If there’s an accusation that could never be levelled at Steve Skroce’s Image Comics series Maestros it’s one of decompression. Skroce’s book – a knowing fantasy-comedy with satirical overtones – is a persistent whirlwind of energy, throwing involved action sequences, direction-changing plot twists and a steady stream of playful concepts at the reader with relentless abandon.
Now three issues in, Maestros launched us straight into events in its opening instalment as we witnessed the aftermath of the massacre of the ruling family of the world of Zainon, most notably the demise of its mystical monarch the Maestro. In this universe Earth – constructed as an experiment by a previous Maestro – is the only non-magical realm in existence. A mundane curiosity in a cosmos permeated on every level by the forces of magic.
Years ago the Maestro married an Earth woman named Margaret whose inability to fit in on Zainon ensured her eventual banishment (along with their son Willy). Now, with the entirety of the royal house assassinated by the evil sorcerer Mardok, Willy – who has been squandering his minor magical abilities on Earth with low-grade dodgy dealings – is now the claimant to the throne and Zainon’s new ruler…
From that brief premise the casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that Maestros sounds like a somewhat pedestrian fantasy coming-of-age tale but what marks this comic out is Skroce’s piercing of the often pompous traits of the genre with a biting wit and irreverent humour. In the first issue that comedy does, perhaps, revolve a little too much around obvious knob gags and not particularly sophisticated sexual references but as the series has progressed his comic timing, dry dialogue and exquisite pacing has ensured Maestros’ place as one of the best debut books from Image in 2017.
Willy, too, has proven to be a far more layered protagonist than his unlikeable first issue incarnation would have suggested. From seedy small-time player to naïve otherworldly ruler with a fanboy approach to well-intentioned social reform, Willy quickly becomes a sympathetic if obviously flawed central character. Skroce interweaves the past with the present in a series of flashbacks to Willy’s brutal “schooldays” on Zainon where his enmity with his headmaster Lord Rygol (a most important figure as the story progresses) originally began and he first met his friend and later lover Wren. This narrative technique allows the audience to slowly piece together the events that shaped him and gradually empathise with Willy’s plight across the years.
Skroce’s art is instantly eye-catching in its intricate rendering and positively drips with detail, and his visual characterisation adds an extra dimension to the comedic sequences throughout, some of which revolve around the most violently inventive slapstick delivery. He’s also adept at manipulating his audience’s viewpoint through his panel-to-panel storytelling. This can take the form of providing multiple perspectives on events in sequences where the cast interact, to drawing back to full-page images that invite the reader to linger on events in more dramatic moments or alternatively emphasise a sense of scale and majesty. Dave Stewart’s always reliable colouring perfectly contrasts the duality of Willy’s existence from the earthbound to the fantastical.
In Maestros Steve Skroce punctures the flowery pretensions of overwrought sword and sorcery cliché with a fond wink at its audience. A genuinely fun comic that plays on the stranger in a strange land standard but nevertheless also combines high drama, power struggles and a sense of jeopardy, Maestros may well be one of the serial comics sleeper hits of the year.
Steve Skroce (W/A), Dave Stewart (C), Fonografiks (L/D) Image Comics, $3.99
Review by Andy Oliver