History and illustration go hand in hand, they are indispensable to each other. Among the ancient kingdoms of Central America, the tradition of visual storytelling was strong. The murals and carvings, annotated by speech markings and writing, form some of the most important aspects of Mesoamerican archeology and muralist art is central to Mexican culture to this day. This offers a pleasingly symbiotic dynamic to the decision to tell this epic Mexican saga in a graphic way.
Aztec Empire is a graphic novel of grand proportions. Unlike other treatments of the Conquest of Mexico it does not create a fictitious character. Instead the creators have chosen the difficult task of popularising the actual story.
Actually, Mayan, ‘Incan’ and ‘Aztec’ subject’s have always been popular amongst cartoonists due to the beguiling blend of real and lost history, allowing artists and storytellers to create worlds and cultures and that few people have imagined but also draw on historical and archaeological evidence. None however have told the story like Aztec Empire.
In itself the Conquest of Mexico serves as a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Especially since it has been refined and simplified down to a well oiled narrative package, full of drama, romance and legend over the last 500 years.
Apart from following the fortunes of a wide cast of characters, whose lives are to be found in records rather than the imagination; (spread over three years of some of the most important complicated political and military events in the 16th century,) a clear, exciting & nuanced story has to be delivered.
The difficultly lies in the attachment people have to the accepted story, (those legends I mentioned earlier,) and the empty spaces, and unexplained events that are to be found in the records that even rigorous scholarship fails to agree on.
The popular conception of the Conquest of Mexico is one of greedy and bloodthirsty Spaniards emerging from the murk of the old world, bursting onto the glittering wonders of the new world to conquer the tragic but ‘barbaric’ Aztecs who thought they were gods, until their civilisation was destroyed and Spanish rule established.
Aztec Empire attempts to tell the story that has been extracted from these levels of myth, propaganda, hearsay and folklore over the last hundred years. Utilising a commendable level of scholarly discipline, the creators are ever eager to tell the tale of their journey and share sources. This version challenges long held beliefs and prejudices. In so doing the creators are bringing a new face to this epic tale that has not been popularly seen before.
Episode one moves quickly in order to get the reader into the story. As such a great deal of cultural ‘backstory’ is referenced and it has the feel of a prologue. Indeed I get the sense that this term might be used for the bulk of the episodes now available.
Though some might be disspointed that interesting characters like the Spanish castaways and their lives amidst the Mayan people of the Yucatan had to be quickly summed up, we must recall what this story is actually about. In that sense the buildup handles the speed well, and the scenes have been equally well chosen, delivering texture, easily believable history, and good exciting atmosphere.
Nothing enthrals like a battle, and the early fight against the Mayans of Tabasco in episodes 2 and 3 offers the creators an excellent opportunity to flex their storytelling muscles. The action is handled well, the images and text communicate easily to the imagination. This is helped by the impressive detail the team has gone to, in selecting heroic, absurd, significant and brutal scenes to portray, drawing the reader in and demonstrating that when the series locks a specific episode to a central theme it delivers.
There is no doubt that the series begins on a fairly tough note. A battle followed by the repercussions for the women of the defeated side. Because despite the winning artistic style this is essentially a pretty grim story.
From what has been hitherto released you have a grand chunk given over to a gritty battle and another episode which at its end involves a HBO style exploitation scene.
Then there is a smooth transitional episode which eases you into the patreon pay wall. The free portion ends on 21 June 1519 with Cortez sailing up to the island of San Juan de Ulua and Mexica emissaries preparing to investigate the appearance of the foreigners. More than enough of a buildup to wet the appetite for the rest of the story.
Unquestionably Aztec Empire is a rigorously researched project, undertaken by talented artists and writers, who care deeply about the subject. It has a strong and compelling sense of story, time, and character. Much more than that cannot be said at this stage, the work is ongoing and the progress can be followed on the website. What is obvious from the episodes that have so far been posted is that this graphic novel is packed with promise. If it continues at this level, Aztec Empire is sure to become a classic.
Read the first five episodes here for free: https://www.bigredhair.com/books/aztec-empire/about/
With thanks to David Bowles for pointing out some glaring grammatical errors.