Monstro Mechanica Vol. 1
Paul Allor (writer/letterer), Chris Evenhuis (artist), Sjan Weijers (colorist)
In Monstro Mechanica, master inventor Leonardo da Vinci and his apprentice Isabel are caught in a web of intrigue between the Medici family and the Papal State in Rome. Da Vince and Isabel have created a robot, the titular mechanical monster, of wood and metal, and both sides want it. But Isabel catches glimpses that imply the robot is learning and developing a personality of its own rather than simply following directions, and she has no desire to allow either side to control it. While his apprentice tries to keep the robot in one piece, da Vinci tries to keep everyone alive.
I read Monstro Mechanica #1 back in December 2017. That first issue irked me and struck me as a victim of poor timing, debuting as it did in the midst of calls to listen to women, to believe us about our lived experiences, to allow us to tell our authentic stories and live lives free of harassment and assault. Now, ten months later, I emerged from the first story arc feeling less annoyed and more let down. Writer Paul Allor took a cast of compelling historical figures, added two fictional characters in Isabel and the robot, and told a story that should have been fascinating. Instead, it all comes across as emotionally flat and overly complicated. I wanted to love this series, but I’m struggling even to like it.
Any story incorporating not only a real historical setting but also the people who inhabited it—particularly famous figures about whom a good deal is known—assumes a different risk than one with a completely unknown cast of characters and a homebrewed universe. The chance increases that readers even vaguely familiar with the setting or people will find the story unconvincing, inaccurate, or even offensive. Allor’s use of some of sixteenth century Italy’s most famous occupants fails to convince me on most levels they’d have reacted to the events he creates, or to each other, as they do within the pages of Monstro Mechanica.
First, most characters react to Isabel, in her men’s clothing, as though she’s nothing out of the ordinary; indeed, by the end of the volume, she has two friends who also don breeches to go for an evening stroll. Then, although Alessandro de Medici, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo de Medici, has a multiracial background and was certainly mocked for it behind his back in real life (called both “the Moor” and “the mule” by the people he eventually ruled), it’s remarked upon only obliquely by a single character. For a tale exploring identity and what it means to be a person when it comes to its title character, Monstro Mechanica misses out on opportunities to explore those same themes among its human characters.
Monstro Mechanica runs into another issue with the historical figures it leverages: primarily members of the ruling elite, they are almost universally unlikeable. They care about their own social status, their political power, and their schemes, while caring not at all about the welfare of the people they rule. The only major characters outside that circle are Isabel, da Vinci, and the robot, but da Vinci is so caught up in his own machinations that he isn’t much better than the Medicis or the Church. Worse than being unlikeable, though, they’re predictable and boring—even Niccolo Macchiavelli. The master of manipulation? Dull as a doorknob.
While the characters fail to thrill, Monstro Mechanica’s art shines. Chris Evenhuis and Sjan Weijers capture medieval Italy’s sweeping architecture and fascinating fashion with finesse. In fact, it was the art that kept me reading, not the story or the characters. The visual world Evenhuis and Weijers created felt authentic in a way the people did not.
Ovverall, despite the many plot threads left dangling at the end of volume one, I find it difficult to care enough about them to want to continue reading future volumes. While the concept intrigued me, the intrigue itself fell flat and overwhelmed what could have been a fascinating exploration of what it means to be sapient and alive. For a comic about a mechanical monster, Monstro Mechanica spends an awful lot of time on anything and everything else.