girl was desperate for some adult attention.) What seems to be the more important plot point is that a university student appears to be running some sort of game wherein middle and high schoolers compete to see whose school can kill the most monsters.

In some ways, this feels like a plot point too far. There was already plenty going on in the book before that was brought in, and Maruka’s relationships with Mochizuki and Emma have more than enough room to grow, evolve, and carry the story. Likewise their solo and duet fights against the worse groan-ups are exciting enough without the need for other actors on the stage. But it’s also worth thinking about how having a group solely dedicated to the destruction of groan-ups and only grudgingly working with the ones needed for the fight ahead contrasts with the girls’ motivations and methods, and it also shows us two distinct attitudes towards the monsters: one that assumes all of them are pure evil and one that sees a bit more nuance in the situation. These opposing views could easily help to make the game plotline feel more relevant, although it must be said that they haven’t as of the end of volume one.

As I mentioned before, this book does feature two attempted rape scenes, where groan-ups try to force themselves on Emma and Maruka. While there isn’t any sense that these scenes are intended to be prurient and they aren’t hugely explicit, they are explicit enough that they won’t work for all readers. The art is otherwise largely fanservice-free and the pages cleanly drawn and smoothly laid out, making for easy reading. The most difficult design aspect is actually the font used for the title on the cover – it’s definitely not learning disability-friendly and I had a hard time figuring out what letters were even there. Fortunately this is not an issue with the inside text, but it was still not the best choice Yen Press could have made for the cover.

MonsTABOO may develop into something more than it appears to be in this first volume. It does have potential, and, sexual assault aside, is easy to read and engaging. It feels like it’s trying to cram in too much, but now that it’s gotten its core premise(s) laid out, it may be worth giving a second volume to see where it goes.

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