Monstro Mechanica #1
What is Monstro Mechanica?
Diving back into Renaissance Italy, familiar territory for anyone who has played the Assassin’s Creed video game series, and featuring as the central character one of the most famous figures of that era – Leonardo da Vinci – Monstro Mechanica is a science-fiction-infused retelling of history with a rich environmental background, providing a tapestry of intriguing characters and dramatic political machinations which affect the progress of the world. Initially, its tone, as previously mentioned, reminded me strongly of the second of the Assassin’s Creed games, but as I progressed through the first issue, I realized that comparison was a little misguided. The narrative focuses on Leonardo da Vinci and his relationships with his apprentice and the powerful Medici family.
This is a world which, although it features advanced technology, is not steeped in steampunk. It’s a mostly-realistic interpretation of Florence; the political backdrop is the now-familiar political drama involving the Medicis and the Catholic Church. It features a secretive guild of assassins who commit suicide rather than be captured – this is the exciting introduction of the story which we are thrust into. Da Vinci is being secreted away at knifepoint, to an unknown destination – but he escapes in a captivating, fast-paced opening scene.
Da Vinci’s Demons
Into this carefully-considered opening exposition, we note a strange, vaguely human figure standing atop the roofs of Florence, an eyeless and angular head tilted impassively toward the violence unfolding below. This is the titular hero of the comic book; this is da Vinci’s mechanical, wooden robot. For most the first issue, we see tantalizing glimpses of the automaton; it’s talked about in different ways and it’s a fascinating plot device to illustrate the difference in perspectives that Leonardo and his apprentice Isabel have regarding the unfolding drama which not only threatens Florence, but the world.
The character dynamics between Leonardo and Isabel are the main draw for me through this issue. Da Vinci is portrayed here as an experienced fighter and someone who primarily looks after his own interest, clever and manipulative. This is a clear contrast to any manner in which I have seen this character depicted before. Cunning and ruthless, he is not a character for whom the reader would find natural sympathy – that role lies with Isabel, who is intelligent (although clearly less experienced than da Vinci), caring, empathic and impulsive. Her impulsive nature is tempered with an introspective attitude, which shows that she is capable of recognizing that she might have acted incorrectly.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the two characters comes from their differences. Although Isabel respects her mentor, she realises that he may not always act in the most altruistic fashion. These disagreements don’t take up the whole issue – this isn’t an exposition of philosophies, but it’s one of the most captivating and unique aspects to the writing of this issue, and I wonder whether, as this series gains momentum, they will end up as friends, lovers – or enemies.
The robot provides us with interesting and rounded thoughts on the question of humanity, what it is and how we define it. Isabel was ordered to reset the device; da Vinci was terrified that it might start to learn and become self-aware, but she begins to consciously neglect that duty, treating it as not just a machine but as a person, and through this aspect of the narrative an interesting and progressive discussion on gender and its fluidity takes place.
This is some of the best writing that I have experienced regarding alternative history narratives. Paul Allor’s ability to develop strong characterization in the first issue is astounding. We are drawn into the environment with ease and find ourselves naturally intrigued by the background stories which shape the initial world-building and structure of the story. As mentioned previously, da Vinci, whose story has seemingly been told to death through TV shows and video games, is given a fresh perspective; he’s a capable fighter and developer of weapons, his art taking second place to these designs. Isabel is a welcome foil to his selfish and scheming nature, and she isn’t reduced to a token stereotype – she is the character the reader will naturally gravitate towards. I particularly enjoyed the feminist overtones to her character; it’s a subject lightly touched upon, but she is a very positive female character in the comic.
The art in the first issue is amazing. Beautifully clear and distinctive images adorn each page; Chris Evenhuis exudes confidence in his linework and does an incredible job detailing the architecture and fashions of 15th-century Italy. The design of the titular robot is interesting, believable, but perhaps slightly bland; this is, perhaps, on purpose, giving a blank canvas for the narrative to further establish the character and bring further enhancements and changes. The action sequences are exciting and detailed and give the comic a sense of pace; the facial features also project clarity and reinforce the dramatic tones of the writing.
This is a compelling initial issue which brings forward a multi-layered series of background narratives which no doubt will be expanded upon in subsequent issues. The main draw for me is the relationship between mentor and student, and the depth of the characterization of both. There’s a unique and fresh approach to a now-popularly-depicted series of historical events. If you fancy a good, imaginative and fascinating story, this is well worth picking up!
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