Advance Review: Maestros #1 – What If The World Is Kinder And More Savage Than You Think?

by Hannah Means Shannon

Maestros #1 arrives in comic shops next Wednesday, October 18th, and is both written and illustrated by Steve Skroce. Skroce works in both comics and film, particularly in storyboarding, but this new series from Image Comics represents a major solo venture following on from his most recent work as co-creator and artist in near-future-set Canadian military thriller We Stand on Guard with Brian K. Vaughn.

Because there are so many accomplished and interesting comics hitting the shelves right now, particularly in the realm of fantasy or science fiction (though horror is also on the rise, bringing it into a close third), it is not easy to make that choice as a consumer between titles to pick up. We all know there are series that start off in a promising way, have beautiful artwork, but lose their steam as stories by the second or third issue and for us it’s a bit of a loss. We spent the money. We got on board that train, and it didn’t go anywhere. Disembarking at a station, we turn back and look for something else promising. Hoping for a longer journey next time.

I say all this because initially, when I heard about Maestros, I thought it sounded interesting, but wasn’t sure what kind of train it would be. It had elements that appealed to me–multiple worlds, the rule of magic, an offbeat sense of humor suggested in placing a half-human, half-wizard least favorite son of a cosmic magician in the key role. It sounded like it would engage with fantasy tradition in prose and comics in interesting ways. But I was already reading a funny comic about magic, Curse Words from Image, and I already explored cosmic settings in comics like Divinity and Eternity from Valiant. Seeing a full preview of Maestros #1 in the back of an Image comic a couple of weeks ago made me consider the series again. The artwork and colors were really compelling by Skroce and the great Dave Stewart. The humor seemed edgier than what I was expecting. I got the sense that if I read the comic, it would be a very different world than any I had encountered before.

Thankfully, I got a hold of an advance copy to take a look at, and that pushed me away from any momentarily jaded feeling in a comic shop on release day that might have resulted in this series passing me by. Because I have, in fairness, been on a lot of trains that didn’t reach their destination, as a comic reader. One issue in, I’m certain that this is not the case with Maestros. Whatever is going to happen in this ornate, savage, and strange comic is entirely purposeful and intentionally laid out. I suspect I’m going to like the journey, but either way, there won’t be any misty falling away in story further down the line.

What’s remarkable about that is that Skroce is known more as an artist than as a writer, but here he’s doing such clear, directed writing, that even in a narrative structure which loops through flashbacks and moves between the worlds of earth and the magical world of Zainon historically ruled over by all-powerful magicians called Maestros (a little like gnostic demiurges if that rings a bell).

We start off with the death of the current Maestro, a fabulous ruler in a fabulous realm, getting fabulously dismembered by a creature who probably will loom as large in your imagination as he does on the page. The scabby, green-skinned Mardok is like a creature out of several mythologies, representing a kind of nullifying force. The deliverance he wants to bring is strangely compelling–freedom from schemes, and ambitions, a promise of a place in the dark for your soul.

No overblown self-praising super-villain lines for Mardok. He doesn’t need them. He’s a great black hole at the center of all things and he’s got it covered whether he has witty comebacks or not. So, also in the realm of character, Skroce is doing some compelling writing. He manages to set up the size and scope of these super-human beings within a couple of pages, and with a light touch. And of course, fascinating artwork with monsters more detailed than those of Bosch.

But beyond this sense of wonder and horror in characters, we need a protagonist to follow, and thankfully Skroce gives us one who is not admirable, or even cool in any particular way. I say that because not because there’s anything intrinsically bad about setting up a Galahad-like hero, but because at the moment I’m overloaded on those. Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist with readers, generally, but give me an anti-hero any day right now. Maybe it’s the times we live in, but they seem to have more to say which we can hear and understand. The hilariously names Willy Small is a huckster and out for himself, turning “cheap tricks” with magic, only they aren’t so cheap in pricetag and he’s building up a “quiet life” for himself. Maybe he’ll own a bookstore someday, he says.

Within the first issue we get to know William, then learn to un-know him through flashbacks that really take us into his formative experiences after he learns his true magician parentage as a teen and is thrown, sink-or-swim into the world of Zainon.

If the Earth of Maestros seems at all cruel, we may begin to suspect that a world without magic is, in fact, a kindness. Because the world of magic is so scintillating and cut-throat, so arbitrary and combative, that things like Mardok’s silence have their own appeal. But what will stay lodged in your brain after reading only one issue of Maestros is the question–What if there was another, bigger world that revealed itself to be both more glamorous and more savage, and what if a kinder world is one without magic?

That doesn’t mean you won’t want, as a reader, to explore the strange and savage country Skroce is rolling out for us, but it might mean you see things in new ways with the help of an anti-hero who has been changed by his own experiences in that realm, and whose humanity is about to be challenged in even bigger ways as he takes the throne as a Maestro himself.

Maestros #1 arrives in comic shops next Wednesday, October 18th, and is highly recommended. This is one you don’t need to tradewait for, either. Don’t miss this train.

Check out the trailer below: