Monstro Mechanica #1
Paul Allor (writer), Chris Evenhuis (artist), Sjan Weijers (colorist)
In late fifteenth-century Florence, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci’s apprentice Isabel struggles to keep her teacher safe from the world and the world safe from him when the inventor finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place: the Medicis of Florence and Pope Sixtus.
Monstro Mechanica comes to life at a time when women are shaking off a history’s worth of being treated as less than the men around us. We’re finding our voices, more with the support of other women than men. In this context, the relationship between da Vinci and his apprentice Isabel leaves me feeling disappointed, as it seems to retread ground we’ve seen a thousand times: a woman’s growth told through her relationship to a man. Had I read this issue even six months ago, I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction.
What I am sure of is that I love the art. Sjan Weijers’s color palettes bring Chris Evenhuis’s drawings to life, moving the story effortlessly from candlelit morgues to dawn-kissed laboratories and beyond to the warm Florentine afternoon. Weijers’s use of blue-tinged greens and green-hued yellows in da Vinci’s lab isn’t what I normally think of when it comes to early mornings, but it perfectly conveys a breaking dawn in the same way her purples and orange-pinks tell you Isabel has returned to the lab at dusk.
The other major artistic strength, to me, is the emotion permeating the characters’ body language and facial expressions. Within a single panel, Evenhuis captures Lorenzo Medici’s smug smirk, Guiliano Medici’s chastened and downcast gaze, and da Vinci’s carefully controlled distaste. Another pair of panels shows merchant Letta’s surprise and concern in her outstretched arms, gaping mouth, and wide eyes, set against Isabel’s furrowed brow and clenched jaw.
Where Monstro Mechanica falters for me is Allors’ portrayal of Isabel. She’s a young woman who surrendered her dresses in favor of men’s clothing (something so frowned upon as to border on illegal) to pursue a career as an inventor. That is an adult decision virtually none of her family and friends would have encouraged. Yet she is so insecure with it she allows people calling her “boy” to enrage her. She calls the robot “he” because it looks strong and uses violence, like a soldier. Those moments feel out of character for someone risking everything to achieve her life goals.
I’m not so naive to believe that a woman in fifteenth-century Florence, even one eschewing traditional feminine roles and dress, would completely reject internalized misogyny and gender roles. Yet the story asks me to believe a man will be unencumbered by that same conditioning and stands best equipped to free Isabel. Da Vinci has no lived experience with being a woman, but he comes across as feeling empowered to dictate to one how she must approach the world around her.
In the past, I might not have noticed that distinction, much less been bothered by it. But with comics’ structural misogyny being thrust into the spotlight, it became impossible to ignore. I hope future issues reflect the changing times, and that we see an Isabel who comes into her own on her own terms rather than as an extension of the men around her.