If Classics Illustrated was ever your thing or you like peering into fantastical worlds, a new graphic novel series online will be worth checking out. It’s not really about a fantasy setting as found in Black Panther or Flash Gordon or Tarzan or Conan, but it has the same appeal, the same visual cues, bold colors, and feel. It’s Aztec Empire, by writer Paul Guinan (known for his time-bending mash-up Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel and his participation in the documentary 24 Hour Comic) and comic artist David Hahn. It features an incredible culture from the past along with good storytelling that will keep you coming back for more. And it’s timed right, as this spring is the 500th anniversary of the events featured in the introductory pages of the series.
As with the Eisner Award-winning writer-artist Eric Shanower’s look at ancient Greece in his Age of Bronze graphic novel series, Aztec Empire is a heavily researched time travel voyage back into the daily lives of a people in history, in this case the period before the fall of the Aztec peoples to the Spanish in 1521, only three years after the arrival of Europeans. Guinan researched dozens of primary sources (including contemporary writings from the 1500s) as well as secondary historical sources, and the end of each episode of his series provides six pages of equally fascinating explanatory annotations to the historical record to support each panel. Some of these feature photographs of the source materials used to derive the look of references like glyphs on walls, or embellishments on character clothing. In many ways Aztec Empire is an attempt to update the writings of the past with the benefit of today’s resources and knowledge, but its sources are very much contemporary to the events chronicled. Human barbarism to other humans is also not reserved for only one side of the story–here the atrocities of each side of the conquest come to the fore.
Guinan is not only the series writer, he provides layouts, coloring, and lettering. “In telling this story, my main challenge is keeping it as authentic as possible,” says Guinan. “All the persons and events depicted in Aztec Empire are based on the factual record, with some extrapolation as to specific character motivations, dialogue, costume details, etc. I’m cross-referencing primary sources from different viewpoints, looking at Mesoamerican and European sources with an awareness of their cultural biases as well as my own.” Hahn designed the look of the characters and provides the finished pencil work and inks. The combined artwork shares a style in common with the animated style of Doug Wildey and something of P. Craig Russell’s work on his illustrated novels.
Take a look at this breakdown of sources for this single panel from the series:
Many modern history retellings tend to fall on the bland side, recounting population numbers and dates. Not so here. The impressive, concise story told in prose and dialogue brings this society from 500 years ago to life today. The military strategy and political maneuvering fleshed out through Guinan’s storytelling will appeal to fans of history shows like A&E’s Vikings series. In ten pages of horizontal panels per episode, Guinan and Hahn pack in plenty of historicity, and plenty of action. According to Guinan, “This series will have at least 50 episodes. This is just the beginning.”
From an academic standpoint Guinan’s use of facts and his scholarly approach is sound. He has a brilliant sense of visuals, sourcing his imagery from historical texts. His color palette also makes for impressive, authentic, and attractive visuals. And Guinan and Hahn’s simplification of a complex historical period will make this history accessible to any reader (some content is for mature readers).
The first four episodes can be found in webcomic form on the Aztec Empire website here, including more information about future episodes. The introduction to Aztec Empire is free for viewing online (no registration required) and available now. Check it out!