feature by Sam Stone, originally published in IMAGE+ #16
No matter how hard we try or how far we run, we can never really escape family or home. In Steve Skroce’s MAESTROS, this becomes perilously evident. Its protagonist, a young sorcerer named Willy, tries to scrape by with a magical living in America but finds himself dragged back into the fantastical realm of spells and supernatural monsters after his entire family is murdered, including his father, The Maestro of the magic permeating the vast multiverse. With his father’s kingdom of Zainon in desperate need for a leader as magic finds itself under attack, Willy must venture back to the home he swore never to return to.
“MAESTROS is a fantasy epic about a dynasty of wizarding dictators that are as old as time itself. Legend says they called light from the void and created the universe," said Skroce. "They're feared and worshipped like the gods they are, across the countless worlds of their domain. One day, Meethra Kahzar, the current Maestro, is murdered along with the entire royal family. William Little from Earth, the Maestro's banished son, will inherit the throne. Reluctant at first, this Orlando, Florida-born millennial sees the upside of ultimate power. His time in this magic kingdom did not go well, as being last in line for the throne didn't grant him many exemptions from the cruelty of his peers and master.”
Steve Skroce is no stranger to creating and rendering mind-bending worlds and environments thanks to working for years as a storyboard artist on such epics as The Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. Each of the settings are expansive, with their own unique sense of grandeur, while the action set in those locales has a freewheeling vibe of controlled chaos. Skroce brings these qualities in full force here without the limitations of a movie production budget.
“Working in film was great. Doing storyboards is fantastic training for drawing comics. On a movie, you're constantly revising and collaborating, trying to realize the director's vision. It's fun trying to bring that process to my own work, but you don't have the limitations of a budget or the preferences of a director, producer, or production designer.”
In addition to his extensive work visualizing some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, Skroce has quite the background working in comics, from the superhero social commentary of YOUNGBLOOD to the gritty resistance effort in WE STAND ON GUARD, which he co-created with fellow Image Comics superstar Brian K. Vaughan. With MAESTROS, Skroce is looking forward to changing gears and shifting from science fiction to full-on fantasy and pulling double duty as both the artist and writer. Skroce is pushing his own imagination to the limits to create the magical kingdom of Zainon and its colorful, mystical denizens.
“I love sci-fi, but I'm a long-time fantasy fan as well," Skroce explained. "I wanted to make a fantasy story that was a little irreverent but was still full of high adventure. This world is populated with familiar and iconic fantasy creatures and races, but I wanted to reject the idea of inherent or external evil. They're all just different species of people. Some have been demonized, like the Demons, and others are overly convinced of their purity and superiority, like the Elves. I wanted a protagonist that wasn't a ‘chosen one’ or a cocksure alpha male. I thought it would be fun to have a regular guy from our world mixing it up with Demon Kings and Death Mages, where the stakes are the future of reality itself.”
One of the real showstoppers in the book is Skroce’s jaw-dropping artwork. The Maestro’s reign extends throughout a seemingly endless number of worlds and realities, so Skroce visualizes psychedelic dimensions with an artistic aplomb reminiscent of Moebius or Steve Ditko’s work on Strange Tales. The mind-bending visuals are ambitiously rich—consider the vast panoramic vistas of Zainon, which are reminiscent of classic sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon, and its populace. Skroce has filled MAESTROS with a colorful cast ranging from elegant, graceful attendants within Zainon’s regal courts to grotesquely rendered monsters practically popping off the pages as they menace the characters within. And for all of the out of this world features of Zainon, Skroce has juxtaposed the more outrageous elements with the very grounded setting of modern-day Florida. The far-reaching consequences of the Maestro’s murder quickly spill out into our world, leading our main characters to attempt to contain it while Skroce depicts the real world suddenly being exposed to a hefty dose of magical fantasy.
“Visually, it's kind of a hodgepodge of things I like. There are easter eggs throughout that reference movies and books that I connected with during my formative years and beyond. I tried to draw a world that had a lot of depth, interesting environments you'd want to visit, and some that you definitely wouldn't,” noted Skroce before giving his collaborators a well-earned nod. “Dave Stewart, the award-winning colorist of MAESTROS, has brought a drama and a palette to this that definitely sets the book apart from other fantasy comics in the best way. I'm my own worst critic, but Dave's colors make me feel better about my drawings than I ever have! Graphics and lettering Maestro Steven Finch of Fonografiks ties it all together with his beautiful, thoughtful design.”
MAESTROS is at once a high fantasy tale of alternate dimensions, a showcase for ambitious sorcery, and regal intrigue with multiple players seeking to rule the magical realm but it’s also a coming of age story about a young man living separate from his legacy and birthright that suddenly finds himself having take up great responsibility not only for himself but for the greater good of many looking to him for leadership and guidance. At the same time, Skroce has created a crackling good read and is eager to continue his partnership with Image Comics and sees it as the perfect platform to deliver MAESTROS to the masses. “At Image, you get to do your creator-owned comic the way you want. After working in film for years, I just feel super grateful to be doing it my way. It doesn't get any better than this in my opinion.”
THE YOUNG SORCERER WILLY:
STEVE SKROCE: Young Willy is excited to become a student of magic, but when he first enters his father's world, he soon realizes this wizard school ain't Hogwarts. Movies and novels didn't prepare him for the often brutal and sadistic nature of real wizards. These are beings of immense power and pettiness who don't have a lot of incentives to get their emotional shit together. Luckily, he finds a friend and eventually a lover in the young witch Wren. She's an indentured wizard of the school and helps Will navigate its dangers. Will's mother Margaret has a similar experience. As one of the Maestro's many wives, she struggles to protect her son. Her husband has hundreds of children and thinks the weak ones are expendable. They must prove they are worthy of the Maestro’s bloodline.
ON BACKSTABBER, THE SENTIENT SWORD:
SAM STONE: One of the series' main characters, Margaret, wields a magical sword named Backstabber that appears sentient but perpetually in pain. What's the backstory and inspiration there?
SKROCE: I liked the idea of a soul being trapped within an object as punishment and really not having a good time with it, like you might see in a Disney movie. Backstabber holds the soul of a long-forgotten king of the realms who angered the Maestro and as punishment was imprisoned in his own blade for eternity. Backstabber can't quite remember who he was and is in a state of perpetual despair. His only release is when he's slicing and dicing at the behest of his mistress Margaret. Imprisoning people's souls within objects is one of the Maestro’s "things." Later in the story, we visit "The Hall of Conquest and Torment," where artifacts with imprisoned souls line its endless walls.
MAESTROS #1 debuts 10/18 and is available for preorder now.
Sam Stone is a veritable pop culture guru living just outside of Washington, DC. He is the producer and co-host of the Geek Out Show podcast on iTunes and knows a stupidly unreasonable amount about The Beatles. You can find him on Twitter @samstoneshow but should probably consult a physician first. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.