Where to start with Steve Skroce’s wildly psychedelic theophany Maestros? Perhaps the opening bloodbath, where a marauding corpse wizard smashes an actual godhead open? Maybe the part where a rotund oilman chugs a potion causing his member to erupt from his trousers? How about when Will, erstwhile son of a god and our protagonist, is literally chewed up and spit out by a tentacled, Lovecraftian monster?
Look, Maestros is weird. It’s vivid, imaginative and unhinged, and its first issue drops the reader headfirst into a sprawling universe populated by horny deities, talking swords, cursing flower-people and fantastical creatures. There’s weird father/son stuff, too. And some deeply troubling mother/son stuff, as well. Again, Maestros is a lot to take in.
Skroce is no stranger to bizarre and magical worlds. Before illustrating mainstream characters like Wolverine, Gambit, X-Man and Spider-Man, he got his start working on Ectokid for Clive Barker’s Razorline imprint at Marvel. He worked with Alan Moore — a dude with penchant for magical thinking himself — on a short-lived (but exceptionally promising) take on Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. And, perhaps most germane to our discussion, Skroce has long collaborated with the Wachowskis (the trio originally worked together on later issues of Ectokid). He helped define the visual style of The Matrix trilogy, and went on to work with Lana and Lily on projects like Ninja Assassin and Speed Racer. Clearly, the three share an imaginative sensibility.
His creator-owned debut as a writer has more than a little Jupiter Ascending in its genetic makeup; like that bonkers film, it’s bursting with ideas, indulging in the far out. But Maestros gleefully dispenses that film’s PG-13 template, mixing fantasy, psychosexual drama, celestial ennui and buckets of guts and blood.
For all its wacky corners, the plot’s straightforward. Will’s a young man on Earth, making his way auditing women’s studies classes and supplying magical favors to rich benefactors like the Koch brothers and Lebanese prince Talal Arslan — an “elite clientele of rich dicks that never got enough hugs,” he explains, dolph-inetly drawing to mind Kroll Show’s Wendy and Aspen. Will’s half-human, half-god, and he and his mortal mother, Margaret, have been banished from the cosmic realms of Zainon by Meethra, his all-powerful father. But now that Mardok, a decaying god-slayer has ransacked the halls of heaven, wiping out Meethra, his many wives and many offspring, Margaret and Will have been called back up. All other options expended, Will’s the last of the Kahzar. It’s his birthright to sub in for the almighty.
Like everything Skroce has done — especially his 2015 collaboration with Brian K. Vaughan, We Stand On Guard — Maestros looks incredible. No panel feels lacks detail. The halls of Zainon are crammed with odd touches and even the over-the-top violence comes across with a sense of beauty and composition. His characters are rendered exceptionally emotive. Best of all is Margaret, whose consternation upon learning of the death of her ex is hilarious, and whose embarrassment in flashback scenes is cringeworthy. As a writer, Skroce nails it. Will’s dialogue conveys disaffection but also charm; Meetha’s betrays both his extreme hubris and a sense of the general disconnection that often comes with all powerful positions. It’s a deeply funny book, its tone pitched halfway between Neil Gaiman’s lofty wit and lowbrow wisecracks, and only a couple times, like when Will stumbles onto his parents in the act, does the mature humor land a little on the nose.
Most exciting is the territory Skroce is set to explore. Will’s something of a slacker, but he seems like a fundamentally decent person. What happens to a dude’s given ultimate power? Rampant abuses of privilege by powerful men — from Bill O’Reilly to Harvey Weinstein — clog our Twitter timelines each day. Can Will hold onto his empathy while living as an actual god? Or will he end up like his father (kinda crappy, eventually savagely murdered)? Part Harry Potter, part Heavy Metal (with maybe a dash of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in there for good measure), Maestros pairs magic with some of the pertinent moral questions of our collective moment.