Our series, Aztec Empire, got a feature article in Historie, a Danish magazine. According to a Danish fan of our series, it's a huge deal. We agree. That's why we've done a blog post about it, in addition to including it in our Press Page.
Seen below is the four-page spread. In a sidebar, the magazine compares our work to historically based graphic novels like Maus and Boxers & Saints. A great honor!
We're so thrilled to get such a flashy treatment in this slick publication. Seen below is the cover of the magazine, with art from our series running along the bottom. We also have an illustration on the contents page. Shout-out to our series artist, David Hahn, and his beautifully designed Mexica noblewomen.
Here's a translation of the Danish text:
New Comic Brings the Aztecs to Life
The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire changed America forever. In a groundbreaking collaboration with historians and archaeologists, cartoonist Paul Guinan has set out to recreate the bloody tragedy.
Waves of arrows fly over the 400 Spanish conquistadors as hordes of Mayans run towards them with lowered spears and fearless mind. In a flash, 70 Spaniards fall. The survivors face 8,000 furious natives in this open field, close to the town of Cintla, in late March 1519.
Hope seems lost for the Spaniards, but for the Mayans, a completely unimaginable sight appears from the forest that surrounds the field. A man in full gleaming armor rumbles toward them, seemingly fused with a giant and fearsome species of deer. The Maya have never seen anyone on horseback before, but they quickly learn to fear the combat unit, which now charges at them and kills several with well-choreographed thrusts from the rider's spear. Suddenly, a whole bunch of these unknown death creatures, foaming at the mouth, rush out of the forest. The Mayans are slowly being pushed back, leaving a trail of dead warriors on the battlefield. Even some of the Spaniards speak of a divine intervention.
It is the first time in 10,000 years that there are horses on the American continent, and the natives' fear of the animal plays a decisive role for the conquistadors. Yet the Battle of Cintla is one of countless events that are rarely highlighted in accounts of the pivotal years 1519-21 when Spanish soldiers conquered the great empire of the Aztecs. But the digital comic "Aztec Empire" will change that. With historical authenticity, battle scenes, everyday life and human encounters are brought to life in close collaboration with historians and archaeologists.
The series was created by award-winning American cartoonist and history geek Paul Guinan, who has been fascinated by the encounter between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors since childhood.
“It’s a unique story, because for thousands of years the planet Earth was split in two. There was Africa, Asia and Europe on one side and America on the other. So when they meet, it's the closest we get to an actual encounter with aliens,” explains Paul Guinan.
Everything Must Be Historically Grounded
Towards the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire in 2021, Paul Guinan began to wonder increasingly that no major work of popular culture has ever been done about the historic moment that changed the world on both sides of the Atlantic. At least not a work which had taken both sides seriously.
In the end, he decided to take matters into his own hands, with more than 20 years of experience in comics. Guinan began researching in 2019, reaching out to Mexican historians, anthropologists and archaeologists in particular. The Aztec and Mayan side of the Spanish conquest has rarely received much attention, not least because there are very few sources for it. Both peoples recorded their history in a visual format called codices, but thousands of them were burned by the Spanish and those that remained were interpreted by colonial priests. On the Spanish side, there are many sources, the letters of the conqueror Hernán Cortés, as well as the detailed memoirs of the footsoldier Bernal Diaz to rely on.
In the preliminary eight episodes of "Aztec Empire,” we follow the Spanish conquistadors led by Cortés in their first encounter with the Mayan people in March 1519 in the small town of Potonchan.
Each episode is equipped with thorough endnotes, where Guinan explains his choices, because historical correctness is absolutely essential for the project.
For example, when he outlines that Cortés drops his shoe on the way to land, he gets it from Bernal Diaz's descriptions. And when the Aztec Empire's capital city, Tenochtitlan, has 200,000 inhabitants, it is archaeologists Sanders, Parsons and Santley's best bet in 1979. In one scene, an Aztec draftsman tries to outline a diplomatic meeting with the Spaniards, but when they fire off a cannon salute, he simply doesn't know how he must picture it. Here, Guinan tries in a logical way to get into the minds of the Aztecs and the totally new world they are presented with.
“Some of the dialogue comes from Bernal Diaz, who writes down the events from his memory. I can't make the dialogues precise, so sometimes I make small adaptations, but it's important for me to always show how I do it", says Guinan.
