Malinche was no traitor! Moctezuma was a cynic! The Spanish couldn’t have won alone! These are just three of the storylines that you’ll encounter in the epic graphic novel, Aztec Empire.
Historyland fired off seven questions to one of the creative team, Paul Guinan, and this is what they fired back. Highlighting some of the process that goes into visual storytelling and the key elements of this larger than life adventure.
Q1: Out of such a huge story that is mostly written down, what goes into choosing the best most narratively communicable scenes, the scenes that transform words into pictures?
Many of the cues are provided by dramatic moments that were recorded as history by both sides—those are obviously key scenes. For some other scenes that aren’t as well documented, I have to extrapolate more, based on researching each culture and consulting multiple sources. I also look for ways to show scenes and historical facts from a different perspective than other visual narratives have done. For example, our story opens in Tenochtitlan with the Aztec military leaders, which is a visually splendid scene, instead of starting with the Spanish perspective.
On a more humanistic level, even though the Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures are so different, the people we’re depicting share some aspects of a universal human experience. There are emotional dynamics that we can still relate to 500 years later. Those can be key character moments that help bring the story alive.
Q2: Currently you have 5 episodes on the website, what do you think the end extent of the series will be?
It is planned as a 50-episode story, each episode being 10 pages—so around 500 pages, plus endnotes. It’s an epic story! We’re posting it free online to get the story out there and build an audience. Eventually it’ll be published in print. And there will absolutely be a Spanish edition!
Q3: In terms of scholarship the story can be interpreted in a few ways, obviously you are going with an relatively original and up to date interpretation to tell the story. Can you give us an example of how your interpretation will differ from one of the better known parts of the story?
Recent research and scholarship has changed our whole understanding of this story. As just a few examples: In our series, Moctezuma does not think Cortes is a prophesized return of the divine Quetzalcoatl, and the Aztecs don’t think the Spaniards are gods. Malinche (aka Marina), who was Cortes’ main translator, does not “betray her people.” The Spanish didn’t win out because of superior technology, but because of local alliances. There’s a lot of mythology to be deconstructed.
Q4: In researching these characters, was there anything about them that surprised you or that you realised you had taken for granted?
Yes, I found characters who have been completely ignored by history. Hugh Thomas wrote the “gold standard” book on this historical event in the 1990s, Conquest, and yet he doesn’t mention Moctezuma’s Council of Four. One of the Council was married to Moctezuma’s daughter! Thomas’ tome is extensive and authoritative, but it still took the prevailing Spanish-centric perspective. He gives detailed information about Cortes’ captains, but nothing about Moctezuma’s closest advisory group. In Aztec Empire, by contrast, we meet them in the very first scene.
Q5: Have you encountered any negativity so far resulting from long held stereotypes of ‘Noble Savages’ and ‘Black Legends?’
As you might expect, there have been a couple of hot takes about this series on social media, from people who didn’t understand the level of research that’s going into this project. Negativity has been blessedly rare, though. Anyone who takes a close look at the work, including my bibliography and extensive illustrated endnotes, will see I’m trying to be as fair-minded and inclusive as possible.
Q6: Is this novel being illustrated digitally or traditionally? And how did you decide which medium to use.
I draw tiny “thumbnail” sketches of each page to structure the plot, done with a good old-fashioned #2 pencil on plain paper. I then do layouts, also in pencil, which I turn over to my co-artist David Hahn. He does most of his penciling traditionally, but does some of the architectural drawing using digital tools. He inks most of the pages physically or “on the boards.” After that, art corrections, lettering, and coloring are done digitally. We enjoy old-school techniques, but we use digital tools for expediency.
Q7: If you could choose a moment of your novel to see in the flesh which would it be. Actually, I’ll be kind and ask for your top three moments to see in the flesh and we’ll wrap up the questioning.
The three most significant events in this story have an epic tableau involving thousands of people, any of which I’d pay to see in person:
1- The first meeting of Moctezuma and Cortés in the kaleidoscopic city of Tenochtitlan. A massive procession on each side, all resplendent in their finest outfits. Tens of thousands of spectators surrounded the spectacle, most in decorative boats, since the Aztec capital was an island city.
2- The Spaniards’ frantic escape from Tenochtitlan, known by the Spanish as the “Sad Night” and by the locals as the “Night of Victory.” When the Aztecs finally rose up against the invaders, Cortés and his men tried to flee with as much gold as they could carry. Around a thousand Spaniards fought their way out of the city in the rainy night, under constant attack. Many of them were killed, and nearly all the gold was lost.
3- The Battle of Otumba: The final chance for the Aztecs to defeat the Spaniards. Tens of thousands participated in this battle, which turned the tide for the Spaniards. After this success, they were free to lay siege to the Aztec capital. The end had begun.
Aztec Empire’s first five episodes is now available to read over at: https://www.bigredhair.com/books/aztec-empire/episode-one/ Read the full review here: https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2020/03/21/book-review-aztec-empire-by-by-paul-guinan-and-illustrated-by-david-hahn/
See you next time for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.