A Slave Woman Was Key To The Fall Of The Aztec Empire
In the first chapters of the series, the battles of Potonchan and Cintla are depicted, where the Spanish cavalry and artillery are rolled out to success. But we are also introduced to the young slave woman La Malinche, who was one of many gifts Cortés received as spoils of war from the Mayans in the hope that he would stop his attacks. She was actually meant to act as entertainment for Cortés' men, but the Spanish captain discovers that she speaks the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and he begins to use her as a translator.
"She becomes the key that makes it possible for these cultures to understand each other," explains Guinan. It becomes clear when she facilitates the dialogue between the Aztecs' arch-rivals the Tlaxcalans and Cortés.
“She is able to negotiate an agreement, and explain to the Spanish how the political game works. She becomes almost like a diplomat, in addition to being a translator. Without her, the expedition would have fallen apart, because they wouldn't be able to make these alliances.”
In his historical records, Guinan has surrounded himself with professionals. One of them is anthropologist Alonso Zamora, who researches the lifestyle of the Aztecs and Mayans at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He agrees that La Malinche plays a major role in the fall of the Aztec Empire.
Zamora believes that many pop culture narratives about the fall of the Aztec Empire mistakenly describe the meeting between Cortés and La Malinche as almost romantic.
“There is no chance that she developed romantic feelings for Cortés at that time. It suits the series well, as the meeting is presented without romance. It shows that the author is very determined to show the events historically correctly,” he says.
La Malinche is a controversial figure in contemporary Mexico. Some consider her the mother of modern Mexico, others a traitor to the people. The Mexicans even use the word "Malinchista" derogatorily for compatriots who have culturally turned their backs on Mexico.
But it's precisely the myth of La Malinche as a traitor that's one of the elements Guinan and Zamora would like to do away with.
This slave woman had already had an incongruous history over the years before she was presented to Cortés. She was probably descended from the Popoluca people, who lived in present-day Veracruz, Mexico. Knowledge about these people is limited. The Aztecs named all the groups in the area Popoluca, which means "weasel" in Nahuatl, as they did not understand their language. When her tribe was conquered by the Aztecs, thousands were taken as slaves, as was the custom. From here she was sold to the Mayans before ending up in Cortés' custody.
“The conclusion of many historians is that she owed nothing to the Aztecs. She was more of a victim of slavery. As such, she never took the side of the Spaniards either, but fought for her own survival and then for the rights she had been granted,” says Alonso Zamora.
Advisors Are Consulted On Everything
Characters like La Malinche and Hérnan Cortés occupy a lot of space in "Aztec Empire", but in a visual medium like comics, there are countless elements that can cast doubt on the most correct depiction. The design of a sword, a single replica, or the interior of a room can lead to great historical debate. That is why Guinan always consults his many advisors whenever there is a question of doubt. But the series has also become a form of open workshop, as experts from all over the world join in the ground-breaking portrayal. That's how Guinan got in touch with Zamora in the first place. The anthropologist wrote to him because a small detail bothered him about the glyphs on a Mayan sword, and Guinan immediately corrected it.
There is one point, however, where Guinan deliberately steps aside from historical fact – the age of La Malinche. She was between 14 and 16 when she is presented to Cortés, but Guinan emphasizes in the series' footnotes that she is 18 here. There is a simple reason for this – law. The cartoonist will not depict a minor who is being sexually exploited.
Many Years Until The Work Is Finished
Paul Guinan, together with his draftsman David Hahn and his team of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, have so far completed 8 chapters. The first part of the series will fill 10 chapters in total and will end with Cortés forming his military alliance with the Aztecs' vassals, the Totonac.
They are to be published as a single volume, and then the money from the sale will be used to complete the rest of the project. Guinan hopes that "Aztec Empire" will end up as a pop cultural masterwork that can dispel some of the myths about the greatness and fall of the Aztecs.
"When I go on social media, I find so many comments where people use the Aztec Empire as an example of pure evil," he says, asking rhetorically: “What about Rome or the Chinese dynasties? Even in the 20th century, we have the Soviets, the Third Reich and the Belgian Congo, which were bloodier than the Aztecs.”
-Morten Scriver Andersen
Thanks to everyone involved in producing this article. Special thanks to our consultant Alonzo Zamora for agreeing to be interviewed, and Charlie Chu for the photos of Paul Guinan and David Hahn. The online Danish version of this article can be read HERE.
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